A Conversation with Dr. David Priess


By MEGHAN BODETTE || September 16, 2016

The Global Conversations project is a Popular Discourse initiative to bring together voices from various countries, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to discuss issues that matter. This week, we are fortunate enough to bring you a conversation with Dr. David Priess, a former CIA officer during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.  Dr. Priess is also the author of The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Daily Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama. The book lays out the history of the President’s daily intelligence brief through interviews with former Presidents, Vice Presidents, CIA directors, national security advisers, secretaries of state and defense, and other relevant personnel.

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Dr. David Priess

Popular Discourse: Your book, The President’s Book of Secrets, tells the story of the President’s daily intelligence brief. What fact or anecdote in the book do you find most interesting?

David Priess: While some serious documentary research went into this book, the interviews with former president and vice presidents and others were most revealing.

I expected to find plenty of examples of presidents and other top officials getting real insight from their daily book of secrets–things that helped them make some of the toughest national security decisions this country has faced. And those examples showed up, for sure.

But you asked for the most interesting anecdotes, and most of those had to do with less serious moments. Two stand out.

First, when George H.W. Bush was president. You have to remember–he’d been CIA director, he’d been vice president for eight years … so he was no stranger to intelligence. Maybe that’s why he was so comfortable with his daily intelligence briefers, willing to have not only no-kidding serious conversation with them about the highly classified information in the PDB but also some fun moments. Like the time his CIA briefer conveyed the analysts’ assessment that the incumbent would win an election in Nicaragua. President Bush added it up differently, and he offered a wager to the CIA briefer that the analysis was wrong. It was–the challenger won, as Bush predicted–and the briefer brought an ice cream cone to the Oval Office to pay up.

Second, when Bill Clinton was president. He was surprised on his 50th birthday to open up his PDB and start reading about crisis after crisis around the world, all caused by things that he had said and done in the preceding days and weeks. It took him a few articles in the book before he realized they were pulling his leg, having a little fun with him.

I like those examples because they show that this very serious business of providing classified intelligence analysis to the president remains a very personal process, with real personalities and real human moments.

PD: How has the intelligence community adapted to technological and political changes since the administrations in which you served? Has it adapted well?

DP: Much has been written elsewhere about the expanded flow of information to analysts, especially in the realm of social media. I’ll focus instead on a narrower topic: the delivery of daily intelligence analysis to top customers.

Between administrations, and within each one, the intelligence community adapts to the needs of its customers and to the personality of its First Customer, the president of the United States. These adjustments have traditionally succeeded when built on a foundation of solid communication between intelligence officers and the recipients of their products. Absent a robust relationship, those changes become guesswork.

The biggest change with the President’s Daily Brief itself involves the medium of delivery. For decades–since the CIA started producing it for Lyndon Johnson in 1964–the PDB has been page after page of Top Secret intelligence assessments printed in a book. The format of that book has changed, but it’s been ink on paper.

But not anymore. President Obama gets his PDB, now from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, on an iPad. The PDB still contains analysis of various international issues based on all-source intelligence, but the new format allows for variations like embedded multimedia presentations that can enhance impact.

PD: What, in your analysis, is the best way of delivering daily intelligence to the president and other top policymakers?

DP: There may not be one best way. We have to remember–no one gets to the presidency or another top-level office without figuring out what learning style works best for him or her. And these folks have no shortage of advisers to help them get the most out of their time. The preferences of each president or other senior officer should drive how he or she receives daily intelligence analysis.

That said, even as an avid reader myself, I find it hard to see how the full benefit of daily intelligence can be captured without in-person briefings. A president or other senior official forgoing such briefings increases the chances that a senior adviser who is not intimately familiar with the nuances of intelligence will skew the information–deliberately or inadvertently–or otherwise prevent an objective assessment of the facts on the ground from reaching that official. Any risks arising from the direct contact between intelligence officers and senior customers can be mitigated.

An in-person briefing has a huge upside. It allows the customer to discuss with a trained intelligence officer issues regarding the sources behind the daily assessments, alternative points of view, and implications of the judgments on the printed page. A deeper understanding results. Plus, it gives the intelligence community a much better sense of the customer’s needs and challenges, which helps in the development of future products.

 


Special thanks to Dr. Priess, who was open to providing meaningful commentary to a new, growing media journalism project run by young college students. We are indebted to the time he devoted to helping us out. 

Hillary Rodham Clinton for President of the United States of America


By THE EDITORIAL BOARD || September 13, 2016

2016 has been a paradigm-shifting campaign season. Decades of growing partisanship and polarization have culminated in starkly different choices for the presidency. Nominally, Americans are presented with a choice of two candidates from the two major parties, one advanced by Democratic primary voters and the D.N.C and the other by Republicans and the R.N.C. Yet the true choice American voters will make in November has very little to do with the party the candidates are affiliated with. Instead, American politics seems to have split along new lines, between the establishment and the grass-roots, between anti-intellectualism and an acceptance of facts, between truth and post-truth politics. Soaring unfavorables for both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald J. Trump indicate vast displeasure with either candidacy. Both are widely seen as unfit for the presidency. The spoiler effect has returned to American politics, with almost a fifth of the electorate indicating at least nominal support for a third party candidate, either Governor Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party or Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party. Even within their respective parties, both Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump face the potential of revolt have overwhelmingly characterized the election can easily dominate the choice for whom to vote for. However, there are also policy disagreements that are worth examining.

Governor Johnson of the Libertarian Party presents a stunning lack of knowledge of foreign policy and even a disdain for current events, recently characterized by his failure to recognize the identity or importance of the city of Aleppo in Syria, the epicenter of the Syrian Civil War. While his apology and acknowledgement of a lack of knowledge is commendable—whereas a Donald Trump would have deflected from the issue or later deny that the episode ever occurred— the fact that the governor appears to be uninterested in the role of the United States around the world is a troubling characteristic in a president. Even giving the governor the benefit of the doubt—indeed, we all make mistakes—the episode then brings up several questions about his advisers and campaign. We expect that presidents and presidential candidates have extensive political and policy advisors that ensure not only that candidates are prepared for such issues and anticipate such questions, but also brief presidential candidates quite often on issues of relevant policy, foreign and domestic. The very fact that Johnson’s advisers and campaign failed in those two responsibilities raises important questions about the types of individuals that would be in a Johnson/Weld White House or Cabinet.  In domestic policy, the governor advocates for a staunchly libertarian view of the role of government, which characterizes everything from drug schedules to motor vehicle licenses as federal overreach. While the role and scope of government is grounds for legitimate debate, the radical approach that the governor takes is unacceptable for domestic policy and would lead to serious negative consequences.

Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party is more knowledgeable on foreign policy, and a plank in her platform is to advocate for the idea of no more foreign intervention and complete isolationism. Such a position on American foreign policy is simply untenable in today’s interconnected and interdependent world. It is certainly legitimate to question the extent to which the U.S should be involved in other countries militarily or diplomatically, and to question the benefits of globalization. But to retreat entirely is not a policy that is sustainable, either in the long or short term, and would lead to serious negative consequences both at home and abroad. The reality remains that the United States commands the largest armed forces in the world as well as the largest foreign presence, and while there is room to scale back, a complete retreat is unadvisable. But Dr. Stein’s platform is more troubling on the domestic policy side. She displays a lack of economic knowledge in calling for a quantitative easing program for student debt. She buys into hard-left conspiracy theories about genetically modified foods, microwaves, Wi-Fi signals, and vaccinations, among other scientifically proven technologies. It would be a mistake to vote for someone who believes, or at minimum legitimates the belief, that the F.D.A is part of a conspiracy to contaminate the public with poor vaccines.

Voting for a third party candidate or refusing to vote at all, carries with it unacceptable risk. As Spencer Slagowitz has pointed out, ‘the consequences of voting for a third party candidate in our current political climate are undeniable. Inaction or voting for a third candidate, empowers those who do act and certainly weakens the candidate whom you could have voted for. It is equally difficult to contend, as some have, that a Trump presidency would strengthen the progressive movement. Sacrificing the well-being of American citizens for the spurious chance of a later progressive victory, that itself would have an even more questionable potential of reversing the full impact of a Trump presidency is an unconvincing option, to say the least.’

Finally, Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, is completely and utterly unqualified for the presidency of the United States. His identity politics has become inseparable from his policy positions—between decrying ethnic and racial groups as “rapists and murderers” and suggesting a religious test and ban for immigrants entering the country, from displaying a stunning lack of knowledge of basic tenets of the American government ranging from the articles enumerated in the Constitution to basic nuclear policy, between feuding with the family of a fallen veteran of the U.S Armed Forces to mocking the disability of a New York Times reporter, from denouncing nearly everyone in the current administration including the Joint Chiefs of Staff to displaying violence and hatred towards political opponents and those who would exercise their First Amendment right to free expression. Remarkable numbers of government officials and policy experts, both Democrat and Republican, have come out against his candidacy.  The utter lack of respect and disdain in which Mr. Trump holds the office of the Presidency is astounding. And on top of the temperamental disqualifications, legislative objections abound. As Josh Zakharov has written, even if you disagree with Clinton’s policies, Donald Trump effectively has none. And the precious few policies Mr. Trump has advocated for are woefully inadequate, boneheaded, utterly contradictory, and plainly unconstitutional. They evince, per Ethan Gelfer, “ a remarkably myopic and narrow view of the multinational, multiethnic, multifaith, globalized world we live in today.”  Between building a wall and banning Muslims from entering the United States, between advocating for the deportation of 11 million residents of the United States to openly advocating for a foreign intervention in the American political process, between threatening to use nuclear weapons and indicating a willingness to turn the full faith and credit of the United States into a bargaining chip on the world stage, Mr. Trump has proven himself again and again to be a menace to the American presidency, to the democratic process, indeed, to the very idea of America that has lit the world for over two centuries. Mr. Trump’s very candidacy, and the R.N.C’s support of his candidacy, is offensive to the very fabric of our nation. Put simply, Mr. Trump cannot be President of the United States.

Despite there being three anti-establishment, resentful, angry presidential candidates in the 2016 race, there is one candidate and one party that represents a beacon of unity and progress. While a main strike against her in the eyes of many, Secretary Clinton’s membership in the “establishment” of American politics has made her into the most qualified candidate in history. Presenting a formidable resume, from being an advocate at the Children’s Defense Fund to First Lady of the United States, from Senator for the state of New York to Secretary of State of the United States, Hillary Clinton offers the experience and leadership necessary to stitch Washington together after decades of growing resentment, as well as the capability to lead our nation through the uncertain times ahead. Offering clear-eyed, level headed policy proposals that reflect a willingness to listen to and compromise with those who are willing to sit down at the negotiating table, Secretary Clinton’s Democratic Party platform is a remarkable document that reflects the best wisdom of this country’s brightest minds and strongest movements. Her candidacy brings people together, from the fifty million disabled Americans she fights for to the African Americans and Latino Americans who are given a voice, the Democratic Party embraces its value of inclusion and truly offers the best future for all those who are willing to play along. Secretary Clinton’s most valuable trait is her ability to listen, and while that makes her a poor campaigner and rhetorician, it will allow her presidency to be marked with cooperation and cross-partisanship that for too long has been missing from Capitol Hill and the White House.

Having been involved on the national stage for a quarter century, Secretary Clinton has certainly picked up some political baggage. She has a reputation for being a foreign policy hawk, for too often changing her views based on what seems to be political exploitation, she has displayed a level of impropriety with government business and communications that reveal a level of disdain to which she holds the American press, she is secluded on the campaign trail and rarely appears in an unscripted way to the American public or to the press, and she seems to have no hard and fast views. Yet she is a candidate that in today’s political climate that is the best choice to sit at the Resolute Desk on January 20, 2017.

As we’ve written in the past—“The fact that Hillary Clinton is the most recognizable name in politics of this decade is not only a testament to her resilience and intelligence, but her extensive experience as a legislator, policymaker, and stateswoman.” So let us not ignore Clinton’s leadership abilities and her experience with facilitating the administrative responsibilities of an organization—one of the most important responsibilities of the presidency. Clinton is an extraordinary administrator. Love him or hate him, Henry Kissinger asserted that “she ran the State Department in the most effective way that I’ve ever seen.” Our failure to raise questions about how a president sets priorities, how a president executes laws, and the advisors with whom presidents surround themselves is incredibly troubling in a world in which those factors have become increasingly important and one in which her opponent has assembled advisors of questionable repute and experience.

Whether one agrees with her policies or not, Secretary Clinton is simply the only candidate who has enough respect for the intellect and independence of America and its citizens to hold its highest office. We should ask for more from our candidates. We should seek to expose their flaws and hold them to a higher standard. Yes, that does mean holding Secretary Clinton to her words and chastising her for when things go wrong. That does not mean that she is not worth your vote.

If fidelity to democracy is the code of our civic religion then surely respect for that process should lead us not to cast a ballot in favor of someone who disregards and even hates that process, or someone who builds a reputation and a case for a vote based on a hatred of the system in which we conduct our political process, but to vote for the one who will best embody the American ideal. Let us preserve the sanctity of the highest office of our nation, and vote for the next President of the United States with confidence and candor, and place a leader into the Oval Office who can be trusted with steering this nation in the right direction for the years to come.

Making Tunisia Safe Again (Minus the Donald)


Matthew Herskowitz || September 8, 2016

The Arab Spring redefined the meaning of a revolution in the 21st Century. In 2011, a crescendo of demonstrations and protests ranging from the subtlety of picket signs to the severity of mass killings plunged 16 nations into near chaos and social upheaval. All of them have been considered failures. Except one.

Tunisia underwent its formal “Arab Spring” in December of 2010, when demonstrations and popular instability threatened to destroy the regime of’ Zine el-Abedin Ben Ali, the country’s president. After scuffling to churn out as many false promises to his people as possible, Ben Ali fled the country with his family. This marked the first popular uprising and successful overthrow since Iran’s Jasmine Revolution in 1979. It’s been hailed as a powerful democratizing move. Although popular and widely touted as the Arab Spring’s sole success, how successful is Tunisia 5 years removed?

The answer is complex. Foreign Policy writes that the nation is democratizing in an unprecedented way. “Tunisians have chosen parliaments and presidents in three rounds of national elections and adopted a new constitution that guarantees citizens a broad array of rights and freedoms. They’ve exulted in the newfound freedom to organize, agitate, and express opinions, and basked in the attention accompanying a Nobel Peace Prize.” So, Tunisia seems legit, right? Obviously, the second a country holds an election it automatically attains democratic immortality and everyone holds hands and sings Kumbaya.

Well, this is how us “Westerners” often paint democracy. When we read that a country has “democratized” as you might often see or read in your daily news cycle, you imagine that the government immediately recognizes individual freedoms and becomes as transparent as glass. I argue that this is an ignorant and dangerous way to look at the state of Tunisia’s deceptively fragile society. We overlook the fine print: the fact that police are bribed by drug cartels for practical immunity while honest work is nearly impossible to come by.

Labels are misleading, Tunisia’s road to democracy is so long and winding that many will starve or perish on the way, or worse: leave to fight in Syria. Since 2013, Tunisia has had the largest export of foreign fighters to the Islamic State and has scores of disenfranchised and restless inhabitants joining other groups like the Al-Nusra front, Hamas, and even Libyan militants. The problem lies in corruption that has crippled Tunisia’s economy. Low wages due to instability pushed the unemployment rate to 15.3%. That doesn’t sound like much, but to put it in perspective, that’s a 50% increase since the Arab Spring. The problem is that communities in remote parts of the country with low funding become hotbeds for terrorism, and the war on terror is fostering anti-Western hatred among the youth in much of Tunisia. The problem is that rather than trying to incorporate young Muslims in the workforce, the Tunis government is cracking down on their Muslim population in a brutal and counter-productive way, mass arresting scores of people with “rudimentary” intelligence.

The key to progression in Tunisia starts with national security. Tourism is dead due to growing radicalism and instability; specifically, the devastating Bardo Museum attacks that left scores dead in 2015. From 2011-2015, the government has done little with its vast wealth from agriculture and tourism to invest in protective measures like border security and policing. Corruption probes are a long shot due to powerful drug cartels that keep politicians placated with money. The time is now for the Tunisian government to act as they teeter on the brink of another anarchical social upheaval. One promising political progression that can lead to economic action is the decrease in political gridlock. The Tunis parliament must start to pass crucial reforms that would increase funding to intelligence agencies instead simply demonizing the country’s Muslim populace, while enfranchising impoverished communities where people don’t have to pick between joining a cartel, fleeing to Syria, starving, or being killed. This economic stimulus, specifically investing in education and infrastructure projects that would create jobs, would bring back stability in an unstable land. It would also bring back Tunisia’s third largest industry: tourism.

The fact that many deem Tunisia to be the Arab Spring’s “success” shows us that many believe that countries in the Middle East and North Africa are somehow hopeless, and any sign of progress is unbelievable. Yet, Tunisia, with all it has overcame as a nation, faces the same obstacles that every country has faced in its formation. With a new constitution, many are hopeful of Tunisia return to the similar prosperity it had in the 80s. Foreign policy experts and history buffs are right about one thing: If Tunisia, with the help of the international community, agrees to crack down on corruption as a prerequisite to further reform, they will truly become the Arab Spring’s sole “success”.

A Conversation with Noorjahan Akbar

The Global Conversations project is a Popular Discourse initiative to bring together voices from various countries, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to discuss issues that matter. This week, we are fortunate enough to bring you a conversation with Noorjahan Akbar.

Akbar is a writer and human rights activist who has shared her story with the world in order to raise awareness for women’s rights issues in Afghanistan. She is the founder of Free Women Writers, a group that amplifies the voices of Afghan women seeking equality and justice in their societies.

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Popular Discourse: What inspired you to found Free Women Writers?

Noorjahan Akbar: I started Free Women Writers in 2013. It was originally just a small anthology of Afghan women’s writings in Persian named Daughters of Rabia, after the Afghan poetess Rabia Balkhi. My friend Batul Moradi and I published the book because we were fed up with the fact that most of the books available for free or for a cheap price in Kabul and other large cities in Afghanistan were radicalizing and misogynistic. We wanted there to be an alternative. People loved the book. In fact, within a month, we ran out of all our 1500 copies. It was distributed by volunteers around the country.

The warm welcome made me think of creating a bigger platform that continued the work of the book in highlight women’s stories and voices. That is how Free Women Writers was created. For most of the past three years it has been a social media blog, largely in Persian with some Pashtu articles here and there. Last year, I started translating some of the articles to English, and this year I formed a collective and recruited a few volunteers to help out with editing, translation and content creation.

I started a blog for Afghan women because I have always loved writing. I started blogging when I was a teenager and I still remember the way I felt when my first article was published in an Afghan newspaper. Afterwards, the newspaper’s editors invited me to attend the weekly meeting scheduled to discuss the publication along with my sister. I was probably fourteen and sitting in a room with more than a dozen adults who critically analyzed each other’s pieces. When it came to my piece, someone who didn’t know I had written it began shredding it to pieces. It made me feel so proud because it was a sign that my piece was being taken seriously- not dismissed as child’s play. In some way, it legitimized my writing. I’ve always found writing to be incredibly empowering, so I wanted to create the possibility for other Afghan women to read their pieces published on a platform.

PD: In Western media, Afghan women can be mischaracterized as lacking in agency- in fact, women in developing countries as a whole are often mischaracterized in this way. Why do you think this happens? What should be done to change this perception?

NA: The reintroduction of Afghan women to the West happened during the American-led intervention in 2001. From the first days of the plan to attack Afghanistan, the plight of Afghan women was used as a narrative to justify the war. In order to paint a strong picture, leaders-and even some feminist organizations- leaned heavily on narrating the victimization of Afghan women by the Taliban, from images of women getting beat on the street to public execution. The famous Laura Bush speech in November 2001, focused on the oppression of “Afghan women and children,” which equated women to children and implied that both lack agency and are mere victims. This is how in the contemporary narratives of Afghanistan (because lack of historical memory is a reality of our world today) the phrase “Afghan women” became synonymous with violence, maimed bodies, stoning, and cut noses.

The reality, of course, is a little bit more complicated. Violence is a reality for most Afghan women. I would argue, and statistics also show, that most Afghan women face some sort of violence at home or on the streets. However, that is one side of the coin- an important side without a doubt. On the other hand, Afghan women also have a long history of struggling for equality and human rights. Our history did not start in 2001 and it does not depend on Western interventions or efforts. For me as an activist, it is important to have various narratives of Afghan women- instead of a single story- because I know you cannot “empower” women by telling them over and over again that they are “victims.” Stories of Afghan women’s success, introduction of role model women, and studying and understanding the history of Afghan women can help empower us even more than yet another dehumanizing image and story of maimed female bodies. We need a more balanced approach to telling Afghan women’s stories. I think the most important tool we have in changing the current one-dimensional narrative is the voices of Afghan women themselves and that is one of the reasons Free Women Writers now publishes in English as well as Persian: to challenge the dominant victimizing narrative around our lives by telling our own stories in our own authentic voices.

PD: What do you consider to be the goals of the women’s movement in Afghanistan? What progress have you seen, and what steps do you think should still be taken?

NA: I think it is up for debate whether or not we have a coherent women’s movement in Afghanistan, but there are a lot of efforts that are laudable. These efforts have different goals. For me the ultimate goal for any women’s movement is to create an equal society where we won’t need a women’s movement. We are far from that in Afghanistan and around the world.

Afghanistan is trying to find itself after nearly five decades of war and conflict. In many ways, we are going back- instead of forward- to a time when women had more rights. In the recent years, despite the Taliban and insecurity, we have made huge progress. Just the fact that 8 million children, 40% of them girls, go to school is something that makes me hopeful. We have more female teachers and university students right now than any time in the history of our country. Women are gaining more political power and more women have jobs than before. Women are now part of the army and the police. They are parliamentarians and musicians and athletes. But of course we have a long way to go. First of all, for any sustainable progress we need a safer Afghanistan for everyone. With the current instability and terror attacks, we fear that we will lose what we have gained. In some parts of the country, women have already made setbacks due to Taliban gaining power. The Taliban are an existentialist threat to Afghan women and the future of Afghanistan and all sustainable change and progress depends on dealing with this threat. For as long as they continue attacking women and communities, more activists, educated elites and professional will risk their lives to leave the country and change in Afghanistan will remain fragile.


Meghan Bodette contributed reporting. 

Meghan is a staff writer at Popular Discourse and a first-year student at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. 

A Conversation with Kori Schake


By MEGHAN BODETTE and THE POPULAR DISCOURSE EDITORIAL BOARD || August 31st, 2016

Experience. Insight. Taking the long view. In national security, few things matter more– and few people can provide perspective on them like Kori Schake can.

Schake’s experience in government spans multiple administrations and agencies. Her career includes time in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as the director for Defense Strategy and Requirements on the National Security Council, and as the deputy director for policy planning at the State Department. She has seen the policy process firsthand from various viewpoints, at key moments in America’s post-Cold War history– and this week, Popular Discourse had the opportunity to reach out to her with three questions on some more current issues.

Popular Discourse: You, along with many other conservative national security experts, have signed a letter condemning Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and promising not to work for him. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is welcoming the support of disillusioned Republicans. Do you think this campaign trend will create opportunities for a more bipartisan approach to foreign policy if she is elected? What might that look like?

Kori Schake: It could, but it’s too soon to tell.  Because Clinton is getting conservative national security types for free — the campaign isn’t making any policy compromises to secure our support, she’s just benefitting from our abhorrence of Trump.  But a bipartisan policy would require her to give us reasons for supporting her policies. I’d love to see her stop talking nonsense about TPP as the bellwether.  Stop relying on Republican votes to deliver a trade deal that, if it’s not passed, will be both an economic and foreign policy debacle during her presidency.  

I also think we conservatives have a lot of work to do with our own voters, who have soured on internationalism, both economic and security.  Republican voters are actually more opposed to trade than are Democrats.  And, of course, it’s conservatives who’ve put Donald Trump on the masthead of the party of Lincoln.  It will be insufficient to ignore or repudiate their views; we actually need to win the argument about how engagement with the world benefits Americans.  Because we can’t have sensible bipartisan policies until we reestablish the basis for them on our own team.

PD: What do you see as the most important foreign policy challenge the United States faces in the short term– the next 5-10 years? What about in the long term–10+ years?

KS: I’d say the principal short term challenge is helping the American people to understand how the economy is changing.  Technology is sweeping through economies like a wildfire, and even with all its benefits, people are scared by the rate of change.  Not only are peoples’ jobs going away, entire professions are going away. People are right to be scared, and political leaders aren’t helping them find paths to new work.  We won’t be able to engage confidently in the world until we succeed at that, and there are lots of foreign policy problems that need our engagement if they are not to burgeon into crises or take directions damaging to our security and prosperity.

For the longer term, I worry that we’ve lost the art of building norms and institutions.  Post-Cold War triumphalism at the expense of our power led us to reject lots of modes of cooperation that, tiresome as the doing of them may be, are cost-effective ways for the U.S. to ensure international order and practice that are beneficial to us.  And President Obama’s just as guilty of it as Presidents Clinton and Bush and the Congresses they dealt with were — drone policy is just one example where we’ve over a decade conducted ourselves in ways we will find objectionable in others, yet we made no attempt to position ourselves for a future in which we weren’t the only possessors of the capability.  We don’t compromise enough with others, we don’t utilize the means they favor for getting things done, we don’t enshrine in law or institutions things we want to have done.  It’s drawing down reserves instead of building them up.

PD: What advice would you offer to young people hoping to work in foreign policy and national security?

KS: Don’t worry too much about failure.  I’m struck at the number of young professionals who are preoccupied with making a mistake that derails their career.  Failure is just data.  Don’t give it outsized importance — your career isn’t a medieval morality play.  And you aren’t the only person whose behavior is being judged in any given circumstance, so don’t preoccupy yourself.  Dust yourself off and get back to work.  If you’re tailoring your actions to prevent failure, you’ll sail too close to the shore to achieve all your talents can give.  And while I wouldn’t advise making as many mistakes as I have, it’s emboldening to outrun hostile fortune.  Give yourself license to take risks.

 

Monday, August 22, 2016: “Taste Makers”

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Solving time: 11:37, marking the first time that I’ve surpassed 10 minutes on a Monday puzzle in a long time. Hard for a Monday.

Puzzle quality:

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Theme: The first word in each of the theme answers (or, in the case of 39A, the first half of the first word) is a type of taste, resulting in the revealer TASTE MAKERS (61A: Influential sorts … or a hint to the starts of 17-, 23-, 39-, and 50-Across). Theme answers include:

  • BITTER ENEMY (17A: Archfoe)
  • SALTY LANGUAGE (23A: Profanity)
  • SWEETHEART DEALS (39A: Golden parachutes, e.g.)
  • SOUR PATCH KIDS (50A: Popular movie theater candy)

Welcome to the last-ever Popular Discourse blogpost on the daily New York Times crossword puzzle, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s been a pleasure serving all of the zero average daily readers of our crossword blog.

I actually wasn’t familiar with the phrase in one of the theme clues, specifically 39A. Apparently, a “golden parachute,” which I’ve never heard of before, is “an agreement between a company and an employee (usually upper executive) specifying that the employee will receive certain significant benefits if employment is terminated,” according to Mr. Wikipedia. I didn’t know of the phrase SWEETHEART DEALS either, which are “abnormally favorable contractual agreements.” Mr. Wikipedia actually gives a golden parachute as an example of a SWEETHEART DEAL, so the theme answer is clearly very fitting for the clue.

While I have definitely heard of the phrase SALTY LANGUAGE before, it took me a long time to get that answer from the clue 23A: Profanity, even when I had the letters SALT filled in and a couple of the letters in LANGUAGE filled in as well. I also had SOUR PATCH but was missing the last four letters, until it finally hit me that there’s a specific type of the candy called SOUR PATCH KIDS. My struggles in getting the theme answers were probably the primary cause of my above-average solving time today.

On top of that, there were some rather outdated non-theme answers, including ALL WET (35A: Completely wrong), which I couldn’t seem to get right (hah!) until I had all but one of the letters filled in from the surrounding downs. I’m used to seeing ELIA in crossword grids, but typically paired with the clue “Director Kazan” or something else referring to ELIA Kazan. This time, the clue came in the form of 37D: Charles Lamb’s “Essays of __,” which is apparently a collection of – you guessed it – essays that I’m unacquainted with. Apparently “Put up your DUKES!” is a phrase? If somebody told me to do that, I’d be like what? I’ve heard “duke it out” before, meaning to exchange fists, and apparently “putting up your dukes” has a similar definition of putting up your fists.

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Having LEAK instead of DRIP for 44A: Faucet problem and forgetting the word GELD (26D: Neuter, as a stud) didn’t help my time either.

Resigning from the post,
Kenneth, eternally lowly serf of Crossworld

Sunday, August 21, 2016: “Wonder-Ful!”

 

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Solving time: 55:34, under-average but with the help of several Internet cheats. Medium-ish.

Puzzle quality:

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Theme: This puzzle commemorates the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service. It includes several landmarks from the US National Parks, which are represented in circled letters that have the same shape as the landmark itself. For example,

  • Denali is in the shape of a mountain, I suppose … except the left side of the mountain is longer than the right one because the first letter, D, hangs outward.
  • Old Faithful literally erupts upwards through YELLOWSTONE at 32A.
  • Half-Dome is shaped like … a half-dome. Actually, not really. Compare the shape of the crossword’s circled letters to that of the actual Half-Dome in Yosemite, and you will soon realize that the crossword has the image flipped vertically. Anyway, among the landmarks, we have:
  • Arches National Park is represented here in the shape of, you guessed it, arches!
  • And the Grand Canyon looks like a… basket.

Not much time today, and also the Internet was super slow so I didn’t even finish the crossword until much later than usual.

The reason why the “puzzle quality” image is that of Half-Dome is not just because Half-Dome is one of the puzzle’s circled phrases and not because this puzzle is anywhere near as beautiful or majestic as that natural landmark, but instead because this puzzle was “half” of what I thought it could be. I did appreciate the overall bear-like image of the grid, but virtually everything else about this crossword was mediocre; see above for my problems with the circled “theme” phrases.

To meet the requirements of the grid, there’s a ridiculous number of three-letter answers, which inevitably results in tons of ugly crosswordese, including two words which literally just consist of one letter repeated three times – AAA (58A: Highly rated Bond) and OOO (28D: It’s as good as XXX). Seriously, OOO? The clue was a good attempt at a raunchy pun, but when your options are so constrained that even a skilled crossword constructor like Jeff Chen has to resort to OOO, that’s when you know that the proverbial sh*t may have hit the fan.

There’s also a ton – and I mean a ton – of arcana peppered throughout the puzzle. W. BOSON (102A: Subatomic particle named for the weak force) is really esoteric scientific knowledge, even for the standards of the New York Times crossword. I doubt that anyone who isn’t a quantum physicist will be able to get that answer from reading the clue alone. Who on God’s green earth is SLOCUM (14D: Henry W. __, Union major general during the Civil War)?? Here’s a good test: search “Henry W. Union major general” on Google and you will literally find the last name of a different general for the entirety of the first page.

With the exception of LADY PALMS (48D: Indoor plants popular in waiting rooms) and VEGAN DIET (84D: Regimen adopted by Bill Clinton in 2010), not a single answer was memorable enough for me to write about here, nor were any of the clues punny or witty enough to make me laugh. It’s possible that I’m just being too harsh, but when you’ve got a grid filled with ERITU VII SEI NIH it’s hard to be creative.

Signed,
Kenneth, lowly serf of Crossworld

Saturday, August 20, 2016: “Watertight Azalea Tree”

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Solving time: 39:25, nearly 40 minutes under average with relatively few cheats. Fácil.

Puzzle quality:

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Theme


AMES (41A: Hawkeye State city) is one of the entries in today’s puzzle. But besides a space-grant research university and the birth-site of the world’s first electronic computer, this college town boasts relatively little. Oh, it’s also home to the largest federal animal disease center in the US. But besides that, there’s really nothing that spectacular about this town; its downtown main street carries that same brand of dreary charm as any other in the country. It’s a convenient crossword answer, much like some of the answers in today’s puzzle feel like they belong in a crossword more than they do in a real-life context. There are some landmarks here and there, but other than that, the grid is just a passing attraction.

By landmarks, I mean AZALEA TREE (15A: Colorful ornamental with a trunk), which is obscure but in a delightful way and sounds like just about the prettiest thing that anybody could ever have in his garden.

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I want that.

Reading Rex Parker’s blogpost on today’s puzzle, I was once again struck by the arbitrary nature of his evaluations; what qualifies a certain answer to be “clever” or “enjoyable,” given that only a clue and not an answer can ever possibly be a pun? Does such an answer have to have lots of “high-value” letters – in other words, letters like “X” and “Z” that score you more points on Scrabble? Rex mentioned that he thought there were too many “adjective-noun” combinations in today’s long answers; METAL STAMP (12D: Imprinting tool) and RUMBLE SEAT (57A: Old-fashioned auto feature) satisfy that pattern, for example. But what’s wrong with adjective-noun two-word phrases? It seems totally groundless to discriminate against them. I think that answers with bounce or spice consist of rare-but-common words. What do I mean by that?  SMOKY TOPAZ has some nice bite to it because of the cool sound of the phrase in general and the rare-but-common nature of the word “topaz”; in other words, the word topaz hardly comes up in our day-to-day lives, but it sounds familiar to all of us because we’ve definitely seen it before somewhere. It sounds exotic, but imminently accessible. That rare-but-common vibe should characterize all the long answers in themeless puzzles, in my opinion. Phrases like ART BOARD (20A: Backing for a cartoonist) because both of the words inside them are too ordinary. Sure, if you juxtapose them together, they might result in a semi-obscure combination, but the sum of the parts isn’t worth much more than the parts themselves in this case.

What else? 1A: Like a Navy seal (WATERTIGHT) was a funny pun; notice how the letters in “seal” aren’t capitalized, meaning that the word isn’t referring to the special operations force but instead any type of substance that binds two things together. That clue, coupled with its adjacent across – 11A: Tall tale producer (IMAX, whose screens are really tall) – resulted in a fairly humorous top row. But DTEN (18A: Battleship guess) was arbitrary af, given that it’s just a random spot on the “Battleship” board, and references to ANSON Williams (22A: __ Williams, Potsie player on “Happy Days”) and ’50s cowboy character HONDO (42A: John Wayne title role) reminded me that Will Shortz and his crossword constructors are from the STONE AGE (50A: Primitive). OK, maybe not the STONE AGE, but at least several generations ago.

It’s only been six days since the last mention of MERINO (31A: Quality wool source) and nine days since that of Edmond DANTES (43D: Edmond __, the Count of Monte Cristo). Where’s the originality??

I’M DONE,
Kenneth, lowly serf of Crossworld

Friday, August 19, 2016: “Bring It On, It’s Go Time”

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Solving time: 36:10. Well under average – about 20 minutes or so – although I closed the puzzle for quite a long time after attempting to solve it the first time, rather than trying to solve the grid in one go. Anyway, breezy.

Puzzle quality:

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As evidenced by the fact that this blogpost probably won’t be published until after midnight, I’m low on time today, so this one will be a quickie. Actually, maybe I can indeed publish this before the clock strikes 12. Let’s try.

The NE corner of this puzzle vanished very quickly – in under 2 minutes, actually. I knew the answer to 14D: Nonactor with cameos in 20 Marvel movies (STAN LEE) as soon as I saw it, and a clue similar to 18A: “Bleeding Love” singer Lewis (LEONA) appeared in a fairly recent puzzle (can’t remember which one). On top of that, a three-letter clue about an art medium – 25A: Medium for many 13-Down – is bound to be OIL; I mean, what else could it possibly be?

There’s a Beach Boys song called “California Feelin,'” which idealizes the Southern California landscape and weather. It has a line in it about how you have to remember sunny California when it’s cold and gray in New York. With that East Coast-West Coast contrast in mind, I was able to fill in I LOVE LA astonishingly quickly for 38D: Song that starts “Hate New York City / It’s cold and it’s damp.” I also saw through the pun in 37A: Person with a lot on his plate? and immediately knew that it had to be BIG EATER, even though that’s a phrase that I don’t use particularly often (though it is quite common, I suppose).

The UL corner had me guessing for quite a while, since I only had STEM (19A: Non-humanities acronym) in that section of the grid after my first couple go-arounds. But once I figured out WHAT’S THAT (1A: “Come again?”), it disappeared pretty fast. I don’t have enough time to check now, but I’m almost certain that ESTATE TAX (17A: Trust issue?) has been recycled from an older puzzle. I sorta frown upon that, since phrases longer than four or five characters really shouldn’t turn into banal crosswordese. There are enough permutations of vowels and consonants once you pass the threshold of five characters that you shouldn’t have to reuse particular words over and over again.

A couple of tricky clues:

  • Mostly because my family was never the type to use boxed food mixes, this was the first time that I heard of RICE-A-RONI (15A: Brand whose first commercial featured a cable car) which is apparently “pilaf-like” and “consists of rice, vermicelli, pasta, and seasonings” (Mr. Wikipedia).
  • Is it just me, or do I keep seeing references to “All My Children”? I swear that this is my fourth or fifth time this summer that the TV show has appeared in a grid, this time with ERICA (26A: Emmy-winning Susan Lucci role).
  • I thought that diner lingo in the clue [28A: “On the hoof,” in diner lingo] was referring to the answer and not the phrase “On the hoof” itself. Whatever. Anyway, “on the hoof” means “any kind of meat cooked rare,” according to this website.
  • I didn’t understand the reference in 27D: Batman? (CASEY) until I looked up the words “casey” and “bat” together. Apparently, there’s a poem called “Casey at the Bat” about baseball. I’m assuming it’s famous.
  • I don’t think anyone who doesn’t do crosswords regularly would know that a “rush” doesn’t just mean a hurry, but rather a “marsh or waterside plant with slender stemlike pith-filled leaves.” Like, do you expect me to be a plantologist, Will Shortz? What’s the actual word for plantologist? Oh right, botany. Anyway, that’s why REED is the answer to 46A: Rush, e.g.
  • I was almost certain that 8D: “On end, to Donne” was one of those foreign language clues where the constructor is asking you what a word means in the language of the person whose name is in the clue. I thought Donne might be a French name, which left me hopeless since I don’t know any phrases in French. But no! This clue was asking us to examine the relationship between “on end” and “Donne” – the two words are ANAGRAMs of each other! Bruh.
  • 56D: Beatles title girl with a “little white book” is a reference to “Lovely Rita.” I would post a link, but the song isn’t on YouTube?? Copyright issues???

Lovely Rita, meter maid…
Kenneth, lowly serf of Crossworld

Thursday, August 18, 2016: “Temperamentally Noncommunicable Reconsideration”

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Solving time: 46:09. Under average but also with a little bit of help, if you know what I mean *nudge nudge wink wink.* Medium.

Puzzle quality: 

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Theme: Each of the three grid-spanning theme answers is one word that consists of three smaller words, clued by a pun that defines all three sub-words literally. Here’s what I mean:

  • RECONSIDERATION (17A: Not the main food allotment for one on an intel mission?) = RECON (intel mission) + SIDE (not the main) + RATION (food allotment).
  • 1401306296tempe1 + SlowCooker-Pork-Ramen_0 + tallymarksTEMPERAMENTALLY (36A: Noodle count in one of Arizona’s largest cities?)
  • NONCOMMUNICABLE (53A: Sarge’s “Sell my city bonds!” telegram?) = NONCOM (sarge) + MUNI (city bond) + CABLE (telegram). This theme answer was probably the most difficult one to get, especially if you didn’t know that noncom was actually an abbreviation for noncommissioned officer (and not noncommercial) and that muni is short for municipal bond.

There are the types of crossword solvers who will hate today’s puzzle, and there are the types of solver who will find it funny and then move on with their lives. I think I’m in the latter boat. I certainly get why there are people in the first camp; all you see is three different 15-letter words that have no thematic coherence (in other words, there’s no inherent relationship between the words RECONSIDERATIONTEMPERAMENTALLY, and NONCOMMUNICABLE other than their equivalent length) and were taken literally by their sub-parts. I imagine, however, that it’s fairly difficult to find 15-letter words that can be divided into three intelligible words that are actually defined in the dictionary. And, on top of that, the clues were great examples of the wacky nonsense that the NYTimes crossword frequently engages in, so utterly bizarre that they proved rather enjoyable. NONCOMMUNICABLE was a bit of a stretch with its two abbreviated sub-parts, but still took a long time to figure out with a rather pleasing payoff at the end.

The top third of the grid offered little to no resistance, with gimmes like 5A: __ Elba and 14A: Kind of flute. It wasn’t until the middle that I started to groan a little, especially when today’s pair of constructors, Parker Lewis and Jeff Chen, threw a curveball with 31A: Pianist Rubinstein. I don’t think anyone knows him as ARTUR. Everyone, even my classical music nerd friends, call him ARTHUR Rubinstein. The Wikipedia page doesn’t even mention this alternate spelling of his name in its introductory paragraph. Seeing that there were only five spaces in the answer rather than six, I filled in ANTON for the clue, another famous pianist who happens to share the same last name as ARTUR. That cost me some time. Tricky tricky!

In a moment of late-Wednesday-night idiocy, I forgot what upholstery was, so 25D: Upholstery’s stock had me like:

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Double references to culinary delicacies, with 22A: Like the cinnamon in babka and 25A: Ingredient in Christmas pudding, and double references to religious “mounts,” with 39A: Mount in Greek myth and 27D: Biblical mount, had me like:

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And then ROSHAMBO (37D: Rock-paper-scissors, by another name) was just like…

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“Am I a rock in this alternate universe? Or a paper?”

See you tomorrow,
Kenneth, lowly serf of Crossworld