The Week/the Spin

Greens Back Bombing

Kosovo update: 1) Germany’s Green Party, on which the German government’s survival depends, rejected a resolution demanding a permanent, unconditional halt to NATO’s bombing but approved a resolution calling for a “limited halt” to let the Serbs withdraw troops from Kosovo. Hawks’ spin: Germany and the NATO coalition are standing firm behind the bombing. Doves’ spin: Germany is splintering, and the coalition can’t last. 2) Responding to NATO’s mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Chinese President Jiang Zemin called the United States a “hegemonist” that uses its power to “wantonly interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.” However, he also agreed to speak with President Clinton. Sinologists debated whether the Chinese regime is sincerely paranoid or is feigning belligerence to appease the Chinese public’s paranoia. 3) Clinton changed his spin on Balkan history. His old spin: NATO must intervene in the Balkans because ethnic violence there has been awful for centuries. His new spin: NATO can heal the Balkans because ethnic violence there has only recently become awful.

Senate Republicans endorsed new gun restrictions. After killing a Democratic measure that would have required background checks on all customers at gun shows, they proposed a similar measure. They also voted to ban sales of semiautomatic assault weapons to minors, and many of them voted for a Democratic provision that would prohibit high-capacity ammunition clips from being imported. President Clinton’s spin on the GOP’s initial vote against background checks: “They passed up this chance to save lives.” The spins from liberal senators and editorialists: 1) Republicans are turning their backs on the National Rifle Association because the public wants gun control. 2) Republicans are helping the NRA stave off serious gun laws by pushing weaker restrictions riddled with loopholes. 3) Even so, that’s progress.

The Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against American Airlines. The suit accuses the airline of using short-term fare cuts and service increases to drive away competitors in order to resume charging high fares. It’s the government’s first suit over predatory pricing since airline deregulation. The government’s spin: We’re busting illegal monopoly tactics. The positive American Airlines spin: We’re being busted for providing better service at lower cost. The negative American Airlines spin: We’re being busted at the behest of our competitors. The competitors’ spin: We’re doing well despite American’s illegal monopoly tactics. The cynical spin: The suit will help American’s competitors attract investors.

The House ethics committee cautioned House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, that House members may not use their offices to punish organizations for financial transactions with political parties. Reports depict the action as a response to DeLay’s attempts to pressure an industry lobbying group to hire a Republican rather than a Democrat as its president. Although the letter evidently just spells out House rules, the Washington Post said it “chastised” DeLay, and the New York Times called it a “rebuke.” Campaign-finance watchdogs’ spin: It’s an attempt to curb DeLay’s fearsome power and ruthlessness. DeLay aides’ spin: “The committee has disposed of this matter.” The lobbying group’s spin: DeLay has “sensitized” us to the importance of hiring Republicans.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and replaced him with the head of Russia’s internal security forces. This comes one day before the Russian parliament begins prescheduled impeachment proceedings against Yeltsin. The Moscow stock exchange plummeted 10 percent, prompting officials to halt trading. Yeltsin’s spin: Primakov failed to save Russia’s economy. The Clinton administration’s spin: Don’t worry, Russia will continue to reform its economy and play a “constructive role” in Kosovo. Other spins: 1) Yeltsin was unhappy because Primakov was failing. 2) Yeltsin was jealous because Primakov was succeeding. 3) Yeltsin decided, as he does every month or so, that it was time to fire his government. 4) Now that Primakov is gone, economic reform can proceed. 5) Now that Primakov is gone, the political system will collapse. 6) The parliament, which liked Primakov, will respond by impeaching Yeltsin or forcing him to call new elections. 7) Now that Russia is in turmoil, it can’t help solve the crisis in Kosovo. 8) Now that Russia is in turmoil, it can’t cause further mischief in Kosovo.

Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin is resigning. Deputy Secretary Lawrence Summers will succeed him. The official explanation: Rubin wants to return to “private life.” The unofficial translation: He wants to resume making boatloads of money. Rubin’s fans hope he’ll take over the Fed next year if Chairman Alan Greenspan retires. The spins: 1) Rubin engineered the current economic boom. 2) No, Greenspan did. 3) Neither of them did; they just got the credit. Congressional Democrats lauded Rubin as their ally in the Cabinet. Congressional Republicans lauded him as their ally in the Cabinet. Pessimists sold their stocks because Rubin is leaving. Optimists bought the stocks because they trust the economy he’s leaving behind. (For more on Rubin, see “Was Bob a God?“)

Marine Capt. Richard Ashby, the pilot whose jet severed an Italian ski lift cable, killing 20 people, was sentenced to six months in military prison. He was acquitted on manslaughter charges but convicted of obstruction for destroying a videotape of an earlier part of the flight. The upbeat spin: The obstruction conviction makes up for the manslaughter acquittal by reaffirming (especially to angry Italians) that U.S. military misdeeds won’t go unpunished. The cynical spin: As with last week’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and last year’s bombing of a Sudanese chemical plant that was evidently mistaken for a chemical weapons facility, the ski lift disaster (attributed in part to government maps that failed to show the ski lift) proves again that U.S. military intelligence is an oxymoron.