Sarah Palin’s myth of America

Sarah Palin has arrived in our midst with the force of a rocket-propelled grenade. She has boosted John McCain’s candidacy and overwhelmed the presidential process in a way that no vice-presidential pick has since Thomas Eagleton did the precise opposite — sinking his sponsor, George McGovern, in 1972. Obviously, something beyond politics is happening here. We don’t really know Palin as a politician yet, whether she is wise or foolhardy, substantive or empty. Our fascination with her — and it is a nonpartisan phenomenon — is driven by something more primal. The Palin surge illuminates the mythic power of the Republican Party’s message since the advent of Ronald Reagan.

To start with the obvious, she’s attractive. Her husband (“And two decades and five children later, he’s still my guy…”) is a hunk. They have a gorgeous family, made more touching and credible by the challenges their children face. Her voice is more distinctive than her looks: that flat, northern twang that screams, I’m just like you! Actually, the real message is: I’m just like you want to be, a brilliantly spectacular…average American. The Palins win elections and snowmobile races in a state that represents the last, lingering hint of that most basic Huckleberry Finn fantasy — lighting out for the territories. She quoted Westbrook Pegler, the F.D.R.-era conservative columnist, in her acceptance speech: “We grow good people in our small towns…” And then added, “I grew up with those people. They’re the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food and run our factories and fight our wars. They love their country in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America.”

Editor’s Comment — Those of us who initially scoffed at McCain’s VP choice might eventually be vindicated, but right now it looks like we were dead wrong. Indeed, the near hysterical reaction against Sarah Palin may well be doing more to reinforce than undermine her political strength.

This looks like a classic case of underestimating the opposition. There are two ways of responding to the mistake: work hard to prove that it wasn’t a mistake, or try to see what can be learned.

Joe Klein, from his perch in Manhattan, wants us to see this as yet another case in which the Republicans are succeeding in hoodwinking average Americans, yet in pressing his argument he pedals a few myths of his own.

We haven’t been a nation of small towns for nearly a century. It is the suburbanites and city dwellers who do the fighting and hourly-wage work now, and the corporations who grow our food.

Well, when it comes to dying in Iraq, researchers have run the numbers and Klein is dead wrong. Tom Engelhardt quoted demographer William O’Hare from the University of New Hampshire whose study [PDF] quantified the disproportionately high mortality of rural soldiers sent to Iraq:

We know that soldiers from rural America are dying at higher rates than those from urban America, strikingly higher, 60% higher. We know, from other research, that the rural young join the military at higher rates than those from metropolitan areas. The dearth of opportunity in rural areas simply leaves more young people there with fewer alternatives to the military.

America might no longer be a nation of small towns but even now, a quarter of Americans live in the rural America that Klein seems to think is a thing of the past. And even if the small towns have dwindled in size, the small-town mentality is clearly alive and well.

The McCain campaign has made huge strides in closing the so-called enthusiasm gap — but it’s not just because of Sarah Palin. Obama’s genuflections to the establishment had already helped make the gap much narrower to cross. The challenge Obama now faces is in crossing the ordinariness gap.

Doing this doesn’t demand finding his own icon of average America. (With hindsight, Jim Webb looks like he would have been a much more effective running mate than either Biden or Clinton because, unlike them, he melded working class roots with the appearance of being a Washington outsider. Moreover, he would have done far more to make Obama look bold rather than cautious.) But Obama and the campaign desperately need to find ways of showing that they understand an America that now feels it is looked down upon.

The way to respond to the Palin challenge is not to focus on what’s wrong with her; it’s to show that you respect the source of her appeal. The white working-class America that is weary of Obama might be better served by a Democratic administration, but what it wants first of all is respect.

Speak your piece: Sarah Palin and frog bait

The biggest catch I ever saw was a 15-pound catfish. Cousin Boojer Tweedy of Knickerbocker, Texas, pulled it out of the creek one summer about midnight. “Any fish’ll bite if you got good bait….” This lunker took a live frog.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin. Just as Barack Obama seemed to have worked off his April blunder about helpless rural Americans who “cling” to guns and religion, the Alaska governor leaps into the campaign.

“I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA” Palin told the Republican convention, “because I wanted to make my kids’ public education better. When I ran for city council, I didn’t need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and knew their families, too. Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown.
And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves….”

Wooee, the Democratic catfish are hungry! …

From the bleacher seats here at Daily Yonder, Palin’s small-town swagger and the wrath it’s incurred have been fascinating to watch (as seeing a catfish skinned alive can be). James Joyner of outside the beltway admits he’s “rather baffled that the ‘small town mayor’ meme is catching on so readily.” I’m not. Palin’s rural upbringing and experience as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, have inspired something rare: a chance to look inside the many public prejudices – reverential and damning, both — about rural America.

For that’s really what Palin’s candidacy offers: live bait. It’s a way for some to suck on their fantasy of rural goodness, and for others to gnaw their rural bigotry down to the bone.

Obama can’t win against Palin

Of all the advantages Gov. Sarah Palin has brought to the GOP ticket, the most important may be that she has gotten into Barack Obama’s head. How else to explain Sen. Obama’s decision to go one-on-one against “Sarah Barracuda,” captain of the Wasilla High state basketball champs?

It’s a matchup he’ll lose. If Mr. Obama wants to win, he needs to remember he’s running against John McCain for president, not Mrs. Palin for vice president.

Editor’s Comment — The Obama campaign shouldn’t have to hear this from Karl Rove to know it’s true. But here’s an idea for a gutsy ad that would toss the Palin appeal back in McCain’s face. Here’s a first draft as I make this up on the fly:

Does John McCain need to start watching his back?

Until just a few days ago he was having trouble pulling out a crowd.

Now the crowds are roaring, but they’re not shouting his name — (audio clip: “Sarah, Sarah, Sarah…”).

Are John McCain’s newly enthusiastic supporters dreaming about seeing him enter the oval office or are dreaming about his replacement?

Big Bang machine starts. World doesn’t end.

As the biggest scientific experiment in history got started on Wednesday morning, Andy McSmith in The Independent wrote: “It was Oscar Wilde who declared that ‘all art is useless’ – which was not a condemnation, but a proclamation. If you want to create something of beauty, he meant, do not be distracted by people who ask what it is for. On that basis, whatever emerges from the £4.4bn experiment that begins today in the vast complex built at the Cern – The European Organisation for Nuclear Research – laboratory near Geneva, where infinitesimally small particles travelling at mind-boggling speeds will crash together with so much force that they almost replicate the Big Bang, could be called the most expensive work of art in human history.

“Mathematicians and physicists have a sense of the aesthetic, as surely as poets and dramatists. In Einstein’s theory of relativity or Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, they see works of great simplicity and beauty. What they long for now is a simple and beautiful ‘theory of everything’ that will explain the whole of physics, from the movement of galaxies to the behaviour of subatomic particles, because there is a hole in theoretical physics which causes more distress to the 6,500 scientists working on Cern’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) than the scary speculation about the black hole that some people think will swallow up earth if their experiment goes wrong.”

Drop in violence in Iraq attributed to secret assassination programme

“The dramatic drop in violence in Iraq is due in large part to a secret programme the US military has used to kill terrorists, according to a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward,” CNN reported.

“The programme – which Woodward compares to the World War II era Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb – must remain secret for now or it would ‘get people killed,’ Woodward said Monday on CNN’s Larry King Live.

” ‘It is a wonderful example of American ingenuity solving a problem in war, as we often have,’ Woodward said.

All counterinsurgency is local

June was the deadliest month for the U.S. military in Afghanistan since the invasion in October 2001. July became the second straight month in which casualties exceeded those in Iraq, where four times as many U.S. troops are on the ground. More Americans have been killed in Afghanistan since the invasion began than in the first nine years of the Vietnam War, from 1956 to 1964.

As in Vietnam, the U.S. has never lost a tactical engagement in Afghanistan, and this tactical success is still often conflated with strategic progress. Yet the Taliban insurgency grows more intense and gains more popular traction each year. More and more, the American effort in Afghanistan resembles the Vietnam War—with its emphasis on body counts and air strikes, its cross-border sanctuaries, and its daily tactical victories that never affected the slow and eventually decisive erosion of rural support for the counterinsurgency.

As the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, noted in a blunt interview with the BBC in May, the current military engagement is also beginning to look like the Soviets’ decade-long Afghan adventure, which ended ignominiously in 1989. That intervention, like the current one, was based on a strategy of administering and securing Afghanistan from urban centers such as Kabul and the provincial capitals. The Soviets held all the provincial capitals, just as we do, and sought to exert influence from there. The mujahideen stoked insurgency in the rural areas of the Pashtun south and east, just as the Taliban do now.

The Petraeus doctrine

For a military accustomed to quick, easy victories, the trials and tribulations of the Iraq War have come as a rude awakening. To its credit, the officer corps has responded not with excuses but with introspection. One result, especially evident within the U.S. Army, has been the beginning of a Great Debate of sorts.

Anyone who cares about the Army’s health should take considerable encouragement from this intellectual ferment. Yet anyone who cares about future U.S. national-security strategy should view the debate with considerable concern: it threatens to encroach upon matters that civilian policy makers, not soldiers, should decide.

What makes this debate noteworthy is not only its substance, but its character—the who and the how.

Right at the edge

Late in the afternoon of June 10, during a firefight with Taliban militants along the Afghan-Pakistani border, American soldiers called in airstrikes to beat back the attack. The firefight was taking place right on the border itself, known in military jargon as the “zero line.” Afghanistan was on one side, and the remote Pakistani region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, was on the other. The stretch of border was guarded by three Pakistani military posts.

The American bombers did the job, and then some. By the time the fighting ended, the Taliban militants had slipped away, the American unit was safe and 11 Pakistani border guards lay dead. The airstrikes on the Pakistani positions sparked a diplomatic row between the two allies: Pakistan called the incident “unprovoked and cowardly”; American officials regretted what they called a tragic mistake. But even after a joint inquiry by the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it remained unclear why American soldiers had reached the point of calling in airstrikes on soldiers from Pakistan, a critical ally in the war in Afghanistan and the campaign against terrorism.

The mystery, at least part of it, was solved in July by four residents of Suran Dara, a Pakistani village a few hundred yards from the site of the fight. According to two of these villagers, whom I interviewed together with a local reporter, the Americans started calling in airstrikes on the Pakistanis after the latter started shooting at the Americans.

Reduced dominance is predicted for U.S.

An intelligence forecast being prepared for the next president on future global risks envisions a steady decline in U.S. dominance in the coming decades, as the world is reshaped by globalization, battered by climate change, and destabilized by regional upheavals over shortages of food, water and energy.

The report, previewed in a speech by Thomas Fingar, the U.S. intelligence community’s top analyst, also concludes that the one key area of continued U.S. superiority — military power — will “be the least significant” asset in the increasingly competitive world of the future, because “nobody is going to attack us with massive conventional force.”

Fingar’s remarks last week were based on a partially completed “Global Trends 2025” report that assesses how international events could affect the United States in the next 15 to 17 years. Speaking at a conference of intelligence professionals in Orlando, Fingar gave an overview of key findings that he said will be presented to the next occupant of the White House early in the new year.

In hunt for bin Laden, a new approach

Frustrated by repeated dead ends in the search for Osama bin Laden, U.S. and Pakistani officials said they are questioning long-held assumptions about their strategy and are shifting tactics to intensify the use of the unmanned but lethal Predator drone spy plane in the mountains of western Pakistan.

The number of Hellfire missile attacks by Predators in Pakistan has more than tripled, with 11 strikes reported by Pakistani officials this year, compared with three in 2007. The attacks are part of a renewed effort to cripple al-Qaeda’s central command that began early last year and has picked up speed as President Bush’s term in office winds down, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials involved in the operations.

There has been no confirmed trace of bin Laden since he narrowly escaped from the CIA and the U.S. military after the battle near Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in December 2001, according to U.S., Pakistani and European officials. They said they are now concentrating on a short list of other al-Qaeda leaders who have been sighted more recently, in hopes that their footprints could lead to bin Laden.

Secrets of the Taliban’s success

Kandahar has traditionally been the city of Afghan royalty, warlords and the center of resistance movements against the British and Russia. It was also the spiritual heartland of the student militia, the Taliban, that emerged in the 1990s to combat the vicious civil war that was tearing the country apart.

The Taliban took over Kabul in 1996 and opened the country to al-Qaeda’s training camps, while Osama bin Laden settled in Kandahar. After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan a few months later, the Taliban agreed to lose their government but, in the tradition of the Afghan code of honor of Pashtunwali, they refused to hand over their most wanted guests to the Americans.

Seven years after 9/11, the resurgent Taliban movement is exclusively led by Kandahari clans, which still boast of their sacrifices for the Islamic brotherhood in the name of Pashtunwali, but they maintain that the Taliban have never harbored – and never will – an aggressive agenda towards the world community.

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