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Failing Upward at the State Department

Plus: Biden our time with Iran, the new proletariat, the great Kelce-Swift stupidification, and more.

A military transport plane departs overhead as Afghans hoping to leave the country wait outside the Kabul airport on Aug. 23, 2021. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

→ Today in “The Grown-Ups Are in Charge”: Remember the pullout from Afghanistan? That high point of U.S. diplomacy that left tens of thousands of U.S. allies stuck in a country now ruled by the Taliban? Remember the people chasing planes, clinging to the wheels, and dropping from the sky?

Yeah, not our finest hour. 

Well, rather than being offered a premature retirement from government business, the person in charge of rescuing our Afghani friends (who remain abandoned) has been nominated as the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. 

Today, Free Press reporter Eli Lake brings you the alarming story of Tracey Jacobson failing upward at the State Department. 

→ Biden our time: Five days have passed since an attack on Tower 22, a U.S. base in Jordan, killed three American troops and injured at least 40 others. On Sunday, the morning after the attack, Joe Biden said, “We shall respond” in a speech at a church in South Carolina. On Tuesday, the president said he had decided how to respond without offering any details. On Wednesday, the administration confirmed that an Iranian proxy was responsible for the attack. As of Wednesday night, though, there has been no response. And this week, Biden officials have reiterated their determination not to get drawn into a regional conflict. 

Meanwhile, what Biden officials see as a refusal to take the bait, others see as a surefire way to ensure that attacks on U.S. forces in the region continue. In other words, they see inadequate responses to Iranian aggression as one way we wind up in exactly the situation Biden says he is trying to avoid.

As Reuel Gerecht, a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, put it to me when we spoke yesterday, “Only escalation can intimidate Iran.” 

But Gerecht doubts the administration will opt for the kind of action he believes is necessary to deter the Islamic republic. “I would be shocked if this administration, for example, attacked Revolutionary Guard Corps inside Iran. I think that’s just far too much for them. The administration’s gut is for the Americans to do less in the Middle East, not more. The Iranians and their allies have been forcing their hand, but I don’t think three dead Americans and however many wounded are going to fundamentally change their approach, which is to avoid direct conflict with Iran.” 

Lurking behind all these tactical considerations is what now looks like a catastrophic miscalculation by the administration. Coming into office, Biden and his team thought they could placate Iran and move on from the Middle East. How wrong they were. And how reluctant they are to admit that mistake. In The Wall Street Journal this week, Walter Russell Mead declared that “From Gaza to the Red Sea and from Jordan to Iraq, a stream of unprovoked attacks by Iran and its proxies are driving President Biden into the greatest crisis of his presidency.” With every attack on American troops, it becomes harder to disagree. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. is reportedly weighing recognition of a Palestinian state as a step toward a two-state solution. 

And in related news, three families of American October 7 victims are suing the governments of Iran and Syria as well as the crypto exchange Binance. In the lawsuit, filed in New York, the claimants accuse them of providing funds and support for Hamas’s attack.

→ Road Warriors: French farmers in tractors are laying “siege” to Paris. Deep France—la France profondeis angry and wants the powers that be to know about it. By the time you read this, it’s possible the farmers have stormed the Élysée Palace. They might be tying President Emmanuel Macron to a forklift and throwing rotten apples at his dashing new prime minister at this point. Who knows? 

(Quick fashion detour. Out: protesting in keffiyehs. In: protesting in tricolor sashes. Something for the pro-Hamas crowd to consider.) 

I know, I know. The French are in revolt. What else is new? But it isn’t just the French. Farmers across Europe are firing up their tractors and clogging up the highways. In Belgium, Germany, Spain, and Italy, country folk are hitting the road over rising costs, cheap imports, and burdensome green regulations. 

The French farmers bring to mind the Canadian truckers who shut down Ottawa over Covid regulations in 2022, and the Dutch farmers who protested last summer. When it comes to class war, the picket line is out and the convoy is in, Michael Lind argues in an essay first published in the New Statesman that we’re reprinting in The Free Press today. 

As Michael explains, these working-class protesters on wheels were once well represented by their country’s center-left parties. Now, those parties are more closely aligned with educated professionals and “a supporting cast of disproportionately foreign-born service workers.” But while agricultural workers feel politically marginalized, they can still flex their economic and strategic muscle. They deliver goods, they grow food. . . and they block highways with tractors and trucks. 

Read Michael’s essay here: 

→ Big Tech apology tour: Mark Zuckerberg would presumably have chosen a pummeling in the dojo over the grilling he endured on Capitol Hill yesterday. The Meta chief, along with executives from X, Snap, Discord, and TikTok (wait, didn’t we ban those guys?), was called to testify in a Senate judiciary hearing on social media’s impact on children. In a tussle with Senator Josh Hawley, Zuckerberg was cornered into turning to the families of children who were victims of online abuse and exploitation and apologizing for what their kids had been through. I mean, I guess the dressing-down of a new master of the universe scratches an itch. But did the hearing do anything to help those who want safer social media for kids? 

Free Press contributor Abigail Shrier knows these issues better than most. She has a new book on the mental health of young Americans—Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up—out later this month. I asked Abigail for her thoughts on the hearing. Here’s what she told me: 

Gender dysphoria, Dissociative Identity Disorder, Tic disorders: the number of social contagions spread by social media could fill a diagnostic manual all its own. And yet, in the eight years since academic psychologists Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt first warned the world about the dangers of social media, the mental health expert complex has done nothing to curtail its use by teens and tweens. 

Tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg feel no pressure to take responsibility for the damage their products cause. And why would they? The American Psychological Association, quick to warn the public about the dangers of systemic racism, police tactics, and climate change, has utterly failed to take the dangers of social media to teens seriously. (See the APA’s belated, laughably weak, and equivocating health advisory.) 

The simplest solution, Abigail says, is for parents to throw out their kids’ phones. But experts won’t suggest that because it will put them out of a job:

One of the best things mental health experts could have done to improve the mental health of teens would not grant them an ongoing role in kids’ lives. Any parent can take away a cell phone. But only mental health experts can dispense “wellness tips,” diagnoses, psych meds, and therapy. They march into schools and lecture teens about the responsible uses of social media, which is a little like school nurses advising kids about the prudent uses of Ecstasy. 

In other words, parents: you’re on your own.

→ Canada discovers euthanasia is not morally straightforward: The Canadian government had planned to expand its “medical assistance in dying” (MAID) program to allow people suffering from mental illness—rather than just physical illness—to choose to die. But those plans are now on pause. Why? It seems our northern neighbors are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the idea.

Our very own Rupa Subramanya had a role in this. She reported on MAID back in 2022, and, as she explained to me yesterday, her story “shone a light on how permissive MAID is in Canada and gave it international attention. Nothing in Canada changes until it figures negatively in the international press, and I think that’s what made the difference.” The Conservatives, Canada’s main opposition party, are now calling for MAID’s extension to be scrapped altogether. Look out for much more debate on this issue—in Canada and across the West—in the near future. 

→ Just be normal!: We live in stupid times. By now, that much should be uncontroversial. A lot of people are to blame for this. Among them: Trump and his crew. The MAGA crowd is known for trivializing the serious: calling a deadly plague the “kung flu,” joking about the injuries John McCain suffered while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, etc. It’s sick, sick stuff.

But a more annoying, if less reprehensible, tendency seems to be gaining steam on the right: treating the trivial as if it were deadly serious. Look no further than the strange fuss around Taylor Swift, Travis Kelce, and the Kansas City Chiefs. 

A brief recap for the blissfully unaware: pop star Taylor Swift and tight end Travis Kelce recently started dating. Then his team, the Chiefs, turned things around after a slow start to the season and are heading to the Super Bowl on February 11. 

This is great news for everyone: the football player, his proud girlfriend, and the NFL, which gets to cash in on a Super Bowl of cultural significance (surely many more young teens will tune in to cheer on “Taylor’s boyfriend”). 

But over on Fox News, pundits are starting to claim that Swift is a deep state psyop, and the NFL is rigging games to ensure a fairytale ending that would help the league get rich(er) and the president get reelected. (Because Swift backed Biden four years ago, the Biden campaign reportedly—and unsurprisingly—wants her to help his reelection bid.)

Here’s GOP presidential also-ran Vivek Ramaswamy laying out the whole sinister plot on X: “I wonder who’s going to win the Super Bowl next month. And I wonder if there’s a major presidential endorsement coming from an artificially culturally propped-up couple this fall. Just some wild speculation over here, let’s see how it ages over the next 8 months.” 

Or maybe a very good tight end on a very good team is dating a very popular pop star. He will win the trophy. He will kiss the girl. This is America, baby! This is just what we ordered!

L’affaire Kelce might be incredibly dumb, but it has at least inspired some smart writing. Here’s Ross Douthat, the only social conservative allowed in The New York Times’s offices these days, taking the meme-lords to task for their “self-defeating weirdness.” And here’s Mary Harrington, over at UnHerd, explaining Swift-mania as an “internet-enabled swarm” that “the Right neither understands well, nor has much prospect of turning to their advantage.” 

Readers, you’re not buying into the Swift-Kelce conspiratorial nonsense, are you? . . . Are you? 

Oliver Wiseman is a writer and editor at The Free Press. 

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