Sunday, March 11, 2007

Win a Trip, and See a Different World

Published: March 11, 2007

Cast your eyes above and meet Hidaya Abatemam, whom I met last month in a remote area of southern Ethiopia. She is 6 years old and weighs 17 pounds.

Hidaya was starved nearly to death and may well have suffered permanent mental impairment, helping to trap her — and her own children, if she lives that long — in another generation of poverty.

Yet maybe the more interesting question is not why Hidaya is starving but why the world continues to allow 30,000 children like her to die each day of poverty.

Ultimately what is killing girls like her isn’t precisely malnutrition or malaria, but indifference. And that, in turn, arises from our insularity, our inexperience in traveling and living in poor countries, so that we have difficulty empathizing with people like Hidaya.

I often hear comments from readers like: “It’s tragic over there, but we’ve got our own problems that we have to solve first.” Nobody who has held the hand of a starving African child could be that dismissive.

That lack of firsthand experience abroad also helps explain why we are so awful at foreign policy: we just don’t “get” how our actions will be perceived abroad, so time and again — in Vietnam, China, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Latin America — we end up clumsily empowering our enemies.

Part of the problem is that American universities do an execrable job preparing students for global citizenship. A majority of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, but the vast majority of American students graduate without ever gaining any insight into how that global majority lives.

According to a Roper/National Geographic poll, 38 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 consider speaking another language to be “not too important.” Sixty-three percent of those young Americans can’t find Iraq on a map of the Middle East. And 89 percent don’t correspond regularly with anyone outside the U.S.

A survey cited by the Modern Language Association found that only 9 percent of American college students enroll in a foreign language class.

Let’s face it: We’re provincial.

That’s one reason that I always exhort college students to take a “gap year” and roam the world, or at least to take a summer or semester abroad — and spend it not in Paris or London, but traveling through Chinese or African villages. Universities should give course credit for such experiences — and offer extra credit for students who catch intestinal worms.

So I’m now putting my company’s money where my mouth is. On Tuesday, in partnership with, The New York Times and I will announce a second annual “win a trip” contest to choose a university student to travel with me on a reporting trip to Africa. And this year, in addition to a student, I’ll choose a schoolteacher — from a middle school or high school — to accompany me as well. We'll probably travel together to Rwanda, Burundi and Congo.

Last year I chose a young woman from Mississippi, Casey Parks, and we traveled together through central Africa. Casey and I saw malnourished children just like Hidaya, and visited burned-out villages in areas of the Central African Republic that had been caught up in the furies of the spreading Darfur genocide. Pygmy trackers led us through the jungle to see gorillas and elephants, and we managed to be held up at gunpoint by bandits.

In Cameroon, we interviewed a doctor about maternal mortality — and then found a woman named Prudence, a mother of three, dying in the next room. A dead fetus was decomposing inside her, setting off a raging infection, but the doctor didn’t care about her. And so she died. You can know intellectually that half a million women die in pregnancy each year, but it’s still shattering to see a woman die so unnecessarily in front of you.

If you win the trip, you won’t be practicing tourism, but journalism. You’ll blog and prepare videos for the New York Times and MySpace Web sites. I’m betting that you’ll be able to connect with young readers and viewers — and galvanize them to care about these issues — in a way that I can’t.

So please spread the word about the contest. Rules and applications will be posted Tuesday at and at

And for those who apply but don’t win, go anyway on your own. You’ll learn more than you ever would from an equivalent period in the classroom. And you’ll gain not only the occasional intestinal parasite but also an understanding of why we should fight to save children like Hidaya.

TimesSelect Read Casey's blog about her trip and Mr. Kristof's columns about starvation in Ethiopia from May 2003.

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof's blog,

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The Vanishing Neoliberal

Published: March 11, 2007

On July 25, 1981, Michael Kinsley published an essay in The New Republic called “The Shame of the Democrats.” The Democratic Party, the young Kinsley wrote, is viewed “with growing indifference.” It is run “by lawyer-operators with no commitment to any particular political values.” It is filled “with politicians who will do or say anything for a word or a dollar of support.” It represents “a dwindling collection of special interest groups whose interests are less and less those of either the general populus or the tired and poor.” In short, Kinsley wrote, “the Democratic Party has collapsed not just politically but morally.”

And so began the era of neoliberalism, a movement which, at least temporarily, remade the Democratic Party, redefined American journalism and didn’t really die until now.

In the early days, the neoliberals coalesced around two small magazines, The New Republic and The Washington Monthly. They represented, first of all, a change in intellectual tone. While the old liberals could be earnest and self-righteous, the neoliberals were sprightly and lampooning. While the old liberals valued solidarity, the neoliberals loved to argue among themselves, showing off the rhetorical skills many had honed in Harvard dining halls.

On policy matters, the neoliberals were liberal but not too liberal. They rejected interest-group politics and were suspicious of brain-dead unions. They tended to be hawkish on foreign policy, positive about capitalism, reformist when it came to the welfare state, and urbane but not militant on feminism and other social issues.

The neoliberal movement begat politicians like Paul Tsongas, Al Gore (the 1980s and ’90s version) and Bill Clinton. It also set the tone for mainstream American journalism. Today, you can’t swing an ax in a major American newsroom without hitting six people who used to work at The New Republic or The Washington Monthly. Influenced by their sensibility, many major news organizations became neoliberal institutions, whether they knew it or not.

Neoliberals often have an air of perpetual youthfulness about them, but they are now in their 40s, 50s and even their 60s, and a younger generation of bloggers set off a backlash. If you surf the Web these days, for example, you find that a horde of thousands have declared war on the Time magazine columnist Joe Klein.

Kevin Drum, who is actually older than most bloggers, says the difference is generational. Klein’s mind-set, he says, was formed in the 1970s and 1980s, but “like most lefty bloggers, I only started following politics in a serious way in the late ’90s.” Drum says he’s reacting to Ken Starr, the Florida ballot fight, the Bush tax cuts, the K Street Project and the war in Iraq.

Drum and his cohort don’t want a neoliberal movement that moderates and reforms. They want a Democratic Party that fights. Their tone is much more confrontational. They want to read articles that affirm their anger. They are also further to the left, driven there by Iraq on foreign policy matters and by wage stagnation on economic matters.

For the past few years, The New Republic has tried to keep the neoliberal flame alive, under editors like Peter Beinart. But there is no longer a readership for that. The longtime owner, Marty Peretz, has sold his remaining interests and, starting this month, the magazine will go biweekly.

The new format is partly a response to the Web. The forthcoming issue has a lot of good, long, nonideological reports. (Ryan Lizza has a fascinating piece on Barack Obama’s Chicago years.) But it’s also a shift leftward. As the new editor, Frank Foer, says, there’s a generation gap within the magazine, with young interns further to the left. That’s where the future lies. Foer is hiring the Ph.D. neopopulist Thomas Frank to write essays on the presidential campaign. Recent editorials have called for tax increases to finance universal health care. The magazine now habitually calls on Democrats to take bold action on things like the war and global warming, but it’s still a little fuzzy on what that bold action should be.

Over all, what’s happening is this: The left, which has the momentum, is growing more uniform and coming to look more like its old, pre-neoliberal self. The right is growing more fractious. And many of those who were semiaffiliated with one party or another are drifting off to independent-land. (The Economist, their magazine, now has over 500,000 American readers — more than all the major liberal magazines combined.)

Neoliberalism had a good, interesting run — while it lasted.

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Why Libby’s Pardon Is a Slam Dunk

Published: March 11, 2007

EVEN by Washington’s standards, few debates have been more fatuous or wasted more energy than the frenzied speculation over whether President Bush will or will not pardon Scooter Libby. Of course he will.

A president who tries to void laws he doesn’t like by encumbering them with “signing statements” and who regards the Geneva Conventions as a nonbinding technicality isn’t going to start playing by the rules now. His assertion last week that he is “pretty much going to stay out of” the Libby case is as credible as his pre-election vote of confidence in Donald Rumsfeld. The only real question about the pardon is whether Mr. Bush cares enough about his fellow Republicans’ political fortunes to delay it until after Election Day 2008.

Either way, the pardon is a must for Mr. Bush. He needs Mr. Libby to keep his mouth shut. Cheney’s Cheney knows too much about covert administration schemes far darker than the smearing of Joseph Wilson. Though Mr. Libby wrote a novel that sank without a trace a decade ago, he now has the makings of an explosive Washington tell-all that could be stranger than most fiction and far more salable.

Mr. Libby’s novel was called “The Apprentice.” His memoir could be titled “The Accomplice.” Its first chapter would open in August 2002, when he and a small cadre of administration officials including Karl Rove formed the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), a secret task force to sell the Iraq war to the American people. The climactic chapter of the Libby saga unfolded last week when the guilty verdict in his trial coincided, all too fittingly, with the Congressional appearance of two Iraq veterans, one without an ear and one without an eye, to recount their subhuman treatment at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

It was WHIG’s secret machinations more than four years ago that led directly to those shredded lives. WHIG had been tasked, as The Washington Post would later uncover, to portray Iraq’s supposedly imminent threat to America with “gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence.” In other words, WHIG was to cook up the sexiest recipe for promoting the war, facts be damned. So it did, by hyping the scariest possible scenario: nuclear apocalypse. As Michael Isikoff and David Corn report in “Hubris,” it was WHIG (equipped with the slick phrase-making of the White House speechwriter Michael Gerson) that gave the administration its Orwellian bumper sticker, the constantly reiterated warning that Saddam’s “smoking gun” could be “a mushroom cloud.”

Ever since all the W.M.D. claims proved false, the administration has pleaded that it was duped by the same bad intelligence everyone else saw. But the nuclear card, the most persistent and gripping weapon in the prewar propaganda arsenal, was this White House’s own special contrivance. Mr. Libby was present at its creation. He knows what Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney knew about the manufacture of this fiction and when they knew it.

Clearly they knew it early on. The administration’s guilt (or at least embarrassment) about its lies in fomenting the war quickly drove it to hide the human price being paid for those lies. (It also tried to hide the financial cost of the war by keeping it out of the regular defense budget, but that’s another, if related, story.) The steps the White House took to keep casualties out of view were extraordinary, even as it deployed troops to decorate every presidential victory rally and gave the Pentagon free rein to exploit the sacrifices of Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman in mendacious P.R. stunts.

The administration’s enforcement of a prohibition on photographs of coffins returning from Iraq was the first policy manifestation of the hide-the-carnage strategy. It was complemented by the president’s decision to break with precedent, set by Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter among others, and refuse to attend military funerals, lest he lend them a media spotlight. But Mark Benjamin, who has chronicled the mistreatment of Iraq war veterans since 2003, discovered an equally concerted effort to keep injured troops off camera. Mr. Benjamin wrote in Salon in 2005 that “flights carrying the wounded arrive in the United States only at night” and that both Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda barred the press “from seeing or photographing incoming patients.”

A particularly vivid example of the extreme measures taken by the White House to cover up the war’s devastation turned up in The Washington Post’s Walter Reed exposé. Sgt. David Thomas, a Tennessee National Guard gunner with a Purple Heart and an amputated leg, found himself left off the guest list for a summer presidential ceremony honoring a fellow amputee after he said he would be wearing shorts, not pants, when occupying a front-row seat in camera range. Now we can fully appreciate that bizarre incident on C-Span in October 2003, when an anguished Cher, of all unlikely callers, phoned in to ask why administration officials, from the president down, were not being photographed with patients like those she had visited at Walter Reed. “I don’t understand why these guys are so hidden,” she said.

The answer is simple: Out of sight, out of mind was the game plan, and it has been enforced down to the tiniest instances. When HBO produced an acclaimed (and apolitical) documentary last year about military medics’ remarkable efforts to save lives in Iraq, “Baghdad ER,” Army brass at the last minute boycotted planned promotional screenings in Washington and at Fort Campbell, Ky. In a memo, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley warned that the film, though made with Army cooperation, could endanger veterans’ health by provoking symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The General Kiley who was so busy policing an HBO movie for its potential health hazards is the same one who did not correct the horrific real-life conditions on his watch at Walter Reed. After the Post exposé was published, he tried to spin it by boasting that most of the medical center’s rooms “were actually perfectly O.K.” and scapegoating “soldiers leaving food in their rooms” for the mice and cockroach infestations. That this guy is still surgeon general of the Army — or was as of Friday — makes you wonder what he, like Mr. Libby, has on his superiors.

Now that the country has seen the Congressional testimony of Specialist Jeremy Duncan, who has melted flesh where his ear once was, or watched the ABC newsman Bob Woodruff’s report on other neglected patients in military medical facilities far beyond Walter Reed, the White House cover-up of veterans’ care has collapsed, like so many other cover-ups necessitated by its conduct of this war. But the administration and its surrogates still won’t face up to their moral culpability.

Mary Matalin, the former Cheney flack who served with Mr. Libby on WHIG and is now on the board of his legal defense fund (its full list of donors is unknown), has been especially vocal. “Scooter didn’t do anything,” she said. “And his personal record and service are impeccable.” What Mr. Libby did — fabricating nuclear threats at WHIG and then lying under oath when he feared that sordid Pandora’s box might be pried open by the Wilson case — was despicable. Had there been no WHIG or other White House operation for drumming up fictional rationales for war, there would have been no bogus uranium from Africa in a presidential speech, no leak to commit perjury about, no amputees to shut away in filthy rooms at Walter Reed.

Listening to Ms. Matalin and her fellow apparatchiks emote publicly about the punishment being inflicted on poor Mr. Libby and his family, you wonder what world they live in. They seem clueless about how ugly their sympathy for a conniving courtier sounds against the testimony of those wounded troops and their families who bear the most searing burdens of the unnecessary war WHIG sped to market.

As is often noted, any parallels between Iraq and Vietnam do not extend to America’s treatment of its troops. No one spits at those serving in Iraq. But our “support” for the troops has often been as hypocritical as that of an administration that still fails to provide them with sufficient armor. Health care indignities, among other betrayals of returning veterans, have been reported by countless news organizations since the war began, not just this year. Many in Congress did nothing, and we as a people have often looked the other way, supporting the troops with car decals and donated phone cards while the same history repeats itself again and again.

Now the “surge” that was supposed to show results by summer is creeping inexorably into an open-ended escalation, even as Moktada al-Sadr’s militia ominously melts away, just as Iraq’s army did after the invasion in 2003, lying in wait to spring a Tet-like surprise. And still, despite Thursday’s breakthrough announcement of a credible Iraq exit blueprint by the House leadership, Congress threatens to dither. While Mr. Bush will no doubt pardon Scooter Libby without so much as a second thought, anyone else in Washington who continues to further this debacle may find it less easy to escape scot-free.

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