Voice

The end of history and the decline of "The Special Relationship"...

In a thoughtful piece in today's Financial Times about how the anti-European impulses of David Cameron's Tories may lead to a chill with Washington, Philip Stephens writes that "[President] Obama is unsentimental about alliances." I think it goes further. I think that Obama is just plain unsentimental about most aspects of his professional life. (One senior administration who compared Obama's "synthetic intelligence" favorably with that of Bill Clinton, said Obama was one of the "coolest characters I have ever seen in that kind of job. He places an exceptional emphasis on rationality and calm analysis.")

Among those things impacted by Obama's cool rationality are all of America's international relationships ... and in particular the role of history in those relationships. While cognizant of historical context in an academic sense, Obama seems not to place much stock in old traditions be they of friendship or of enmity. The stirring shoulder to shoulder images of the Second World War, while rhetorically rolled out for suitable occasions, are not part of his life experience. This is a guy, after all, who entered high school after the Vietnam War was over and who did not begin his professional, post-law school life until after the Cold War was over. George W. Bush, by contrast, is fully 15 years older than Obama, son of a World War II veteran who was a traditional Atlanticist and cold warrior. Obama is a very different breed of cat from what we have seen before.

That's not to say he's indifferent to alliances. It's not to say he doesn't appreciate the importance of NATO or old friendships. But the impulse to engage former and current enemies, to sign on to the G20 as a replacement for the G8, to seek a different kind of relationship with Israel, to give the Cairo speech, to travel early to Africa-all these steps suggest a willingness not to be captive of the mold of his predecessors. Imagine ... right now the United States arguably has a better relationship with French leaders than with the leaders of the U.K. or Germany.

As Stephens rightly points out in the FT, as far as the U.K. goes, this trend is only likely to grow more pronounced once David Cameron takes office as he presumably will. Cameron and Obama got off to a bad start, they are from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, and to the degree Cameron and his colleagues undercut the Lisbon Treaty and push back from the table of Europe, they will be both making life more complicated for the United States and all their allies and pursuing a very different world view from the U.S. president.

When asked by other colleagues in the diplomatic community who has the U.K. brief in the U.S. government, the current U.K. ambassador to the United States, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, has jokingly replied that he hardly knows because it doesn't seem to be a top priority for anyone. This is no doubt due to the fact that the relationship works pretty well and there are few sore spots crying out for immediate attention. But should Cameron come to power and behave as he implies he will, Sheinwald's successor could feel even more neglected and the Cameron administration is likely to get a cold shoulder that makes Gordon Brown's need for five pleas for a meeting with Obama at the U.N. General Assembly before he got one seem positively warm and inviting.

U.S.-U.K. history and cultures are such that the relationship will always be different from that we have other countries. But it seems quite possible that with an unsentimental post-modern president in the White House who seems destined to have a chilly partnership with the odds-on favorite to be the next Prime Minister of the U.K. the special relationship will be considerably less special in the future than it has been at any time in recent memory. 

Mario Tama/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

The day of the locos...

Yes, "Morning Joe" thought the hot story out of the Venice Film Festival was the footage of an exuberant gay Italian man stripping down and begging for a kiss from George Clooney. But they missed the bigger story. Perhaps they were too dazzled by the flashbulbs or their reporter was unable to make his way through the fawning, screeching crowds of fans. But there, upstaging the canals and the pigeons of St. Marks was Hollywood's newest hunk, Hugo Chavez. And just like Clooney, he had his retinue of crazed admirers. In Chavez's case however, the heavy-breathing was coming from director Oliver Stone, who was in town to promote his latest labor of love, a valentine to Chavez called "South of the Border." 

And you thought George W. Bush was Yale's most embarrassing graduate... 

This new film -- which is not, incidentally, named after the South Carolina roadside tourist trap of the same name -- builds on Stone's unwitting reputation as a master of historical fiction. Whereas some filmmakers are known for their camera work or story-telling, Stone is best known for his inability to separate fact from fairy-tale. First, came JFK, which provided the same view of the Kennedy assassination you would get after huffing glue while watching the Zapruder film. Other fantasies made their way into his movies on Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Appropriately, therefore, the best of all summaries of his worldview came in the description of his "single plane theory" of the 9/11 attacks as reported by the Onion. (Given Stone's track record, the fact that it is completely made up is precisely the reason it should be treated as the truth.) 

Here's an excerpt of Time's review of the film:

Every step of the way, Stone is by, and on, on the President's side. He raises no tough issues, some of which are summarized in Amnesty International's 2009 report on Venezuela: "Attacks on journalists were widespread. Human-rights defenders continued to suffer harassment. Prison conditions provoked hunger strikes in facilities across the country." Referring to the 2006 election in which Chávez won a third term, Stone tells viewers that "90% of the media was opposed to him," and yet he prevailed. "There is a lesson to be learned," Stone says. Yes: support the man in power, or your newspaper, radio station or TV network may be in jeopardy.

According to Variety, Stone said, ""You can't get a fair hearing for Chavez. It's an outrageous caricature they've drawn of him in the Western press."

Yes. Outrageous. Let's just take a few items of Chavez news from around the world that have crossed the wires in just the past couple days and draw our own conclusions, shall we?

Let's start with the mildly comic. In Belarus, Chavez met with President Alexander Lukashenko (the White Russian version of a caudillo). There, according to AFP:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Wednesday boasted of his good ties with fellow Western critic Belarus, even suggesting the two countries could become part of a Soviet-style union.

Chavez held talks in Minsk with his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko marked by a chummy bonhomie that saw the pair also propose they travel the length and breadth of Venezuela in the near future.

"We need to create a new union of republics," Chavez told Lukashenko, according to a statement from the Belarussian presidency.

Today, in moves that are not so laughable, Chavez will meet with Russian officials where he is expected to discuss further arms sales, military cooperation and energy deals.

More ominously, today Chavez also stirred up a torrent of controversy when he accused Israel of genocide.

The question is not whether the Israelis want to exterminate the Palestinians. They're doing it openly," Chavez said in an interview with Le Figaro published on Wednesday.

The Venezuelan president, who has just completed a tour of Middle Eastern and Arab countries, brushed aside Israeli assertions that its attack on Gaza was a response to rocket fire from Islamist group Hamas which rules the coastal enclave.

"What was it if not genocide? ... The Israelis were looking for an excuse to exterminate the Palestinians," Chavez said, adding that sanctions should have been slapped on Israel.

While perhaps Stone would agree with these rants (and while he might disagree with Elliott Abrams's excellent piece in yesterday's Washington Post taking former President Jimmy Carter to task for his similarly one-sided, overstated and distorted views), his past record of using and abusing the truth like other directors do starlets suggests that he might not dig far enough into the facts to recognize that his film's hero is deeply in bed with some of the very worst of the Middle East's bad actors. 

Fortunately for the rest of us, there is the very thoughtful and profoundly disturbing column by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in yesterday's Wall Street Journal detailing a growing case that Chavez and the Iranians are up to the worst kind of no good in this neighborhood. (Connecting the dots between Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Chavez's views is very easy when you do a little more research than Stone did.) Morgenthau writes:

Why is Hugo Chávez willing to open up his country to a foreign nation with little shared history or culture? I believe it is because his regime is bent on becoming a regional power, and is fanatical in its approach to dealing with the U.S. The diplomatic overture of President Barack Obama in shaking Mr. Chávez's hand in April at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago is no reason to assume the threat has diminished. In fact, with the groundwork laid years ago, we are entering a period where the fruits of the Iran-Venezuela bond will begin to ripen.

That means two of the world's most dangerous regimes, the self-described "axis of unity," will be acting together in our backyard on the development of nuclear and missile technology. And it seems that terrorist groups have found the perfect operating ground for training and planning, and financing their activities through narco-trafficking.

His theory is supported not only by the evidence outlined in his article but also by statements earlier this week that Chavez intended to provide oil to Iran in the event the world's leading powers attempt to impose an embargo on the country should it continue to pursue its nuclear weapons ambitions. The Iranian intransigence could put the U.S. on a collision course not only with Tehran but with suppliers like Chavez -- a fact which could delay his getting a star on Hollywood's walk of fame indefinitely as well as causing a real foreign policy headache for the Obama administration.

However, there are always two sides to every story (at least ... around the dinner table in my house growing up there were typically many more than that). And as dark as is the picture of Iranian-Venezuelan cooperation painted by Morgenthau there will always be someone who sees the happy Hollywood ending to such collaborations. And of course, for that we can always turn to Stone. Because according to The Guardian, Chavez's Leni Riefenstahl is currently planning as an encore "an interview film with Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

Update: We just heard from Willie Geist of "Morning Joe" who noted that they did their takedown of Chavez and Stone earlier this week. I should have known that Geist, who has one of television's best B.S. detectors and, even rarer, a great sense of humor, would never have let this story slip through the cracks.

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images