Being Hosni Mubarak

Egypt’s leader has gambled that he can ride out the protests and hold on. It’s a pretty good gamble.

Imagine yourself as Hosni Mubarak, master of Egypt for nearly 30 years. You’re old, unwell, detested and addicted to power. You could have orchestrated a graceful exit by promising to preside over free and fair presidential elections later this year—elections in which the Mubarak name would not be on the ballot. Instead, you gambled that you could ride out the protests and hold on.

It’s a pretty good gamble.

Like everyone else, you’ve been “listening” to Egyptians marching through the streets and telling you it’s time to go. That’s an opinion they’ll likely revise after a few more neighborhoods in Cairo and Alexandria are ransacked, looted and torched by gangs of hooligans.

But you haven’t just been listening to the demonstrators. You’ve also been watching them—the way they dress, the way they shave. On Sunday, in Tahrir Square, you could tell right away that most were from the Muslim Brotherhood, though they were taking care not to chant the usual Islamic slogans. And Western liberals want you to relinquish power to them?

Then there are the usual “democracy activists,” minuscule in number, better known to Western journalists than to average Egyptians, most of them subsisting on some kind of grant from a Western NGO. They think they’re lucky to have Mohamed ElBaradei as their champion, with his Nobel Peace Prize and his lifetime in New York, Vienna—everywhere, that is, except Egypt itself. They think he gives them respectability. They’re wrong.

Finally, there are the middle-class demonstrators, the secular professionals and minor businessmen. In theory they’re your biggest threat. In practice they’re your ace in the hole.

What unites the protesters is anger. But anger is an emotion, not a strategy, much less a political agenda. What, really, does “Down With Mubarak” offer the average Egyptian?

If the Brotherhood has its way, Egypt will become a Sunni theocracy modeled on Iran. If the democracy activists have theirs, it’ll be a weak parliamentary system, incapable of exercising authority over the army and a cat’s paw for a Brotherhood that knows its revolutionary history well enough to remember the name of Alexander Kerensky.

Luckily for you, this analysis is becoming plainer by the day to many Egyptians, especially since Mr. ElBaradei, imagining he has the upper hand, stumbled into a political alliance with the Brotherhood. Also increasingly plain is that it’s in your hands to blur the “fine line between freedom and chaos,” as you aptly put it last week, and to give Egyptians a long, hard look at the latter. No, it wasn’t by your cunning design that thousands of violent prisoners made a jailbreak last week. And the decision to take police off the streets was done in the interests of avoiding bloody scenes with protesters.

Yet all the same, the anarchy unleashed on Egyptian streets has played straight into your hands. The demonstrators want a freedom that looks like London or Washington. Your task is to remind them that it’s more likely to look like Baghdad, circa 2006.

No wonder the mood among Cairo’s shopkeepers, many of whom supported the initial demonstrations, is turning sharply in your favor. Those shopkeepers will soon be joined by housewives who want to feel safe in the streets; and tourism workers who want Egypt to remain a safe destination, and everyone else with a stake in a stable environment. You may be 81, but time is still on your side. And patience is rarely a virtue of the young, who now crowd the streets.

So you’re right to order the army not to fire: The last thing you need is to furnish the protesters with a galvanizing event, or the officers with an embittering one. But the analysts who suppose this decision is a sign of weakness fail to appreciate how neatly it serves your purposes. Nearly all Egyptians are agreed that the army is the one “good” institution in the country—competent, mighty and incorruptible.

But just who do they think the army is? You are its commander in chief and the keeper of its interests. Through you, the army controls an estimated 40% of the economy. Through you, retired officers are guaranteed lucrative careers running state-owned companies or getting senior political appointments. Will your officers hazard their perquisites for a hazy notion of popular freedom? Unlikely.

Today will be the moment of truth. Millions are expected to come out into the streets. But what will they do, other than chant slogans? And who will they fight, if the army won’t fight them? And what other buildings will they put to the torch, without further alienating everyone who isn’t in the march?

You’ve thought these questions through, hence your offer to negotiate with the demonstrators—preferably interminably. In the meantime, passions will cool, cosmetic adjustments will be made and you’ll plot your course to this summer’s elections.

It may be that you won’t run; you’d die in office anyway. But you’re determined to leave in the time and manner of your choosing. Judging by the way you’ve played your cards so far, you will.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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An Unserious Speech Misses the Mark

The audience found it tiresome. Here’s why it was irksome as well.

It is a strange and confounding thing about this White House that the moment you finally think they have their act together—the moment they get in the groove and start to demonstrate that they do have some understanding of our country—they take the very next opportunity to prove anew that they do not have their act together, and are not in the groove. It’s almost magical.

The State of the Union speech was not centrist, as it should have been, but merely mushy, and barely relevant. It wasted a perfectly good analogy—America is in a Sputnik moment—by following it with narrow, redundant and essentially meaningless initiatives. Rhetorically the speech lay there like a lox, as if the document itself knew it was dishonest, felt embarrassed, and wanted to curl up quietly in a corner of the podium and hide. But the president insisted on reading it.

Response in the chamber was so muted as to be almost Xanax-like. Did you see how bored and unengaged they looked? The applause was merely courteous. A senator called the mood on the floor “flat.” This is the first time the press embargo on the speech was broken, by National Journal, which printed the text more than an hour before the president delivered it. Maybe members had already read it and knew what they were about to face.

The president will get a bump from the speech. Presidents always do. It will be called a success. But it will be evanescent. A real moment was missed. If the speech is remembered, it will be as the moment when the president actually slowed—or blocked—his own comeback.


The central elements of the missed opportunity:

An inability to focus on what is important now. The speech was more than half over before the president got around to the spending crisis. He signaled no interest in making cuts, which suggested that he continues not to comprehend America’s central anxiety about government spending: that it will crush our children, constrict the economy in which they operate, make America poorer, lower its standing in the world, and do in the American dream. Americans are alarmed about this not because they’re cheap and selfish but because they care about the country they will leave behind when they are gone.

President Obama’s answer is to “freeze” a small portion of government spending at current levels for five years. This is a reasonable part of a package, but it’s not a package and it’s not a cut. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who called it “sad,” told a local radio station the savings offered “won’t even pay the interest on the debt we’re about to accumulate” in the next two years. The president was trying to “hoodwink” the American people, Mr. Coburn said: “The federal government is twice the size it was 10 years ago. It’s 27% bigger than it was two years ago.” Cuts, not a freeze, are needed—it’s a matter of “urgency.”

Unresponsiveness to the political moment. Democrats hold the White House and Senate, Republicans the House, the crisis is real, and the next election is two years away. This is the time for the president to go on the line and demand Republicans do so, too. Instead, nothing. A freeze.

An attitude that was small bore and off point. America is in a Sputnik moment, the world seems to be jumping ahead of us, our challenge is to make up the distance and emerge victorious. So we’ll change our tax code to make citizens feel less burdened and beset, we’ll rethink what government can and should give, can and should take, we’ll get our fiscal life in order, we’ll save our country. Right?

Nah. We’ll focus on “greater Internet access,” “renewable energy,” “one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” “wind and solar,” “information technology.” “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail.” None of this is terrible, but none of it is an answer. The administration continues to struggle with the concept of priorities. They cannot see where the immediate emergency is. They are like people who’d say, “Martha, the house is on fire and flames are licking down the stairs—let’s discuss what color to repaint the living room after we rebuild!” A better priority might be, “Get the kids out and call the fire department.”

Unbelievability. The president will limit the cost of government by whipping it into shape and removing redundant agencies. Really? He hasn’t shown much interest in that before. He has shown no general ideological sympathy for the idea of shrinking and streamlining government. He’s going to rationalize government? He wants to “get rid of the loopholes” in our tax code. Really? That’s good, but it was a throwaway line, not a serious argument. And he was talking to 535 representatives and senators who live in the loopholes, who live by campaign contributions from industries and interest groups that pay protection money to not get dinged in the next tax bill.

On education, the president announced we’re lagging behind in our public schools. Who knew? In this age of “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery,” every adult in America admits that union rules are the biggest impediment to progress. “Race to the Top” isn’t the answer. We all know this.


As for small things and grace notes, there is often about the president an air of delivering a sincere lecture in which he informs us of things that seem new to him but are old to everyone else. He has a tendency to present banalities as if they were discoveries. “American innovation” is important. As many as “a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school.” We’re falling behind in math and science: “Think about it.”

Yes, well, all we’ve done is think about it.

“I’ve seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories. . . . I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans.” But our deterioration isn’t new information, it’s a shared predicate of at least 20 years’ standing, it’s what we all know. When you talk this way, as if the audience is uninformed, they think you are uninformed. Leaders must know what’s in the national information bank.

He too often in making a case puts the focus on himself. George H.W. Bush, always afraid of sounding egotistical, took the I’s out of his speeches. We called his edits “I-ectomies.” Mr. Obama always seems to put the I in. He does “I implants.”

Humor, that leavening, subtle uniter, was insufficiently present. Humor is denigrated by serious people, but serious people often miss the obvious. The president made one humorous reference, to smoked salmon. It emerged as the biggest word in the NPR word cloud of responses. That’s because it was the most memorable thing in the speech. The president made a semi-humorous reference to TSA pat-downs, but his government is in charge of and insists on the invasive new procedures, to which the president has never been and will never be subjected. So it’s not funny coming from him. The audience sort of chuckled, but only because many are brutes who don’t understand that it is an unacceptable violation to have your genital areas patted against your will by strangers.

I actually hate writing this. I wanted to write “A Serious Man Seizes the Center.” But he was not serious and he didn’t seize the center, he went straight for the mush. Maybe at the end of the day he thinks that’s what centrism is.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal


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A Presidency to Nowhere

High-speed rail and solar shingles are not the answer to America’s “Sputnik moment.”

No president before Barack Obama has been so right and so wrong.

When in his State of the Union speech Mr. Obama said, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” citing the emergence of global competition from the likes of China and India, he was right.

Minutes later he proposed to cover the country with high-speed rail and companies making solar shingles.

High-speed rail and solar shingles? If that’s the president’s idea of meeting our Sputnik moment, then Houston, we have a problem.

About halfway into the speech, I began to wonder: What is John Boehner thinking? Let’s first welcome back the tradition of House Speakers who bring nothing but a poker face to the State of the Union. (The vice president re-tightening his tie in the middle of the speech was a minor Biden classic.)

I’m guessing that about the time the president was calling investments in clean energy “the Apollo projects of our time,” the new Speaker was thinking: “This is bunk,” or some word to that effect.

That probably wasn’t Mr. Boehner’s first thought. Before the bunk arrived, his first thought was: “We’re in trouble.”

If Barack Obama had come even close to matching policies with the sentiments he spun across the House chamber in the first sections of that speech, the Republicans would have been dealing with a formidable new centrist president.

The speech’s prelude could have been delivered by Ronald Reagan or written by the conservative entrepreneurial Utopian George Gilder.

In a single generation, “the rules have changed,” he said, propelled by technology. “The naysayers predicting our decline” are wrong. When moments later Mr. Obama said, “We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea,” one felt the ghost of the Gipper hovering nearby. The president called forth more of those spirits, praising “the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That’s why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here.”

And: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Yes!

And: “Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation.” Oh, yes!

Even an Obama naysayer was thinking, Go for it, Mr. President. Unleash our nation of pioneer entrepreneurs with incentives to work, save and invest. (But why the weird slap at the all-American competitiveness of the Super Bowl?)

For a while Tuesday night, it appeared Mr. Obama would replicate Bill Clinton’s almost sci-fi ability to absorb his opposition’s best ideas, such as welfare reform, and re-infuse them into the body politic as his own. But no. We got high-speed rail and solar shingles.

Barack Obama believes what he believes. The ideas he came in with are the ideas he will go out with, and nowhere in that speech was there a fully formed policy idea reflecting authentic belief in the private economy.

The recently promised and much-needed regulatory review was offset with a paean to regulation. “It’s why we have speed limits.” He somehow felt compelled to tell productive suburban families that he’ll try to rescind the tax cut for them, the $250,000 “millionaires.”

Once past the Reagan moment, the Obama policy menu had three entrees: clean energy, education and infrastructure. This was lifted, almost verbatim, from the Obama budget message two months into his presidency: “Our budget will make long overdue investments in priorities—like clean energy, education, health care, and new infrastructure.” He extolled “new jobs that pay well” such as “installing solar energy panels and wind turbines.”

This isn’t a vision. It’s an obsession.

Sending the completed trade agreements with Colombia and Panama to Congress for ratification should have been a lay-up for a president seeking the center. That’s not happening.

What’s ahead? Mainly one thing: November 2012.

If the State of the Union disappointed policy wonks, it’s because the Obama presidency has entered full campaign mode. His State of the Union was a road map to a second term. Draw the Republican Congress toward the post-November spirit of reform on spending, entitlements and taxes, let these ideas twist in the wind of endless negotiation, pocket the “bipartisan” effort, and run out the clock to a three-point November victory.

Then what?

After ObamaCare and financial re-regulation, the remaining Obama years are looking like a presidency to nowhere. Even if you believe in green jobs, that’s an industry off in the future. Beyond the Keynesian liniment oil of public spending, he’s offering almost nothing for the here-and-now economy.

Rep. Paul Ryan, in his response, was right that “our nation is approaching a tipping point.” Either the government leads the economy, as proposed in the last two-thirds of Mr. Obama’s State of the Union, or it will be driven into the 21st century by the nation’s pioneer legacy of individual innovation, as he seemed to say in the first third of the speech.

If you belief it’s the latter, six more years of chasing Mr. Obama’s idea of investments will be a waste of precious time. The Super Bowl of global competition is well into the first quarter. The future is now.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


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Peaked performance

The case that human athletes have reached their limits

Last summer, David Oliver tried to become one of the fastest men in the world. The American Olympic hurdler had run a time of 12.89 seconds in the 110 meters at a meet in Paris in July. The time was two-100ths of a second off the world record, 12.87, owned by Cuba’s Dayron Robles, a mark as impressive as it was absurd. Most elite hurdlers never break 13 seconds. Heck, Oliver seldom broke 13. He’d spent the majority of his career whittling down times from the 13.3 range. But the summer of 2010 was special. Oliver had become that strange athlete whose performance finally equaled his ambition and who, as a result, competed against many, sure, but was really only going against himself.

In Paris, for instance, Oliver didn’t talk about how he won the race, or even the men he ran against. He talked instead about how he came out of the blocks, how his hips dipped precariously low after clearing the sixth hurdle, how he planned to remain focused on the season ahead. For him, the time — Robles’s time — was what mattered. He had a blog and called it: “Mission: 12.85: The race for the record.” And on this blog, after Paris, Oliver wrote, “I am in a great groove right now and I can’t really pinpoint what set it off….Whatever groove I’m in, I hope I never come out of it!”

The next week, he had a meet in Monaco. The press billed it as Oliver’s attempt to smash the world record. But he had a terrible start — “ran the [worst] first couple of hurdles of the season,” as he would later write. Oliver won the race, but with a time of 13.01.

On his blog, Oliver did his best to celebrate; he titled his Monaco post, “I’m sitting on top of the world.” (And why not? The man had, after all, beaten the planet’s best hurdlers for the second-straight week, almost all of whom he’d see at the 2012 Olympics.) But the post grew defensive near the end. He reasoned that his best times should improve.

But they haven’t. That meet in Paris was the fastest he’s ever run.

Two recent, provocative studies hint at why. That Oliver has not broken Robles’s record has nothing to do with an unfortunate stumble out of the blocks or imperfect technique. It has everything to do with biology. In the sports that best measure athleticism — track and field, mostly — athletic performance has peaked. The studies show the steady progress of athletic achievement through the first half of the 20th century, and into the latter half, and always the world-record times fall. Then, suddenly, achievement flatlines. These days, athletes’ best sprints, best jumps, best throws — many of them happened years ago, sometimes a generation ago.

“We’re reaching our biological limits,” said Geoffroy Berthelot, one of the coauthors of both studies and a research specialist at the Institute for Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology in Paris. “We made major performance increases in the last century. And now it is very hard.”

Berthelot speaks with the bemused detachment of a French existentialist. What he predicts for the future of sport is just as indifferent, especially for the people who enjoy it: a great stagnation, reaching every event where singular athleticism is celebrated, for the rest of fans’ lives. And yet reading Berthelot’s work is not grim, not necessarily anyway. It is oddly absorbing. The implicit question that his work poses is larger than track and field, or swimming, or even sport itself. Do we dare to acknowledge our limitations? And what happens once we do?

It’s such a strange thought, antithetical to the more-more-more of American ideals. But it couldn’t be more relevant to Americans today.

In the early 1950s, the scientific community thought Roger Bannister’s attempt to break the four-minute mile might result in his death. Many scholars were certain of the limits of human achievement. If Bannister didn’t die, the thinking went, he might lose a limb. Or if no physiological barrier existed, surely a mathematical one did. The idea of one minute for one lap, and four minutes for four, imposed a beautiful, eerie symmetry — besting it seemed like an ugly distortion, and, hence, an impossibility. But Bannister broke the four-minute mark in 1954, and within three years 30 others had done it. Limitations, it seemed, existed only in the mind.

Except when they don’t. Geoffroy Berthelot began looking at track and field and swimming records in 2007. These were the sports that quantified the otherwise subjective idea of athleticism. There are no teammates in these sports, and improvement is marked scientifically, with a stopwatch or tape measure. In almost every other game, even stat-heavy games, athletic progression can’t be measured, because teammates and opponents temper results. What is achieved on these playing fields, then, doesn’t represent — can’t represent — the totality of achievement: Was Kareem Adbul-Jabbar a better basketball player than Michael Jordan because Abdul-Jabbar scored more career points? Or was Wilt Chamberlain better than them both because he scored 100 in a game? And where does this leave Bill Russell, who won more championships than anybody? By contrast, track and field and swimming are pure, the sporting world’s equivalent of a laboratory.

Berthelot wanted to know more about the progression of athletic feats over time in these sports, how and why performance improved in the modern Olympic era. So he plotted it out, every world record from 1896 onward. When placed on a L-shaped graph, the record times fell consistently, as if down a gently sloped hill. They fell because of improving nutritional standards, strength and conditioning programs, and the perfection of technique. But once Berthelot’s L-shaped graphs reached the 1980s, something strange happened: Those gently sloping hills leveled into plains. In event after event, record times began to hold.

The trend continued through the 1990s, and into the last decade. Today 64 percent of track and field world records have stood since 1993. One world record, the women’s 1,500 meters, hasn’t been broken since 1980. When Berthelot published his study last year in the online journal PLoS One, he made the simple but bold argument that athletic performance had peaked. On the whole, Berthelot said, the pinnacle of athletic achievement was achieved around 1988. We’ve been watching a virtual stasis ever since.

Berthelot argues that performance plateaued for the same reasons it improved over all those decades. Or, put another way, because it improved over all those decades. Records used to stand because some athletes were not well nourished. And then ubiquitous nutritional standards developed, and records fell. Records used to stand because athletes had idiosyncratic forms and techniques. And then through an evolution of experimentation — think high jumper Dick Fosbury and his Fosbury Flop — the best practices were codified and perfected, and now a conformity of form rules sport. Records used to stand because only a minority of athletes lifted weights and conditioned properly. Here, at least, the reasoning is a bit more complicated. Now everybody is ripped, yes, but what strength training also introduced was steroid use. Berthelot doesn’t name names, but he wonders how many of today’s records stand because of pharmacological help, the records broken during an era of primitive testing, before a foundation established the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999. (This assumes, of course, that WADA catches everything these days. And it probably doesn’t.)

Berthelot isn’t the only one arguing athletic limitation. Greg Whyte is a former English Olympic pentathlete, now a renowned trainer in the United Kingdom and academic at the University of Wolverhampton, who, in 2005, coauthored a study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. The study found that athletes in track and field’s distance events were nearing their physiological limits. When reached by phone recently and asked about the broader scope of Berthelot’s study, Whyte said, “I think Geoffroy’s right on it.” In fact, Whyte had just visited Berthelot in Paris. The two hope to collaborate in the future.

It’s a convincing case Berthelot presents, but for one unaccounted fact: What to do with Usain Bolt? The Jamaican keeps torching 100- and 200-meter times, is seemingly beyond-human in some of his races and at the very least the apotheosis of progression. How do you solve a problem like Usain Bolt?

“Bolt is a very particular case,” Berthelot said. Only five track and field world records have been broken since 2008. Bolt holds — or contributed to — three of them: the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4×100-meter relay. “All the media focus on Usain Bolt because he’s the only one who’s progressing today,” Berthelot said. He may also be the last to progress.

Another Berthelot paper, published in 2008, predicts that the end of almost all athletic improvement will occur around 2027. By that year, if current trends hold — and for Berthelot, there’s little doubt that they will — the “human species’ physiological frontiers will be reached,” he writes. To the extent that world records are still vulnerable by then, they will be improved by no more than 0.05 percent — so marginal that the fans, Berthelot reasons, will likely fail to care.

Maybe the same can be said of the athletes. Berthelot notes how our culture asks them — and in fact elite athletes expect of themselves — to always grow bigger, be stronger, go faster. But what happens when that progression stops? Or, put another way: What happens if it stopped 20 years ago? Why go on? The fame is quadrennial. The money’s not great. (Not for nothing: Usain Bolt said recently he’ll go through another Olympic cycle and then switch to pro football.) The pressure is excruciating, said Dr. Alan Goldberg, a sports psychologist who has worked with Olympic athletes, especially if they’re competing at a level where breaking a record is a possibility.

In a different sport but the same context, another individual performer, Ted Williams, looked back on his career and said, in the book “My Turn at Bat,” “I’m glad it’s over…I wouldn’t go back to being eighteen or nineteen years old knowing what was in store, the sourness and bitterness, knowing how I thought the weight of the damn world was always on my neck, grinding on me. I wouldn’t go back to that for anything.” Remember, this is from a man who succeeded, who, most important, broke records. What happens to the athlete who knows there are no records left to break? What happens when you acknowledge your limitations?

The short answer is, you create what you did not previously have. Swimming records, for instance, followed the same trend as track and field: a stasis beginning roughly in the mid-1980s. But in 2000, the sport innovated its way out of its torpor. The famous full-body LZR suits hit the scene, developed with NASA technologies and polyurethane, promising to reduce swimmers’ drag in the water. World records fell so quickly and so often that they became banal, the aquatic version of Barry Bonds hitting a home run. Since 2000, all but four of swimming’s records have been broken, many of them multiple times.

But in 2009 swimming’s governing body, FINA, banned the full-body LZR suits. FINA did not, however, ban the knee-to-navel suits men had previously worn, or the shoulder-to-knee suits women preferred. These suits were made of textiles or other, woven materials. In other words, FINA acknowledged the need for technological enhancements, even as it banned the LZR suits. As a result, world records still fall. Last month in Dubai, American Ryan Lochte set one in the 400-meter individual medley.

These ancient sports are a lot like the world’s current leading economies: stagnant, and looking for a way to break through. The best in both worlds do so by innovating, improving the available resources, and when that process exhausts itself, creating new ones. However, this process — whether through an increasing reliance on computers, or NASA-designed swimsuits, or steroids that regulators can’t detect — changes the work we once loved, or the sports we once played, or the athletes we once cheered.

It may not always be for the worse, but one thing is certain. When we address our human limits these days, we actually become less human.

Paul Kix is a senior editor at Boston magazine and a contributing writer for ESPN the Magazine.


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