Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The erection theory of power (yes, you heard that right!)

Via Daniel Drezner, from Gideon Rachman's column in the Financial Times
I got an insight into the thrill of power recently, when I had lunch with a friend who had helped to handle a national emergency in Britain, working from the emergency bunker known as Cobra – which sits beneath the Cabinet Office near Downing Street.

“What was it like?” I asked him. “Brilliant,” he replied. “There are all these video screens and generals and admirals sitting around in uniform. You have to say things like: ‘It is 3.45pm and I am now bringing to a close this meeting of Cobra emergency command.’”

Is my friend uniquely juvenile? I suspect not – just unusually honest. He certainly believed that all the other officials around the table were delighting in the little rituals of crisis management. “I guarantee that everybody around that table had an erection within five minutes,” he mused.

Extrapolating slightly, my friend developed what you might call “the erection theory of British foreign policy”. His argument was that British government’s bias towards the “special relationship” with the US, in preference to the European Union, has something to do with the thrilling nature of American power. “If you fly into Camp David on a helicopter,” he assured me, “it’s instant arousal. But if you have to go to a European summit in Brussels, its so depressing you’re impotent for a week.”

He he he.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Iowa Caucuses

I woke up this morning to the radio and the first thing it announced -- it was NPR -- was that Barack Obama had won the Iowa caucuses with Hillary Clinton a distant third. (The winner on the Republican side was Mike Huckabee -- and as much as I may disagree with his policies, I have already written about why his rise pleases me.)

My first reaction, I admit it, was a pang of sympathy for Hillary Clinton. This, again, has less to do with her policies (although she seems like a very competent woman, and would be a very good President), but more with the impression I have of her, as a very hard-working, ambitious woman, who now has very little time left to fulfill her ambitions. Mostly, of course, this is because she married another, more ambitious man, who shared her wonkishness for policy but combined it with something she lacks altogether: charm and charisma. To say that she was always in her husband's shadow is hardly appropriate -- she, after all, was a very visible face in Bill Clinton's administration and did manage the ultimately disastrous health-care initiative. But one could argue that it was only after the end of his second term as the President that she could branch out on her own, and even then her time was running out. Her campaign, even now, has something of a desperate quality to it. (It reminds me of Ivan Lendl's desperate quest for that elusive Wimbledon title: he was thwarted in 1986 by a 18 year old Boris Becker and then in 1987 again by the over-rated flash-in-the-pan Pat Cash.)

The question lurking around all this, of course, is would Hillary Clinton be where she is now -- would she even have been able to run for President? -- if it hadn't been for her marriage to Bill Clinton? This is perhaps an unanswerable counterfactual. But this is Clinton's last -- and only -- chance at the Presidency and it seems like she may lose the nomination to a young upstart. I don't think a vice-presidency would satisfy her -- she's already "served" in an administration before. It's all kind of depressing, really.

Matt Yglesias and David Brooks have made me think of Obama's win in a slightly different -- and more positive -- way. I think they are right: he definitely delivered what he promised.

UPDATE: James Fallows describes the post-caucus tableaux. Vividly. Best line:
And Bill Clinton!!! Who managed a wan smile but for seconds on end stood motionless, as if traumatized or stuffed. Better than anyone else in the country he must understand the situation. The young candidate with the sex appeal and the fun and the magic and the sense of the future and the opportunity to shed the old -- Clinton knows the advantages that candidate has. And he knows full well how feeble the appeals to "experience" and "ready from day one" and "competence and responsibility" were when they were issued sixteen years ago by a candidate who really was superbly prepared and experienced: the incumbent president, eight-year vice president, victorious war commander, former ambassador and CIA director George H. W. Bush.