The Boldness Of Biden And Boris

Whatever you think of them, they're making big decisions


If the definition of political courage is making big calls crisply and effectively, despite obvious risks and unknowable consequences, then it seems to me that President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson qualify right now. They’ve made calls recently that go beyond the usual mush of compromise and calculation and might even merit being called bold.

Biden braved the Blob and got out of Afghanistan. We will debate how he did so, and with what consequences, for quite some time. But he still did it. Obama tried and failed. Trump made a big song and dance and signed a surrender deal. But Biden actually got us out.

This wasn’t inevitable. The defense and foreign policy establishments had plenty of their usual arguments — threats of terror attacks, pabulum about recent “progress,” the avoidance of humiliation — to slow-walk presidents into inaction, but they didn’t succeed this time. Biden had sufficient experience to see through their bluff, and the fortitude to fight back when they raged against the withdrawal. Yes, it was horribly messy; tragic in the ways wars always are. But it had that mystical quality of an actual decision: doneness.

Subscribe for less than $1/week

Equally this week, the sudden and surprise announcement that the UK, the US and Australia would form a new military and intelligence alliance in the Pacific, including new nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, was a bold signal to China that the US is not about to abandon that region, or its allies there. It came seemingly out of the blue, but had been in the works, apparently initiated by Australia, for some months.

I’m leery of too aggressive a posture, as I explained here, but you can’t deny that this was a real shift. The British national security adviser, Stephen Lovegrove, called it “perhaps the most significant capability collaboration in the world anywhere in the past six decades” — which seems like a bit of truthful hyperbole. But the deal will bolster our Pacific allies, alarmed by the peremptory Afghanistan withdrawal, and rattled by China’s newly raw nationalism and economic clout. Militarily, it targets one of China’s weaknesses — its submarine program — and, if coordinated with India, for example, is a serious act of enhanced deterrence.

As with the Afghanistan withdrawal, this decision also severely bruised an ally, France, whose previous diesel submarine deal with Australia was suddenly scuppered. But the reassertion of an Anglophone alliance on China’s doorstep is not a sign of a superpower in retreat. It was Biden taking the initiative.

For Boris, it was a nifty demonstration of his otherwise iffy notion of a post-Brexit “Global Britain.” Projecting British arms across the globe, in alliance with non-European countries, is exactly the kind of internationalist posture he was going on about for so long. (Seeing the French have a conniption over it must have seemed like a side-benefit, after the agonies of dealing with Macron over Brexit.) Of course, he could have forged such an alliance while staying in the EU. But as with his British vaccine, it was the image that mattered: the UK as a global actor, outside the EU, back with the former colonies and the special relationship, but facing a 21st century foe.

Boris also made a more profoundly risky move this month, that could reverberate in the US as well. He broke a campaign promise and committed to raising taxes in order to fund healthcare in the aftermath of Covid and for home care for the growing ranks of the elderly in Britain. In other words, he’s actually walking the walk of the red Toryism he has committed his party to: a reassertion of populist patriotism, combined with higher social spending, and the “leveling up” of Britain’s poorer regions. It’s easy for conservative politicians to appeal to working-class voters culturally, but to cross the red fiscal line of new taxation is far harder. He deserves props for the balls.

The shift on taxes isn’t completely new. Boris scrapped plans to reduce the corporation tax to 17 percent when he came to office, and then hiked them to 23 percent. But raising National Insurance by 1.25 percent spreads the cost much more widely. The party once headed by Margaret Thatcher is now presiding over the highest tax burden in the UK since 1945. And he has taken a hit to his right as a consequence.

For the first time in this parliament, Labour is ahead of the Tories in one poll — and it was not by Labour gaining much, but by the Tories losing their support from some of their previous base. And so we reach a truly interesting moment in the evolution of the right: can the Tories really abandon their austerity legacy and wrap nationalism and cultural conservatism into a Red Tory package of spending on the sick and the old? Or is that reinvention a chimera?

Before now, that has been an academic question. From here on out, it isn’t. Foolish or wise, you’ve got to credit Boris for taking the leap.

Share

(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a paid subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: many new examples of liberalism and empiricism chipping away at the woke consensus; a debate with Ross Douthat over Pope Francis and Vatican policy; several readers dissenting over my view of Biden’s vaccine mandate; four notable quotes from the week, namely on Afghanistan; nine pieces we recommend from other substackers, mostly on the 20 years since 9/11; a hypnotic Mental Health Break; two especially striking window views from Portland and Louisiana; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge.)

Give the gift of Dish

A reader writes:

I just watched an interview you did with Howard Kurtz on Fox News about your new book. For the first time in a long time you were saying things I believed as a conservative. I’ve felt so alone since my sweet gentle husband died four-and-a-half years ago. I miss him every day. (My three adult children, sister, and sister-in-law are liberals/Democrats, so the political divide has only emphasized my loneliness.) John was a great freestyle swimmer. He swam every day, and over two miles the day he died. His nickname was “Whale,” and I noticed the shirt you wore on TV had black whales all over it. I look for signs that he is watching over me and your whale shirt was a sign to me. So, Andrew, thank you for your words. I wish all good things to come your way.

I’m touched. Maybe I should go on Fox News some more.


“Out On A Limb” Update

The good news is that we’ve gone into a third reprint of my book already. I have to say I’ve been a little gobsmacked by the reviews and reception and sales. I was girding myself for the worst, which suggests I should take more time off Twitter, and instead I’ve been struck by the generosity of the reception.

Among the surprises: a rave from Hugh Hewitt, on whose radio show I just gave an interview this week (transcript here):

Fifteen years ago, when I was promoting The Conservative Soul, I had what was probably the most disastrous, angry, unhinged interview I’ve ever had with Hewitt. I lost my cool and so did he.

But here we are. The new interview went swimmingly. Money quote from Hugh: “You are easily the most consequential public intellectual of the last 30 years. Hitch was a close second, but you actually are the necessary, though not sufficient, guy who got same-sex marriage Constitutionalized in the United States.”

The book has a 4.4/5 reader rating at Amazon. If you’ve been putting off buying it, here’s a link. It will appeal I hope especially to longtime Dishheads, as it contains several key moments from the old blog, from the death of Dusty to the first glimpse of Obama. Grab it today!

In promoting “Out On a Limb,” I’ve taken some weird detours into my own past, including several videos that help put some of my essays into perspective. The following video (part of a huge compilation just uploaded to YouTube, so click on the links to the timestamps) shows Newt Gingrich visiting The New Republic in 1992 when I was editor. It was three years since I had written the conservative case for gay marriage; and Newt was forced to weigh in on gay rights.

Click here to jump to the beginning of that segment, when Sid Blumenthal asks Newt about a speech he made in which he blamed liberals for the AIDS crisis. Click here to jump ahead to Jake Weisberg asking Newt, “Do you think that homosexuals should be allowed to marry, to advance your goal of promoting monogamy?” The whole segment is about 20 minutes long.

What strikes me about this scene is not just my hair, or the staggering youth of so many around that table, but how we’re talking about truly explosive stuff — who was responsible for AIDS, whether gays could get married, the role of promiscuity — and yet the tone is civil, if pointed; there’s humor, if only occasionally; and there is a real clash of minds. What a world away from the emotionalism of much of today’s culture.

Twenty-five years later, Newt and I were at it again — at the 2017 Munk debate on President Trump and the state of American democracy. With a bit less hair.


Liberalism’s Antibodies Watch

For an update on last week’s post, noting shifts in elite mood and public opinion with respect to the ongoing social justice cultural revolution, click here. The new post highlights a half-dozen big examples from the past week or so, related to contentious issues such as the California recall, CRT in public schools, SATs, the science of stereotypes, trigger warnings, and trans rights. It’s a drip, drip, drip of empirical data that is slowly corroding the woke consensus. Know hope.


New On The Dishcast: Ross Douthat

Ross is a dear old colleague whose newest book, The Deep Places, is a memoir about his long fight against Lyme disease. In this episode we talk about the world of sickness, which we both know something about, and we debate our differing views of Pope Francis and our different levels of panic over Trump and CRT.

To listen to two excerpts from my conversation with Ross — on how chronic pain affects one’s religious faith, and on whether the Vatican should deny Communion to certain groups, such as the rich or the remarried — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.


Dissents Of The Week: Biden’s Vax Mandate

A reader tries to poke holes in my argument:

You begin your second post last week by claiming that Biden “has now filled that authoritarian void” by enacting … a mandate you later propose: “I’d mandate vaccines for federal workers and contractors and the military” — which is what Biden did. He also provided paid time off to employees to get vaccinated (a form of “financial incentive,” as you suggested). Finally, he requested OSHA to develop a rule requiring companies with 100 or more employees to require vaccinations or weekly testing — a key detail you failed to mention.

Or as another reader puts it, “Nobody in the American private sector needs to choose between their job and getting a shot.” Read my response to those dissents, along with two longer ones, here.

Shifting to my review of “The White Lotus” last week, a reader thinks I left out something important (spoilers below):

Thanks for the insightful article. My only disappointment is due to my hope that any article about the show mentions Basil Fawlty:

Here’s Murray Bartlett, who plays Armond, on the unavoidable connection: “I remember him being kind of a highly strung, anxious mess.”

But Armond was a model of politesse compared to Basil. And speaking of Armond, “Did you catch all the Christ symbology around him?”

  • He calls Dillon a Jesus type

  • “It’s the last dinner” 

  • The classical string piece playing in the slo-mo dinner scene is “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” a very churchy/religious piece

  • Armond dies in a bath tub (purity), with an arm outstretched (cross) and a wound in his side

All of it was a beautiful tribute to the most debauched but most likable character. 

Many readers are recommending the new Netflix series “The Chair” as another emerging crack in the woke cultural elite. On it.

Another reader thinks I missed something important for the 9/11 anniversary:

For a time you wrote passionately on the torture issue, which is still very much with us. Check out this new NYT profile of the famous Mauritanian detainee named Slahi and how “government-sanctioned torture remains a stain on the [U.S.’s] reputation.” I urge you to consider writing about this issue again.

I actually wrote about the film The Mauritanian, and the legacy of torture more generally, on the Dish back in March (it’s now accessible to non-paying subscribers).

As always, please keep the dissents coming (or send us a view from your window — don’t forget the location and time of day, and part of the window frame): dish@andrewsullivan.com.


In The ‘Stacks

In case you’re new to it, “In the ‘Stacks” is a weekly feature in the paid version of the Dish where we select about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other substackers. This week includes pieces from Jim Fallows, Cathy Young, Alex Pareene, and newcomer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among others. A reader recommends another celebrity of sorts:

I received my autographed copy of your book today from Titcombs and I just wanted to say thank you for putting it together and for consistently being one of the most interesting and open-minded journalists working today. I also thoroughly enjoy your podcasts. And here’s a recommendation for your “In the Stacks” section: Edward Snowden started a substack recently, and while it is only just getting started, it has been a thoroughly fascinating read thus far. Potentially lost in the controversy of his actions is the fact that he is incredibly intelligent and educated on many topics. His interviews on Joe Rogan are another example of this; Joe just lets Snowden talk uninhibited and I have no complaints.

If you have any recommendations for Substack pieces, especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: dish@andrewsullivan.com. We want to promote as many smart independent voices as we can.


The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think it’s located? (The photo was taken about a decade ago.) Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today.

See you next Friday.