Voice

How far is too far?

In today's installment of the annals of going too far, we find the following stories:

  • Hugo Chavez to Replace Bill Murray in Remake of Caddyshack

Hugo Chavez may have finally crossed the line. Gutting Venezuela's constitution was not enough. Fostering leftist uprisings across the Americas was not enough. Getting into bed with anyone who hated America was not enough. Arms deals and military exercises with the Russians were not enough.  Providing arms to the FARC, a revolutionary group dedicated to the overthrow of a neighboring government was not enough.  But yesterday's report that Chavez is now taking on golf may ultimately do him in.

Reportedly, Chavez sees golf as the leisure pursuit of the elite and is therefore taking steps to shut down two of Venezuela's top golf clubs, one in Maracay and one in Caraballeda. Previously he took off after the sport in one of his televised rants. As reported in the New York Times:

Let's leave this clear," Mr. Chavez said during a live broadcast of his Sunday television program. "Golf is a bourgeois sport," he said, repeating the word "bourgeois" as if he were swallowing castor oil. Then he went on mocking the use of golf carts as a practice illustrating the sport's laziness.

Doesn't he realize that he has finally stirred up a bees nest of trouble he may not be able to control. Golf is not bourgeois sport. (Actually, it started as a pastime of humble shepherds in Scotland.) It is a religion of the rich and powerful. Why just yesterday one of Washington's most notable journalists was commenting to me about the avidity with which President Obama made his way to the links by Andrews Air Force Base, going whenever he could find weekend time. In fact, this reporter wondered aloud how the President found time to be with his family given all his weekend golf. But Obama has the bug. It's not curable. It has historically infected presidents and others who might finally start giving Chavez a hard time now that he has decided to go after them where they live. (My pal New York Times columnist Tom Friedman even writes a golf column, he is so devoted to the game. Personally I am a tennis guy ... because tennis is actually a sport ... I agree with Chavez that nothing involving riding around in a little electric cart can actually be called a sport ... but I bear no malice to golfers. I don't dare.)

Eviscerate democracy in your own country and all you do is anger millions of Venezuelans and right minded people everywhere. That's survivable. But does anyone really want to go head to head with Tiger Woods?

  • Give Hillary a Break, Please

This week the media went too far (for a change) in its attacks on Hillary Clinton when she took umbrage at a question about what her husband thought about a particular issue. While the question was misquoted, she had every right to push back on the idea that somehow her views were secondary to his. The attacks on her, focusing on her pique, her mood, her level of exhaustion, the challenges of being married to a powerful man, were almost uniformly sexist. She was delivering through her honesty an important message on a continent where the message needs to be heard. (On a planet where the message needs to be heard.) She is Secretary of State. She is one of the most important political leaders in the United States. She is vastly more relevant to contemporary American politics and policies than is her husband.

That said, I wonder if she then went too far in her response to a question about political corruption when she answered that we had our own problems with our "evolving" democracy in the United States and then offered as an example the implication that the 2000 election was compromised by the fact that Republican candidate for president's brother was governor of the state whose contested election decided the race. Personally, I think the 2000 election is a stain on America's political history, that almost certainly the results in Florida were not fairly reflected in the result and that the intervention of the Supreme Court along party lines was particularly ugly. But the implication that Jeb Bush rigged the results without proof was probably a step too far especially overseas. That said, I am not of the opinion that speaking of our warts overseas is such a bad thing. Honesty is the only path we've got to restoring credibility. It also looked to me like she was a.) joking and b.) exhausted (which is understandable toward the end of an historic 11 day trip across Africa).

  • You say Myanmar, I say Burma…Let’s call the whole trip off? 

Finally, I find myself wondering if Senator Jim Webb's upcoming trip to Myanmar is a trip too far. He will be engaging the leaders of that country's regime concurrently to their latest outrage against the rights of Aung San Suu Kyi -- an 18 month extension on her house arrest which was handed down this week. Further, I highly doubt that anyone sees Webb's trip as that of an independent official.  He is not only a prominent Democratic Senator, he is also known to be close to many at senior levels in the Obama administration and almost certainly would not have undertaken this trip without their okay.

The trip tests the core idea of engagement. There are few more odious regimes on the planet and this one is being interacted with precisely at one of the moments when that odiousness is most clearly on display. If Webb's message is tough or produces some relief for Suu Kyi (or at least makes a legitimate attempt to do so), then the risks such a visit will be spun by some to the advantage of the Burmese regime are worth taking. But it's a delicate business and engagement will almost certainly produce instances in which we are played.

All that said, if Webb's trip involves the kind of direct talk of which he is especially capable and is a real effort to advance U.S. interests there (which begin with fairer treatment of Suu Kyi and movement toward restoration of basic rights within Burmese society) then it is not only not going too far ... it will remind the world of how far Burma's neighbors in Asia really ought to be going (and have not gone) to address this blight in their back yard.

UPDATE: After posting I received a note containing an open letter to Webb from three major dissident groups in Burma: the All Burma Monks' Alliance, the 88 Generation Students, and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. "We are concerned that the military regime will manipulate and exploit your visit and propagandize that you endorse their treatment on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and over 2,100 political prisoners, their human rights abuses on the people of Burma, and their systematic, widespread and ongoing attack against the ethnic minorities," it reads.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images,STR/AFP/Getty Images,ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images,THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Actually, global warming is a major national security threat

Yesterday Steve Walt offered a post on this site called "National Security Heats Up" in which he took on a recent CNA Corporation study that suggested that climate change was an important new national security issue for the United States, Walt argues that this study overstates the threat for the United States. 

His basic thesis is that because some of the biggest potential problems cited are far away they are not U.S. problems. Migratory pressures in Bangladesh that might be caused by rising sea levels are offered as one example. Walt makes the point that this is really a problem for India to handle, that we should beware the trap of inserting ourselves into every problem (which he associates with a Madeleine Albright "indispensable nation" worldview), and that most DoD studies inflate risks anyway ('cause that's the self-serving thing to do.)

While I can't argue with any of these points -- India should take these threats more seriously than they have to date, we shouldn't insert ourselves into every problem, and DoD funded risk assessments tend to have a "sky is falling" tone to them. But the central thrust of Walt's piece -- that global warming is not a major national security threat to the United States, is just wrong.

First, there are the immediate consequences associated with potential sea level changes in our neighborhood. As one Bahamanian minister once said to me, "For you, a shift of a foot or two or three is something you can adjust to. For us, it is a matter of life and death. If some of the estimates are to be believed, we won't exist as a country." Well, don't take the most dramatic estimates. A modest shift in sea-level will have new waves of immigrants pounding at our doors too ... from the Caribbean, from Mexico, from Central America.

Next, we will have our own issues in states like Florida where much of the population lives very close to sea-level. Permanently inundating coastal regions aside, spotting every incoming hurricane a foot or two of sea-level is going to have big costs whether it is in retaining walls, levies or post-disaster relief.

Third, global warming will produce major consequences for agriculture as climatic conditions change, droughts increase, etc. Food shortages and increases in the cost of food are another likely consequence that we will feel here at home, in our neighborhood and in volatile regions where we have vital interests.

Similarly, if glaciers melt, much of the power capacity of regions like Latin America dwindles. If warming produces reductions in the availability of water, an already critical situation, -- perhaps two-thirds of the world's people are already predicted to live in water-stressed environments in the next several decades -- will get worse. Competition for water is already an issue in parts of the Middle East that don't need any more fuel doused on their flames ... and this is going to be an issue in critical regions first.

The list goes on. Food shortages. Economic setbacks. Water competition. Refugee movements. Resulting tensions between states. High costs of mitigation. Walt is right to approach the report and even the motivations for it with some skepticism. And he is right to suggest the United States cannot and should not assume burdens that are rightfully those of other countries. 

But he goes too far when he when he suggests that the primary consequences will be humanitarian and thus this is not really a security issue but a "philanthropic" one. If there were some other threat that was likely to increase tension in the Middle East or South Asia, likely to cause massive immigration in coastal regions worldwide, likely to have a major impact on the vulnerability of the world's poorest (thus creating unrest and opportunities for populists to exploit instability), and to do so while stressing our own resources and testing our own borders, it would definitely be considered a significant national security threat.

I think there is a bit of a bias among "serious" national security scholars against "soft" issues like global warming. But count the wars that have started over food shortages, resource competition, migration, and related issues and you will see there is nothing soft about threats of this nature and there have been very few threats of this scope. For these reasons, it is in my view dangerously short-sighted to dismiss the concerns the CNA Corporation report rightfully highlights.

MARCEL MOCHET/AFP/Getty Images