World Beat
Letter from Okinawa

Letter from Okinawa

Dear Mom:

I haven’t written much from Okinawa. I’m sorry about that. I guess maybe you were expecting lots of exciting war stories from your son the Marine. But honestly, the most exciting thing we’ve done is put in a sea wall over by the Torii Beach shoreline and then take it down again when it wasn’t doing its job of controlling erosion.

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The Not-So-Great Game

The Not-So-Great Game

The current Great Game centers on Iran and the efforts particularly of the United States and Israel to prevent the country from going nuclear. The 19th-century battle over turf and influence in Central Asia lasted decades and sent armies slogging their way across high mountains and unforgiving plains. The current standoff, by contrast, could escalate in a matter of hours, if Israel launches a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and Iran retaliates directly or through proxies.

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The Next Marx

Lenin graces the cover of a recent issue of The Economist. The Financial Times is running an entire series on the “crisis in capitalism.” Francis Fukuyama, a recovering neoconservative, makes a plea in Foreign Affairs for the left to get its intellectual act together. And that noted class warrior Newt Gingrich has been assailing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for being a ruthless moneybags.

Excuse me? Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing? What parallel universe did we all just stumble into?

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Pollyanna of Peace?

Virtually everything we read in novels and newspapers, not to mention the video games we play and the Hollywood movies we watch, reminds us that we’re steeped in violence and that it’s only going to get worse.

Everything, that is, except Steven Pinker.

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Cult of Personality

He is, in the words of Barbara Walters, a “mild-mannered ophthalmologist.” Indeed, the rather squeamish leader-to-be chose eye surgery because it didn’t involve much blood. He speaks fluent English and can get by in French as well as his native Arabic. His wife is a knock-out, a “rose in the desert” according to a Vogue profile. Reluctant to take over the family business from his father, he interrupted his medical training in London to return home only after his older brother died in a car accident. Then, once at the helm, he released a number of political prisoners and instituted economic reforms that got a thumbs-up from the international business community. He cooperated with the United States in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Even today, he uses all the right words: transparency, dignity, reform.

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The Apocalyptics

They’re like a heavy metal band. Dress them up in black, put some Goth makeup on them, give them a name like The Apocalyptics, and they’d fit right in with the head-banger crowd. After all, it’s mostly doom and gloom with the Republican candidates, particularly when they start in on foreign policy. The lead singer for a while, Michele Bachmann, loved to croon about the world entering its final days. Bass player Rick Perry has rapped about the threat of Islamic terrorists surging up from Mexico. Lead guitarists Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have done a duet about going to war with Iran. And in the rhythm section, Rick Santorum, who definitely prefers sticks to carrots, has kept up a steady drumbeat for war with all comers, including China.

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Nigeria with Nukes

John F. Kennedy essentially bought his way into politics. His father, the wealthy Joseph Kennedy, picked out a nice congressional seat in Massachusetts and basically paid the occupant of the position to step down and run instead for the Boston mayoralty. JFK’s father then tried to pay off the Democratic frontrunner to drop out of the race, and when that didn’t work, persuaded William Randolph Hearst not to run any of the candidate’s ads or pictures in Hearst-owned newspapers. Joe Kennedy even paid a janitor named Joseph Russo to run in the race in order to dilute support for another leading candidate named Joseph Russo. Recognizing the importance of PR, the Kennedy family contributed $600,000 – an enormous sum in 1946 – for a children’s hospital in the district where JFK was running for office.

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Architects of Change

More than a decade ago, I sat down with the head of the academy of architecture in Pyongyang. The school was housed in a large, drafty building in the center of North Korea’s capital. Students were building models out of cardboard and wood. A few were in front of state-of-the-art desktops using the computer-aided design software that had become indispensible to modern architects. But there was one element missing from the architecture program. North Korean builders paid virtually no attention to energy efficiency.

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The New Chicken Littles

I decided to wait a couple weeks just to make sure. So far, so good. Citizens went to the polls in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt. A plurality of voters threw their support behind Islamist parties. I take a look outside. The sky is still intact.

Still, there is no shortage of Chicken Littles. After Islamist parties won three elections in a row, columnists and pundits in the West threw up their hands in horror.

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Appeasement Complex

Back in 2008 when the Burmese military junta announced a new constitution as a step toward civilian rule, the international community responded with considerable skepticism. The military didn’t look as though it intended to give up any real power. When Thein Sein won election as president earlier this year, The New York Times described it as “a move that cements the military’s control of a new political system.” The new president was widely considered a puppet of the top military general Than Shwe.

Sometimes, though, puppets manage to take on a life of their own. 

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