Monday, December 27, 2010

Indian Leaks: Bofors, Thakkar Commission, Devi Lal etc.

I thought I shall write this after a day but could not resist it. The release of the Thakkar Commission report by Indian Express ranks right along there with wikileaks. Indian Express and the Rajiv Gandhi government were at each other's throat. Thakkar commission was established to probe the conspiracy angle in Indira Gandhi's assassination. The report was sealed as "secret" even from the then President Giani Zail Singh. One fine morning Indian Express readers woke up to see on the front page a column titled "The needle of suspicion points to R.K. Dhawan". Dhawan was Gandhi's secretary. Thakkar commission had said his conduct was suspicious. By now Dhawan was an MP. Needless to say the Parliament was rocked. The country was in a state of shock. A senior member of Indira Gandhi's administration and a close confidant had been pointed with a "needle of suspicion". Then questions swirled around M.L.Fotedar too. Both Fotedar and Dhawan were only steps behind Mrs Gandhi but were not hit by the spray of bullets that felled the Iron Lady. Of course the Express was hauled to the courts.

The creme-de-la-creme was the Bofors controversy. For months Rajiv Gandhi had claimed nothing had happened. Rajiv had come to Avadi for a national Congress party meeting reminiscent of the one held by Nehru. The day the meeting opened India's most venerated newspaper Hindu (referred as the prim lady by Nehru in his autobiography) splashed on its front pages documents indicating kickbacks. Hinduja's and Quattrochi became household names. Chitra Subramaniam reporting from Geneva was the key investigation journalist, Ram was her counterpart in India writing the articles. The collaboration ended messily. Later then editor of Hindu, Kasturi, put a stop to the expose. N.Ram huffed and puffed and took his exposes to rival Express. Goenka, publisher of Express, and Arun Shourie, editor of Express, were too glad to provide space to N.Ram. Arun Shourie had cut his teeth in investigative journalism during his earlier stint at Express by taking on Maharashtra strongman A.R.Antulay.

Congress then decided to meet expose with expose. V.P.Singh was riding high as the Jan Morcha leader. I am not sure of the chronology here a bit but I think the St.Kitt's scandal happened after the Allahabad by election when Singh trounced the Congress candidate. Papers friendly to congress published documents alleging offshore accounts  in St.Kitts island as belonging to V.P.Singh's son Ajeya Singh. This was targeted to hit Singh's Mr Clean image. Within days Arun Shourie and others proved that the documents were forged. P.V.Narasimha Rao then External Affairs minister got embroiled in that forgery case in later years.

Once V.P.Singh got elected it was a case of tamasha everyday trying to keep "Tau" Devi Lal happy. Om Prakash Chautala, Devi Lal's son, caused utter mayhem in the Meham by election to get elected as MLA (and become Haryana CM). Tau, convinced that the newspaper elites were against him picked up the phone to Arun Shourie. Devi Lal then launched into a tirade filled with obscene expletives. Arun Shourie then released the entire transcript the very next day on the front pages titled 'This is the Deputy Prime Minister speaking".

The Nellie massacre was brought to light only due to journalists. Indira Gandhi was advised by intelligence agencies not to hold elections in Assam where the students were agitating against influx of foreigners, mostly Muslims from Bangladesh. Indira, for political gains, as always, went ahead and Nellie, a village mostly of Muslims, saw a massacre that was brazen and shocking. The official commission's report is still classified a secret. Around 2000+ muslims died.

Of course these exposes started taking an ugly turn even back then. Ram Jethmalani who ran his famous "10 questions a day" to Rajiv published photos of Ajitabh Bachchan's private home in Switzerland (or Sweden?). The tuition fee details of Bachchhan children were divulged in the front pages as proof of ill-begotten money. Amitabh was innocent.

Now we have the sting operation era. Tehelka tapes exposed corruption in BJP alliance and in the most serious expose the judges of lower courts were exposed in a "cash for warrants" sting. The Supreme Court chief justice was miffed at Tehelka for the expose than with the corrupt judges themselves.

The Radia tapes has a sweet irony to it. In 1981 a temple functionary at the famous Tiruchendur temple was murdered and a diamond necklace was stolen. The then MGR government prompt announced a commission headed by C.J.R.Paul. The needle of suspicion pointed towards R.M.Veerappan a key confidante of MGR. Karunanidhi undertook a walk to Tiruchendur "Needhi Kettu Nediya Payanam". The Paul commission report was classified secret by MGR. MK got a copy through his contacts and promptly released it, of course in the interest of truth. Then as always happens in politics R.M.Veerappan became friends with MK and RMV's party man is cabinet minister who recently held a lavish function to celebrate MK (though no one knows what was celebrated).

Today Radia tapes are a huge embarrassment to MK and he is tilting at every imaginary windmill much like Don Quixote trying to find fault with every one in sight except his kith and kin.

In a colorful democracy like that of India there is no shortage of drama (and national shame) I just rambled a few.

Wikileaks, Pentagon Papers : A study in contrasts.

When wikileaks walloped America the one citation that popped up incessantly was "Pentagon Papers". As the Vietnam war ground on inexorably with American casualties in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians killed, Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense) commissioned a secret study to analyze the war comprehensively. The study was a secret. It completely laid bare how successive American administrations had lied to Americans and World at large.

Daniel Ellsberg a task force member wanted to bring the study out to the public and bring it he certainly did. The New York Times started publishing excerpts from the 43 volumes it had received but was soon muzzled by a court stay. Washington Post, under its newly minted publisher Katherine Graham, swung into action. Katherine was personally warned by Lyndon Johnson. The Post too came under attack from the courts.

Both the Times and Post approached the US Supreme Court in a landmark case. The verdict, in favor of the newspapers, under First Amendment, while not giving a carte blanche it protected them. Katherine Graham, in her Pulitzer winning autobiography, said the verdict was "not a ringing affirmation of first Amendment". The courts had agreed with the papers that the Government had "not met the heavy burden of proof required for prior restraint". However the Court refused to invalidate the Espionage act nor did they give a carte-blanche to publish secrets.

Daniel Ellsberg went on TV shows recently to commend wikileaks and talk about government penchant for secrecy. The Economist, as always, drew a sharp difference between wikileaks and Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg had surrendered in court and subjected himself to due process for his infraction (he was later acquitted in a messy case). Ellsberg had approached many before Times and Post took up the offer to print. The papers did so with great care and after satisfying themselves that they were indeed 'exposing' America's duplicitous conduct. Ellsberg also later approached a US Senator to make him submit the 43 volumes as material in US senate because the senate rules protect a US Senator from any legal proceedings for what he says on the floor of the US Senate (250 year old constitution, whew). Economist highlighted these with the conduct of Assange who functions outside any legal accountability.

As the wikileaks strip tease continues everyday so far nothing has emerged that made non-partisan commentators to shriek "Shame" at America. Just last week NYT ran an article that showed how the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) battles corruption at high places across the globe in its prosecution of drug trafficking. Hardly worth condemning, if anything we should be applauding. Of course habitual America baiters like N.Ram ran reams of news print condemning the "empire" while turning a proverbial Nelson's eye to his beloved China's far more shameful conduct of la affair Nobel Peace Prize.

To pretend that nothing of what he did caused harm is just arrogance. Assange haughtily proclaims that nobody has been harmed (physically that is). True. He also decries that this is usual scare mongering. True. Every government, when a secret is exposed, shrieks "national security impaired". However in this case, across the spectrum, most serious journalists agree that US diplomatic relations has indeed taken a beating. Next time when a Government co-operates with USA on anti-terrorism acts it will very well hesitate.

Richard Stengel, editor of Time, succinctly captures the contradictions, "(Assange) replied that he believed in the necessity of keeping his own sources secret and took great pains to do so. Now, there is some hypocrisy in defending secrecy in order to attack it, but there is more naivete and even danger in suggesting that the world is a safer place without any secrets at all". Stengel, along side many others, categorically states "it seems inarguable that the release of 251,287 documents via wikileaks harms American national security and that Assange meant to do so".

Commentaries from India have ranged from puerile to churlish. N.Ram, educated in Journalism at Columbia, is the worst offender. When the Obama administration blew hot and cold about prosecuting Assange, N.Ram called it digital McCarthyism (referring to Amazon halting hosting of wikileaks). This to a country where a US President CANNOT prevent any newspaper from publishing what they want to. When George Bush got wind that NYT was preparing to run articles exposing US wire tapping programs he called the publisher to Oval office to discuss. This is the US President calling a news publisher to the OVAL OFFICE. Bush wanted to allay their concerns about abuses, he offered details to convince them and asked not to publish. NYT went away and later published the article cursorily telling the administration that the details offered did not convince them about checks to prevent abuses. Heads of State called to Oval office meeting with US Prez do not refuse but NYT publisher can do it and walk home free.

Assange also played coy with whom he chooses to give his leaks. He was miffed by some critical articles that NYT had run about him hence he chose to exclude NYT from his list of recipients (However The Guardian from UK struck an arrangement to share the leaks with NYT). This is not the unimpeachable conduct of a truth seeker or someone with loftier aims in exposing secrets. In a case of what goes around comes around his own sexual harassment case details are now leaked and he is fuming at the leaks. His secrets are to be his own while anybody else's is game for being exposed to prevent abuses.

NYT and Post which ran excerpts of wikileaks helpfully came up with a pictorial representation of where the cables originated from. Most cables were between open societies. Almost no leaks from anything Russian or Chinese. Quite a telling picture. If indeed he had anything on the Chinese I am sure the Chinese in China would not be reading it thanks to that governments censorship. Of course, in his own safety, its good nothing Russian was there, ask Alexander Litvinenko.

Another conundrum in this saga is the role of pro-wikileaks activists. When wikileaks had challenges to hosting its sites hundreds of activists convinced that this was a David versus Goliath affair took to defending wikileaks by, well, hacking the sites of companies that they thought treated wikileaks unfairly.  Have you observed the protesters at Climate Conferences and G-20 conferences? Protesting against corporations and MNC's they would cheerfully riot, loot and ransack everything in sight. Of course, we are told, they have no other reasonable avenue to convey their disagreements.

Sometimes even these exposers do not do so entirely out of some lofty ideals. Mark Felt, the famous 'Deep Throat' of Watergate era was motivated more out of personal agenda than for any discomfort with what Nixon's aides did.

What is undoubtable is that, for better or worse, wikileaks has changed the way US and international diplomacy will work in the years to come.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wikileaks: American Diplomacy At Work

The wikileaks saga has two perspectives to it. One, to judge  the revelations themselves. Two, the raging debate over secrecy, First Amendment rights, whistle-blowing etc. I'll restrict this blog to the revelations themselves. America, undoubtedly, is the laughing stock of the world right now. America's ability to guard secrets is in complete tatters. The reactions from the commentariat, the serious non-partisan ones, ranged from "it shows diplomacy at work" to "harm has been done". In fact Fareed Zakaria gushed that the revelations "show an American diplomatic establishment that is pretty good at analysis" (,8599,2034284,00.html) . Zakaria cites a British scholar's column in Guardian as writing that his opinion of the State Department has gone up several notches.Zakaria, sums, "When foreigners encounter U.S. diplomats and listen to their bland recitation of policy, they would do well to keep in mind that behind the facade lie some very clever minds."

That nations keep secrets, that diplomats say in private what they can NEVER say in public, that nations say one thing in public while expressing their concerns in private etc etc are not surprising. Only the naive would be shocked by such things. Fareed Zakaria and many others have discounted to put this episode alongside the "Pentagon Papers" affair. The Pentagon Papers affair relates to leaking a confidential study of Vietnam War. Those papers "exposed" American government's duplicity in promoting the Vietnam War, how the public was lied to. It exposed a systemic rot. Wikileaks has not "exposed" anything unknown. There is no gotcha moment here. If, for instance, there was a smoking gun about America going into Iraq at the behest of some oil company now THAT would have had the world sit up and heap scorn and vitriol. 
The cables pretty much confirm that American diplomats pursued in private what were well known public stands. The real surprise is the Arab street. When US invade Iraq, Bush and US were hated as 'islamophobic'. US concerns on Iran were labeled as 'islamophobia'. The cables reveal that Saudi Arabia actually was trying to get US to do something more than sanctions against Iran. What is jaw dropping is that some of that was coordinated with Israel. When India voted alongwith US against Iran the decrepit commies cried "foul" at the behest of Indian Muslims. Fareed Zakaria highlights, "We now have official confirmation of something many of us have been saying for years: Arab regimes share Israel's concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, since they do not have the massive nuclear deterrent that Israel possesses, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are probably even more nervous about an Iranian bomb".

I was browsing Der Spiegel (Germany's leading news paper) and the special section on wikileaks had articles with interesting headlines:

None of the above are really reprehensible goals in themselves. None of the above show any duplicity on part of America between what it said in public versus what it said in private.

The real clincher is the one on Iraq. While the 'oil' angle in Iraq is undeniable it was a complete trope that America was interested 'ONLY' in oil. I remember reading an article in NYT long back that amongst the oil contracts given by free Iraq only a minuscule came to US companies. Der Spiegel in an article titled "A lot of Blood for Little Oil". The following excerpt is compelling:

""No Blood for Oil" had been a slogan used by protesters against George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. A SPIEGEL cover story in January 2003 even carried the title "Blood for Oil" and analyzed Iraq's role as an oil power. Neoconservatives in Washington had always said that the money from Iraq's oil would be used to pay for the war and the reconstruction......
But the opposite came true. A lot of blood was spilled, but very little oil flowed for the US. With production of 2.5 million barrels of crude oil daily, production in Iraq has returned to close to its prewar levels. Forecasts now suggest it will take 20 years before that production is doubled or tripled, however. The US spent more than $700 billion on Iraq, but now Iraq's oil profits are going to other countries"

There has been no revelation that has given grounds for any diplomatic uproar between countries. Of course this has embarrassed the US and has seriously undermined how other nations feel let down in their trust of America's ability to keep diplomatic negotiations secret. Every great power, Russia and China especially indulge in exactly the same diplomatic maneuvers. The unmasking of Chinese hacking of Google is the only real meaty stuff and that's more concerning to the Chinese than to Americans.

To indulge in cheerleading of wikileaks as some vanguard against governmental abuse is sheer chicanery and absolutely puerile. There is no unearthing of some Katyn or My Lai kind of episode. There is not even something of the nature of Abhu Ghraib. There is no smoking gun here.

So much for the exposes themselves. How did America confront it? Was freedom of opinion or First Amendment breached in how wikileaks was dealt with by America? Is this on par with Pentagon Papers or even the Watergate expose? Is Julian Assange the digital equivalent of Bob Woodward's 'Deep Throat'? Await my next blog on that.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Obama: Whiner in Chief.

Recently Barack Obama shocked the commentariat when he went off script and whined "they talk about me like a dog". Barack Obama was elected with an affection unseen in a generation of Presidential elections. His inauguration, amidst a crippling recession, was historic. Millions watched his rise from obscurity, millions voted for him, the press drooled over him on inauguration day America felt its original sin, slavery, was cleansed. Coming for the inauguration Barack Obama came like Caesar. Rally after rally. Speech after speech inundated the airways. He rode into DC like a conquering hero. His political foes, some where veterans across generations, an ex-President were all left far behind in the dust licking their wounds. Republicans were in a state of stupor and were not even thinking about 2012. Obama's re-election looked an absolute certainty, completely inevitable. His electoral victory had redrawn the electoral map said pundits. Even Virginia, that hot bed of segregation politics, voted lustily for him. So did North Carolina. Republicans had nowhere to hide. What a difference two years makes.

Here is Barack Obama whining about how he is caricatured. In a comment that skated close to playing the race card, departing from prepared text, he thundered "they talk about me like a dog" (the comment is at 30th second mark). I came to US just before Bill Clinton got impeached and then I've been through the Bush years. Both Clinton and Bush, especially the latter, were treated no less harshly. Rallies with posters depicting Bush as Hitler are common. How many bumper stickers unkindly denied legitimacy to an elected President by saying "Selected NOT elected"? Bush's inauguration parade was cut short due to pelting of eggs. Bush was constant fodder for late night comedians and habitual haters of America. When I told a colleague that I bought Bush's book "Decision Points" the retort was "is it full of crayon drawings?".

When it comes to the parlous state of the economy Obama would repeat, even in sleep, "we inherited the worst recession since the great depression". At first the American public was kind to him and even indulged his "blame the previous regime" approach. After 2 years being tired and worn out they delivered an electoral "shellacking". When George Bush took office the country was sliding into a recession, the dot com bust, especially thanks to the loose monetary policies and deregulation of the Clinton era. I don't remember him whining in every speech about Clinton. Also what is pointedly different is that Obama was not hit by a surprise recession. The recession was well underway. Obama owes his re-election, in no small measure, to the weekend of September 15th 2008 when Lehman imploded. Bush and his economic team grappled with  an economic crises that had no precedent and practically rescued America from financial armageddon. Bush's conduct during the crises was absolutely non-partisan and above par. He had instructed his economic team to constantly communicate with both campaigns because one of them would inherit it.

Serious non-partisan economists agree that the seeds of the economic crises were sown with deregulations that started in the Clinton era, the refusal of Congress to reform Fannie and Freddie and finally recklessness at Wall Street. But Obama was only too happy to blame Bush. Bush later joked on Larry King "well he got more than a few votes thanks  to me".

In fact the most gut wrenching decisions to deal with the financial crises were all taken during Bush's tenure and HE paid the political price. Rescuing AIG, throwing a lifeline to the decrepit auto companies, moving Fannie and Freddie to conservatorship, designing TARP etc. Each cost Bush very politically, especially amongst conservatives.

9/11, the defining moment of Bush presidency was a complete surprise. Though much is made of the August CIA memo warning of an imminent attack, many in the center agree that any other President would have acted similar to George Bush. The prevailing laws of the country, the recession etc all played a role. Bush had no precedent to follow. He had to wrestle with the country's vaunted character that prized individual liberty with the demands of modern day terrorism. Compared to that, however flawed, today Homeland Security is a much better organization. After the election Bush had instructed his team to help Obama's transition team come up to speed on national security details and opened all access. Bush did not want Obama to come in blind like Bush came in after Clinton. Yet Obama would keep whining on that too.

Put in perspective Bush was delivered a surprise double whammy of recession and a terrorist attack. Barack Obama applied for a job knowing fully well what entails winning. At one point during the campaign (as per Bob Woodward) he said "I used to be afraid that I might lose this thing, now I am afraid I might win it". Look at corporate parallels. Whether its Vikram Pandit trying to turn around Citi or John Thain who averted a crisis by selling Merrill neither can go to their board of directors or stockholders, for 2 years and say "I inherited it".

A few days back James Carville, the raging Cajun who never minced words, gave a colorful advice on how Hillary can help Barack Obama find strength " "

By the way it used to be a trope that people hated America because of Bush. Tariq Ali, a supposed muslim scholar, was refused visa during the Bush years. Now that we have this miracle healer in White House Tariq Ali was given visa. How does Tariq repay Obama? By publishing a book that has a photo of Obama that depicts his face as a mask for Bush, the subtitle says "surrender at home, wars abroad". The blurb on the back flap rips into Obama as nothing but a purveyor of fatuous platitudes. Like I say we could have a poodle in the White House and there are millions who would hate it for being the POTUS.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Genius of Ayn Rand.

Last November I had written Today I started to write another blog and I had a sense of deja-vu. Only after typing a few sentences I went back looking for that blog. I was stunned to find that my choice of sentiments had not changed a bit. However in this blog I want to draw a contrast between Ayn Rand and George Orwell.

Orwell's 'Animal Farm' and '1984' are cult favorites of anti-communist literature. When it comes to making the case against political totalitarianism I'd any day concede that Orwell's masterful slim satire "Animal Farm' is literature at its best. Recently I was browsing Orwell's essays and was completely shocked to read his views on socialism and capitalism. The guy who was a genius is foretelling the horrors of how Stalinism is the CONSEQUENCE of communist philosophy utterly fails to see the connection between political liberty and capitalism. In an article in New Yorker by Louis Menand (Pulitzer winning author of 'Metaphysical mind')

"...Orwell had concluded long before that capitalism had failed unambiguously, and he never changed his opinion. He thought that Hitler's military success on the Continent proved once and for all the superiority of a planned economy. "It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption," he wrote. "The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them."

A Socialist England, as Orwell described it, would be a classless society with virtually no private property. The State would own everything, and would require "that nobody shall live without working." Orwell thought that perhaps fifteen acres of land, "at the very most," might be permitted, presumably to allow subsistence farming, but that there would be no ownership of land in town areas. Incomes would be equalized, so that the highest income would never be greater than ten times the lowest. Above that, the tax rate should be a hundred per cent..."

WOW. Income tax should be 100%. I am sure even Karl Marx, who never earned a penny on his own, would have some sympathy for the rich. One can imagine how Hank Rearden would react. That passage of Orwell completely flies in the face of what we think of him as author of anti-totalitarian books. Not even Keynes would agree to one word of this chicanery. Nehru would agree though, whole heartedly. In his Glimpses of World History, Nehru writes to an impressionable Indira "modern economists agree that private property is an anachronism" ( think Bank Nationalization).

The only excuse I would offer for Orwell is that living in Britain he could not help it. Menand points out that Orwell thought that the British were hypocritical to speak of liberty and freedom while oppressing India. Unlike America which forged Ayn Rand Britain had no meritocracy of a similar scale, 'making money' was anathema to the landed gentry. 

The more and more I reflect deeply on what Ayn Rand gave to capitalism I realize that here was one intellectual who made us understand what it is to "earn money". Through her character Francisco she thunders "Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?" (  She worshipped "the Dollar' and had it as insignia. "Dollar" was just a placeholder for a symbol that denoted money. 

Ayn Rand made us understand what it is to "produce", what is "profit", how capitalism is a pre-requisite for political liberty, how one without the other would degenerate into chaos. Men who choose what they buy with freedom cannot be subdued politically for long. Economic freedom circumscribed by political slavery is the chinese conundrum that has historians watching that country very curiously. Soviet Russia, from which Ayn Rand had emigrated as child, tried to control both and 'inevitably' imploded.

By the way what about Orwell's dream, everyone is entitled to his or her own utopia. A society of "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" was indeed formed by an Englishman Robert Owens (who coined the word 'socialism') in America. He wanted to try his idea in the 'New World'. It ended in sheer chaos and was, needless to say, a failure. Joshua Muravchik's masterful "Heaven on Earth" details how nations have experimented with variation of communism and how they all ended as failure without exception.

When Narasimha Rao rolled out his economic reforms the catchphrase in India was "reforms with a human face" Nobody had bothered that the socialist model, labeled 'progressive', was the cause of so much untold misery for millions over decades yet its always Capitalism that is need of a 'human face'. It is this hypocrisy that Ayn Rand tore asunder and for that she will remain our darling.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fiction Writing : A Serious Business.

Wall Street Journal runs a series on how "creators" go about their work. A recent one on American author Philip Roth ( caught my eye and made me reflect on our common understanding of how writers, fiction writers especially, do their craft. Its easy to think of them as exotic, eccentric, idiosyncratic, anything except methodical. We do not think of a fiction writer as doing something akin to a desk job. It never crosses most of our minds that classics would need subject matter research on the professions of their characters.

When Ayn Rand wrote "Fountainhead" with the protagonist as an architect she consulted extensively with Frank Lloyd Wright, yes Wright himself, no less, to get her basics right.  When Roth's character is portrayed as a javelin thrower Roth studied sports DVD'd to get it right. For avid readers of classical fiction Mario Vargas Llosa is well known. I developed an interest in him after the Nobel Prize, especially when I read that he was an uncommon intellectual whose politics, his economic ideas, was pretty much 'republican'. When I hungrily bought his acclaimed books I chanced upon a lesser known collection of essays "A writer's reality". Llosa details how he did research for his celebrated works. The amount of reading, historical research, local research etc gave a wonderful background flavor to his masterpieces.

Llosa's own favorite novel amongst what he wrote was "The war of the end of the world" based on the suppression of Canudos rebellion by Brazilian government ( He was especially interested in how intellectuals, the progressive types, kow-towed the government. He reads avidly and then finally visits Canudos area. In between he had practically re-written the novel, in an era without word-processors.

I had read Irving Wallace's "The Prize", centered around the Nobel Prize, long back. Then one day in a roadside book shop I discovered his "The writing of one novel". The blurb on the cover for "Prize" would state that Wallace took 14 years to write his book. Only when I read his other book did I understand why. Irving got the idea for the plot one evening during an interview with a Nobel committee member who freely shared the inside controversies are that considered sacrosanct. His "writing of one novel", very rich with anecdotes and literary trivia, is practically a biography of a how a book was written, how the characters were fleshed out etc. Wallace cites how Sinclair Lewis wrote "Arrowsmith". "Arrowsmith" portrays an idealistic doctor. Lewis is said to have influenced many an aspiring doctor with that idealistic version. Wallace says that Sinclair Lewis made detailed maps of the hospitals, labs and towns he portrayed (no google earth!!). Wallace quotes Somerset Maugham from "Great Novels and their Novelists", "Tolstoy and Balzac, wrote, rewrote and endlessly corrected".

Jhumpa Lahiri often impressed me with her detailed descriptions of the environs. Whether its Boston or Rome her detailed imagery of the land, the cuisines, the customs etc are a delight to read. V.S. Naipaul would bring to words details about the texture of soil in Pakistan, squalid conditions of tenements in India and Indonesia. Remember he wrote those books when digital cameras, voice recorders, Iphone cameras were not there. I cannot even fathom the painful notes taking.

Also seldom we consider these writers to follow a "routine" in writing. Philip Roth, John Updike, Martin Amis and many others maintain a strict regimen of regular working hours when they are working on a novel. In an interview Updike says that Bernard Shaw had a 5 page quota for each day ( Wallace gives a rich trivia on the writing habits of writers "I realized that most successful writers invest their work with professionalism. From Balzac, who worked six to twelve hours a day, and Flaubert, seven hours a day, and Conrad, eight hours a day, to Maugham, who worked four hours a day...Hemingway, six hours a day, these authors were uniformly industrious". Ah what a conclusion who would associate the word "industrious" with creative fiction writers of the caliber of Maugham and Balzac.

Ayn Rand took 14 years to complete and publish her magnum opus "Atlas Shrugged". Will Durant's masterpiece "The Story Of philosophy" sen out of his lectures took 14 years to reach completion and every page is testimony to a teacher par-excellence. "The story of Philosophy" remains my most loved book.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bill Clinton: Ultimate Comeback Kid.

A cat has nine lives but Bill Clinton's political lives outnumber that. I've a sentimental attachment to Clinton. He was President when I came to USA. Things were roaring back then. Cold War was conclusively over. Economy was on a joy ride. "How high is high" was the question back then. The government had a surplus. Ah those were halcyon days. Then we had 8 years of a different roller coaster ride followed by a candidate who sailed into the White House on just speeches and fatuous phrases.

Not too long back Bill Clinton was relegated to the dog house. The Clinton era in Democratic politics is over wrote pundits who were busy worshipping at the altar of "The One". The "man from Hope" was seen as bygone era. Reams of newsprint was devoted to praising how Obama "took down the Clinton dynasty without raising his voice".

Ted Kennedy exulted in endorsing a new Kennedy-esque magic. That endorsement was the most rich with irony. Ted Kennedy who raised a banner of revolt against a sitting President, Carter, from his own party and remains the ultimate dynasty was decrying the Clintons. What is worse it was Bill Clinton who helped Teddy win a re-election when his prospects grew rcky. Ah! well even Massachusetts wanted to say "enough".

The lowest point for Bill Clinton during the heated 2008 primaries was the South Carolina primary. South Carolina democratic primary had 51% Afro-Americans who came to see a historic choice in Barack Obama after his Iowa Caucus win. Hillary was advised to concede South Carolina. She pushed ahead. Bill Clinton who had jumped into the fray after Iowa to rescue New Hampshire had started losing his temper. Given who he was his statements and events attracted attention. A wannabe reporter from CNN (Jessica Yellin) riled him up at a SC event with meaningless question about his reaction to what some democratic operative had said. Bill Clinton, with his face going red fell for the trap and ripped into the question. CNN milked it for what it was worth. The press was agog that the big dog was losing his legendary touch for politics. Afro-Americans who thought Bill Clinton was their own deserted him by the droves accusing him very unfairly of being racist. Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison who once famously called Clinton "America's first black president" kind of took back the accolade by framing it within a context that was ludicrous. This was Bill Clinton's nadir.

As Hillary's candidacy floundered the press salivated at the downfall, more of Bill than Hillary. From the word go it was assumed that will Bill Clinton to mentor her Hillary could not go wrong. Bill Clinton was the only two term Democratic president after FDR compared to many two-term presidents from GOP. He was considered the ultimate political animal. The Democratic machinery was thought to be in his pocket. Al Gore had slid into oblivion, John Kerry was a bad dream. When Barack, with all due respect, rode to the cusp of a historical candidacy vowing to be an "apolitical" politician, the I-am-Not-Clinton rhetoric, "change" candidate Bill Clinton was thought of as a ghost from the past. America was ready to move on with its new archangel.

More humiliation followed Barack's nomination. When Hillary was considered for VP the constant chatter was how Bill Clinton would be a distraction. Bill was thought to be a complete misfit within the 'no-drama' obama team. Hillary haters snickered about Bill Clinton's business deals, rumors floated about donors to his Presidential library. Bill and Hillary were portrayed as sore-losers. When Hillary was picked for Secretary of State again the snickering and snide remarks about Bill Clinton started.

What a difference a year makes. Barack Obama had scolded the Clinton's for the health care debacle in 1992. In particular Obama decried their "secretive process" that, in his view, unleashed rumor mongering and finally caused the failure. When he watched his attempt being derailed with, ahem negotiations with union leaders in white house and back door deals with reluctant senators he finally turned to Bill Clinton. Clinton went to the congress to speak what he alone could do with unmatched finesse, plain common sense. Then came the North Korea rescue. Again it was Clinton.

Welcome to 2010. We are a week away from the mid-terms. Barack Obama's approval rating is hovering at 44%, same as what Bill Clinton's or Reagan's was at this point in their presidencies. Democrats are facing a voter backlash. Lo Behold who comes to their rescue. Its good old Bill Clinton. Democrats are not just flocking to him, they flock to Bubba pointedly avoiding the preening Professor Obama. Obama who filled stadiums in 2008 with his words is now seen as out-of-touch elitist. Voters dont have patience for pointless lecturing. In comes Bubba, the man who presided over the longest economic expansion in recent memory. The man who could remind his audience that it was a democrat who balanced the budget last. Bill Clinton is front and center in this election jetting from coast to coast. He is again written about like he is the maestro of campaigning. He sure is the maestro. Watch his campaigns. This is a man who is born to campaign.

Above all what is sweet vindication for Bill Clinton is that everyone including Obama is now talking about how Obama should try to become a Clinton who rebounded from a mid term loss to win his second term. Without exception every democrat is hoping Obama will take a leaf from Clinton's playbook of moving  to the center and repeating in 2012 what Clinton did in 1996.

Ah but then can Obama become a Clinton and is 2012 the same as 1996. My bet is neither will happen. Bill Clinton was a center-right common sense candidate. Unemployment was at 4% in 1996. Economy was roaring. Budget had surplus. No wars. Barack Obama is a center left ideologue who has no record of making any compromises. If unemployment climbs down to 7% thats a miracle. Budget deficit is exploding. The cost of many bills, especially health care is yet to hit our pocketbooks. I'd safely predict Bill Clinton will remain the only two-term democratic president after FDR. And that may be good for America. Oh wait Barack has one last hope. Sarah Palin and her tea party.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Nano Car: Is It Innovation?

Amongst the many genre of articles and books I read I usually keep away from one type by choice. I am intellectually uncomfortable with books or articles that talk about the end of American primacy. Its not because I find the topic disagreeable its just that often such books or articles are disappointing from the perspective of theory and logic. The latest is Time's cover story by Fareed Zakaria, "How to restore the American dream". The article, complete with a graphic depicting a toppled Statue of Liberty, gives some well reasoned cautioning about some challenges facing America today. Then Zakaria slides into tropes comparing China and India with America. Curiously Zakaria, just like the Economist did a few months back, cites the Tata Nano car as sign of innovation taking off in India. He writes:

"Two weeks ago, for example, I sat in a Nano, the revolutionary car being produced by Tata Motors in India. It's a nice, comfortable midgetmobile, much like Mercedes-Benz's Smart car, except that rather than costing $22,000, it costs about $2,400. Tata plans to bring it to the U.S. in two to three years. Properly equipped with air bags and other safety features, it will retail at $7,000. Leave aside the car itself, whose price will surely put a downward pressure on U.S. carmakers. Just think about car parts. Every part in the Nano is made to global standards but manufactured in India at about a tenth of what it would cost in America. When Ford orders its next set of car parts, will they be made in Michigan or Mumbai? "

Zakaria, a most respected columnist and commentator, is just fooling people here with a sleight of hand thats insulting. Comparing a no frills Nano (NO airbags, single windshield wiper, only one side rear view mirror, no air conditioner) with a Smart car that is laden with safety features and comfort features and THEN to cry foul on price is just intellectual chicanery. The Smart car comes with dual airbags, side curtain airbags, ABS, Acceleration Skid Control (ASC) etc etc. 

The crux of Zakaria's article was the threat to the middle class lifestyle in USA. Its unfortunate that he forgot to mention why American cars made in Detroit cost so much. Amongst other factors the one relevant  to us is the Auto Union contracts that ensure pay packages that would make our eyes pop, then add on the luxurious benefit, the almost near impossibility of firing a union worker and others. Compare that to a Nano assembly worker benefits I am sure the latter would not be thrilled. Note, this is not only for the car manufacturers, every ancillary unit related to car manufacturing is unionized and enjoy those benefits. So while Tata may yet pay a good wage the workers in ancillary industries, I am sure, slog at pitiful wages.

While some innovation did go into making the car, the design is not 100% Indian. The most important cost savings came from re-designing the conventional drive shaft by GKN involved drawing in Engineers from its Italian and German operations. Then of course there is the Wal-Mart philosophy of squeezing cost out of every supplier. Zakaria glides by all that.

Much of the cost comes from sheer "wage arbitration" of manufacturing in a country where regulations are lax concerning mandatory safety for the product, workers are ill-protected at work, related insurance costs are next-to-nothing. US car manufacturers have to abide by umpteen legislative mandates, workers are covered by exhaustive protections against injury by law (and the laws are enforced). Zakaria forgets to note that the average salary of IT workers have increased in quantum over 8 years. The labor costs for manufacturing are still depressed owing to multiple factors and that does give an undue advantage.

Would it better for a manufacturing employee to be working in USA or India? Only a fool would answer 'India'. The Nano is no industry re-defining innovation like Ipod. 

Thomas Friedman, endless cheerleader for India and China, had another perspective. In a country plagued by pathetic roadways, creaking infrastructure, very high road accident fatalities and above all high pollution, he felt that a "Nano car is the last thing India needs".

Also what Zakaria fails to mention is Ratan Tata's travails with Mamata Banerjee regarding his Singur factory. Something that could not have happened in US anyday, not even under the current closet-socialist Barack Obama. Unfair comparisons, unfair conclusions, plain intellectual dishonesty.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

America's Geniuses: John Dabiri and a culture of nourishing excellence

Every year in September the MacArthur Foundation announces a grant for 20-40 American citizens cutting across disciplines. The grant is $500,000 with NO strings attached, as the foundation site says "MacArthur Fellowships come without stipulations and reporting requirements and offer Fellows unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create, and explore". This grant is also often called "MacArthur Genius grants" and the 'fellows' are also called 'geniuses'. 

For 30 years the foundation has selected 'geniuses'. The 2010 fellows were noted for ethnic diversity, number of women, diversity in the fields. The foundation press release notes "working across a broad spectrum of endeavors, the Fellows include a stone carver, a quantum astrophysicist, a jazz pianist, a high school physics teacher, a marine biologist, a theater director, an American historian, a fiction writer, an economist, and a computer security scientist. All were selected for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future".

The youngest of them is John Dabiri, born to Nigerian Immigrants. John Dabiri  is. "Associate Professor in the Graduate Aeronautical Laboratories and the Option of Bioengineering at Caltech". Check out that hyperlink in Dabiri's name which is his page in Caltech's website. The short biographical sketch speaks, to use a cliche, volumes. Just ponder at the name of what he is professor of, a very unique, hybrid intersection of Engineering (aeronautical engineering) and biology. His research area is studying jelly fishes and trying to apply those principles to aeronautical engineering. His M.S. was in aeronautical engineering and his PhD was in bio-engineering. Dabiri was a 'tenured' professor by age 29. A 'tenured' professorship is such a big deal in America and it takes a genius to become one at 29. 

His curriculum vitae is interesting to check out for the scholarships he had won. The scholarships, Government and Private sector, have really fueled him to higher echelons of academic achievements. The scholarships, apart from recognizing talent reward him financially thus enabling to study at the best schools of the country.What really impressed me is that "Popular Science" magazine identified him as "Brilliant Scientist" in 2008. In 2009 he was awarded "Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers" (PECASE). 2010 he is declared a 'genius' by MacArthur foundation. 

This country has a tradition of "FERRETING" out excellence, "RECOGNIZING" talent, "REWARDING" merit. Whether its MacArthur foundation or Intel's talent search or Pulitzers or National Book Awards and so many, many other programs that have all become sheer institutions in their own right. What is most important is that over many decades these programs have been untouched by scandals or nepotism or favoritism or even censorship. 

Annette Gordon-Reed, Historian at Harvard Law School (oh look at that alone what is a historian doing at a law school) shocked the literary world and America in general by publishing the damning "Hemingses of Monticello". That book nailed the most venerated founding father Thomas Jefferson for having fathered an illegitimate child with his Afro-american slave, Sally Hemings. The foundation rewarded for THAT. She is rewarded for debunking, or humanizing, a founding father of the nation. (let it be noted that this infomation about Jefferson is cited without fail in the official tours at Jefferson's historic home at Monticello. Good luck expecting that at Nehru's Teenmurthi). 

A week after Dabiri won the award he was featured on NPR (National Public Radio, a popular non-partisan channel). Noting his Afro-American background the interviewer queried him on a very important sociological aspect. Within the Afro-american community and other ethnic minorities, attempts by children to excel academically could get mischaracterized as trying to 'act white'. Here is the exchange in full (

MARTIN: Did you ever confront the challenge that some kids of color tell us that they confront, of being viewed as, you know, not cool or a nerd because of your interest in science?Mr. DABIRI: Yes, the phrase was typically acting white. You know, if you were someone who did your homework and spoke with correct grammar. I hope that that sort of attitude is waning. I don't know if it is. But that is something that I think discourages a lot of students. And so what we need are just more role models that show that you can be interested in science and engineering and still be a normal person who enjoys everyday things. You don't have to be a geek.

When George Bush wanted to use 'faith based initiatives' to address some social programs he was derided by the liberal intelligentsia, many shrieked in horror "separation of church and state, oh my god". Here is Dabiri talking about his church "We have a mentoring program at our church out here in California called The Faith Foundation. And many of the students in the area are from under-represented groups, and so we hope that the impact of our program will be to continue investing in the next generation of scientists and engineers."

Dabiri very warmly remembered his 4th grade teacher, "I remember my fourth grade teacher Cathy Kemp who really encouraged me in my classes. She encouraged me and I think made me believe that I was smart and so I took that and sort of owned that and tried to live up to the expectations that she had placed on me, even as a fourth grader".

Was I joking about the "no strings attached" condition for the $500,000?On national radio Dabiri cheekily said "I do know a small portion of that will go towards swimming lessons, because ironically, as much as I enjoy studying the ocean, I can't swim."

This is the bed rock of what makes America what it is today. Only the intellectually feeble would brush aside these and take refuge in bromides like "oh the country is rich", "oh the country is rich in minerals", "oh they drain the talent from other countries". For them I've no answer if they are willfully blind

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fall Festival and an Immigration Debate

Yesterday we had a Fall Festival in our neighborhood. It was a typical fair with Funnel cakes, boat rides, stalls, stilt walkers and singing. I wanted to buy a bottle of water and found a stall selling it at $1 (very reasonable). As I glanced the table I got confused. I saw a book "Hiroshima", a bestseller on the bombing of Hiroshima, leaflets in Spanish, buttons saying 'no stinking paper'. I asked a guy at the stall what the "no stinking paper" button meant. He replied "what do you think of legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants?". I said "Well, I am an immigrant and I've no problem with legal immigrants but illegal immigration is different".

The guy then started off "we prefer the term undocumented immigrants". I just gave a smile that he understood. He continued "I understand you think its just semantics, but the word 'undocumented' carries a better connotation than 'illegal'". I told him "if somebody breaks into your home would you call him a 'thief' or an 'uninvited guest'". He said "of course "I'd call him a thief". Having understood the implication of what he just conceded he pressed further. "this country is engaged in illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan". I knew where he was going with this patently idiotic analogy. I replied "if you think this is a dishonorable country why not choose some other country that would conform to your ethics for these demands". I also saw a book on economics on the table. He then changed tack "do you know how immigrants 'contribute' to the economy". I demurred "hhmm thats debatable". His repartee was "oh you are watching Bill O'reilly and Fox News". I said "you are now assuming my television watching habits". Incidentally I watch more of CNN than Fox. I've seen immigration rallies with placards saying "no human being is illegal". I felt like screaming "the question is not about your legality of being 'homo-sapiens' rather about how you entered the country".

Take a step back and reflect on the greatness of USA. Nowhere in the world can an ethnic community put up a stall in a community fair and brazenly ask for illegal immigration to be accepted. No other country in the world would accept an ethnic community with a stall that uses a language different from the local language. To rub it in the stall representative has a dim view of the country's foreign policy displaying books that cast a dubious light on the country. No other country in the world gives citizenship by virtue of being born on its soil. No other country in the world makes it illegal for any agency, law enforcement or otherwise (schools, libraries etc), to ask the immigration status of those who seek service or help.

What completely angered me was not just his criticism of Iraq war but bracketing Hiroshima (Pearl Harbor) and Afghanistan (9/11).  Most Americans think Afghanistan is justified war. Even if one were to agree with his very malicious reasoning, US will be out of Iraq by 2011 so what do we do with the 14 million illegal immigrants at that point, what rationale will they cling to then?

The economic contributions of illegal immigrants is a very contentious debate that rests not just on 'economics' but in a very swampy land. John McCain, god bless the Maverick, in a speech for Immigration reform that would help provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, bravely asked his largely White American audience, "who amongst you would do the jobs they do". This is what is called as 'contribution'. But who pays for illegal immigrants going into Emergency Care and availing themselves of medical care? Why is America held to impossible and convoluted logic of human rights and compelled to provide education to children of illegal immigrants? Who pays for that? We are told children should not be victimized for the fault of their parents. Very laudable objective but get real. In a country where schools depend on property taxes its no wonder this causes friction. And we are not talking few tens or hundreds of children. No Emergency room attendant can ask an incoming patient for status of residency or even ability to pay. Who pays for that? In states like California, Texas, New Jersey, New York this is a big problem.

I support limiting the 14th amendment, citizenship by birth, to legal residents and citizens. The term 'anchor babies' does have a meaning. People, not many, do come here just to give birth, claim citizenship for their new born and in turn cite them as reason to be allowed to stay. I am aware of the roots of 14th Amendment but that scenario does not apply here in this debate.

The argument that I detest most is the cheeky "oh well this is a country of immigrants, they just came here before us". Yes, this is a country of immigrants but it has acquired a culture and character that has made it prosperous unlike any other country in history. We come seeking the fruits of American culture. For those who sneer at American culture and morals my simple answer is, "you are free to leave". I came to America to be American. I came to America to be assimilated not to contribute to islands of ethnic pride. Yes I love this country to be an English speaking country. There are parts of America where an American cannot get a job without knowing Spanish (knowing it would not be sufficient either). We are looking at a problem.

There are many other questions on immigration debate. What kind of immigrants does America need? Should America liberalize immigration to attract skilled immigrants? Can we reform the quagmire that the Green card process has become to retain much needed talent in USA?

America is at crossroads. A blog, as I repeatedly say, is no place for elaborate theses. This is only to tickle a readers intellect and give a flavor what I think.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

From Mao to Mozart: China embraces the West

Recently I watched "From Mao to Mozart” an Oscar winning documentary about the historic visit of American Violinist Isaac Stern to China in 1980. The timing, the choice of Western Classical musician, the ethnicity of Stern etc all make it very interesting. Isaac Stern, a Jew born in Ukraine, migrated to USA as a child and trained in violin. Amongst the lovers of Hollywood Musicals he is known for his contribution to “Fiddler on the roof” (a nice musical set in the backdrop of anti-semitism and pogroms in Czarist Russia).

The "cultural revolution" started by Mao ended completely only with his death in 1976 and left thousands dead in its wake. The terror it unleashed on the intellectuals, in typical communist fashion, crippled Chinese intelligentsia for decades. The documentary features a violin teacher who testifies how he was imprisoned and how his family was threatened. Deng Xioping is often credited with pushing China to embrace the West unlike Soviet Russia, albeit in a very controlled manner especially on political matters. Unlike Kruschev's famous speech to the Russian parliament denouncing Stalin and laying bare the horrors of Stalinism, Deng left Mao's halo untouched but reversed critical policies.

What surprised me about the documentary was why did China decide to invite a Western Classical musician and have him perform to packed halls across China and allow this critical documentary to be made. The Chinese, unlike Soviet Russia, did not have any traditional linkage to Western Classical music. China did not have a Stravinsky or a Tchaikovsky. Western Classical is as alien to Chinese as it is to Indians. Why would the Chinese government promote something that has no roots to the country's cultural ethos that too barely 4 years after the death of its founding father? I don't know.

Isaac Stern goes to China with a very open mind that is typically American. He is curious, he is wary too but he is ready to embrace the country and goes all out to charm his chinese audience. The best part of the documentary is when the teacher in Isaac Stern emerges. He chides a performer for not using the bow on a violin completely along its length. He tells the student how to use the bow along its entire length like a flowing motion used in table tennis, a sport most chinese are familiar with. It is during this tour that Stern identifies Wang Jian who would later become a world famous cellist.

Unlike Soviet Russia that not just viewed the west with suspicion but made any contact with west dangerous for its citizens, China allowed western ideas to seep in and eagerly engaged with the west. Of course they are two very different countries, different intellectual traditions and at 1950 very different in their economic situations. 

Today the NY philharmonic and other opera houses go to China to hunt for talent. Whether its Lang Lang or Yo Yo Ma or budding star of Metropolitan Opera Shenyang the Chinese have arrived on the scene of west's most prized bastion, western classical music (See my earlier blog 

Li Cunxin China's most famous Ballet dancer and a product of Mao's cultural revolution, later emigrated to USA (where else) and wrote his autobiography, aptly titled, "Mao's last dancer", its now a major motion picture of the same name. 

Isaac Stern's sense of humor, the total absence of any condescension, the teacher in him etc make the documentary very watchable. I mentioned his Jewish heritage as a surprising factor in his visit to China because Indian communists would have howled from the rooftops if a Jewish musician came to India.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Being a Super Power Is Not Easy.

Imagine a clash of titans over 40 years. Suddenly one titan falls down and is exposed as a pygmy walking on stilts hiding behind a shield the real titan would be tempted to trample the vanquished. Unless the real titan is USA and pygmy-as-titan was Soviet Russia.

I just completed reading "Dead Hand" by David Hofman on the cold war arms race. Both US and Russia were involved in an arms race stockpiling nuclear weapons that could destroy the earth many times over. When Soviet Russia crumbled like a cookie from within Americans were exuberant over the demise of their nemesis. Ideologically, politically, militarily and economically Soviet Russia lay prostrate. In fact there remained no Soviet Russia. Just Russia and splinter states that Stalin had gobbled up. Could America afford to gloat and stand by to see its existential nemesis disintegrate? Of course there was gloating. Of course there was triumphalism. BUT there was concern amongst the knowledgeable in the various arms of US government.

Soviet Russia's nuclear stockpile, the biological weapons program (pursued in blatant violation of treaties that USSR had signed) etc were scattered amongst various splinter states that were all breaking up. The command and control structure was vaporizing. USSR scientists now staring at abysmal poverty, some were 'down to the last sack of potatoes', were on the lookout for any buyer. Iranians showed up in Russian colleges under the  pretext of studying chemistry. Outright poaching of dangerous scientific talent was afoot.

America could ill afford to sit out as spectator. Recession was raging at home. Two senators, Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) came together in a bi-partisan effort to craft the Nunn Lugar bill (1992) to help fund Russia to destroy its stockpile of nuclear weapons. America being an open society and that such congressional bills have to be shepherded through the Congress with utmost political skill brings to relief what a moment it was. One of the bills opponents drily remarked "we have spent more than trillion dollars over decades trying to destroy USSR why spend our tax payer money to save them now". Nunn and Lugar faced political uncertainty and had to explain to the American taxpayer why American money must be sent to USSR in the larger interest.

Just to cite one example. Things were so deplorably bad in USSR that American experts who went to assist dismantling weapons were simply shocked at the dilapidated conditions of trains used to transport nuclear weapons. One such train was then shipped to US, retrofit with safety devices and sent back, all on US taxpayer dollar.

In fact reflecting on this angle I see how America reconstructed western Europe under the Marshall plan ploughing in billions of dollars to stave of the communist threat. Mindful of how the victorious countries punished Germany in 1918 America took the leadership in reconstructing Europe in such way that Western Europe would stand as an equal ally in the fight against communism and the nations that were held in thrall behind the Iron Curtain.Whether its Germany or Japan they are what they are today thanks to American power that was exercised arbitrarily and unilaterally. But for Marshall plan western Europe would have crumbled and got lost. Yes America had its selfish aims. In fact it was naked self interest that propelled America to take those decisions. But it was not self interest at the cost of another. At least not always.