I’ve been going on a lot lately about time. My editor’s note for the forthcoming Autumn 2013 issue of The American Interest focuses down on that, and since not everyone who reads this blog also reads the magazine (shame on those of you to whom this applies….we need your money), I offer it here in mildly adjusted form (that is in no way meant to suggest or imply that you need not subscribe to the magazine, because we still need your money):
A good deal has been written over the years about the subjective perception of time. That’s the essence, I’ve always thought, of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The masterpiece of historical sociology on the subject is David Landes’s A Revolution in Time, where he shows how different ways of measuring time shape entire civilizations. Physicists and other mystics have their take, too. Thus Einstein: “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Indeed, we’ve been told by everyone from Richard Alpert (Be Here Now) to Buckaroo Bonzai (“Wherever you go, there you are”) that nothing ever happens except in the present.
Yes, well, the problem with this is that the present is not a constant. It is disturbingly unstable. In some times and places it is a mere wraith; in others an anvil. In still others it is a highly fractured and diminished social possession, with some living life in mimesis of a remembered past while others in the same society live it as a projection of an imagined future. Dean Acheson once wrote that the “best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time”—doubtlessly a witty way to express a busy man’s thanksgiving for the mercifully regular cadence of time. But Acheson’s assumption that the rolling of the calendar through our lives is more or less symmetrical does not pass muster. During moments of crisis that disorient and surprise the future comes at us many days at a time. It is as David Mitchell wrote on page 363 of Cloud Atlas (which line went missing from the unfortunate movie made from the book): “Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms around the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.”
Those episodes of rapid incredulity may be increasing. According to Douglas Rushkoff’s engaging but occasionally sophomoric new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, the tyranny of our raging cybernetic addictions has created an omnivorous presentism that is devouring our sense of balance and scale, polluting our reservoirs of social grace and our very sense of past and future. It is as though time itself has been shoved into a fisheye lens that magnifies the present, entering our brains in funhouse mirror spectacle. Yes, Ram Dass, we’re all here now, but now has turned out to be nowhere and no time in particular; and we are less content than agog because when time gets bent out of shape, we risk losing access to history’s capacity to anchor us and guide us forward. We also lose our collective narrator in culture, and so the culture loses its capacity to generate a sense of coherence. Fighting against that loss is the duty of every man and women who has had a proper education and still remembers some of it.
That’s not all. Some may recall that I began my July 4 post on “Egypt Continued, or Interrupted (Depending on Your Point of View)” this way:
Political upheavals are reckoned by the currency of accelerated experience. Human beings perceive time in many ways (more on time in a future post), but three fill out the spectrum. There is geological time, measured in hundreds of thousands and millions of years. There is personal time, measured by the sentient moments afforded by our circadian rhythms. And then there is political time, which is pretty much everything in between. Political time, in turn, breaks down into the ordinary, those long skeins of years and decades in which nothing much seems to be changing even when it is, and the revolutionary, those impossibly concentrated hours and days in which everything seems to be changing even when it isn’t.
You will note that I promised here more about time in a future post: Well, the future is here now, you’ll be unsurprised to learn—this is the post.
My burden today is actually much lighter than a promise to write once more about time might suggest. I simply want to mention in passing four items from today’s news, two of which should have happened a long time ago, and two of which have happened very quickly but probably shouldn’t have happened at all. Sorry to make you wait to get to the guts of the post…..well, no—take that back: I’m not sorry to make you wait. Waiting is good for you; it helps you appreciate the variability, value and volatility of time.
Let me start with the indictment, which is said to be imminent, of Ahmed Abu Khatallah. I have written about this guy before: Many months ago I told you that he was among those responsible—and probably primer inter pares among them—for the murder of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi in September of last year. Specifically, in my “Benghazigate” post on May 3, I explained as follows:
Consider: It has been nearly eight months since Ambassador Stevens’s murder, and the U.S. government has not done a damned visible thing about it. We have a pretty good, if not necessarily court-actionable, idea who was behind this—a guy named Ahmed Abu Khattala. Not long after the murders, Abu Khatalla held a kind of informal press conference at an outdoor restaurant in which he strutted, lied a lot, and seemed to take pleasure, if not explicit credit, for the attack on the Benghazi consulate. Yes, it took us nearly a decade to find bin-Laden (and in this light, and considering that Ayman al-Zawahiri is still breathing, why anyone would think that this was some sort of glorious success I swear I cannot understand), so eight months is not a long time in comparison. Yes, but still…
Now why is this? Well, I don’t doubt that Mike Vickers over at Joint Special Operations Command is trying to figure a way to whack this guy (and possibly some of his associates), but with the rules of engagement being what they are, and with the divisions of lawyers sprawled all over the Defense Department as they are, it’s not easy to get a clean shot. More important, no doubt, is that the State Department probably opposes doing anything without the cooperation and assent of the Libyan government. But the Libyan government is hopelessly feckless. We have not even been able to “interview” Abu Khatalla; Libyan authorities won’t pick him up or question him for fear of literal retaliation. And it seems clear that achieving swift justice in this matter is not high on the list of White House priorities.
So nothing seems to be happening, and nothing probably will happen—which is predictable since it, too, is part of a very unfortunate pattern. Consider that five U.S. Ambassadors have been murdered in office since 1965, three of them in the greater Middle East. In 1973, the PLO murdered Cleo Noel Jr. in Khartoum, Sudan. No retribution was ever exacted for his murder. In 1976, Ambassador Francis E. Meloy Jr. was murdered in Beirut. No retribution was ever exacted for his murder. In 1979, Ambassador Adolph Dubs was murdered in Kabul. No retribution was ever exacted for his murder. And most recently Ambassador Stevens in Libya.
Yesterday, finally, Attorney General Eric Holder let the indictment cat out of the bag and boasted that, “I’m satisfied with the progress we have made in the investigation. Regardless of what happened previously, we have made very, very, very substantial progress in that investigation.” He sounds to me like a man bending over backwards juggling verbal incantations—using three “verys” in a single sentence is very, very, very rare in Washington, or anywhere outside of a sixth-grade classroom—to persuade himself, if not others, that what he’s saying is actually true.
But this is horse twaddle. The main reason everything has been going so painfully slow is that the State Department insists still (and the White House unfortunately concurs) on going through the Libyan government to pursue justice. But the Libyan government, such as it is, can’t do anything about Abu Khatallah without starting at least a small war. If Holder thinks that indicting Abu Khatallah is going to change the Libyans’ attitude or capability here, then he truly believes in magic.
This outrageous delay also reflects a reversion, as if going back from Bush 43 to Clinton II, of a highly legalized approach to the problem. This approach, which is characteristic of the FBI and its Justice Department masters for perfectly understandable historical reasons, is not suitable for such contingencies, which, while they are not very well described with the broad-bush term terrorism, are serious enough all the same. It is dangerous to leave Ahmed Abu Khatallah on the loose. To hell with indicting him; he is neither a U.S. national nor is he resident on U.S. soil, so he is therefore not entitled to the protections of the U.S. Constitution. I again wish Mike Vickers a clean shot.
So much for Eric and Ahmed; now for Fannie and Freddie. President Obama spoke yesterday in Phoenix about fixing the housing market, and about getting Fannie and Freddie into the retirement homes they so richly deserve. The President’s basic approach to the problem is inarguable. Not even normal Republicans, if there are any left not of the anarcho-libertarian wing of the party, could object to his basic thrust: get the government and its distortions out of the housing market except for a minor role in helping the very poor. The question is, why has this taken so damned long when everything the President said yesterday was obvious at least three years ago?
The answer involves too long a story to tell here, but suffice it to say that the reason is about more than the recent revival of the housing market making reform more politically plausible. That’s true, it has, and with no help from the White House a bill on the matter has been percolating on the Hill. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere….. Just as with immigration policy reform, the Obama White House has shown no interest in putting together governing coalitions unless doing that also strengthens the President’s prior concern with political coalition-building. This most avariciously and narrowly political President in my lifetime only gets involved in actual policy questions when not doing so might cede political credit to someone other than himself. That’s mainly why this has taken so long.
Finally on this point, two short notes. First, if you really want to understand how Fannie and Freddie helped bring on the housing meltdown and Great Recession, read Mary Martell’s complex but enlightening November/December 2011 TAI essay “Fannie, Freddie and the House of Cards.” They were responsible up to their bureaucratic and plutocratic eyeballs. Second and much related, note that Dodd-Frank did not even mention Fannie and Freddie, and one of the reasons is that both Chris Dodd and Barney Frank were the recipients of major campaign donations from these semi-government agencies—a phenomenon that should have been illegal in the first place. Those two were very much not alone among Democrats. So could it be, do you think, that the Obama folks found it politically untidy, let’s put it, to go after Fannie and Freddie before the November 2012 election? Do you think, huh?
OK, Eric and Ahmed, Fannie and Freddie…..now let’s move on to Ayman and Nasir. If it took way too long to get serious about the real national security issues concerning Benghazi, and way too long to get serious about the mortgage market mess, it took too little time to decide to shut down a few dozen U.S. Embassies in the Near East this past weekend. This is a delicate matter to discuss in public, but I’m great at delicacy—so here goes.
Apparently, we intercepted a communication from Ayman al-Zawahiri to the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wuhaishi, urging the latter, “Let’s do something.” Whether this something had to do with the end of Ramadan, which is tomorrow, or, more likely, the anniversary of 9/11 soon coming up, is hard to say. But if this is all the sigint we have (and I don’t know that), I doubt it’s adequate justification for all the public discombobulation we have gone through in the past few days. We don’t want to tell al-Zawahiri, whose actual power hold up somewhere in Pakistan is less than extensive these days, that he can cause us heartburn and laundry problems just by making a cell phone call he knows will be intercepted. After all, the message itself has got nothing on what hundreds of thousands of teenagers around the world say to each other every Friday night. As scary as teen behavior can be, it’s not necessarily a harbinger of great danger.
The interpretation that al-Zawahiri’s action makes him look weak is, I think, correct. It’s also potentially dangerous for him and those on the receiving end of such communications. To put it very generally and hence safely, if we intercept that call, we might be able to get a better idea where the communicants are physically located. And if we get a better idea where they are, well—hey Vickers, lock and load, dude. Indeed, that may explain the drone strikes in Yemen yesterday, just possibly. How should I know?
I’m not saying we were too quick to the pull the trigger on that, but I remain to be convinced that the evac order for Amciv dependents in Yemen and the public shut-down of so many embassies over the weekend were justified by the intelligence as against the signal of weakness it sends around the region broadly. Of course we justifiably err on the side of the safety in cases like this, all else equal. But all else is not equal in this case, and pretty much never is. So OK, somebody come convince me, please.
Eric and Ahmed, Fannie and Freddie, Ayman and Nasir…..now for the fourth and last shidduch of the day: John and Lindsey.
The way the news reads, President Obama asked Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to go to Cairo to warn the General al-Sisi and associates that they better erect a more inclusive political tent, one that includes the Muslim Brotherhood, or their $1.5 billon aid money might be in jeopardy. They delivered this message in public in Cairo (and possibly in private too, but that’s not important, since the President himself has all sorts of ways to do that, not to exclude the recent travels of Undersecretary of State Bill Burns).
And so there are McCain and Graham, speaking in Cairo before a live and large audience, demanding concessions on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood that all Egyptians can see and hear, and that plenty of incredulous Americans can see and hear, too, back home on TV-repeated videotape over and over again. Can you imagine ‘ol Jake and Erma, sitting down to the TV news in Billings or Tulsa, just wondering the heck out of themselves why the deuce the two most prominent Republican hawks in the U.S. Senate are shilling for the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo?
Is Barack Obama so clever that he could so skillfully dangle the virtues of bipartisanship in foreign policy in front of McCain and Graham as to get them to fly all the way to Egypt to make fools of themselves? Or is Barack Obama so stupid that, having established an intelligent policy of “no c-word” and “no aid suspension”, he’s now reverting to his extremely bad habit of wanting to split the difference in all things (except partisan advantage) great and small, suggesting that he might suspend the aid money if the generals don’t do what he wants them to do? Good grief: Could both of these possibilities be true simultaneously?
Unless there’s something critical I don’t know about the message McCain and Graham have been carrying privately to al-Sisi that Bill Burns couldn’t or didn’t, I’d say that for tactical reasons the President was mistaken to ask them to go, and that for even simpler reasons McCain and Graham were mistaken to agree. Call me cynical, but I just can’t escape my suspicion that someone is trying to diddle somebody here, and has pretty much gotten away with it for all the wrong reasons. So, have we just beheld another adventure that happened too fast that probably should not have happened at all?
Well, time will tell, eventually. Or not.