The List

Winds of Change

From the failed Mongol invasion of Japan to Cyclone Nargis, six storms that changed the course of history.

Hurricane Sandy's pummeling of the eastern United States has already thrown the presidential campaign off course and disrupted early voting in several states, but could she be the deciding factor in this election? Political scientists have found that bad weather on Election Day typically benefits Republicans, but how much Sandy will affect voter turnout on November 6 remains a mystery. The same can be said of the potential political fallout from the storm. Will President Barack Obama look strong and commander-in-chief-like as he stares down the hurricane, as Sen. John McCain suggested in a recent interview? Or could inadequate disaster relief leave the president mired in a Katrina moment just as voters head to the polls?

If Sandy swings this election one way or the other, it wouldn't be the first time bad weather proved historically decisive. From the French Revolution to the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, meteorological events have made all the difference. Here's a list of six storms that altered the course of history.


The Mongols may have ruled the largest contiguous empire in human history -- at its height, it dominated a quarter of the earth's population -- but they failed twice to bring Japan to its knees. On both occasions (in 1274 and 1281), the invading Mongolian fleets were thrashed by powerful typhoons and suffered heavy losses. In the second invasion, some 80 percent of Kublai Khan's hastily built warships sank during a two-day storm, known in Japan as "kamikaze" or "divine wind." In the popular mythology of the time, Raijin, the god of thunder, was said to have stirred up the divine wind and shielded Japan from the Mongols. Some 660 years later, kamikaze would take on another meaning, becoming synonymous with the suicide attacks carried out by the Japanese during World War II.


In 1588, the "invincible" Spanish Armada of 130 ships set sail to attack the English Channel, but was delayed by a series of storms that forced the fleet back to Lisbon. When the Spanish fleet finally arrived two months later, the British Navy, led by Lord Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake, had regrouped and was able to mount a spirited defense of the Channel. Disorganized and battered by British artillery, the Armada retreated and began the treacherous journey back to Spain. Along the way, the leading Spanish ships were rocked by a cyclonic depression off the Bay of Biscay and, three days later, the rearmost ships were battered on the rocks off the shores of Ireland. In total, the Spanish lost more ships in bad weather than in combat with the British.


If the opulence of the royal court at Versailles and France's increasingly shaky financial situation were at the root of the revolution of 1789, perhaps so was the weather. Beginning in 1785, a series of bad harvests -- possibly the result of volcanic eruptions in Iceland that shifted weather patterns -- contributed to food shortages that roiled an already restive underclass. But the final straw was quite possibly a hailstorm in May 1788 that destroyed crops in a 150-mile radius around Paris, sending grain prices through the roof. Ten months later, following the failed meeting of the Estates-General and the formation of a breakaway National Assembly, the French Revolution was underway.


The Great Bhola cyclone wasn't particularly strong by historical standards -- it may not have even been the strongest gale to strike the Indian Ocean in 1970 -- but its fateful timing and unlucky course through the densely populated Ganges Delta of East Pakistan made it the deadliest cyclonic storm ever. Carrying 115 mile per hour winds, it destroyed crops and razed entire villages, leaving roughly half a million people dead when all was said and done. Relations between Pakistan and its disconnected easternmost province were already strained before the storm, but the Pakistani government's handling of the Bhola cyclone caused the tensions to boil over into violent anti-government protests and, by 1971, civil war. Nine bloody months later, Bangladeshis had won their independence from Pakistan.


The category-five monster that slammed into New Orleans, Louisiana, on August 29, 2005, holds an infamous place on record as causing the most extensive damage ($108 billion worth) and as one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. Some 1,833 people died as a result of the storm, as flood waters from the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Pontchartrain overflowed the antiquated U.S. Army Corps of Engineer-designed levees that protected the city's inhabitants. And yet, it's not as if they didn't see the devastation coming. Experts had long warned about the cataclysmic effects of a major hurricane's direct impact on low-lying New Orleans and, alert to the danger, President George W. Bush declared a state of emergency two days before Katrina made landfall. But no one, it turns out, was really quite ready for the chaos that ensued. With inadequate preparations made for evacuation, looting and rioting broke out across the city, while residents drowned in the attics of their homes or were left to die in hospital beds, The president's unqualified FEMA appointee, Michael Brown, was shown to be just that, while Bush was lambasted for a belated and inadequate National Guard response -- and for appearing distant. (In Bush's memoirs, he called the scathing comments from Kanye West -- "George Bush doesn't care about black people" -- the worst moment of his presidency.) Worse, the perception that America couldn't handle its affairs at home though it had committed heavily to wars overseas seemed to change the national tenor to the effort in Iraq. And it certainly didn't help Bush's cause that Cuba and Venezuela, two nations he vilified, were the first to offer to come to America's aid with pledges of donations and aid.


On May 2, 2008, a strengthening Cyclone Nargis came off the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal and pummeled central Burma, causing what would become the worst natural disaster in the country's history. Some 138,000 people are thought to have died as a result of the storm, though figures are notoriously inaccurate, as the government is thought to have suppressed the death toll. High winds, storm surges, and heavy rains destroyed entire villages, stranding millions in remote areas without access to food, water, or medicine. Compounding matters, the ruling military junta refused offers of international aid for nearly four days, only finally appealing to the United Nations on May 6. The first international air deliveries of supplies started arriving two days later, and in limited quantities, as the junta refused access to NGOs and humanitarian relief agencies waiting with planes full of supplies just across the border in Thailand. The international furor at the Burmese regime -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused the government of creating a "man-made catastrophe" -- focused attention on the paranoid callousness of the ruling junta. It may not have directly empowered the opposition movement, but the shocking images of corpses dangling from trees and of families starving even weeks after the storm, exposed the regime's incompetence and cruelty and foretold the beginning of the end of the military junta.

The List

Clicking This Will Make You Stupider

The 10 worst foreign policy campaign ads of 2012.

We know -- it's late October, and you're sick and tired of campaign advertising. But the 2012 election is entering its final weeks, and that means over-the-top political messaging is in full bloom. This week, for example, Citizens Against Government Waste and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation are re-airing a famous 2010 ad in which a Chinese professor lectures his students in 2030 about how bailouts, Obamacare, and the deficit condemned the once-great United States to the ash heap of history. Meanwhile, on the fringes of the national conversation, the peacenik Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson came out with an ad featuring what looks to be a Predator drone and the lines, "Right now in Iran a lot of little kids are about to die." (Never mind that no one is actually suggesting the United States is conducting drone strikes in Iran.)

Sure, international affairs hasn't featured as prominently as economic issues in presidential and congressional campaign spots this year. But when foreign policy has entered the ad wars, candidates and their support groups have often played up the fear-mongering and played down the facts. Here are some of the most bizarre, egregious, and entertaining examples.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


First there was Rick Santorum's Obamaville ad, which took viewers on a tour of a dystopian future America menaced by a nuclear Iran (in what some interpreted as a subliminal message, President Obama appears for a split second on a television screen flashing images of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Now Newt Gingrich's Super PAC, Winning Our Future, is out with an ad that paints an even more dire picture if Obama wins reelection. With the help of soaring music and apocalyptic images, we're told that by 2016 the Middle East will burst into flames, Iran will go nuclear, and gas will be rationed. Never mind that four years into Obama's presidency, the world has yet to end. He'll have more flexibility in a second term, people.


Conventional wisdom says that studying abroad in Europe will make you a radical, U.N.-loving environmentalist, but what fewer people know is that it's also associated with rowdy, ice-luge Jägermeister shots and corn-dog "triple doubling." Luckily, the South Dakota GOP has put together a television ad explaining how this happened to Democratic congressional candidate Matt Varilek. While he was off accumulating graduate degrees at Glasgow and Cambridge -- that bastion of subversive radicalism that produced Stanley Baldwin and Prince Charles -- Republican candidate Kristi Noem was at home raising a family on her South Dakota farm and serving "her friends and neighbors" in the state legislature. The choice for voters on Nov. 6: "radical ideas" or "South Dakota common sense" (Varilek is already fundraising off the ad).


Playing off of Obama's call for economic patriotism, the labor-backed Super PAC Workers' Voice released an ad and accompanying website this week that accuses Mitt Romney of being an "economic traitor." In the spot, which seizes on the controversy surrounding Bain Capital's decision to outsource jobs at a company called Sensata Technologies to China, a Sensata employee explains that when Chinese executives visited his plant in Illinois, Bain ordered the staff to take down the American flag. (Obama campaign ads have also made questionable claims about Romney shipping jobs to China through Bain.) Romney does have holdings in Sensata, but Bain bought the company in 2006, four years after the GOP candidate left Bain Capital. That's some shaky ground on which to build the case that Romney is an economic Benedict Arnold.   


Rep. Allen West (R-FL) is no stranger to controversy. So perhaps it's not surprising that the retired lieutenant colonel, who once called Obama supporters a "threat to the gene pool," has released one of the most provocative campaign ads of the election season. Filmed in the style of CSI Miami, the spot casts the freshman congressman as a war hero readying for battle as his opponent, Patrick Murphy, drunkenly assaults a police officer in South Beach and is taken into custody. "Two men. A country in crisis," the narrator says ominously in closing. "You decide." The ad wins extra points for its liberal use of Murphy's mug shot and brazen portrayal of West's military career, which ended in ignominy after he pled guilty to assaulting a detainee during an investigation in Iraq. West was stripped of his command and forced to pay a $5,000 fine.


Romney's favored line about Obama's supposed "apology tour" makes a comeback in this ad, despite having been thoroughly debunked by an army (though not a shrunken navy) of fact-checkers, including PolitiFact,, and the Washington Post, which awarded the claim four "Pinocchios." The "apology tour" first entered the political vernacular when Karl Rove wrote about the president's "international confession tour" in the Wall Street Journal back in 2009. But even Rove's best efforts to slice and dice Obama's speeches that spring did not yield the word "apology" -- or even a convincing case for the president's contrition about America's past. But here, again, we have Romney accusing Obama of "going on an apology tour of going to various nations and criticizing America." Not only that, the ad, which was released by the Romney-Ryan campaign after the last debate, sneakily suggests the "apology tour" occurred in the Middle East, where the president "flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And, by the way...skipped Israel." The only problem is that the tour Rove analyzed -- on which Obama never apologized -- stopped in Paris, London, and Prague.


The average American believes the federal government forks over roughly a quarter of its annual budget to other countries in the form of foreign aid. In poll after poll, Americans say that Washington's global welfare system costs more than the Pentagon and ought to be trimmed back -- to something closer to 10 percent of the budget. (Foreign aid actually makes up about 1 percent of federal spending, but that doesn't make it any less lethal on the campaign trail.) This scathing attack by Rep. Rand Paul's political action committee on Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is betting that voters in the Mountain State are at least as misinformed as the average American. "While our debt climbs higher and our roads and bridges crumble, Joe Manchin works with Barack Obama to send billions of our taxpayer dollars to countries where radicals storm our embassies, burn our flag, and kill our diplomats," the narrator intones. First on the chopping block, according to Rand PAC, should be assistance to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. Of course, the ad leaves unexplored what would happen if the nuclear-armed and al Qaeda-infested demographic time bomb that is Pakistan went bankrupt or if the Egyptian military decided it wanted to dissolve the country's peace treaty with Israel -- something 77 percent of Egyptians supported in a recent poll.


Ahead of the foreign-policy debate on Monday, the Obama campaign released an ad suggesting that Romney had a five-point plan for foreign policy as well: fudge facts, alienate allies, admit inexperience, consult neocons, and misidentify enemies. It's not as misleading as some of the other ads on this list, but it is short on context (yes, Romney said that America's "number one geopolitical foe" was Russia, but he labeled Iran the "greatest threat that the world faces" in the same interview). The ad also pokes fun of Romney for speaking French while promoting the Salt Lake City Olympics -- an attack straight out of the Newt Gingrich playbook.


In September, shortly after the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the conservative group Let Freedom Ring released a highly deceptive ad denouncing Obama for inviting Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to the White House and sending Cairo $1.5 billion in foreign aid. (A more recent ad by the group Secure America Now condemns the administration for investing millions in Egypt rather than U.S. schools.) The ad begins by showing a fiery speaker pledging to establish a capital in Jerusalem at what the narrator describes as a "Muslim Brotherhood rally for their new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy." But what the narrator doesn't mention is that the speaker is the Egyptian cleric Safwat Higazi, not Morsy. To support the claim that the new Egyptian leader wants to revive relations with Tehran, the ad references a Reuters report on an interview with an Iranian news agency that Morsy denies giving. And not only does the narrator make the contentious claim that Iran is "building nuclear weapons," but she cites a line from a 1991 memorandum for the Brotherhood's North American wing to prove that the group's "top leaders" are interested in "taking over America."


Obama may have taken a bit of right-wing heat for criticizing Romney's Big Bird comments on the campaign trail and in a campaign spot, but the Super PAC American Bridge 21st Century wins the award for the most gratuitous use of Big Bird in an anti-Romney ad. After criticizing the Republican candidate for stashing his money away in Switzerland and in the Cayman Islands, the ad inexplicably cuts to Romney's remarks about cutting funding to PBS as what appears to be an anvil smashes Big Bird, sending yellow feathers flying everywhere. The unanswered question, of course, is what happens to Mr. Snuffleupagus if Big Bird's not around?


Where to begin? This ad, released by the super PACs Secure America Now and RightChange, takes the Obama administration to task for not recognizing more quickly that al Qaeda was behind the deadly consular attack in Benghazi on September 11. To identify the perpetrator, the narrator chastises, the president "only needed to look at the al Qaeda flag desecrating our ground." On screen, a black flag can be seen waving amid billowing smoke -- except the footage was clearly taken at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, some 650 miles away. Elsewhere, the ad features a second "al Qaeda" flag -- actually a similar flag that is common among Salafis throughout the region -- again implying that it was located in Benghazi. Upon closer examination, however, it's the flag that soccer hooligans hoisted over the U.S. Embassy in Cairo -- hardly the damning Libya evidence the ad's makers are suggesting. The ad's final message: "Just tell me the truth. What happened?" We might ask the producers the same thing.