These Days, It's Hard to Look at Capitol Hill Without One's Eyes Glazing Over


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I've spent the last few days worrying that this column will stink. That's because, over the last three months, I've had a problem that I might as well lay out: On Sept. 11, the United States was turned upside down by the most stunning thunderbolt of a story since Kennedy was shot; the terrorist attacks, in turn, launched the U.S. on its most important military endeavor since Vietnam. And yet, not since college have I been less interested in the day-to-day news. The front page is now the third or fourth thing I turn to in any newspaper. What's more, I find myself reading the papers with the same lack of critical engagement that I associate with the people you meet at barbecues.


The very importance of current events makes the news seem less important. I know that sounds like glib paradox-mongering. It may help if I draw a distinction between the legislative make-work that's going on in Washington and the world-historical events that are going on in the Middle East. At a time like this, it's hard to look at Capitol Hill without having one's eyes glaze over. To an extent, this is the politicians' fault. Once Republicans decided to pass a "stimulus" package that was aimed largely at covering corporate exposure to past losses, for instance, it was clear that if our politicians are paying attention to the wider world, it's only out of the corners of their eyes. And easy though it is to snicker at the Arianna Huffingtons of the world?who, months into war, persist in talking about campaign finance reform and hate speech and transferability of healthcare benefits as if Osama bin Laden had never been born?we do have some run-of-the-mill, pre-Sept. 11 political business to take care of.


In fact, a case can be made that the pre-Sept. 11 business is the most important business to take care of today. I'm just not interested in it, and I'm not interested in the people who are in charge of it. Our campaign finance system may indeed be producing politicians who are too corrupt or feckless to wage a war. At any rate, something is producing such politicians?because every time I open a newspaper I read about Pat Leahy or Tom Daschle. But here's the paradox. The enormity of their inadequacy?or, differently put, the gap between the hugeness of their task and the puniness of their vision?is the very thing that gives our politicians a free pass. None of my pundit friends is predicting a major shakeup in next fall's congressional elections, and it's fairly obvious why. At a time when Western civilization is in a fight for its survival, who feels like wasting his time reading about GOP efforts to find a candidate to run against Pat Leahy in 2004? Or trying to figure out whether Terry McAuliffe and the DNC played fast and loose with soft-money requirements in Hillary's 2000 Senate campaign?


That still leaves the business of the wider world to focus on. But here, too, the newspapers are less interesting than they used to be. Let's take a big story from last week: the discrediting of Yasir Arafat. Nothing was more indicative of the contempt in which Israel now holds Arafat as a negotiating partner?and it is a sincere contempt, not merely a negotiating stance?than its reaction to the murder of 26 Israelis by Palestinian terrorists a week ago. The question that has divided Middle East watchers over the past decade is whether Arafat is a "moderate" leader who is, like him or not, Israel's best hope of controlling the Palestinian radicals in Hamas and Hezbollah?or whether he's conniving with those very groups in order to terrorize Israel into doing business on Arafat's own terms.


Anyone without a dog in this fight will see that Israel is in a ridiculous position. If Arafat represents just the Palestinians' moderate wing, then he doesn't represent all Palestinians. Events have shown time and time again that the sliver of the Palestinian populace he controls has no standing to get Hamas and Hezbollah to stop their terrorism?so what's the point of negotiating with him? If, on the other hand, Arafat does represent all Palestinians, including Hamas and Hezbollah, then he's the same terrorist he was 20 years ago?so what's the point of negotiating with him? (And what's the point of picking up a newspaper to read the hundredth iteration of this argument, whose lineaments should have been obvious as soon as the peace process began?)


Israel came face to face with this reasoning last week. And rather than wrestle with the question of whether Arafat represents a few Palestinians or all of them, Israel came to the conclusion that he was simply contemptible. The proof is that, when time came to retaliate for their 26 dead, they went after his helicopters?not helicopter gunships, but the fancy passenger vehicles he uses for junkets.


There's a literary antecedent for what the Israelis are doing. In their view, Arafat is like the entrepreneur Charlie Croker in the Tom Wolfe novel A Man in Full. Croker mismanages his real estate empire, but he doesn't care if his businesses have to lay off tens of thousands of workers, he doesn't care if his marriage falls apart, he doesn't care if he keeps his good name and he doesn't even really care if everything he has worked for all his life survives. What he cares about is keeping his perks. It's only when bankers threaten to repossess his private jet that he flies into a panic.


To return to our point: If Israel has decided?probably rightly?that Arafat is a Charlie Croker kind of guy, a figurehead, an empty suit, then your newspaper is the last place to turn for background on it. Learning whether U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni plans to cancel his next meeting with some UN mediator is not going to help you get the measure of Arafat. Far better to read a biography of Arafat, or a novel whose moral is that leopards don't change their spots.


We're Number One


The American media establishment is not blameless in the newspapers' inadequacy. For one thing, it is paying in spades for the rashness with which it shut down its foreign bureaus in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. An important part of the Osama bin Laden story is his relationship with Sorbonne-intellectual-turned-Sudanese-dictator (since ousted)Hassan al-Turabi, and we had to wait until this Monday?three months after the attacks?for The Washington Post to lay it out. Perhaps because it's our war, though, American journalists have been far more on top of events in the Middle East than those in other countries.


Let's take that Arafat story again: U.S. papers are often condemned for a pro-Israeli bias. To put it mildly, this is not a problem one encounters in the European press. Anyone in the habit of reading European papers that publish midway through news cycles?Britain's Guardian comes online around midnight, France's Le Monde around noon?will see that the American slant on the Mideast conflict has been handsomely vindicated. L'Humanite and Le Monde had a particularly bad week, running headlines like "Arafat entre deux feux." As if what were at stake were not his very viability but the equivalent of some small-town machine politician trying to pick up the unions without alienating the feminists.


European papers, in fact, have slipped quickly back into irrelevance. Only on the Continent is the political hobbyism of the antiglobalist movement still (or, rather, again) given wide coverage. And European friends are shocked when I tell them Americans have forgotten there even was a Seattle protest, or a Genoa summit. They don't seem to get it. "What did Americans think of the Doha conference?" one English journalist asked me a couple of weeks ago. About what Europeans thought of the Nebraska-Colorado game, I replied.


This is not to ignore that the Los Angeles Times broke one of the best scoops of the war last weekend with its detailing of potential secondary targets that the U.S. may attack or invade in upcoming months?most of them parts of nations that have escaped the central government's control and been taken over (as in Afghanistan) by Al Qaeda fighters. These include Yemen's Hadhramawt region, Aceh in Sumatra (there goes my favorite Starbucks coffee for a while) and Ras Komboni in southern Somalia. In fact, the State Dept. fears that a faction close to bin Laden may be in the process of taking over Somalia's government. If it does, I'll start reading the papers again.


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