A conversation between
Contributing Editor Ta-Nehisi Coates &
Senior Editor Andrew Sullivan
A conversation between
Sullivan: What happens if the bank bailout doesn't quite work? If the economy slips back into depression later this year? If the world depression that seems to be happening is worse than we imagine? Given what seems to be quite virulent hostility from 25 percent of the country, could this get dicey for him? Are we being a little complacent here?
Coates: Yeah, but it's like being a sports fan. You go out onto the field--you're playing football--and if you're playing an away game and it's snowing on the field and it's windy, it's not to your advantage. But if you're a superior team, you can win despite that. I think his skills as a politician will be severely tested. They already have been. But his skills as a politican will be severely tested.
Sullivan: Has anything surprised you, really surprised you, so far?
Coates: Surprised me?
Sullivan: I actually couldn't think of much that surprised me.
Coates: I think he is who he said he was. This torture thing, I'm not surprised by how's he's handling it.
Sullivan: Me neither. Even though it's my responsibility and job to nag him--and I will continue to do so even though I don't think it's the president's role to decide this; it's the attorney general's role. Frankly, the way he's handled it--which is to express great unease with the prospect of putting the country through this, while actually making the key decision to release those memos to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt--was almost pitch perfect. I think that's exactly what the president should do in those circumstances.
Coates: I agree.
Sullivan: What worries you about him?
Coates: Paul Krugman worries me. [laughter] You read his columns and you're like, "Please don't be right." That's what worries me. I know there's always some debate over how much influence a president actually has over an economy. Some, obviously. That scares me. Afghanistan scares me.
Sullivan: Afghanistan scares me less, to be honest, then Iraq.
Coates: Really? Less than Iraq?
Coates: So you don't buy the whole narrative that things have improved?
Sullivan: I don't buy it for a second. I think in Afghanistan, even if this summer we do poorly, I think it's still possible to get out of there. We have 137,000 troops in Iraq. I think that it's simply a civil war that's just been frozen for a while. And getting out there without that going up again and then being trapped and having to stay there--
Coates: And you say it's frozen because we've been paying people off?
Sullivan: Yeah, we've been paying a lot of people off and we've been there as a kind of buffer for the Shiite government. And the Shiite/Sunni divide has been papered over by us primarily. And we're the guarantee for the Sunnis that they're not going to be wiped out in a civil war. When we leave and that distrust grows then you're going to have a real classic return to what happened. Now it may be that they themselves, having experienced what was a pretty nightmarish period of time, don't want to go back to the nightmare. But I don't think that matters as long as the key actors have the weaponry. I think we've trained and armed the Sunnis through these Awakening Councils. We've potentially created a more evenly matched and well-armed civil war then we had before. So that's just me being pathologically depressive about it. I hope I'm proved wrong.
Coates: So what's the optimal situation? That we have no troops in Afghanistan or Iraq?
Sullivan: We had in 2001, not that long ago, no troops in either country. There was no reason to have troops in either of those places. But this is how these things grow. As soon as we put troops in there we assumed some responsibility for those places. And then before we know it, we'll also be assuming military responsibility for Pakistan which is next door to Afghanistan. And then when we withdraw and the whole thing goes to pot, we're somehow responsible even though we've only been there eight years. That's my worry: what happened to Nixon after Johnson. He said he wanted to get out. He said he was going to make peace and leave. And he dug himself in deeper than even Johnson did.
Coates: Now you've worried me about Iraq. Congratulations.
Sullivan: The trouble is I have to read these stories every day and sometimes I get a little bit of an early warning signal. The early warning signals about Iraq are flashing pretty red right now.
Coates: There was a piece last week about how the Taliban in Pakistan had pushed to within a few hundred miles of Islamabad. You're dealing with a nuclear power. All of that scares me.
Sullivan: We cannot control these forces in these places. And I think that the illusion that we can is what, in my view, the last few years should have stripped us of.
Coates: Are people able to hear that?
Sullivan: Maybe not yet. No president wants to tell the American people that he doesn't have control. But I think, frankly, they don't. And the attempt to assure people they do, when they don't, is worse then admitting it. That's what I worry about but, at the same time, I do think people understand that he didn't create this mess, and they're going to give him some leeway until it becomes his mess. My worry is that by slightly accepting the premises of the Bush policy, he will become answerable for its results in a way he was specifically elected not to be.