Voice

Are Pop Tarts bad for America?

Yesterday I received a lot of queries about this Bret Stephens op-ed in the Wall Street Journal

Pop quiz—What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?

If your answer is (b) it means you probably have a grasp of the historical roots of modern jihadism. If, however, you answered (a), then congratulations: You are perfectly in synch with the new Beltway conventional wisdom....

There may well be good reasons for Israel to dismantle [the settlements], assuming that such an act is met with reciprocal and credible Palestinian commitments to suppress terrorism and religious incitement, and accept Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state. But to imagine that the settlements account for even a fraction of the rage that has inhabited the radical Muslim mind since the days of [Sayyid] Qutb is fantasy: The settlements are merely the latest politically convenient cover behind which lies a universe of hatred. If the administration's aim is to appease our enemies, it will get more mileage out of banning Lady Gaga than by applying the screws on Israel. It should go without saying that it ought to do neither. 

Your humble blogger has long defended the vital role that pop tarts could play in U.S. foreign policy, so you think I'd have a long-winded response.  Fortunately, I'm lazy, so a couple of other bloggers have tackled this question. 

As Andrew Exum points out, Middle Eastern, Hezbollah-supporting pop tarts like Hayfa Wehbe can throw down with Lady Gaga any day of the week when it comes to provocative music videos.  In fact, we will now take a 10-second station identification so every reader can visualize that precise throwdown:

[You're reading Daniel W. Drezner at ForeignPolicy.com -- your source for global politics, economics, and salacious pop culture!!--ed.]

Daniel Larison suggests that Stephens is suffering from a wee bit of present-ism:  

That must be why America was beset by jihadist attacks since at least 1948. Oh, wait, this never happened? How strange. That might mean that the decadence-as-cause-of-terrorism argument grossly exaggerates the importance of such cultural factors in explaining jihadist violence as a way of distracting us from remediable political grievances. In fact, attacks on Americans and American installations began after we inserted ourselves into the region’s conflicts and began establishing a military presence there. Hegemonists can obsess over the writings of Qutb all they want, but it will not change the reality that anti-American jihadist violence did not occur until the misguided 1982-83 intervention in Lebanon. U.S. and Israeli military operations and policies of occupation provoke much broader, more intense resentment among Muslims than any general dissatisfaction with the decadence of Western culture and its deleterious effects on their own societies. The suicide bomber in Khost was radicalized by the treatment of Gaza, not the performances of Lady Gaga. It might suit a certain type of Westerner to associate fanaticism, political violence and strict moralism, but on the whole this is a misunderstanding and a distraction from the real causes of the problem.

The recent Moscow subway bombings are instructive on this point. The bombings are outrageous atrocities for which there is no excuse or justification, but one would have to be a blind fool to say that Chechen grievances, which outside jihadists have been exploiting for the last decade, are based in morally offensive Russian pop culture. It is acceptable for hegemonists to acknowledge this when Russia is the target of terrorist attacks, but when it comes to acknowledging U.S. and allied policies as important contributing factors we are treated instead to these sweeping cultural arguments and close readings of Sayyid Qutb.

And, finally, Cato's Justin Logan goes for the kill shot

Stephens veers back toward falsifiability by writing that “the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West” is that we’re too sexed-up.  This is, of course, not accurate.  Bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa, after all, was not titled “Declaration of War against the Americans with their Supple Buttocks and Protuberant Breasts.”  Instead, it was called “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.”  Or you can take a look at the second fatwa, released in 1998.  The three big claims made against us in there were

  1. Our presence in Saudi Arabia and support for the Saudi government, which he hates;
  2. Our sanctions regime against Iraq and its alleged effects on Iraqi civilians; and
  3. Our support for Israel.

There’s a lot you can do with this information, up to and including supposing that bin Laden would not be satisfied even if these three conditions were somehow removed.  You can also read the actual fatwas and conclude that the Israel stuff was far from the centerpiece of the argument and seemed sort of tacked on at the end for good measure.  I actually think both these arguments are good ones.  But actually thinking about what’s in those texts should cause you to ask why, of all the grievances he could have lodged, including our reverence for Josephine Baker, did he pick those three issues?

One last thought.  Let's ignore what these other bloggers have said for a moment.  Let's temporarily accept Stephens' assumption that Muslims in the Middle East are equally exercised about Israel/Palestine and the decadence of U.S. popular culture.  If that's true, from a policy perspective, which issue should the United States prioritize? 

If you think about this in terms of American national interests, it's not a close call.  Pushing Israel/Palestine forward requires leaning a bit harder on an ally that is actually vulnerable to U.S. pressure.  Censoring U.S. popular culture would require massive domestic costs.  If you were offering the president advice among these policy options, which one would you say yields the greatest gain for the least cost to the United States? 

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Daniel W. Drezner

Other countries are getting fed up with China

Two weeks ago the New York Times' Keith Bradsher noted that China was not fully complying with information provision obligations at the G-20. 

Now the Financial Times' Chris Giles and Alan Beattie suggest that a growing number of G-20 players are venting their frustrations at China

Five prominent members of the Group of 20 leading economies, including the US and UK, sent a coded rebuke to China on Tuesday against backsliding on economic agreements.

In a letter to the rest of the G20 that shows frustration at slow progress this year, the leaders warned: “Without co-operative action to make the necessary adjustments to achieve [strong and sustainable growth], the risk of future crises and low growth remain.”

G20 officials said the letter – signed by Stephen Harper and Lee Myung-bak, the Canadian and South Korean leaders who will chair the group’s two summits this year, Barack Obama, US president, Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, French president – was an attempt to restore flagging momentum to the international process.

Ottawa and Seoul are concerned that the G20 summits they will host, in June and November respectively, might fail to live up to expectations.

In a move that will irritate China, the five leaders specifically raised the issue of exchange rates in relation to reducing trade imbalances, a topic the G20 avoided in 2009 to help secure agreement at the London and Pittsburgh summits.

“We need to design co-operative strategies and work together to ensure that our fiscal, monetary, foreign exchange, trade and structural policies are collectively consistent with strong, sustainable and balanced growth,” the letter said....

As well as refusing to budge on its currency, China has been obstructing the G20 process this year. It has hampered efforts by the International Monetary Fund to issue a report which Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director, told the Financial Times in January would conclude that national strategies for growth around the world “will not add up”.

The leaders’ letter makes reference to the slow progress of this process, urging all G20 members to “move quickly” to “report robustly on what each of us can do to contribute to strong sustainable and balanced global growth”.

It's becoming increasingly difficult to figure out China's strategy here.  Lying low isn't going to work for much longer.  Ian Bremmer suggests that China has decided it doesn't need the United States anymore.  I'm not sure that's accurate, but even if it is, I'm pretty sure Beijing does need at least a few other countries in the G-20. 

Of course, maybe they think letters like this will lead to nothing. They might be right. Distrubingly, this same letter urges a completion to the Doha round.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  At this point, however, pledges to complete the Doha round are kinda like my pledges to lose weight -- they're mostly ritualistic and have disturbingly little effect on actual behavior.  

If the exhortation  to redress macroeconomic imbalances falls into the same category, the G-20 will quickly acquire the perception of other dysfunctional multilateral structures

Question to readers:  will China find itself isolated at the G-20 if it continues its noncompliance?