Along the Tracks

Friday, May 10, 2002

An eye-opening trip for Nick

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has always been one of my favorite columnists. His op-eds are invariably well written and perceptive. Unfortunately, he has had the tendency to go beyond his well-constructed arguments into the realm of political invective and pro-forma dismissals of conservative positions, tainting what would otherwise be compelling pieces.

Mr. Kristof recently completed a tour of Islamic countries, building his personal background on the war on terrorism, its “targets,” and its effects. He wrote several pieces “from the front,” and through them, you could see an evolution of his thought process. Kristof is unapologetically liberal, and doesn’t hide that point of view in his pieces - it’s part of the reason I enjoy reading him. However, I believe his “tour of Islam” really opened his eyes to the situation on the ground in those countries. Liberals often accuse their conservative counterparts of ignoring the “complexities” of situations and of speaking in black and white terms when reality is really in shades of gray. I believe Kristof discovered on his tour not only that “wrong” is just plain “wrong,” but also that “evil” is “evil.” He also found that, in truth, the war on terrorism is being fought on a variety of fronts.

Since his return to America’s shores, Kristof’s criticism of the Bush administration has been much more targeted and, in my opinion, much more persuasive. His excellent piece today points to the problems inside Tom Ridge’s office of homeland security. Ridge’s domain is big on talk and fancy equipment, but short on effective policies and initiatives; it’s only a matter of time before the terrorists take advantage of the Bush administration’s slow-motion efforts in this area. There may be very good reasons why progress has seemed so lethargic, but as Kristof rightly points out, we don’t know those reasons because the administration is continuing a political spat with the Senate that denies Ridge the opportunity - and it is an opportunity, not a “burden” - to speak to senators and the public at large on the details of his office. His criticism of the administration’s reluctance to place peacekeepers in Afghanistan is mentioned almost as an aside in building the case for a “floundering” war on terrorism, but it could easily be expanded into the same category: The administration could make a very good case that the unsettled situation, with battles against al Qaeda and Taliban units continuing, makes a large peacekeeping force more of a target than a stabilizer. Indeed, as the accident which killed a number of Canadian soldiers a couple of weeks ago attests, a very real danger of having numerous “peacekeepers” in the middle of a war zone would be friendly fire casualties. But again, the administration is not making this case publicly and consistently, and so it goes largely unmade.

But Kristof, in recent columns, also makes a strong case to place blame where it clearly belongs - among the terrorists; the dictatorial, xenophobic, anti-Semitic Islamists who run the countries and organizations throughout the region; and the culture of fundamentalist Islam as it is presently implemented. American policies may help or hinder progress in these areas, and Kristof is quick to both point to successes and expose failures, at least in his eyes. However, he also reminds those who believe in an omnipotent American foreign policy that it is the people of the Islamic world who must embrace changes and opportunities, if there is to be real advancement. We cannot force our will, either with might or aid or benign neglect. We can lead, but the people of that part of the world must be willing to follow.

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