Tunku Varadarajan

Tunku Varadarajan

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and editor of Hoover’s in-house publication Defining Ideas. He is a writer-at-large at the Daily Beast and a former editor of Newsweek and Newsweek International. Previously, he was executive editor (Opinions) at Forbes, assistant managing editor and op-ed editor of the Wall Street Journal, and the New York bureau chief for The Times (of London). He was born in India and is a British citizen. A visiting scholar at New York University's Department of Journalism, he is a former lecturer in law at Trinity College, Oxford. He has also taught at NYU's Stern School of Business, the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Mr. Varadarajan has a B.A. in Law, with honors, from Oxford University.

Syria and the New World (Dis)order


Not since the early years of the Second World War has Planet Earth been as bereft of American leadership as it is now. What the killings fields of Syria have brought most sharply into focus is a new world “disorder,” to use that last word in its two principal senses: that of chaos, disarray, and unchecked lawlessness; and that of ailment, malady, or sickness.

The present situation would lend itself to comedy were the cost of this disorder—and of this American decline—not so very astronomical. America’s foreign policy, it would appear, is in the hands of John Kerry and Dennis Rodman. And American strategic policy has been outsourced to Vladimir Putin: The Leader of the Free World (yes, we can still call President Obama that, as his title ex officio if for no other reason) has gifted the resolution of the Syrian tragedy to the Leader of the Unfree World. The Syrian regime’s protectors and enablers in Moscow are now to be its investigators and monitors. Welcome to the Global Theater of the Absurd.

What is the new disorder? It is the utter rudderlessness of the “decent world,” by which I mean the comity of nations that believes in partnership with other nations, not zero-sum relations; co-existence based on mutual respect; the resolution of disputes by resort to law and morality; the settling of land and maritime borders by negotiation, not force; and the belief that the United States, for all its overwhelming military and economic heft, is a force for global good.

This world has lost its bearings, thanks to an America that has volunteered itself for strategic vasectomy. Morally tormented, it is led by a Jesuitical president who believes in no “red lines,” and whose very essence recoils from the notion of American pre-eminence (so much so that he stated not once but twice, in his speech on Syria to the nation last Tuesday, that this country is not the “world’s policeman”). His administration makes foreign policy seemingly off the cuff. Witness John Kerry’s suggestion—described by his own spokeswoman as “rhetorical” and “hypothetical”—that the Assad regime could avert a punitive U.S. attack if it gave up its chemical arsenal. “Keystone” Kerry acted without White House imprimatur (if that is true, why does he still have a job?), and yet: that unmistakable moral wavering, that impromptu revelation of a chink in America’s armor, was all that Russia needed to wrest control of Syria from Washington’s limp wrist.

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A Coup is a Coup is a Coup


You know a country is benighted when no less a figure than Tony Blair, the world’s official envoy for the Middle East (whatever that means), turns apologist for a coup d’état, stating blithely that the army had no choice but to unseat the elected president.  You know a country is benighted when pundits in the West engage in verbal calisthenics to call its coup by any name but that of “coup” because it is seen to reflect an irrepressible popular will—and, as such, transcends all the inconvenient grubbiness of the c-word.

So let us agree outright that what happened in Egypt—the booting from office of President Mohammad Morsi—was a coup. However noble the sheen put upon it, a coup is a coup is a coup. (As Popeye the Sailor once put it: “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” Plain words; plain meaning; plain truth.)

In calling the coup by its proper name, we make it harder to duck, or glide by, the axiom with which we’ve all been raised: an elected government can lose power legitimately only through an election. And when the elected government in question is the first democratic government in 5,000 years of Egyptian civilization, and that government is permitted to last a mere 12 months in office before its neck is wrung by men in uniform, we must be particularly careful about saying that what happened is A Good Thing.

Egypt had been democratic for one-five-thousandth of its history when the coup occurred, and those who would say that the coup was a fitting conclusion to President Morsi’s administration resort to arguments that revolve around the unfitness for democracy of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—by which they mean, of course, the unfitness for democracy of Egypt itself, for those who voted for the Brotherhood in their millions will do so again if permitted. That is at the root of all Western angst over democracy in the Middle East: give the vote to Muslims who haven’t had the vote before, who haven’t had the vote—as David Brooks might put it—in their “intellectual DNA,” and they will vote for the parties that the West likes least.

You can take the Muslim out of politics in Egypt (as Mubarak did, and as Sadat and Nasser did before him), but you can’t take politics out of the Muslim. Our aim as global citizens is to ensure—to the increasingly feeble extent that we can—that Muslim politics in Egypt is democratic. And in order for it to stand a fighting chance to be so, a democratically elected Muslim president has to be allowed to remain in office for longer than a paltry year; he has to be allowed to prove himself over the length of a presidential term, or more. (And if democracy is conditional on an Islamist president not winning, how, pray, is it a democracy?)

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Greg Smith woke up one morning this month, covered from head to toe in icky, slimy Vampire-Squid ink. After 12 years at Goldman Sachs, most recently as executive director and head of U.S. equity derivates in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, he decided he could no longer tolerate the moral turpitude at a place of work that had netted him—oh, at a conservative estimate—some $10 million over a decade. Cleansing himself was the only way to stay pure. So cleanse himself he did, with a cathartic op-ed in The New York Times, in which he announced (before telling his employers) that he was quitting Goldman Sachs—in effect, trading in his impressively lucrative job for 15 minutes of fame.

Smith’s cri de Coeur is being regarded as something noble—and not merely because of the unusual spectacle of someone walking away from millions. But to this reader, Smith’s jeremiad comes across as cynical and insincere, and Smith himself comes across as little better than a sanctimonious git. He describes the ugly Goldman he now feels compelled to leave as a place that has lost its “spirit of humility,” a place that, once upon a time, “wasn’t just about making money.” Yet Smith worked there for 12 years, in the belly of the beast. Did it take him 12 years to realize that Goldman isn’t a non-profit? You’ve got to love his prelapsarian tone, his contention that this edifice of integrity, so humanitarian when he started 12 years ago, has suddenly turned diabolical, caring only about m—y.

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2011′s Biggest Losers

The real flavor of a year is always derived most deliciously from the things that go wrong in high places: not just from the cock-ups, cover-ups, and mendacity, but also from ugly speech or unseemly behavior on the part of those (s)elected to Serve the People (or, at the very least, to do them no harm). Here, in no particular order of ignominy, are a few deserving brickbats.

Liars of the Year: Pakistan’s ISI for saying they did not know OBL was a stone’s throw from the military academy in Abbottabad.

Blowhard of the Year: Nicolas Sarkozy, for his berating of the U.K. for not swallowing a Pan-European poison pill.

Goons of the Year: The Chinese security services for their boorishness toward Ai Weiwei and their roughing up of Christian Bale.

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I’ve just watched the 14th State of the Union address since I first came to live in America in May 1997. And as I prop my eyelids open with matchsticks in order to write this piece, I am convinced that this has been the most boring address of them all.  (At one point, my son actually leaned over to me on the sofa and said firmly in my ear, “Dad, wake up…”) 

Yet in truth, even though its voltage was so darn low, this wasn’t the worst presidential speech (by Obama or anyone else) that I’ve heard, by any stretch: A blessed relief it was, at some level, that Obama didn’t seek to soar with every phrase, or to bind us in a spell of words. This was the speech of a chastened, post-rhetorical president—in some ways a weary president. It was certainly the speech of a president wiser than the one who delivered last year’s State of the Union. 

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Revolutionary World Cups

An insufferable little windbag by the name of Sepp Blatter—president of FIFA, the governing body of world soccer—has just disclosed to the world that Russia will host the soccer/football World Cup in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. The United States, bidding for the 2022 event, was bounced out, as was England, to many the favorites for 2018.

The selections, made by 22 men in suits over lunch in Zurich, are provocative—unattractively in the case of Russia, and beguilingly so in the case of Qatar.

There can be no question that Russia was—for the soccer fan—the least appealing candidate for 2018. Vast, repressive, unwelcoming of foreigners (especially those with dark skin), with an intolerant social culture and a thuggish ruling class, the country is a far cry from the balmy openness that was on offer in the bids from England, Spain/Portugal, and Netherlands/Belgium. I’m betting Vladimir Putin will still be in power in 2018: How could he pass up an opportunity to declare the World Cup open?

On the plus side: Russia does, of course, have a proud sporting tradition, even if we discount the totalitarian dimension of the Soviet era—and its soccer team has always been a force to reckon with. And it does, now, have the chance to turn itself into a more civilized place.

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(photo credit: Axel Burhmann)

Years from now, earnest journalism majors will study an episode set to air on Indian television later today, in which Barkha Dutt, a massively influential but ethically embattled TV news anchor, submits herself to public inquisition by a panel of her peers. Four flinty journalists will grill the anchor on the extent of her relationship with one of India’s most influential (and, some would say, murky) corporate lobbyists, with whom the anchor was clandestinely taped talking about how to get a pliable politician a job in the Indian cabinet—a placement that would have benefitted the lobbyist’s corporate clients to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. (One assumes that clips of the inquisition will be posted on Ms. Dutt’s NDTV website.)

Think—and I offer this rough-hewn equivalent only to bring the matter to life for an American readership—of Katie Couric as the anchor, caught on tape talking to the flack for Halliburton, on the subject of getting Halliburton’s preferred candidate the job of defense secretary in the run-up to a major war. And think, then, of an hour-long segment in which Couric sits down with, say, Charles Krauthammer, Fred Hiatt, Ken Auletta, and Katrina vandel Heuvel, and submits herself to on-air questioning on the subject—with the aim of explaining, as Dutt has sought to do, on Twitter, Facebook, and in a press release, how her conversation with the lobbyist was within the bounds of ethically acceptable journalism.

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Another WikiLeaks whirlwind has hit us. The trick, truly, is to stay grounded and ask a question that newspapers (yes, even The New York Times) don’t easily ask: This is all mighty interesting, and truly, madly juicy, but…should we really be colluding with nihilists who traffic in stolen information?

There are a few observations that one should make in the face of the latest act by Julian Assange, the prime mover of WikiLeaks, who has just dumped in the laps of four publications—The Times, The Guardian of London, El Pais of Madrid, and Germany’s Der Spiegel—thousands of purloined pages of diplomatic correspondence between United States Embassies across the world and the State Department in Washington. This correspondence was never intended to enter the public domain, and its entry into the public domain may have thrown American diplomacy into a crisis of confidence.

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To Hell With the Activists

Lisa Murkowski has at long last taken Alaska’s Senate seat—wresting it from the grasp of Joe Miller, the official Republican candidate who was propelled onto the ballot in the state’s primaries by an energetic heave from the state’s Tea Party activists.

So: Sarah Palin’s handpicked candidate has been defeated by the state’s handwritten alternative. Conservatives were (and are) inclined to say that Murkowski, the “write-in,” was anything but right on for taking on the Republican Party’s own man. But I’m inclined to disagree vigorously, and to declare my support for the Murkowski Model: Don’t take, lying down, a mugging in the primaries. Don’t retreat; reload. 

Alaska, like too many other states in the Union, has closed primaries. These frequently low-turnout affairs are susceptible to hijacking by determined voter-activists, who foist on the general electorate candidates that are often far outside the mainstream. For the GOP, this can yield disastrous outcomes: Witness the Senate election in Delaware, and the governor’s race in New York, in both of which the Republican Party ran candidates who were ideologically “pure” (by the application of the crudest shibboleths) and yet utterly unelectable.  (My colleague, John Avlon, crunched some eye-opening primary numbers in a recent piece for the Beast.) 

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