March Madness

The top sports cinderella stories vs. the best from world history.

With America's college basketball championship entering its second weekend featuring face-offs between the Sweet Sixteen best teams in the country, it is the time of year when hopes ride with the Cinderellas, the little squads that have beaten the odds by getting this far in the tournament. Oddsmakers be damned, these little schools from places like Wichita, Kansas (the Wichita State "Shockers") and Fort Meyers, Florida (the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles) offer hope to the little guy by showing underdogs can stand up to the big, hugely funded programs who dominate the headlines and the airwaves for most of every year.

But Cinderella stories are not just for basketball tournaments. They have their geopolitical side. After all Cinderella, herself was a working-class heroine who turned a pumpkin and a few mice into a successful power grab in a monarchy ready for some charismatic new blood (in glass slippers). It is not a well-known fact, but the earliest known version of the Cinderella story is actually from ninth-century China (in which the missing slipper was made of gold).

For this reason, and because we obviously had too much free time on our hands one afternoon this week, we have decided to cook up a Sweet Sixteen bracket of our own, pitting eight of the sports world's greatest Cinderella stories against eight of the great rags to riches stories from world history. The goal: determining the greatest Cinderella story of all time. Here's how it all plays out:

The Round of Sixteen

Our first match pits the most famous underdogs ever to play in a U.S. Super Bowl, the 1969 Jets of "Broadway Joe" Namath, versus those once-upon-a-time underdogs of the modern Middle East, those little Davids that took on the Goliaths of the unified Arab World, the Israel Defense Forces of the 1967, led by the equally charismatic one-eyed general, Moshe Dayan.

In the second contest, the Canadian Football League's answer to the Jets, the '00 British Columbia Lions, a team that entered the playoffs following a losing season, suit up against the ultimate long-shot contender: 13 fractured, struggling colonies that first took on the British Empire to win their freedom and then in two short centuries rose to become the greatest power the world has ever known.

Next up we find the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" USA Olympic Hockey Team that beat the powerful Soviet ice hockey behemoth in the semi-final rounds of the Lake Placid Olympics versus a guy who spent much of his youth homeless and penniless but grew up to rule the greatest land empire in human history, that fan favorite, Genghis Khan.

Finally, at the bottom of our left-hand bracket, we have the inspiring Japanese Women's National Soccer Team of 2011, winners of the World Cup in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, facing off with the world's most beloved former welfare recipient, the woman from whose brow Harry Potter and the Hogwarts crowd sprang fully grown, J.K. Rowling, now herself a billionaire.

Across the bracket, we find the young man who won "the greatest game ever played": amateur golfer Francis Ouimet, winner of the 1913 U.S. Open, playing the son of a slave who grew up to rule the Roman Empire, the Emperor Diocletian.

Next, perhaps the best-known of all basketball Cinderellas, the 1954 Milan Indiana High School team that were the subjects of the movie Hoosiers confront another Midwestern legend, a man who was born poor but would remake global industry and create a breathtaking fortune in the process: Henry Ford.

The Greek national soccer team of 2004 that stunned the football world by winning the European Championships then encounters a man who knows a thing or two about adversity, who quit school at age 15 to help support his family and then built one of Asia's greatest business empires: Hong Kong investor Li Ka-Shing.

Finally, we see the stars of one of the most improbable sports success stories of the recent past, the 2008-09 Afghan National Cricket Team, which came from nowhere to win Division 5, 4, and 3 championships and qualify for the ICC World Cup. Their opponents? The battered Swedish banking system of the early 1990s, which recovered so well that when the rest of the financial world was rocked by trouble in the crisis of 2008-2009, it was hailed and studied as a model for doing things right.

The Elite Eight

Not surprisingly -- and totally appropriately -- the winners of this all-Cinderella tournament produced some heartwarming victories and for some, the disheartening tolling of midnight as their time as belles of the ball came to an end.

The feisty Israelis easily defeated the New York Jets thanks to a very different idea of what air superiority could mean in such a contest. This set them up in a battle with the United States of America, which handily crushed the BC Lions given the fact that the United States is a nuclear superpower while the Canadian Football League isn't even the third-best football conference in North America. (Lagging behind both the NFL and college football's SEC.)

The "do you believe in miracles?" boys of Lake Placid may have put their Russian rivals' hopes on ice but they could hardly hold their own against Genghis's Mongolian Hordes. And while JK Rowling may have conjured up an end to He Who Must Not Be Named, she was no match for the gutsy Japanese 11, whose rise from the mid-ranks of women's soccer was more breathtaking than any Quidditch contest.

Francis Ouimet went on to become a successful businessman and an ambassador for the sport of golf. But he was no match against Diocletian, who would have won by virtue of his full name alone (Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus) even had he not won the Battle of the Margus, defeated the Sarmatians, the Carpi, and the Persians and brought stability to the empire.

Hoosier spunk faced a formidable foe with the man who built the modern automobile industry, but Ford was disqualified for his virulent anti-Semitism -- a trait that won him the Nazis' Grand Cross of the German Eagle, their highest award given to a foreigner, not to mention the enduring admiration of many really, really bad men including Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Shirach.

In a more uplifting victory, the Greek national soccer team was awarded a sentimental victory over Li Ka-shing because, well, he is rich and Greece, well, not so much.

Finally, because the Afghan National Cricket Team didn't actually advance in the Cricket World Cup (and because cricket is appallingly boring and pointless), the Swedish banking system edged them out in the final match of the round.

The Final Four

In the contests among the top eight contenders, the United States defeated Israel because, well, Israel without the support of the United States would not be the same. (Following the defeat, President Barack Obama did however say that the United States would always be a friend to Israelis even if we did have to tend to our own interests in a way that ultimately undercut their aspirations. This alarmed some Israelis, who feared the remarks might one day resonate in the real world.)

This set up a match between the Americans and the Great Khan, from whom the Japanese women fled (for good reason) without putting up a contest. This was after they learned of the fact that DNA evidence showed that as many as 16 million people living today were descendants of the prolific conqueror and his harem of 2-3000 women -- an intimidating record by any measure.

Meanwhile, the boys from Milan High defeated Diocletian because while he had Roman legions, they had the irascible but brilliant guidance of their coach, played by Gene Hackman. (And it is well known that almost no one from any era beats Hackman in his prime.) For their troubles, the Hoosiers were awarded a match against those coolly rational socialist financial wizards from the Swedish banking system.

The Final

America may be the powerhouse of its day, but Genghis Khan ruled the greatest empire of all time and he did it without the benefit of nukes or drones while riding on horseback and living on yak's milk.

On the other side of the final: the Hoosiers. The boys from Milan High beat the Swedes, who had no outside game and nothing like the free-throw accuracy of the under-handed shooters from rural Indiana.

Unfortunately for them, those plucky, corn-fed upstarts then faced the man who conquered most of Eurasia, linked East and West as never before, and was so ruthless that in Iran alone, his victims were so numerous that the country did not reach pre-Mongol population levels until just a few decades ago -- 800 years after his death.

And so the final result: Khan rules. The Cinderella story that began in China ends there as well. Read into that what you will, sports fans.

National Security

Losing the Senate

Carl Levin's retirement is the latest blow to a smart foreign policy.

In 1947, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican from Michigan, famously declared that "politics stops at the water's edge" as he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Vandenberg was not just talking; he was a critical player in helping Harry Truman shepherd the Marshall Plan through a Republican Congress, a stunning achievement that transformed the postwar world and reverberates even today.

But even then, Vandenberg's comment was at best a shaky aphorism. He himself had been a strong isolationist going into the fierce debate over America's entry into the Second World War. He had bitterly opposed the extension of the draft in 1941, a bill that barely passed and was signed by Franklin Roosevelt months before Pearl Harbor. Although he converted back to internationalism after December 1941, Vandenberg was not uniformly followed by his colleagues. The McCarthy era, after all, emerged soon after the "water's edge" comment, and deep and bitter political differences over presidential positions on foreign policy, often but not always along partisan lines, were commonplace in the 1950s and every decade thereafter -- with the 1960s and early ‘70s especially reflecting bitter conflict because of Vietnam.

Still, after Vietnam and for most of the Cold War era, partisanship and ideology were relatively constrained on foreign policy, with some exceptions. (Senator Jesse Helms sending staffers to London to interfere in the delicate negotiations over Rhodesian independence in 1979 -- which led to complaints from the British and severe heartburn in the Carter administration -- comes to mind.) But by and large, lawmakers and other partisans were careful not to interfere with diplomacy or to criticize the United States when they went abroad.

The combination of the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the kind of tribal politics Tom Mann and I describe in our book It's Even Worse Than It Looks changed all that. No one epitomized the intensification of partisan politics more than Tom DeLay (R-TX), who during his tenure as House Majority Whip bitterly opposed Bill Clinton on all fronts, including foreign policy. When a congressional leader says things like "You can support the troops but not the president" or "I cannot support a failed foreign policy," one can safely say the political atmosphere is not very Vanderbergian. That was in the Clinton years; tribalism, of course, has for the most part gotten worse in the Bush and Obama presidencies.

All this is prelude to reflecting on the recently announced retirement of Carl Levin, another senator from Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, after what will be 36 years of service in the body. If Levin does not meet the casting director's image of a senator -- he is not tall, silver-haired, dressed for pin-striped success -- he is without question one of the best senators to have served over the past half-century, widely respected and liked by his colleagues and by those of us who study the Senate for a living.

Levin generates that respect because he is a workhorse, respectful of the Senate and its traditions, as smart as anybody in the body, and a mensch. But he also is respected because while he is a proud liberal, he is driven by facts, a realistic assessment of threats from abroad, and America's genuine defense needs. He is a straight-shooter who does not demagogue or posture for narrow political considerations. He can be, and has been, sharply critical of presidential actions on foreign and defense policy, but he has done so within reasonable bounds of propriety. On foreign and defense policy, Levin has managed to build alliances across party lines without alienating his adversaries, whether on worldview or partisan dimensions. In other words, he is a proud inheritor of the Vandenberg tradition, and the anti-DeLay.

The cause of comity and consensus on America's role in the world was dealt a sharp blow with the defeats in the 2012 elections of Rep. Howard Berman and Sen. Richard Lugar. Berman was as respected in the House over his 30 years of service as Levin; he served as chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and built a comparable reputation for insight, fairness, hard work, and all-round decency. The House has been more poisonous in its partisan divisions than the Senate, which made Berman's high standing among his Republican colleagues even more of an anomaly -- and even more impressive since he was among the most popular and respected members among his fellow Democrats as well.

Lugar, of course, was legendary in the Senate for his knowledge of and attention to the details of foreign policy, for his mentorship of Barack Obama, for his leadership on "loose nukes," and for his close working relationships with the likes of Joe Biden and John Kerry during their tenures at the helm of Senate Foreign Relations. Put together the impending retirement of Levin, the losses of Berman and Lugar, the departures of Biden and Kerry, and it is clear that Congress has lost a huge amount of brainpower, intellectual integrity, and expertise on foreign and defense policy.

Of course, there are still plenty of smart senators, including the next most senior Democrat on Armed Services, Jack Reed, also universally respected, and the ranking Republican on Foreign Relations, Bob Corker. And there are plenty of impressive junior members with expertise and interest in foreign and defense policy, like Bob Casey, Chris Coons, and Mark and Tom Udall.

But the challenges to finding common ground and comity are growing, especially as a new generation of less internationalist and more isolationist members from both parties have become emboldened by the shrinking budgets to cut defense programs and development and diplomatic efforts that have been the linchpin of foreign policy consensus. Perhaps there are no indispensable men and women, but the Senate and House have lost and are losing a lot of people who come close.