Two Men, Two Destinies

“If you have no character your destiny is tragedy.”  These words offered by former federal prosecutor John Flannery as he described the likely outcome of Donald Trump’s presidency and life.  This notion of self-inflicted fate has been around for centuries as when  Oedipus the King was advised by Tiresias, “Creon is not your downfall, no, you are your own” (Sophocles, circa 430 B.C.).  The remarkable thing about the noose that appears to be tightening around Trump’s neck is that his nemesis, Robert Mueller, has yet to speak one word.  Trump’s addiction to peevish impulse, fearmongering, and deceit are tightening the rope with virtually no help from others.  All one must do is look at the faces of Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Stephen Miller, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, et al—that are often either bursting with rage or spewing contempt—to know these folks are not only in deep trouble, they know they are in deep trouble.  Contrast that with the seldom seen face of Mueller or, moreover, the face of John McCain even as he faced imminent death.  When you are on the right side of honor, tranquility is easy.

McCain’s final words were full of gratitude, self-awareness, and grace.  He spoke of the “privilege of serving,” of his “love for America,” and his “love of my family.”  He easily acknowledged “I have made mistakes”  and even in his life that included physical and psychological torture, and humiliating defeat, he claimed he was “the luckiest person on earth.”  In the end, he knew he had “lived and died a proud American.”  These are words of honor.  These are words of a man at peace.  He also had a message many thought was aimed at Trump.

We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.

Those same ‘many’ wonder if Trump was listening; if he got the message.  But the question is not was Trump listening, the question is, are we?

McCain also deftly arranged his eulogies at his memorial service in the National Cathedral to be delivered by prior political foes, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  He knew that the accolades of former adversaries would be more powerful than those of advocates.  And, he wanted to show the world the spirit of his often stated credo: “we must serve a cause greater than ourselves.”  Of McCain, Bush said,

John was above all, a man with a code.  He lived by a set of public virtues that brought strength and purpose to his life and to his country.  He was courageous, with a courage that frightened his captors and inspired his countrymen.  He was honest, no matter whom it offended.  Presidents were not spared.  He was honorable, always that recognizing his opponents were still patriots and human beings.  He loved freedom, with a passion of a man who knew its absence.  He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators.  Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots.

Obama, more direct perhaps than Bush, but with a subtlety he mastered as a target of vitriol and racism himself, summoned us to engage anew.

So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty.  Trafficking in bombastic manufactured outrage, it’s politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear.  John called on us to be bigger than that.  He called on us to be better than that.  That’s perhaps how we honor him best, by recognizing that there are some things bigger than party or ambition or money or fame or power, that the things that are worth risking everything for, principles that are eternal, truths that are abiding.

The proverbial elephant NOT in the cathedral was, of course, Donald Trump, whom the press pool reported left the White House in his white MAGA hat midway through Meghan McCain’s remarks, perhaps for a round of golf.  Meghan, the most direct of all in assailing the antithesis of her father, Donald Trump, gave the most eloquent eulogy of the day closing with a line that will, no doubt, be broadcast over and over: “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”

I have no hope whatsoever that any of these messages will be considered by Trump.  There is no space to comprehend virtue in a mind addled by avarice.  Again, the question is not did he listen, but are we?  The challenge is to restore our own sense of honor to deliver America to a better place than the dark mendacity that is Trump.

May we embrace the destiny of honor McCain so ably bestowed, and allow the destiny of tragedy to be Trump’s and Trump’s alone.

By |2018-09-01T20:28:52+00:00September 1st, 2018|Current, Donald Trump, Leadership|0 Comments

Obama’s Farewell

Tonight is Obama’s farewell address.  If his is received like his predecessors, few of us will listen.  It may, however, be the last sensible address given by a sitting president until late January 2021 when we will (hopefully) come to our senses and inaugurate the 46th president.  Unlike those missed celestial events that seem to always present themselves in the middle of the night, Obama’s will be available in real time and anytime thereafter to listen to, and re-listen to.  I recommend it.

Presidents often give their most compelling notes of wisdom in these addresses.  For the first time in their presidency they are allowed to tell us what they have learned and, moreover, what we should lock in our minds to avoid in the future, without immediate political consequences.  George Washington established this tradition when he cautioned us about partisanship.  It certainly was a warning we should have heeded.  He wrote that hyper-partisanship,

serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion.

More recently, President Eisenhower warned us of an emerging “military industrial complex.”  We should have listened to both. (See a compilation here, http://www.npr.org/2017/01/10/509052320/obamas-farewell-address-how-presidents-use-this-moment-of-reflection.)

The United States will survive Trump.  Power will be abused, mistakes will be made, people will suffer, but America will emerge battered but largely intact, and so will you.  But not if we don’t listen to the wisdom of those who came before us, and not if we don’t stand up, speak up, and act responsibly.  Our future is in our hands, not Trump’s.  Focus on the difference you can make.  First locally—home and community—then with a wider lens.  Do not bully or be bullied.  Engage with a calm sense of profound resilience.  It is your life and your country.  Own it.

By |2017-06-05T21:50:01+00:00January 10th, 2017|General|0 Comments

Sandy’s Last Victim: (President) Romney

In August at the Republican National Convention, Candidate Romney mocked President Obama when he said: “Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet” which drew groans and laughter from the Party loyals festooned in elephas regalia.  While Romney followed up his mocking with a reasonable pledge to instead concern himself with the American family as opposed to the sophomoric “Drill, Baby, Drill!” chant of four years earlier, he may have offended more than Obamians and human-hating environmentalists. He may have offended Mother Nature herself who sent the ambiguously gendered climate changer hurricane Sandy to submerge Romney’s campaign in its final days.

I may be proven wrong four days from now, but after studying the numbers posted at Real Clear Politics yesterday afternoon, it appears that Obama will win reelection.  There are too many ways he can win, and really no plausible pathway for Romney.  What was new and somewhat startling, however, was what appears to be Sandy’s effect on Florida; a state he/she rained on but passed on his/her way to slam the Northeast.  Florida, recently seen as a Romney certainty, may swing to Obama.  If Obama gets those 29 electoral votes he can lose every other swing state to Romney and still be reelected.

The Sandy effect on Florida is fairly easy to understand.  Floridians know a thing or two about hurricanes and are very sympathetic to their victims.  Obama has received great praise for his handling of the aftermath, which has, among other things, produced a November bromance-a-trois between himself, Mayor Bloomberg, and Governor Christie.  And remember, millions of Floridians either came from the Northeast or have family there today. Finally, Floridians are also aware—and were reminded again this week—that Obama appointed their former head of emergency management (a Jeb Bush man), William Fugate, as his head of FEMA who is also being (mostly) lauded for his handling of the Sandy aftermath.  Obama reached across the aisle to avoid a W/Katrina/Brownie disaster.

Last Thursday in the New York Times, Timothy Egan opined, “in the election of 2012, it looks like nature votes last.”  If it does, its deciding vote may leave Romney wishing that Obama had succeeded in his quest to “slow the rise of the oceans” that put the sunshine state on the tally sheet of President Obama.

 

 

 

By |2017-05-23T18:09:23+00:00November 3rd, 2012|General|0 Comments

The Best in Us

It is often said that the worst times bring out the best in us.  As I reflect on 9/11 and the decade that followed, I oscillate between anger, sadness, and disgust.  At times my jaw is clenched, while at others the tears well up.  Then, too often of late, I just hang my head in disbelief.  As an historian it is impossible for me to avoid comparing 9/11 to other moments of crisis in America, to other ‘worst’ times.  The run-up and aftermath of the American Revolution, Civil War, and Great Depression and World War II are obvious candidates for comparison.  What I find is that the significant markers that define the beginnings of these crises are characterized by both grave challenges and collective determination.  Americans come together and address the crisis with a high sense of resolve, responsibility, and sacrifice.  Our character is lean and strong.  During this period of comparison there are many more similarities than differences.  It is in the out years, roughly three years and beyond the initiation of crisis, when more differences are found, and where prospects for the future are defined.

Our initial response to 9/11 was similar to other crises.  Flags were everywhere and while a few people behaved in a manner unbecoming an American, most of us kept our cool and rallied around our leaders with compassion for those who lost loved ones, and a determination to seek justice.  In the out years, however, we lost our composure by compromising two things: our honesty and our humility.  Ideological bullies like Vice President Dick Cheney began by lying about weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda in Iraq.  Inside the Beltway of Washington DC they call it politicizing intelligence.  I will call it what it is: lying.  The lies enabled a call to action that has cost us at least two trillion dollars and, across the world, the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  Once our honesty was lost, what little humility remained since we had become the world’s sole remaining superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union was vanquished by our hubristic response to 9/11.  Once our humility was gone, our national character—our identity—was lost as well. We were all sucked into a charade that has proven catastrophic.  The promises of the Cheney bunch—of cheers, bouquets, and new democracies—were never realized and now we are stuck in a quagmire without a clear exit.  The tally of blood and treasure lost is far from over.

Dishonesty, and moreover, arrogance, appear to be the primary products of the out-years after 9/11.  Now we behave at home the way we have abroad.  Our leaders in Congress swagger about with Cheney-esque anger and certitude.  Ideological bullying has become the norm.  Meanwhile, our president hides in the White House like a prom king who has just realized the student body doesn’t love him so much after all.  What courage he had has been overcome by his naiveté.  No, President Obama, the old white pudgy boys in Congress are not enamored with a young fit black man in the White House.  They want you out and they will do anything possible to bring that about.  It is time for you to fight for our future and forget about a second term.  Use the rest of your term to be the best one-term president ever.  If you do, who knows, you might even have a second term.

As I watched the tears shed by the children remembering their loved ones at Ground Zero on September 11, 2011, I couldn’t help but also wonder about all the tears shed by the children of those who have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan.  As I watch Wall Street prosper, I wonder why we can’t do the same thing for main streets all over America.  As I watch the middle class rise across Asia, I watch and wonder why we tolerate its decline in the West.  As I watch students across Scandinavia and Asia excel at levels significantly higher than our own kids, I wonder how we expect to remain a superpower.  As I watch our security, health, and environment decline from our dependence on fossil fuels, I wonder why we don’t launch a massive public initiative to produce new fuels and new distribution systems.

Many wonder these days if Karl Marx was right; if capitalism will produce its own demise.  It is an interesting question given our current circumstances.  I conclude, however, that capitalism and democracy are not the problem, character is.  We must regain our sense of honesty and humility to face the many challenges we face.  Once our character is lean and strong again we will have the courage to do what we know is right.  We will not allow those we elected to serve us to continue serving themselves first.  We will, once again, summon the best in us.

By |2017-05-23T19:50:02+00:00September 11th, 2011|American Identity, Leadership|0 Comments

The Reagan Echo: Donald Trump

In my forthcoming study of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, tentatively titled “The Disciple and The Alchemist,” I wrote about Reagan that,

He was a transcendent optimist—a spokesman-as-leader—who employed alchemy and soaring rhetoric to obviate contradictions.  He stood, as appropriate at any given time, near either Democratic or Republican mirrors to reflect and project his appeal through a libertarian prism, matching the prevailing mood of the electorate.  From the threat of communism, to fatigue of government intervention, to the embrace of an evil enemy, he knew how to change the angle of the camera and strike an appealing pose for his audience.

As I observe the improbable candidacy of Donald Trump for president today, I cannot help but hear echoes of Reagan’s appeal and alchemic modality.  And, the electorate seems to be just as depressed (or angry) today as it was in the latter stages of the Carter presidency.

The comparisons are eerie.  While Reagan espoused the “Gospel of Prosperity,” Trump promotes what David Brooks of The New York Times has labeled a “Gospel of Success.”  Meanwhile, Obama speaks of self-restraint and sacrifice the same way Carter spewed jeremiads of sacrifice-based redemption.  Like Reagan, Trump also believes in American exceptionalism based on overt power, projected for the benefit of Americans first.  Notwithstanding missteps, like Vietnam before Reagan, and Iraq/Afghanistan before Trump, for Trump Americans remain the chosen people in a chosen land, the new Israel.  Meanwhile, Obama, like Carter, tries to re-identify America as a force for moral good, waging humanitarian wars (Libya) and preferring cooperation to competition.  I can’t remember ever hearing Trump (or Reagan) utter the word ‘cooperation’.  Reagan’s Hollywood-styled past and Trump’s New York/Atlantic City slick-shtick (and multiple marriages) also place them in stark contrast to the Obama/Carter image of up-from-nothing populist purity.  Furthermore, I can easily see Trump reeling in the Religious Right the same way Reagan did with his “I know you can’t endorse me … but I can endorse you”; especially with either Palin or Huckabee at the bottom half of the ticket.

Trump has also taken a page out of Reagan’s early campaign playbook in his attempt to de-legitimize the President.  Reagan questioned Carter’s strength, patriotism, and decisiveness, while Trump has pounded the birther issue with the conviction of a Klansman.  Trump will easily get the angry white vote, and if he can co-opt the Religious Right (now Christian nationalists) with whitebread exceptionalism, he’s halfway there.  Trump’s next target will be to add the other half—fiscal conservatives—to his electoral coalition.  He’ll question Obama’s fiscal toughness in the face of huge deficits and the recent S&P outlook downgrade on US securities.  Trumps own fiscal follies will no doubt be recast as the scars of experience in a Hobbesian world.  He will ask the Reagan question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” and will couple it with “Who would you rather have at the negotiating table, a nice guy, or a winner?”  He might even say to Obama: “You’re fired!”

Reagan’s appeal resided in its simplicity; he pulled on American’s sense of patriotism and desire to “stand tall” again.  He re-imagined America’s special destiny as a “shining city on a hill.”  In a complex world full of nuance and strange alliances—one that calls for an Obamaesque mind and demeanor—Americans may decide they’d just like to feel good again.  They may prefer illusion to reality.  If they do, Trump’s orangish hair (like Reagan’s) won’t matter.  Some say Trump’s anger will do him in; this may prove to be wishful thinking by Obama supporters.  After all, aren’t we all angry?  Trump should summon his inner Reagan, and Obama better not make the same mistake Carter’s advisors did when they hoped they would face Reagan on election day.

By |2017-05-23T20:12:33+00:00April 19th, 2011|Donald Trump|0 Comments

Obama’s Doctrine of Ambiguity

As one who studies US foreign policy, I am not a fan of presidential doctrines that are generally crafted by the press out of a line or two of a president’s speech.  The Monroe Doctrine may have actually been the only true doctrine, defined by its namesake, and even it proved susceptible to gross misinterpretation and extensive misapplication.  Moreover, in an age of complexity, doctrines, or grand strategies, seem less appealing or relevant than the flexibility ambiguity allows, which is clearly why President Obama favored ambiguity in his recent address on Libya.  We live in an age of supervention, where seemingly disconnected and anachronistic events have effects, which is an inexorable reality of complexity.  The larger problem however, is not about US foreign policy and its strategic design in a complex world; it is about American identity; it is about how we Americans view our role at home and in the world

Obama’s address about the US/NATO intervention in Libya (March 28, 2011) left those wanting to define the Obama Doctrine dissatisfied; there was (purposefully, no doubt) nowhere to hang one’s doctrinal hat.  Ben Smith of Politico probably summed this best when he wrote, “The doctrine is there is no doctrine.”  And while others like Mark Halperin of TIME lauded Obama’s address as “strong” even he underscored the ambiguity by suggesting, “George W. Bush could have delivered every sentence.”  When Obama and W sound the same on foreign policy, the case for ambiguity is unambiguous.  However, as attractive as the flexibility ambiguity provides is, we must also look at the sustainability of an open-ended policy of either adventurism (W) or interventionism (Obama)

The US has now witnessed two expensive effects of having an unassailable lead as the predominant military in the world: natural competitors find other ways to compete, and allies become dependent on US military power.  China has chosen to compete with the US by investing in their economy and protecting their currency (virtually all their military is deployed in-country to protect the authoritarian government).  Other non-state actors, like al-Qaeda, compete with asymmetric terror strategies that are difficult if not impossible to assail with a behemoth (US) military.  Meanwhile, as we have seen with Libya, US allies and their collective security system, NATO, are unable to provide the command and control platform to launch or sustain an intervention.  Therefore, the US, in its superpower/super-cop role, is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place; it must continue to fund its super-military for the benefit of friends, while its natural competitors gain in power through other means.  The result, unfortunately, is now and will continue to be the decline—perhaps even accelerated decline—of US power and well-being.

Obama could have at least started to halt this unsustainable trajectory of superdom, but he chose ambiguity.  He has missed an opportunity to recast US identity.  In so doing, he has (perhaps unwittingly) elongated the deleterious effects of Eisenhower’s warning about a military industrial complex, and reduced our capacity to invest in better long-term bets like education, alternative energy, and economic innovation.  Lest we forget, we have enormous financial deficits.  The US will likely be better loved by both allies and competitors for Obama’s post-W retooling of exceptionalism and lofty aims, but such love is an unsustainable luxury.  As Americans we must demand a refocusing on our own strength, resiliency, and well-being.  We can afford neither adventurism nor interventionism.  Prevailing on the “shores of Tripoli” may feel good today, but also puts our future at open-ended risk.

By |2017-05-23T20:15:24+00:00March 29th, 2011|General|0 Comments

“Dithering” Might Have Been Better

While Sarah Palin criticizes President Obama of “dithering,” maybe that is exactly what we should be better at when it comes to foreign interventions like the recent one in Libya.  Here are some observations/questions I recently offered in a US foreign policy group I belong to, to, in part, stimulate discussion about US involvement in Libya.

  1. Analogies are dangerous. Rwanda was not Bosnia or Kosovo, and neither are any of them Libya.  The events associated with each are born from different places, times, people, governments, cultures, economies, and laws.  Still, our memories of them are powerful, and in the last several days the interpretation of each is and has been projected on Libya.  As historians we have to interpret the record associated with each while we place a huge warning label on our analyses that reads This Will Never Recur Exactly As It Has Here. (A sort of historian’s caveat emptor.)  In critical ways, each event is different.  Richard E. Neustadt’s and Ernest R. May’s Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers warns us of the danger of analogies.  Their study shows many cases of the misapplication of history, operationalized in policymaking through analogies, that cause us to ask, years later, why in the hell did they do that?  In most cases speed is a factor, and the simple enormity of what decision makers have to deal with, all the complexities and scale.  Analogies simplify and justify; they are the fuel of dispatch.  However, if we do in Libya what we should have done in the Balkans or Rwanda, will we do what is correct for Libya?  If we begin with the premise they are different, then how is doing what we believe we should have done in Bosnia or Rwanda even logical?
  2. We must be careful what we wish for.  Or, asked otherwise by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s representative for foreign affairs and security, “And then what?” Qaddafi (Q) didn’t become a mass murderer overnight, in fact, where is the evidence of slaughter?  Obama hung his case on Q’s psychobabble rhetoric, where Q claimed he would show “no mercy,” to justify intervening to stop Q short of Benghazi.  I can only conclude there was no evidence of slaughter by Q’s troops on the way from Tripoli to Benghazi, otherwise Obama surely would have hung his argument on something more than Q’s “no mercy” pledge.  (I reflect on much of Reagan’s rhetoric in the 1980s and find Q’s nearly childish.)  Q clearly had the rebels on the run, but genocide?  Q has a long history of violence, like other despots (we ignore), but I am unaware of any history of genocide.  Yet, we have committed tremendous resources to a nebulous task of “protecting Libyans” who will now likely face a long ground war with a desperate despot.  Many would have likely died, and now many likely will.  Where is the victory in that?  Moreover, when a conclusion is declared—however nebulous—then what?  Who will rule?  Whom will they rule and how?  Perhaps we should watch Egypt (an arguably much more stable and developed state) to see if freedom and human rights prevail over what looks like a government that will likely be controlled by the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Time will tell, but maybe we should let it do exactly that.
  3. In the meantime, American identity is slowly changing, but politics are still politics.  The debate in the US on this issue, when you cull out the relevant pronouns, is really about the role of the US in the world—about American identity.  Involvement by the US in world affairs swings to and fro—from isolationism to overt exceptionalism.  Absent the pronouns, when you compare today’s debate to the days of Woodrow Wilson’s battle with Congress after World War I, there is an eerie echo.  We may be seeing Obama facing the same thing today.  Perplexingly, Obama seems a better fit for an advocate of a more restrained America, yet the facts (Afghanistan and now Libya) belie my perception of his intellectual disposition.  Then again, maybe it is just the primacy of politics.  After all, 2012 looms.  Both humor and pain can be found in the push and pull between the White House and the Congress (under the veil of legal issues like the War Powers Act).  Each is trying to create a position where, in the end, they can claim they were right.  So, ambiguity wins again!
By |2017-05-23T20:19:26+00:00March 25th, 2011|American Identity, General|0 Comments

Waging Legitimate Dissent: the Rise of the LDs.

At the center of freedom lies dissent: the capacity to reject the opinion of the majority and/or contemporary orthodoxy. Dissidents who founded the United States also passed a Bill of Rights to protect those who wish to express dissent.  Among other things, dissent is what made America what she is.  Great American dissidents include people like Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  By definition, those who dissent take unpopular positions and risk both their social and political membership and, at times, their lives.  Dissidents often say what others are thinking but who are silenced by fear.  Dissidents who prevail in their dissent—whose opinion or position succeeds in overcoming the status quo—are the engines of social and political innovation.  They allow society to lurch forward toward a better future. Today, we suffer from those who masquerade as dissidents as well as those who chant “Yes We Can!” or “No We Can’t!”  It is time to replace this noisy charade with affirmative and legitimate dissent.

Tea Partiers (TPs), or, if you prefer, True Patriots (TPs) are those who rail against our government for spending too much money and infringing on our liberties.  Several rallied in August in Washington DC with the self-ordained Reverend Beck, and last weekend with Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks bunch.  Most TPs want all spending cut or eliminated as long as it doesn’t affect their own benefits, entitlements, or patriotic impulses.  Medicare, Social Security, and Defense spending are sacred—so much for cutting spending.  And, forget about raising taxes, that’s unpatriotic too.  As for liberties, those who know God in the same way they do will enjoy their liberties; those who don’t, won’t.  For TPs, liberty has prerequisites.  In essence, TPs are not dissidents they are conformists.  They are the self(ish)-righteous.

The Blanks are the folks who chant “Yes We Can _____!”  The blank is where the who, what, where, how, and why go.  But, they leave it blank.  (Psssst! President Obama, this is your constituency!  It’s time to fill in the blank!)  Their proposals amount to little more than feel-good platitudes of liberal institutionalism that lack any semblance of specificity.  They’re like the dog that finally caught the bumper of the car it’s been chasing down the street for years, and are suddenly faced with the grim reality of answering “Now what?”  Moreover, they can’t understand why the driver doesn’t stop to congratulate them, and why their fellow canine packmembers aren’t cheering.  While they may have great ideas that might prove helpful, they have yet to realize that dissent is hard and painful work that requires courage, fortitude, and the sacrifice of fame.

The Dolts are the “No We Can’t” crowd—the negative dissenters—who mockingly sit on their un-callused hands at the local Men’s Social Club and practice harrumphing in between declaring “No!”  Picture Senator Mitch McConnell here.  They wear expensive suits to cover a well-earned paunch and haven’t had an original idea since they introduced Everclear into the punchbowl at a Nixon/Agnew campaign party.  The last time they embraced progress was when Viagra hit the market.  Before that it was Velcro.  To Dolts, smartphones are for people without staff.  Reform is an inherently socialist concept that will forever justify the concept of filibuster.  America is great and will remain so as long as we practice regression.  The hope-y change-y bunch is little more than a seasonal nuisance, like having to put one’s seersucker away after Labor Day. Dogmatism is just an appetizer before an entrée of certitude.  Dolts are happy to have the old John McCain back.  That maverick stuff annoyed them.

So, where does that leave us?  Fortunately, the TPs, Blanks, and Dolts leave plenty of room for legitimate dissenters (LDs)—for those who dare to face reality and offer substantive solutions.  An LD’s campaign speech may sound something like this:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you tonight.  I can assure you that once I’m done speaking you will have heard several things you don’t like.  Once I’m done speaking you will have many reasons to vote for my opponent.  When you go to vote, you may even circle my name on the ballot and write in the margin “Anyone but that guy.”

I’m not here to tell you “yes we can, or no we can’t.”  I’m not here to argue with you about the Constitution, or the Bible, or the Quran.  What I am here to share with you are five things we must do to secure the future of our children and grandchildren – to preserve their opportunity to pursue their own life, liberty, and happiness.

  1. We must terminate Medicare.  Only then will those entrenched interests who benefit the most from this unsustainable system be brought to submit to true reform.  Only then will we be able to provide access to healthcare for every citizen at a reasonable cost.  Let me begin by pledging that I will not accept government provided healthcare if you elect me as your Congressman.
  2. We must terminate Social Security.  Only then can we have a new conversation about how to deal with our aging population and redress the role of family and community in America.  Let me begin by rescinding my own entitlement to Social Security payments in the future.
  3. For the foreseeable future, everyone’s taxes must go up.  Even if we terminate Medicare and Social Security and replace them with sustainable programs, we must reduce our current liabilities to a much lower percentage of our GDP.  I will share that burden with you.
  4. We must withdraw all troops, regardless of their designation—‘combat’, ‘security’, ‘training’, etc.—from both Iraq and Afghanistan, immediately. Iraq and Afghanistan are ventures which have failed and for which there is no reasonable alternative to withdrawal.  Furthermore, we must abolish the myth of America as the global policeman, and forever suspend our imperialist impulse to recast the world in our own image.  This too is unsustainable.
  5. We must immediately launch a Manhattan-project styled program to produce alternative fuels and new distribution systems to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels.  Not reduce our reliance, eliminate it.  We must completely reinvent our orientation toward energy.

There are many other things we must do to make America strong in education, immigration, infrastructure projects, etc.  But unless we get control of our expenses, our foreign exposure, and our energy needs, we will never be able to address anything else in a reasonable, let alone sustainable manner.

If you want to ‘stay-the-course’ vote for my opponent.  There are those who insist if the captain of the Titanic had just rammed the iceberg head-on, rather than turning to take a glancing blow, the Titanic would have stayed afloat.  To those who continue to embrace false-choices like that I respectfully, and dare I say, legitimately dissent.  I affirm that the iceberg is on the horizon, but I prefer that we chart a new course before it’s too late.  If you agree, please vote for me.

Thank you for listening.

We have witnessed many times throughout history that conformity is dangerous; that there is no such thing as the wisdom of crowds.  (Remember the tulip bulbs.)  As author David Rieff recently wrote in The New Republic, the current political crowds “are studies in the lowest-common-denominator subordination of the individual to the collective and of the thought to the slogan: in short, complexity to simplicity.”[1]  Or, as Albert Einstein said, “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt.  He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice.”

Each of us has a duty to think for ourselves and to reject the comfort of conformance.  We must summon the courage to chart a new course and accept the consequences of our prior foolish choices.  We must reject the sloganeering and invective of popular noisemakers and wage legitimate dissent.  If we do, we will preserve the promise of America.

[1] David Rieff, “The Unwisdom of Crowds,” The New Republic, September 6, 2010, www.tnr.com.
By |2017-05-27T18:33:27+00:00September 14th, 2010|General, Leadership|0 Comments

Israel’s new Soviet Union (Iran) and Why Christian America Doesn’t Get It.

Recent events in Israel and Gaza are certainly troubling, not only as to the violence and loss of life involved in the interdiction of aid ships by Israel bound for Gaza, but also for the fragile coalition of mostly western allies (that includes Turkey—the homeland of those killed) whose aim it is to corral Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  As with all things in the Middle East, there are multiple consequences that originate from singular events.  Too many people of too many races, ethnicities, and religions on too little land assure it.  It is also troubling that Israel’s closest ally—the United States—continues to tolerate Israeli behaviors that compromise U.S. interests in the region. Under the watchful eye of the Israel-can-do-no-wrong American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), every U.S. president starting with Harry Truman has pledged his unwavering support for virtually anything Israel desired. However, there is more than political power at work here, there is also a fundamental lack of comprehension among predominantly Christian American policymakers about Israeli-Jewish identity, which routinely produces poor interpretations and decisions that form U.S. foreign policy.  AIPAC’s power combined with passive ignorance—however innocent—is a dangerous combination.

Understanding Israeli Jews is really not that complicated, but it requires setting aside Christian history and, in particular, the New Testament, while considering specific historical events and Hebrew Scriptures.  It is also worth realizing that while the Middle East is obviously rich in Christian history, few Christians live there today.  Lebanon has the largest Christian population of around 30%; the rest of the Middle East, including Israel, is less than 5%.  In towns of founding Christian history, like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, Christians account for less than 3% of the population.  The Middle East is a Judeo-Islamic region, not a Christian one.  In short, the New Testament doesn’t get much playing time there.  Think Kings, not Disciples.  The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Holy Qur’an establish history, morality, and law—and they are founded on a contested inheritance since they both claim the heritage of Abraham.  Among other things, these historical texts condone a different morality than the Western Christian world professes today.  Violence, retribution, slavery, torture, and polygamy are not necessarily immoral.  So, Christian Americans who want to understand why things are the way they are must start by erasing their own Christian indoctrinations.  They do not apply.

Historical events and Hebrew Scriptures have produced five fundamental ‘truths’ held by Jews that the Western polity must come to understand.  First, all the land from the Dead Sea and the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea was bequeathed to the Jewish people included in the territory of Greater, or “Eretz” Israel.  They are God’s chosen people in the Promised Land.[1] This includes the long-contested West Bank and Gaza.  Second, “Never Again!” is a mantra that every Jew everywhere in the world understands and will never forget.  It is a sorrowful maxim to never allow another Holocaust.  Third, God is power, not love, as is the Christian interpretation from the New Testament.  Fourth, peace is security from the enemy, not some ethereal contemplation of a just, harmonious, or serene coexistence with non-Jews.[2]  Furthermore, security is defined by who has the most weapons and controls the most borders.  It is not the absence of threat, it is the constant vigilance required to control existential ever-present threats. Finally, ‘trust’ is inconceivable between Jews and non-Jews, especially Muslims.

Given these truths, after the Holocaust Jews established their homeland in the Promised Land and adopted an “Iron Wall” strategy to produce their peace (security).[3]  They have never, nor will they likely ever, consider that a just and lasting peace—of the Western Christian variety—can be made with their Muslim neighbors.  Their source of peace/security is an exclusive relationship with a powerful state—a patron—not neighborly relations.  In the beginning, this relationship was with the British, now it is with the U.S.  The “Iron Wall” strategy requires that conflict be sustained to maintain a fully pressurized system to attract resources from the patron; ‘peace’ is little more than a rhetorical exercise.  In other words, peace and prosperity (in the traditional sense) could be profoundly destabilizing for Israel.  During the Cold War, the Soviet Union played well the role of existential threat and kept the U.S. closely tied to Israel.  Oil reserves in the Middle East also bind the U.S. to Israel (although this often cost the U.S. when Arab states and OPEC used oil prices and embargos to punish the U.S. for its allegiance to Israel).  Today, Iran is cast by Israel in the role of the former Soviet Union, which is why provocative interdiction of ships bound for Gaza by Israel, which has strained relations with Turkey, may not be unintentional.  Threats—perceived or real—must be maintained.  They are critical to Israel’s “Iron Wall” strategy.

It is unclear if the current frosty relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu portends a fundamental change in U.S.-Israel relations.  I would never bet against AIPAC and its capacity to control U.S. policymaking in the Middle East.  However, there are signs of divergence between a hardening, militaristic, right wing led by Netanyahu in Israel and a more liberal American Jewish community.[4]  For the time being, I expect the U.S. will continue to endure condemnation in the Arab world for its support of Israel—including terrorism aimed at U.S. targets—at least until new sources of energy are produced, and new boogey-man states like Iran no longer grab headlines.  These factors may change, but the ‘truths’ that undergird the “Iron Wall” strategy of Israel, formed in a Judeo-Islamic non-Christian context, will never change.  Christian Americans take note.[5]

[1] For an excellent summary of this “Promised Land” theology, see Irvine H. Anderson, Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), p. 10-15.
[2] After reading hundreds of pages of declassified documents from the Carter Administration, my own revelatory interpretation regarding these different definitions of ‘peace’ were formed.  Carter nearly always characterized peace as a “just and lasting peace” where enemies were transformed into friends.  Prime Minister Menachem Begin, on the other hand, seldom mentioned ‘peace’ without framing it in terms of security.  I found no evidence either of them ever acknowledged the difference.
[3] The “Iron Wall” strategy is comprehensively studied by Avi Shlaim in The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001).
[4] See Peter Beinhart, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” The New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010, p. 16-20.
[5] Among members of ‘Christian America,’ I exclude Christian Zionists who have formed their own theological alliance with Israel.  See Victoria Clark’s Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
By |2017-05-27T18:46:27+00:00June 6th, 2010|General|0 Comments

The Real BFD

I appreciate Vice President Joe Biden much the same way I do habanero sauce: in small quantities and few places.  While it can make a meal, it can also ruin it.  I expect President Obama shares my sentiment.  Notwithstanding Biden’s (nearly) off-mic proclamation about the passage of the recent healthcare bill, there was a much larger BFD this week (than non-reform-healthcare-reform) with the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II).  Those of you older than college age will remember this pesky thing we once called the Cold War, where our collective fears were frequently if not systemically stoked by the idea that the US and Soviet Union stood poised to annihilate each other with nuclear weapons.  (Remarkably, and an obvious illustration of how time flies, those college age or younger were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

The signing of START II is a BFD not so much by what it achieves, but by the relative ease with which it was accomplished and by the general lack of media attention it has received. Indeed, as Thomas Blanton and William Burr at the National Archives pointed out in an email to me today, “the new START treaty signed today in Prague represents ‘real’ but ‘modest’ cuts in strategic nuclear forces comparable to some Cold War alternatives but still higher than the most far-reaching proposals considered by Presidents Reagan and Carter.”  But, of course, this one got signed.  Having read the archived correspondence between Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev that surrounded the negotiation of predecessor Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (SALT II), I can assure you that these treaties don’t come easily. Correspondence and dialogue historically had all the trust and congeniality of an old married couple that have hated each other for the last forty years.  The US and the Soviet Union lived with each other in a quasi-psychotic symbiosis characterized by institutional schizophrenia. Fortunately, the Soviet Union collapsed under its own internal contradictions, and as a result Medvedev/Putin and Obama live with less, or different, demons.  If any president prior to Bush (41) had accomplished such an agreement in this manner, we would be witnessing a ticker tape parade similar to those that marked the end of World War II.  Today, the launch of the iPad received much greater attention.

The larger issue of course remains: the ‘miracle’ of the Manhattan Project—nuclear weapons—remain in ample supply throughout the world and are the highest ambition of terror networks and unstable states. The next BFD is dealing with that reality. Next week, forty-seven nations will meet in Washington to sort out what might be done. As with his recent ‘re-conceptualization’ of the use of nuclear arms by the US, Obama deserves credit here too.  Sam Nunn, former senator from Georgia and former security hawk, who now laments his support of nuclear arms development and heads National Threat Initiative (working to rid the world of ‘loose’ nukes) would like us all to view a new documentary, Nuclear Tipping Point (www.nucleartippingpoint.org). The message is chilling but credible: Will we choose cooperation or catastrophe? Will we allow terrorist networks and/or unstable states to turn our ‘miracle’ into further madness?

As much as we all wring our hands over domestic issues, and as much as they will decide short-term political futures, we need to take responsibility and attempt to put our ‘miracle’ back in the proverbial Pandora’s box.  It is a BFD, and as impossible as it might seem, we must try, try, and try again.

 

 

By |2017-05-25T21:36:12+00:00April 9th, 2010|General|0 Comments