It is approximately 11:00 P.M. here in New York, and I just finished watching President Obama’s first-ever State of the Union Address. And boy what an address it was: empty words and drivel. In fact, as I am sitting in front of my computer screen and writing these words to you right know, I honestly feel like I wasted 70 minutes of my life.
The speech was anything but special. If I had to describe the address in a short phrase, I would say that it is was a typical Obama oratory; hopeful rhetoric but lacking detail and substance. He spoke of the urgency to create jobs and fix the horrible economic situation here in the United States. He urged Congress to work together and cast aside their ideological and petty differences…something that all Presidents have demanded since the beginning of time. Obama discussed the need to balance the fiscal deficit by eliminating national programs that are both cumbersome and bureaucratically unmanageable. Heck, the President even proposed a government spending freeze for three years in order to chip away a few billion dollars from the national debt.
And of course, a Presidential State of the Union speech would not be considered adequate without touching on education. Even this issue- considered one of the support beams of the Democratic Party- was anything but transparent and direct. Besides asking the U.S. Congress to cut the No Child Left Behind Act, all President Obama essentially did was extend where previous administrations left off. Anyone can argue for a federal boost in educational opportunities for poor children, and any right-minded politician would endorse the slashing of college costs.
Little did the President know that he contradicted himself in a rather blatant way, both in front of Congress and in front of millions of Americans. He plans on strengthening the nation’s education system, but he also plans on capping the money that the U.S. Government can spend. Where exactly is this money going to come from? Out of his own pocket?
But to be honest, I could care less about Obama’s domestic priorities. I was practically half-asleep when he was talking about surpluses and deficits (not exactly exciting topics). I tuned in primarily for his foreign-policy initiatives.
As the speech began, I was curious as to what our Commander-in-Chief would say about America’s international challenges. After all, we are in two wars…not to mention U.S. covert activity in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. What does he intend to do about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and what course of action does the White House want to take with respect to Iran and its nuclear program?
Well, after the usual praise of American troops (obviously much deserved) and his talk about taking the fight to Al’Qaeda, I cannot sit here tonight and give you any answers. From a foreign-policy perspective, the SOTU sounded more like a campaign rally than a legitimate policy platform.
Here are a few things that come to mind:
On Afghanistan: Despite Taliban advances and the weakened state of the Afghan Security Forces, the Prez used this time to basically reiterate his previous stance. We are going to…1) reduce corruption in the Afghan Government, 2) provide basic services for the Afghan population, and 3) make sure the United States succeeds in its mission. This is all well and good, but how exactly does the President intend to succeed in Afghanistan if U.S. troops start withdrawing by the Summer of 2011? Any general or military scholar will tell you that it takes at least five years to fight a successful counterinsurgency. The enemy must not only be defeated on the battlefield; strong institutions must be built and sustained if you want security gains to last well into the future. Economic development and entrepreneurialism needs to be promoted and enhanced if people are expected to throw down their guns. And lastly, corruption and judicial malpractice must be reformed before the locals (in this case, Afghans) even consider switching their allegiance to Hamid Karzai. I highly doubt that all of this can be attained in a year and a half.
On Iraq: While the President was correct to stick with his August 2010 troop pullout, he failed to even mention the current environment in Iraq. Over the past week, suicide-bombers have successfully detonated truck bombs and high-voltage explosives, rocking some of Bagdad’s most important areas. Prime Minister Maliki and his Shia coalition recently banned 500 candidates from the next parliamentary election, only deepening ethnic divisions between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. And of course, Sunnis are still largely marginalized in Iraqi culture; jobs are scarce and the Sunnis who do have jobs are highly dependent on the Shia government. With Iraqi politics starting to inflame once again, you would think that the President would at least acknowledge that the mission is not yet complete. “All of our troops are coming home” may come to bite him in the butt if violence spreads in the coming months.
On Iran: Citing Iran’s refusal to negotiate on its nuclear program, the President laid it all on the line; Iran will “face growing consequences” if the country’s leadership continues on its present course. But what will these consequences be? A military strike, economic sanctions, or regime-change?
Finally, before I end this rant, I have to bring up one other point. In Afghanistan, the United States is fighting a diverse and sophisticated Taliban enemy. Luckily, the United States and its coalition allies are not alone in this fight; they also have logistical support from the Pakistani Government. Intelligence sharing between the U.S. and Pakistan occurs on a daily basis, with American generals providing the Pakistanis with detailed intelligence and the Pakistanis returning the favor with a broad-based anti-militant operation within its own borders. Yet throughout the entire speech, Pakistan was not uttered once. This may not be an immediate problem, considering Pakistan’s reliance on generous donations from Washington. But at a time when anti-Americanism in Pakistan is already extremely high, snubbing Pakistan from the most publicized address a U.S. President can offer is not a beneficial move. If there is anything that can be said about the confusing nature of Pakistan, it is the fact that hostile words- or no words at all- are just as hurtful to the Islamic nation as hostile actions.
Not everyone in the world will agree with these observations, and I encourage everyone to make their own views known. Some people may be ecstatic that the President devoted much of his time to the economy, jobs, and health-care. Others- like myself- are more disgruntled. But nevertheless, we can be sure that political pundits and media talking-heads will have some fun over the next few days.
-Daniel R. DePetris
If you haven’t been paying that much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, you are in luck; there is not much to report. That is unless you are surprised that both sides have continued to stonewall negotiations.
Essentially, this is all that has happened over the past few weeks. Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian coalition are fixed on their settlement demands (the Israelis must freeze construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem indefinitely) and P.M. Netanyahu continues to meet those demands with more obstructionist rhetoric.
I am beginning to wonder whether George Mitchell’s efforts in the region are worth this type of aggravation. Stephen Walt tends to think that his reputation can be saved by resigning from his envoy post altogether. While I would not go that far, I do understand his frustration; the only thing that Mr. Mitchell has managed to accomplish over the past year is a lot of frequent flier miles and a ton of jet lag.
I hate to sound like a pessimist, but no Middle Eastern peace accord will be signed by both parties unless the Israelis are willing to give up some of their privileges. By privileges, I mean the expansion of large settlement blocks that are scattered throughout the West Bank; the same land that Palestinians want for a future state. Unfortunately, P.M. Netanyahu is only willing to go so far. A 10 month settlement freeze is a start, but what is the point of such a measure if building resumes later in the year? This is the equivalent of promising Afghans that U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan for 10 months, only to invade the country again.
And what about the recent demands made by the Israelis over the past couple of days. Not only does Netanyahu want permanent Israeli control over some portion of the West Bank…he wants a permanent Israeli troop presence on the Jordanian border. This goes against the very fabric of state sovereignty; the basic and universal principle that all legitimate players in the international system respect and admire.
The rationale the Israelis use to justify a fixed troop presence on the Jordanian border is also lacking. The Israeli Government argues that this measure would help suppress rocket fire into Israel and would stop any illegal weapons shipments from getting to Hamas militants. Little do they know that it is through the porous borders of Syria and Lebanon- not through Jordan- where weapons, rockets, anti-tank missiles, and mortars slide into the Gaza Strip.
And would an Israeli checkpoint on the Jordanian border really make that much of a difference? The Israelis have a pretty good grasp on their northern border with Lebanon, but a heavy presence does not necessarily stop each and every weapon convoy from reaching Hamas.
The bottom line is that Israelis need to start acting realistically and need to denounce their disillusioned fantasy of a “Greater Israel.” Sure, the Palestinians have some work to do as well; they could stop insisting that their preconditions be met before peace talks resume. No one is immune from criticism.
But Palestinian grievances aside, brute talk from the Israelis doesn’t give Abbas and Company the right frame of mind for peace talking. Citing Israel’s imperialistic demands, why would Abbas return to the table?
**Comments courtesy of the Economist**
-Daniel R. DePetris
I know this is old news from the Afghan front- about a week old to be precise- but it is worth repeating; faced with the pressure of a coordinated Taliban attack in the capital city, the Afghan Security Forces successfully repelled the operation with the utmost professionalism. In the face of bomb-blasts and gun-shots, the ASF managed to beat back the Taliban in a few hours time without a significant amount of casualties.
Once the operation was over- and once the smoke cleared from the attack’s focal point (a cinema, a shopping center, government ministries and a western hotel)- only 12 people were killed in the firefight.
While the killing of 12 people is indeed dreadful and unfortunate, it is a low figure considering where the violence took place; Kabul is the most populous city in Afghanistan, and the commercial hub of the country’s pre-industrial economy.
I only wish that the Afghan army and police were this professional and efficient throughout the entire country.
Local security forces in Kabul may have been able to limit the destruction of the attack, but we have to consider the bigger picture; the Afghan Army and Police are still not able to battle insurgents in more remote areas.
Kabul is the political center of Afghanistan, where Hamid Karzai and his cabinet ministers are located. Much of Afghanistan’s dismal economy is concentrated in Kabul, where mom-and-pop stores line the streets. So with so much at stake, it is obvious that Afghan Security Forces would respond quickly and efficiently; especially if a terror attack threatens to unravel the city’s limited progress.
The fact remains that although the ASF has a good grasp on the capital, it fails to run in a similar fashion across the country. Corruption runs rampant within its ranks; soldiers and policemen continue to defect in high numbers; most soldiers pledge allegiance to their tribes rather than to the country; and professional men are still very hard to come by (even with American assistance). In some areas- such as Helmand Province- Afghan villagers complain so much about the ASF that the Taliban is viewed as a better alternative. This is one of the main reasons why the Taliban Movement refuses to die.
So while the army and the police did respond effectively and limited the number of civilian and government casualties, most of Afghanistan does not have the luxury of a competent security force.
DEVELOPMENT: An Afghan Government panel released a new goal of expanding the ASF to 400,000 members, up from the current 191,000 (from ForeignPolicy.com’s “AfPak Channel.”)
**Comments courtesy of the Economist**
-Daniel R. DePetris
It hasn’t been a good couple of days for the President. Violence in Afghanistan continues to spread in the wake of a new American commitment; the Iraqi Government has just barred over 500 predominately Sunni candidates from participating in the upcoming parliamentary elections; and Iran has formally rejected the U.N.’s nuclear offer after stonewalling for three months.
Domestically, the ranks of the unemployed- while improved from the past year- are still stuck at an astounding 10 percent. Obama’s health-care bill remains deadlocked in Congress, and the most liberal state in the country (Massachusetts) just elected a Republican to fill Ted Kennedy’s legendary Senate seat.
Just when you think that things could not get any worse for the Obama administration, the Director of National Intelligence (Dennis Blair) makes a fool out of himself and the White House in front of Congress over the basics of terrorism policy. In a direct contradiction to President Obama’s strategy, Blair commented to the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee that the “underpants bomber” should have been questioned by a special interrogation unit instead of the FBI.
As expected, this immediately unleashed a wave of Republican criticism towards the White House’s handling of the terrorist suspect. In what is sure to be another weapon for the Republican Party come November 2010, Blair’s remarks demonstrate the loose partnership and terrible communication skills between the nation’s top intelligence czar and the nation’s Commander-in-Chief (not exactly a good trait in a time of war). Disagreements over detainees and enemy combatants are only two problems in a much wider list.
Common sense leads you to believe that Director Blair’s remark was more of a Freudian slip than a deep opposition to White House policy. But even if this is the case, one has to wonder whether Director Blair’s “accidental” slip of the tongue is a microcosm to what the intelligence community has been thinking all along. Perhaps intelligence officials truly believe that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should be tried through a military tribunal rather than a civilian court. Heck, if I was an agent, I would lobby for a tribunal as well; valuable tidbits of information on future plots would be obtained without civilian law frustrating the interrogation process.
Are low and mid-level officials in the CIA, NSA, and NCTC flabbergasted over the way the White House is handling the Al’Qaeda suspect? Judging by the administration’s immediate outrage, perhaps this is not so farfetched.
Just as the Washington bureaucracy and the U.S. Military have been at odds over foreign-policy leaks, the bureaucratic-intelligence relationship could be at odds over public policy. This is obviously all coming from the gut- there is no evidence to back up my claims- but gut reactions are often conducive to reality.
Either Dennis Blair has a serious problem with the way the Obama administration is conducting the War on Terrorism, or he misspoke in the most blatant way possible. Either way, he certainly embarrassed the White House in front of a powerful Congressional committee. Even if Blair retracts his statement, Republicans now have another piece of ammunition to work with for the 2010 midterm elections.
**Comments courtesy of Newsweek’s Declassified**
-Daniel R. DePetris
With Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen on the front-pages of major newspapers across the country, few in the United States (and indeed in the world) remember that 100,000 American soldiers are still engaged in Iraq. The failed operation by a Nigerian bomber against an American airline on Christmas day has only worsened the world’s attention span with respect to the Iraqi issue.
This OCD mentality is especially worrisome, given Iraq’s lingering domestic problems. Educational opportunities for young Iraqis who strive for a better life are at the bare minimum, while general infrastructure in the country is still lagging behind other states in the Middle East. Security has dramatically improved, but this peaceful time has not been utilized to the fullest extent by the Iraqi Government. Many Sunnis remain isolated from mainstream Iraqi society, prying the streets for whatever job they can find. The Sons of Iraq- the crucial group that was responsible for some of the security gains during the U.S. surge- are not receiving their pay-checks from P.M. Maliki’s administration. Water shortages and food supplies are concentrated in the most populous cities.
And of course we cannot forget about the 4.5 million displaced Iraqi refugees who are either too scared to return to their country or simply don’t have the means to act on their desires (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/01/12/life_in_hell).
At a quick glance, Iraq’s problems appear resolved. But upon further inspection, the struggle within Iraq is anything but over. The Iraqi Security Forces may be a more professional organization than in the past, but what is the point of security if political and social grievances remain at a standstill?
So what can the Iraqi Government do to become relevant again in the eyes of the United States and the world? Simple…take advantage of tensions inside your neighborhood.
If Iraq truly wants to get America’s attention, the best thing they could do is play a mediating roll between the United States and Iran. Geographically it makes sense; the country is in the very heart of the Middle East and is a main staging ground for regional trade.
This approach would work from a strategic standpoint as well. For a few years now, Baghdad has tried to rebuild its repertoire and credibility in the region…particularly towards an Iran that holds a vast amount of influence in Southern Iraq. And to be honest, the Iraqi Government needs all the help it can get. P.M. Maliki’s spat with Syria over Sunni insurgents and Iraq’s short standoff with Iranian forces on the border (over oil of all things) serves to shore up this claim.
In retrospect, a mediation role would serve Iraq in two ways. First off, it would boost Iraq as a cooperative and diplomatic force in the eyes of Washington. Secondly, it would ease the concerns and historical animosity between Baghdad and Tehran in countless ways. It may even have the potential of bringing Iraq into the global spotlight at just the right time, thereby enhancing their trade and security alliances.
This recommendation is obviously easier said than done. Iran may not acquiesce. The United States will probably look the other way, given its refusal to talk to Iran over its nuclear program. But if the Obama administration intends to follow through on its “mutual interest and mutual respect” platform, then using Iraq as a mediator may be the best way to do this, absent direct talks with the Islamic Republic.
It is time for Iraq to think outside the box.
**Comments courtesy of Marc Lynch at ForeignPolicy.com**
-Daniel R. DePetris
There was an exciting buzz in CIA headquarters a few days ago; rumors were pouring into Langley offices that Hakimullah Mehsud- the Pakistani Taliban chief who has caused so much death and havoc in both Afghanistan and Pakistan- may have been killed during the latest U.S. missile strike.
For an agency that is still reeling from the aftereffects of a suicide-bomb blast that claimed the lives of seven CIA officials, I am sure this news was greeted with a sense of optimism, despite the accuracy of the source. In fact, upon confirming the rumor, I suspect that some CIA managers were trying with all of their angst to keep their celebratory emotions in check.
Well, as more information about the U.S. drone-attack surfaces, it is a good thing that Langley did not succumb to the tempting premature victory dance. On Saturday, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman- Azim Tariq- played an audio tape for Reuters denying the death of the Islamic “emir.” The voice of Mehsud himself was even heard on the message, a man who was quick to point out America’s flaws and its inability to dent the group’s sound structure.
Certainly, the latest attempt to bring down Mehsud may have failed from a tactical standpoint, but the botched execution does not necessarily weaken the United States in its core objective: defeating the Pakistani Taliban in its entirety. Hakimullah Mehsud may be a cold-blooded killer and the main facilitator and inspiration for the Taliban’s operations, but he is certainly not the be-all-and-end-all of the group.
Eliminating Mehsud would certainly be a symbolic accomplishment for the U.S. and Pakistan in South Asia, but we would be wise to not give the man too much credit. Despite arguments by traditional terrorism analysts, Mehsud is not the backbone of the Pakistani Taliban.
In all honestly, killing Hakimullah Mehsud won’t too much to solve the militant problem. Compared to its more centralized Afghan Taliban relatives, the Pakistani Taliban is a much more fluid and decentralized organization. Getting rid of a top leader- even if the man is the “head” of a terrorist network- won’t do much good in the long-term. The Pakistani Taliban would just replace Mehsud and continue with its operations in Pakistan’s tribal frontier. In fact, the United States has already learned that killing or capturing top Taliban leaders is only a short-term fix; the attack on Baitullah Mehsud last August (while a noteworthy achievement) did not really damper the tactical abilities of the Pakistani group.
If you really want to disrupt the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, U.S. and Pakistani authorities need to go one step further. U.S. officials have it right when they talk about low-level fighters, financers, and supporters; unless these sources are untouched, killing a top militant will probably have an adverse effect. I am sure the CIA is already doing this, but intelligence agents must track, monitor, and eventually destroy the Islamic charities and wealthy Arab Sheiks that fund the radicals in the first place. And of course, you need to start solving some of the issues that make radicalism a good alternative.
Unless this is done, killing Mehsud, Obama bin-Laden, or Ayman al-Zawahiri may only give the Taliban and Al’Qaeda more reason to fight.
**Comments courtesy of Newsweek’s Declassified**
-Daniel R. DePetris
For countries that are either poor or underdeveloped, natural disasters and the inability to respond to them are often the most unlucky of circumstances. And if there is one nation in the underdeveloped world that is the most unfortunate, Haiti takes the cake.
With a horrific earthquake shattering the very essence of Haitian society, now is the time for the international community to come together for a common humanitarian mission.
The task for the United States & Company now should be “to save lives.” Some media reports are claiming that the death toll could be as high as 100,000. Other sources are saying that 50,000 Haitians are either dead, missing, or trapped in the rubble. Whichever figure is correct, tens of thousands of innocent people lay victim to Mother Nature.
It is far to early to speculate on the death toll. It usually takes weeks to figure out how many casualties result from a natural disaster (remember the Indonesian Tsunami in 2004?). The primary job now is to pour as much money and medical resources into Haiti as humanly possible. Obviously the United States will take the lead, but other countries need to pull their own weight as well; Brazil, a state that striving so desperately to become a strong force in the Western Hemisphere, must step up. Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and India should contribute as well.
Rescue and recovery is the first mission. The second should be a new U.S. emphasis on Haiti in the long-term. The island-nation has been overlooked for far too long by Washington…something that strikes me as rather shortsighted considering its proximity to the American mainland. If there is anything that can be taken from his horrible tragedy, it is the earthquake’s relentless power in fomenting a world response to Haiti’s already desolate environment.
God bless the victims and their families.
**Comments courtesy of The Economist**
-Daniel R. DePetris
In a world full of violence and political turbulence, there is at least one piece of good news circulating around Washington…the timeline for a U.S. drawdown in Iraq remains on schedule. According to General Raymond Odierno- the top American General in Iraq- the main contingent of U.S. troops will likely leave the Iraqi theatre by the end of 2011.
Understandably, General Odierno would not declassify any information concerning the specific logistics of the withdrawal. But in an interview with the Associated Press a few weeks ago, he disclosed something that most Americans can take to heart; the U.S. Military plans to withdraw 12,500 troops per month after the Iraqi elections are completed in March. By this estimate, the United States can expect a substantial troop reduction from Iraq in the first few months of this year.
To the troops and their families across the country, this is fantastic news. Mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sons, and daughters have waited for seven years to reunite with their loved ones. In fact, the U.S. deployment from Iraq is a great morale booster for the entire country. Odierno’s assurances could not come at a better time for the United States, especially given the President’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Physically, Iraqis will officially retake their destiny and control the internal and external affairs of their nation. Psychologically, the Iraqi chapter in the American book-of-war can finally be closed.
On a personal note, I am rather excited that Iraqis are taking control of their own country. Who would have thought three years ago- when Iraq was engulfed in a civil war between Shias and Sunnis- that Baghdad would be rebuilt and the security situation would be improved as drastically as it was. I am even more excited that our troops are returning home on schedule.
But with all of this said, there are some caveats. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but as General Odierno said, all of these plans depend on a successful Iraqi election in March. If the election goes sour, or if Iraqi legislators are unwilling to abide by the results, the entire U.S. drawdown could be in jeopardy.
Granted, Iraq has already experienced an election when sectarian violence was starting to emerge. This election took place in 2005, when Iraqis voted for an official parliament. And to a certain degree, the 2005 elections were somewhat successful. Millions of Iraqi citizens took to the polls in spite of threats and intimidation, and Iraqis were able to create their own central government for the first time. Taking precedent into account, common sense dictates that the March election will be even more successful, given the tremendous security achievements made in the past two years.
Yet this common sense would be shortsighted. The 2005 election, while significant, was largely executed and defended by U.S. troops on the ground. The Iraqi Security Forces- still untrained and underpaid at that time- had yet to experience the full pressure of taking the lead against Sunni insurgents and Shia militias. What is more, millions of Sunnis decided to boycott the election in protest, making a Shia-led government a given phenomenon.
The 2005 election failed to test Iraq to the fullest extent. March 2010 will be completely different. This time, the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police will be forced to take the lead in security operations, with American troops residing in their bases on city outskirts. This time, Iraqi politicians will have to convince Sunnis to take part. With many Sunnis unable to find work- and with the Sunni community feeling marginalized by the Iraqi Government- this will not be an easy task. Add Baath’ Party remnants and recent terrorist attacks to the list and the election could easily spiral into an unending wave of violence.
So, before we start jumping up and down and celebrating an Iraqi victory, let’s see if the Iraqis have the ability to conduct a somewhat peaceful election on their own. Because in a way, their success can make or break the U.S. withdrawal strategy.
-Daniel R. DePetris
In Baghdad and Kabul, car-bombs and suicide-attacks are a common occurrence. Government ministries, recreational centers, and hospitals are often targeted by Islamic insurgents in the hopes of rattling the population and weakening the national government. In downtown Tehran however, an assault of this magnitude is so rare that it gets people’s attention rather quickly.
Yesterday morning, an Iranian nuclear physicist by the name of Massoud Ali Mohammadi– who also happens to be an advocate of the Iranian opposition- was killed by a car-bomb in front of his home.
If Mohammadi was a common pedestrian in the wrong place at the wrong time, we would not be having this conversation. But his extensive relationship with the democratic opposition in Iran begs a certain controversial question; did the Iranian Government plan and sponsor the targeted assassination of an Iranian intellectual?
Was the Iranian Government responsible for Mohammadi’s death? I have no idea, but the fact that some mainstream news publications are even raising this question shows how obsessed Americans are with Iran.
First it was the nuclear program and Iran’s “evil” desire to build up its own nuclear capability. Then it was a belief that Tehran would actually go through with its plan of “wiping Israel of the map.” Now, we are assuming that the ayatollah’s sanctioned an official assassination of an opposition figure.
Obviously Iran has its fair share of government-sponsored violence towards the democratic opposition. The constant pictures of Iranian paramilitary guards pummeling peaceful protesters through television and twitter gives the world a graphic example of its militaristic behavior. But let’s not jump to the conclusion that the clerical leadership ordered a targeted assassination. If anything, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would be a more realistic candidate; they have a vested interest in beating down dissent for their own political and (increasingly) commercial gains.
-Daniel R. DePetris
Breaking news from the baseball world; Mark McGwire, the superstar slugger that shattered Roger Maris’ home-run record in the summer of 1998, admitted to the MLB Network yesterday that he used performance enhancing drugs for close to a decade. Just when Major League Baseball thinks it escaped its steroids problem, an earth-shattering admission by a potential Hall of Famer puts the problem right back on the map.
Now, for those of us that have a sports addiction (like myself), the news about McGwire is not that shocking. Throughout the end of this career- which came to a halt in 2001- sportswriters, radio hosts, and physical trainers always had a suspicion that the home run king used steroids at one point during his career. Heck, just look at the guy; it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that Mark may have participated in some extracurricular activity outside the weight room.
Even members of Congress were doubtful that McGwire- along with other power players in the league- was squeaky clean throughout his time on the St. Louis Cardinals. Mr. McGwire’s constant use of the Fifth Amendment during a 2005 congressional hearing did not exactly strengthen his defense (at least he invoked a legal right not to speak, in contrast to Sammy Sosa’s “I don’t speak English” argument).
But now the doubt is confirmed; McGwire did in fact use steroids on multiple occasions.
I am sure many Americans are outraged over McGwire’s behavior. Some want to ban the former Cardinal player from participating in Major League Baseball altogether; a judgment that would all but destroy McGuire’s future coaching career. Others want to block his ascendance to the Hall of Fame (a measure that I actually support). Mainstream baseball supporters are just upset that the most cherished record in the league’s history was broken by a cheater and drug abuser.
But outrage aside, we have to look at the big picture; Mark McGwire, however guilty he is, actually saved Major League Baseball.
Before his run in the summer of 98’, the League was experiencing a whole host of problems. Internal revenue was on the decline, its fan base was steadfastly decreasing from its peak, and the MLB front-office was still recuperating from the 1994 strike. Football- a sport that was already generating hundreds of millions of dollars- was overtaking baseball as America’s most favorite sport. For a while, it seemed as if the country’s “pastime” was eroding to the point of oblivion.
Then came the electrifying home-run race between McGwire and Sammy Sosa (another alleged steroid user) in the beginning of the 1998 season. Fans that were hungry for some excitement finally got their wish. Day in and day out, newspapers and television shows from all across the country began broadcasting the home-run update. One day Sosa would blast one out of the park, while the next day you would witness McGwire’s crushing 500-foot bomb over the centerfield wall.
The sales that baseball officials were so used to making decades ago finally returned in that summer.
Most importantly, the sport of baseball was once again embedded within the American conscience. MLB fought back to its prominent position in the United States. In fact, the sport enhanced its status globally in ways that players and fans could not have imagined years before. Just as McGwire was juicing-up, the repertoire of Major League Baseball underwent its own slugging transformation.
Sure, McGwire used performance-enhancing drugs during his career. And yes, many other superstars did the same thing (a.k.a. Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi). But as fans, we have to take the big-picture into account.
Without people like McGwire, Sosa, Giambi, and (Rafael) Palmeiro, baseball fans may still be sitting on their recliners waiting for some action.
-Daniel R. DePetris