Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Clinton Foundation and the Perennial Campaign Dance

It is interesting to speculate on the shape of an alternative universe in which Bernie Sanders had become the Democratic nominee.  As the GOP unpacked its oppo research on Sanders, and the wider public learned for the first time about his enthusiastic support of the Sandinistas, his admiration of Fidel Castro, his criticism of Israel, and other aspects of his past and present political affiliations, Sanders's image would have morphed, for many right-leaning and independent voters, from that of a plucky and avuncular populist crusader into that of a wild-eyed radical bent on creating the People's Republic of America. In that world, we would have seen Sanders's approval rating (which in our own reality has risen steadily since he began his campaign and now stands at well above 55%) erode to be no better than Hillary Clinton's, which is currently the inverse of his.

This is of course a function of the regular campaign dance that unwinds every four years, when the nation is made aware that the sky is falling and (depending on whom you believe) one of two monsters is rising from the depths of hell to destroy the Union. This year the Clintons, by virtue of having been in the public spotlight and engaged in political affairs at the national level for more than two decades, provide especially rich fodder for such projects. The current scandal being pursued in the press and by GOP surrogates is the "corruption" of the Clinton Foundation, a charitable organization established after Bill left the White House which has raised more than two-billion dollars of donations over the course of its operation, some of it from foreign governments, corporations, and individuals.

The Clinton Foundation has devoted its assets to a number of causes, such as providing anti-viral drugs to impoverished AIDS patients, lowering the cost globally of anti-malarial medication, and teaching improved techniques to poor farmers. The Clintons have never been personally enriched by the Foundation, indeed they have put much of their own considerable fortune into the Foundation's coffers. The Clintons' critics, however, allege that donations to the foundation have been used by private individuals and foreign governments to purchase influence from the Clintons.

Whether one believes such allegations is largely a function of one's assessment of the Clintons' vanity. If you feel that it is really so important to the Clintons that AIDS patients be aided in their name and no one else's, perhaps the charges of influence-peddling hold water. Even if one holds the latter to be true, however, the degree to which that should influence one's vote might hinge on how egregious one deemed these transactions to be. These allegations have been investigated exhaustively, and there has yet to be much credible evidence that Hillary Clinton did anything as Secretary of State that did not fall within the normal parameters of that office.

Accusations concerning the Clinton Foundation are usually paired with indictments of speaking fees garnered by both Bill and Hillary that have contributed significantly to their combined net worth.  It is true that both Clintons have given dozens of speeches in the past fifteen years, for average speaking fees exceeding $200,000.  These fees, combined with large advances on the sale of memoirs, have enabled the Clintons to amass an estimated fortune of more than $100 million.

This story is an indictment of the ease with which fame can be translated into money in our increasingly media-saturated and celebrity-obsessed society, but again the degree to which it should affect one's opinion of the Clintons themselves is an open question. Bill Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, has likewise given many speeches, by one count over 200, at an average fee of $100 thousand. Bush has not enjoyed the success that the Clinton's have at amassing wealth, but the explanation for that clearly does not lie in his having tried less assiduously. We might hope to elect a president that can resist the temptation to cash in on fame, but the candidate that bears those virtues might nonetheless have different baggage (Exhibit A: Bernie Sanders).

Every four years the spin machine of each political party goes into overdrive to attempt to negatively define the image of the opposing party. In 2004 we learned from Michael Moore about the Bush family's investments in Saudi oil and from the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" about John Kerry's war service. In 2008 we learned about Barack Obama's intimacy with Bill Ayers and in 2012 about Mitt Romney's history with Bain Capital.

Clinton critics will no doubt insist that concerns about the Clinton Foundation are substantively different than these past allegations, and that anyone who does not acknowledge the distressing "reality" of Clinton corruption is a partisan shill. The degree to which one accepts such judgments depends on many contingencies. I see very little empirical basis for this censure, but I am obviously speaking through the filter of my own partisan bias.

One thing is, however, interesting to note. The book on which the bulk of these accusations are built, Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer, was published more than one year ago. It is thus interesting that this line of attack is being unpacked by the Trump campaign and its surrogates at this early point in the campaign. If Jeb Bush, for example, were the nominee of the GOP, one would not expect these weapons to be deployed until late September or October, when the "death blow" against the Clinton campaign needed dealing. The early use of this material bespeaks a degree of desperation on Trump's part. He has fallen so precipitously in the polls and dug himself into such a deep quagmire of policy miscues and rhetorical obscenities that he needs something, anything, to take the focus off of him and place it onto Hillary Clinton. Where a more centrist GOP candidate might have been able to use these allegations to appeal to independent voters, Trump can probably only hope to use them to dampen Democrats' enthusiasm for their candidate, or perhaps to inspire some defections to the Libertarian or Green Party tickets. November will tell us whether these tactics had any impact.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Old Nonsense in a New Wrapper

Monday saw the latest in what will no doubt, by November, be an extraordinarily long and elaborate chain of attempts to repackage the candidacy of Donald Trump. Trump delivered a speech in Youngstown, Ohio dedicated to foreign affairs and national security. There are many points of inaccuracy or logical weakness that one might highlight in this address, but the one that interested me most was the passage in which he asserted:

In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test. The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today. In addition to screening out all members or sympathizers of terrorist groups, we must also screen out any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles – or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law. Those who do not believe in our Constitution, or who support bigotry and hatred, will not be admitted for immigration into the country.

This is ostensibly an attempt to recast Trump's earlier call for a total ban on all Muslim immigration or travel to the United States into more "reasonable" terms. Rather than proposing a religious test which would be in flagrant violation of the First Amendment, Trump is now calling for an "ideological test" along the lines of what was done during the Cold War in search of communist spies and saboteurs. While this does minimally sanitize Trump's rhetoric in semantic terms, the practical logic of his proposal of course remains very troubling. The parameters of this "ideology" that Trump would screen for are so vague as to invite monstrous abuse. Would, for example, a devout Muslim who feels Sharia law is more personally binding on her than any civil law (as many orthodox Jews feel about halacha or as many Catholics feel about Church canon law) fail this ideological screening test? There is no real way to know, if one follows the strict wording of Trump's pronouncement. He has left open the possibility that, in the enforcement of his policy, the Venn diagram showing the overlap between world Muslims and "Radical Islamic ideologues" might form a single, coterminous circle.

Beyond these gimmicks of fuzzy logic, the latest Trump "reboot" is offensive for being such a transparent con. By railing against the "ideology of Radical Islam" Trump has switched his key from overt prejudice to dog-whistle broadcasts aimed at the same constituency of bigots. Any cursory examination of the web will find that there is a cottage industry of books, journals, and websites dedicated to spreading the "truth" that Islam is not a religion at all, but a "political ideology bent on world domination" (Google the phrase in quotes if you doubt my word). Thus in posing his "ideological test" Trump is performing the same kind of evasive postmodern wink as was entailed by his shout out to "Second Amendment people," his ramblings about President Obama's birthplace, and so much of what he has contributed to political discourse during his life in the public spotlight.

Trump has pulled such a thin veil over his bigotry that few people outside the US, Muslims least of all, will be taken in by it. Even if it were in any way persuasive, his new rhetoric can not wipe clean the monstrosity of his prior call for a total ban on Muslim immigration and travel. In the same way that no African-American, Catholic, or Jewish citizen could ever trust David Duke (or anyone who supports him), no matter how much he repudiates his past, no Muslim anywhere, "radical" or otherwise, will ever be able to trust that Trump's words or deeds are undertaken in good faith. His first call for a ban should have totally and permanently disqualified Trump from elective office here in the U.S., much less from the presidency of our constitutional Republic. The fact that so many elected officials and commentators have failed to acknowledge that fact is deeply distressing.

This is more than an abstract problem, moreover. In practical terms, the election of Donald Trump, given his logic and rhetoric, will cripple the United States in the struggle against groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda. Because these latter groups are so malignant, it is very difficult for them to draw support from the world's Muslim communities. However, precisely because their only goal is wanton destruction, they only need to attract a very few frightened or deranged people from the world's 1.6 billion Muslims in order to continue their program of mayhem. A figure like Donald Trump, who ratchets up the climate of fear and threat experienced by Islamic society worldwide, plays perfectly into the plans of violent jihadists. It is thus not merely for the sake of abstract principle, but for that of the hardscrabble, nuts-and-bolts task of defeating America's enemies, that we must hope voters see not only through this con game, but also the others that Trump will continue to unpack between now and November.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Toward a Progressive Foreign Policy: The Case of Syria



This essay was first published in August 2013 in the online journal The Washington Spectator. Though the situation in Syria has changed somewhat (particularly the rise of ISIS, which today is a much greater concern than Al-Nusra, though the latter remains active under a different guise), much of the advice I wrote here remains relevant. I agree with Nicholas Kristof, who wrote recently that a failure to intervene robustly in Syria will ultimately be deemed President Obama's greatest mistake. Her support for a more proactive policy in Syria is one of the main reasons that I supported Secretary Clinton's candidacy from an early date. I hope that, if she wins the presidency, she will re-orient our strategy in Syria and the Middle East more broadly along the lines I outline below.


            Since the Great Recession, U.S. politics has been dominated by debates over domestic policy, thus it has almost been forgotten that the downhill slide of the Bush coalition began because of their mismanagement of foreign affairs. The midterm election of 2006 was carried by the Democrats, despite massive GOP gerrymandering, due to anger over the Iraq war. Though the political scene here in the U.S. has shifted radically from that point, most of the foreign policy challenges that confronted us during the Bush years linger on. Moreover, however misguided Bush foreign policy was, it undeniably left an enduring impact on the state of global affairs, creating new problems and conditions that must be faced in years to come. As progressives contemplate the potential for future leadership, it is thus vital for them to ask what principles should animate foreign policy moving forward.
            This is a challenging task. Foreign affairs are not amenable to easy partisan or ideological analysis. There is not a coherently “liberal” or “conservative” approach to foreign policy, “doves” and “hawks,” isolationists and internationalists, can be found on both sides of the aisle. Still, if progressives are to enjoy electoral and governing success in the near term, they need to be able to present a clear and coherent alternative to the neoconservative path blazed by the last Republican administration.
            What should that alternative look like? For all its shortcomings, the Bush White House came into power with a coherent world view, one hatched in think tanks like the Project for the New American Century in the decade or so prior to their taking office. In order to right the ship of state thrown so widely off course by the neocons, progressives must formulate a set of policy guidelines to replace the misguided doctrine of the Bush years.
            Many progressives would insist that the folly of neoconservatism was merely an extreme expression of a general pathology of American foreign policy. They would point to the long, sordid history of American meddling in Cuba, the Philippines, Guatemala, Iran, Angola, Indonesia, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, and a host of other countries, and insist that the projection of U.S. strategic power always serves the cause of neoimperialism. Therefore, they would conclude, the only effective and integral stance progressives might adopt as a corrective to neoconservative adventurism is to reject and restrain the use of American power abroad altogether.
            Though there is merit to this view, it nonetheless comes up against problems. The first of these is empirical. Despite the abundant and tragic damage that has been inflicted by U.S. power over time, there have been several moments when it has played a crucially progressive role in world affairs. The most obvious of these was World War II. Even keeping in mind events such as Dresden, the Japanese internment, and Hiroshima (to name only a few), it is hard to deny that the last half of the twentieth century would have been far worse for tens of millions but for America’s involvement in that conflict. In more recent memory the U.S. missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, while again not without transgressions and abuses, on balance did real and necessary good.
            The second problem with what might be termed “progressive isolationism” is pragmatic. By now, the burgeoning of U.S. power and its insinuation into far-flung corners of the globe is intractably institutionalized and perpetuated by systemic forces that can not realistically be politically undone. Progressives thus have no choice but to devise a doctrine for the operation of U.S. power overseas, or they will inevitably, given the natural pendulum swing of American politics, yield control of it to those, like the neoconservatives, who have a plan and the political will to carry it out.
            In the electorate at large, the military remains one of the most respected and trusted institutions in American society. If progressives can not articulate a coherent doctrine for the military’s global mission, they stand little chance of retaining the support necessary to achieve any significant policy goals, be they foreign or domestic. Conversely, when progressive leaders do project American power to demonstrably positive effect, it strengthens the cause of progressivism more generally, and works to constructively realign American strategic culture.
            Here I would like to propose such a set of principles, and apply them to the specific case of Syria, a significant foreign policy challenge that promises to remain on the horizon for some time. Unlike some progressives, I feel strongly that U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis is necessary. Though some might see this as a recapitulation of the sins of the past, I hope to demonstrate that a distinctly progressive foreign policy doctrine, diametrically opposed to neoconservatism, nonetheless calls for U.S. action in Syria.

1) Understand and Respect the Limits of American Power

            The greatest error of neoconservatism was its absurd overestimation of American power. According to the writings of the PNAC, the end of the Cold War had left America the singular and unchallenged superpower on the world stage. Thus, none of the lessons of conflicts like Korea or Vietnam were applicable in this new situation; America was free to remake the world according to its values and preferences. Iraq demonstrated that concept to be utterly delusional.
            The swift defeat of Saddam Hussein showcased the extent of conventional U.S. military might, but this was nothing the world did not already know. The American military, after all, had been victorious in every standing battle in Vietnam. However, during the ten year occupation of Iraq, the lessons of Vietnam returned to haunt the “Vulcans” running the show in the Bush White House and Pentagon.
            The situation quickly spiraled out of control of the U.S., demonstrating the same general principle expressed by the resolution of the Vietnam conflict: in a foreign nation, the U.S. can not dictate an outcome that does not enjoy the support or assent of a critical mass of that nation’s people. Just as we could not impose a permanent partition of Vietnam against the will of its people, we could not exclude figures like Moqtada al-Sadr from Iraqi politics or impose a regime that would tolerate the presence of a large U.S. garrison like those in Germany, Japan, or Korea. We left Iraq a more violent and unstable nation than we found it, and that was probably the best outcome we could have hoped for from the outset.
            So where then, is there a call for U.S. action in Syria, if our misadventure in neighboring Iraq was so ill conceived? Those who would conflate Syria with Iraq overlook one crucial dimension that distinguishes these two cases: where the proximal action to overthrow Saddam Hussein was almost wholly an imposition of the U.S., the movement against the Assad regime is an authentically homegrown expression of Syrian popular will. The Syrian resistance began as a peaceful campaign for civil rights and representative government, it only militarized in response to the Assad regime’s violent assault upon civilians.
            Under these circumstances, it falls within the scope of U.S. power to facilitate the Syrian resistance.  If, unlike the Bush White House, the U.S. acts in concert with a broad array of international partners and does not engage its own ground forces, it will not be setting the agenda or imposing its will, but assisting the Syrian people to work toward a goal that they themselves have chosen. Will the participation of the U.S. be entirely disinterested and benign? No. But to preclude American involvement on that basis is to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
            No revolutionary movement in history, whether the American Revolution of 1776 or the South Vietnamese Revolution of 1954-1975, has succeeded without external assistance. If we agree with the goals of the protesters that first arose in Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo, then to abandon them in the face of the sacrifices they have made to sustain their movement is an abdication of the ordinary role played by virtually every power in world history. Though the U.S. should not and, contra the theories of the neocons, can not unilaterally impose an outcome in a foreign nation, when a significant mass of people in that society become galvanized to effect change that is aligned with American values and interests, it is both unprincipled and unwise for the U.S. to withhold its assistance.
           
2) Understand and Respect the History and Culture of Other Nations

           The faith of the neoconservatives in technology was grossly hubristic. In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld famously rejected multiple plans proposed to him by his own general staff, complaining each time that the draft under consideration called for too many troops. He intended to prove that new weapons, communication, and surveillance technology gave the U.S. military such dominance that the old rules of tactical engagement no longer applied.
            On February 26, 2006, the folly of such reasoning was cast into stark relief, when Sunni insurgents, using common demolition-grade explosives, destroyed the Shi’ite Golden Mosque in Samarra, plunging Iraq into almost two years of bloody sectarian war. In staging the invasion of Iraq, the neocons had not accounted for any of the many idiosyncrasies of Iraq’s history, culture, or social makeup, believing that American technological supremacy made all such contingencies irrelevant. They never imagined that becoming the viceregal authority in Baghdad would make the U.S. military liable for the security of every Shi’ite shrine throughout Iraq, or for the safety of Yazidis, Turkomen, and Assyrian Christians, or for a myriad other components of the fragile Iraqi social contract. Any rational person who took these factors into account would have understood, not only the utter lunacy of Rumsfeld’s call for less troops, but that no number of troops the U.S. could possibly muster would have given America control over the fluid state of Iraqi society under occupation.
            Being aware of the complexity and full-blooded humanity of our counterparts in international affairs is a natural corollary of understanding the limits of American power. Beyond this, it is an absolute necessity in navigating the turbulent conditions of an increasingly volatile and dangerous world. Perhaps nothing illustrates this principle better than the baleful link the Bush White House drew between 9-11 and Saddam Hussein. By casting the invasion of Iraq as part of a “war on terror,” the neocons simultaneously strengthened the hand of groups like Al Qaeda while, through distortion and oversimplification, weakening the capacity of the U.S. to effectively respond to that threat.
            This reality was a simple function of demographics. Though the organizers and perpetrators of 9-11 were Arabs, the ideology they espoused had, prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, never achieved significant political purchase in any Arab nations. Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies rose to power in Afghanistan and Pakistan because the society of those nations is a patchwork of different ethnic groups, none of which enjoys an absolute majority. In those conditions, religious extremism becomes a viable organizing force, because religion is a more unifying factor than language or ethnicity. In a country like Iraq, which is 80% Arab-speaking, language and ethnicity unites people where religion divides them between Sunnis and Shi’ites, Muslims and Christians. Thus in the Arab world secular ideologies such as Baathism and Nasserism have historically enjoyed vastly greater political success than the religious extremism of Osama bin Laden or Ayatollah Khomeini.
            The invasion of Iraq gave Sunni extremism the greatest purchase it had ever enjoyed in Iraqi society. Sunni extremists flowed into the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Hussein regime, and the very asymmetry between the U.S. and Iraqi insurgents so lionized by Donald Rumsfeld drove many Iraqis to join or make common cause with groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq. Again, anyone moderately informed about the historical and cultural conditions of Iraqi society should have been able to predict this outcome.
            How, then, does a respect for the history and culture of other nations argue for U.S. involvement in Syria? Ironically, American inaction in Syria is having the same effect as American interventionism in Iraq: it is strengthening the hand of Sunni extremism. Al Qaeda had no greater purchase in Assad’s Syria than it had in Hussein’s Iraq. The decay of the Assad regime, however, is creating the same kind of power vacuum that aided Sunni extremists in occupied Iraq, and the asymmetry between Assad forces and the resistance is likewise driving Syrians to enlist or ally with Al Qaeda or its affiliate groups.
            Those who oppose U.S. involvement in Syria because of the presence of extremists in the resistance are not clearly understanding the lessons of Iraq. The rise of Sunni extremism in both countries is not an expression of the normative state of either society; it is a product of contingent circumstances. In Iraq it was foolish of the U.S. to create the conditions that fueled extremism, in Syria it is foolish for the U.S. to refrain from alleviating the conditions (to the extent that it can) that fuel extremism.
            The imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria (to give just one example of a measure the U.S. might take) would have several positive effects. In the near-term it would retard the growing influence of groups like the Al-Nusra front in the Syrian resistance. Since the power of such groups is a function of the asymmetry of the conflict, making the conflict more symmetrical will deplete their influence in the resistance coalition.
            In the long term, only the closure of the power vacuum in which they thrive will reliably check the advancing power of groups like the Al-Nusra front. The sooner Syrian society returns to a state of normalcy and civil order, the sooner the power of Al-Nusra will wane, as the ingrained secular patterns of Syrian social life revive. It is thus not only in the humanitarian interests of the Syrian people, but in the vital security interests of the U.S., for America to do everything in its power to facilitate a swift resolution to the conflict.


3)Pursue Long-Term Political Progress Over Short-Term Tactical Gains

            The neoconservatives were myopically focused on outdated hallmarks of strategic power, ignoring the rapidly evolving state of world affairs. Thus, though the most destructive attack on the U.S. since Pearl Harbor had been staged by a group of young men armed with box cutters, we invaded Iraq on the suspicion that Saddam Hussein (who had no part in 9-11) might possess weapons of mass destruction (which Al Qaeda does not need to perpetrate acts of terror, and which Saddam Hussein would not have shared with Al Qaeda in any case). This flew in the face of a strategic principle that has been understood since the early revolutionary days of Mao Zedong: the political dimensions of an asymmetrical conflict vastly outweigh its tactical factors in importance.
            In this respect, the invasion of Iraq was an utter disaster. On the tactical side, it did not prevent Al Qaeda from acquiring weapons, quite the contrary. But this was the least of the matter. Politically, the Iraq invasion created an enormous boost in Al Qaeda recruitment. Al Qaeda and its affiliate groups remain a fringe movement, but thanks to the Iraq war they constitute a vastly larger force, and their ideology enjoys far broader appeal than it did before.
            In the wake of 9-11, the strategic priorities of the U.S. should be the reverse of what they were during the invasion of Iraq. In other words, keeping weapons out of the hands of Al Qaeda operatives is much less important than decreasing the appeal of their ideology in the wider Muslim world.  Once again, in this regard passivity in Syria is having the same effect as adventurism in Iraq.
            Opponents of U.S. involvement in Syria often warn that arms given to the resistance will end up in the hands of extremists. Arms, however, are easy to come by. Political capital is not. If the U.S. sits by and allows the Syrian conflict to further degenerate into a sectarian war, the political prestige of groups like Al-Nusra will be greatly enhanced. That will pose a far greater danger to the world than some small arms falling into “the wrong hands.”
            The political fallout from inaction in Syria is arguably already visible beyond the boundaries of the conflict itself. With no power rising to oppose the Assad regime’s use of force in Syria, the impetus for political reconciliation is on the decline throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Democratic opposition leaders have been assassinated in Tunisia. In Lebanon the political process is falling apart, and the conditions of civil war brewing anew. The nadir to which the Arab Spring has fallen is most distressing in Egypt. Watching Egyptian soldiers kill dozens of demonstrators on the streets of Cairo, it is impossible to draw a moral or philosophical distinction between Egypt’s new rulers and the Assad regime in Damascus. These are all conditions conducive to the growth and spread of Islamic extremism.
            It was foolish of the neoconservatives to imagine that the U.S. could control the development of a society as complex as Iraq’s, much less that of the entire Middle East or larger Muslim world. But it is equally foolish to assume that the U.S. can have no constructive influence upon these societies, or that any aspect of U.S. power can be wholly excluded from our engagement in international affairs. Isolation, withdrawal, or rigid passivism are simply not realistic options given the dynamic and dangerous state of the world. Moreover, the ever-increasing interconnectedness and interdependence of the world makes a problem for one nation a problem for all. In the face of such complexity and volatility, the failure to do what good we can in a crisis like Syria’s is equivalent to doing harm.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Doctrine, Practice, Religion, and Politics

As someone who has spent the better part of my adult life studying history and religion, I become easily frustrated by basic errors of thinking that are common when people begin to discuss the intersection between religion and politics. We obviously live in a time when religious ideas are impacting global politics in dramatic and often frightening ways. It is thus natural for people to question the role of religious doctrine in motivating such action, and to draw correlations between sacred texts and political deeds. While this is understandable, it often produces specious reasoning and rhetorical excess (exhibit A: Donald Trump). The most common fallacy is the impulse to treat particular passages in sacred texts as self-fulfilling prophesies. If, for example, the Qur’an calls for the death of unbelievers in a particular sura, it is thus no wonder that 84% of Egyptians believe that apostates should suffer the death penalty, and anyone who claims to be both a faithful Muslim and a believer in the First Amendment must be either lying or deluded.

This type of reasoning, of course, ignores the way religion really works in society and history. Let me give an example of what I mean, drawn from my own circumstances. If I were to enter into a debate with a West Bank settler, claiming that as a Jew and a Zionist I am opposed to her living on occupied land (as I am), she would no doubt take the position that I am not a real Jew. If she were reasonably erudite she could produce reams of evidence from Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, Talmud, and the writings of great Jewish sages to show that my refusal to recognize the rightful claims of Israel to the holy land of Judea and Samaria precludes my calling myself a Jew. In practical terms she would of course be wrong, millions of devout Jews feel exactly as I do, some of them vastly more orthodox in their observance than I. But as a matter of doctrine I could never, EVER prove her wrong. If doctrine had to decide the question of which of us was a real Jew, at best all I could hope for would be a draw. I might be able (with much more knowledge of scripture than I currently possess) to find some countervailing passages with which to attempt to rebut her evidence, but I could never hope to dispositively settle the issue.

These same parameters hold true when we think about the relation between doctrine and political practice in Islamic society. Yes, Islamic holy texts contain much to affirm and support the world view of ISIS. But no Muslim is bound to assent to those scriptural precedents any more than I am forced to admit that, because I disagree with my settler interlocutor, I am not a real Jew. Muslims are as free to pick and choose among their sacred texts as the practitioners of any other faith, with the result that there is no one monolithic “Islam” that can be easily understood by reference to a circumscribed set of writings. There are many, MANY Islams, some of which are very malignant in their interpretations and practices, others of which are relatively benign.

This being the case, we should be careful to make distinctions in our discussions, not only of Islam but of any religious tradition. To go back to my personal example: though I vehemently disagree with my imaginary settler counterpart, I am compelled to acknowledge her as a fellow Jew. There is anti-Semitism in the world, and if I hope to protect myself from it I must make common cause with everyone who openly affirms the identity for which anti-Semites would stigmatize me. If someone tells me, “Those settlers on the West Bank are a lot of trouble,” I would be inclined to agree. But if someone tells me, “Those Jews on the West Bank are a lot of trouble,” I would view him or her as a bigot, or worse.

The same holds true in interacting with all faith communities. If one is concerned about groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab or Al Qaeda, one should absolutely critique their malignant ideas and especially condemn their evil practices. But if one attacks them as Muslims, one will alienate other Muslims in the same way that I would become alienated if the West Bank settlers are attacked as Jews. Making “Islam” the enemy is a red herring. Boko Haram, ISIS, Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda are the enemy. Islam is a resource that they try to manipulate in pursuit of their political ends, and attacking “Islam” in the abstract adds fuel to that fire.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Come Together, Right Now

A flurry of conservative commentary expressed wonder at the tone and message of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Republican pundits were flummoxed to find themselves more in sympathy with speeches by the First Lady or the President than with that of their own party's nominee. Amazement was voiced at the sight of Democrats espousing such "conservative" values as patriotism, discipline, sacrifice, freedom from government overreach, community, and a belief in American exceptionalism.

For Democrats watching this odd spectacle, among its most amazing aspects was the conviction on the part of GOP commentators that the latter were exclusively "conservative" values. This is one of the very, very few positive outcomes to arise from Donald Trump's candidacy. The sheer degree to which Trump has departed from longstanding American political norms has brought into stark relief the common ground shared between Democrats and Republicans that had been occluded by decades of bitter polarization over matters of policy. Ironically, through the unique threat he has posed to it, Trump has taught us again that there really is a general American "political creed," a common commitment to the vitality of our Constitutional liberties and the integrity of the democratic political process.

Conscientious Republicans that make up the #NeverTrump movement have been able to see for some time that Trump's candidacy is a danger to our basic values and our system as a whole. Unfortunately, the structural dynamics of our two-party system and the continuing polarization of our politics has made it difficult to translate these convictions into meaningful political action. The same commentators that were so positively disposed to the DNC message in its first three days expressed dismay at the policy agenda laid out by Hillary Clinton in her speech accepting her party's nomination. Her endorsement of partisan agenda items such as an increased minimum wage, expanded assistance for college tuition, lifting of restrictions on abortion, and etcetera, placed #NeverTrump voters in a double-bind. As motivated as they are to vote against Donald Trump as a matter of patriotic principle, a vote for Hillary Clinton would betray their most deeply cherished policy goals. As Ron Dreher put it in The American Conservative, in appealing for conscientious votes to stop Donald Trump, the Democratic "ask" was too steep.

This is a complicated problem, from the vantage point of both sides of the aisle. In a multiparty system like that of France or Israel voters are given lots of options that express particular and discrete policy preferences, with the possibility of negotiating compromise coalitions after the votes are tallied. Our constitutional system, through mechanisms such as the electoral college and bicameral legislature (where the ratio of constituencies between senators can reach a differential of 71:1), forces our political parties to form large, diffuse political coalitions that blur the distinctions of policy preference between voters of different regions, ethnicity, and economic backgrounds. All policy goals become subordinated to the brute imperative of achieving 51% of the vote in any given electoral contest. Thus, as much as Hillary Clinton might have liked to "tack right" in her acceptance speech and offer GOP voters enticements to join her coalition, such a move would have risked alienating motivated Sanders supporters who are already suspicious of her candidacy, such that the gains among the former group might have been offset (or worse) by losses among the latter. Given what is at stake, Clinton cannot really be faulted for favoring consolidating her base over reaching across the aisle, as the empirical record of electoral politics generally shows the latter to be the riskier move.

We are, however, at an extraordinarily perilous crossroads in our national political life, one that calls for urgent measures. Even though the polls currently show Donald Trump's chances of winning the White House slipping, no one should be in any doubt about the danger that his candidacy poses to our system of government, and that it will continue to pose even if he should lose the election. The damage that Trump has done in debasing our political system will take time and effort to repair, and the destabilizing forces that he has unleashed in our larger political discourse will continue to derail our politics unless they can be met by some countervailing development. Anyone who doubts this need only contemplate Trump's recent veiled call for political violence, and wonder at what other messages he will broadcast in the following months that he possesses a national podium. It would be in everyone's interest if a coalition between Democratic and #NeverTrump voters could be formed, not only to deny Trump the White House, but to repair some of the harm he has done to our political life.

How then, can this be achieved, given the steep structural impediments to cooperation across the aisle in a national electoral contest? In online conversations with my dear friend Kathy Phillips Nanney, she suggested that modest concessions on the part of Hillary Clinton might be enough to win the support of #NeverTrump voters, particularly a pledge to refrain from seeking the repeal of the Hyde Amendment or from sponsoring legislation akin to California Senate Bill 1146 at the federal level. Alternatively, a pledge to retain the Garland nomination in lieu of withdrawing it in favor of a more liberal justice, and some sort of structured participation for GOP lawmakers in the process of developing a "short list" for future judicial appointments might assuage the partisan anxieties of Republican voters appalled by Trump but apprehensive about Clinton.

The problem with this scenario, of course, is that even such relatively modest concessions might cause turmoil within or defection from the Democratic ranks. Democrats harbor grievances over GOP obstructionism, and generally feel that unilateral concessions to Republican sensibilities have been poorly repaid during the Obama years. For Clinton to offer concessions in exchange for Republican votes would be problematic. But if Republican leaders formed a coalition to ask for such concessions in exchange for an electoral endorsement, political breakthrough might be possible.

If some prominent Republican leader, perhaps a presidential hopeful like Governor John Kasich of Ohio or Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico, would lead a group of Republican officials in offering this trade collectively to the Clinton campaign, great benefits would accrue to all concerned, and indeed to the nation as a whole. To be clear, this would not be the formation of a new "third wave" movement or some grand, European-style centrist coalition. It would be a temporary, one-time pact, a discrete quid pro quo in service of principle during a national emergency.

Though the moment would admittedly be ephemeral, its potential long-term effects should make both Democrats and Republicans welcome such a plan. For the Republicans in the near term, this action would give #NeverTrump voters a mechanism by which to meaningfully participate in and impact the outcome of this election, a sense that their vote could be made to serve their values and interests even during a cycle in which none of their choices match their ideals. In the long term, such a Republican coalition as this plan proposes could serve as the nucleus of a reconstructed GOP in the post-Trump age, a way to put the party back on track in the wake of the damage done to its credibility by the excesses of its current nominee. For the Democrats, though the concessions they offered might bind them during the coming term and their relations with their temporary GOP confederates revert back to being adversarial after November, this moment of cooperation would still yield good effects. Assisting in developing an alternative GOP leadership that could take the reins from Trump is in the long-term interests of the Democrats, and re-establishing the precedent that parties can still horse trade in pursuit of political objectives, without treating each contest as a zero-sum game, might hold out some hope of ameliorating gridlock moving forward.

All this idea awaits is someone to lead the way. If some concerned #NeverTrump voter were to draft a letter or start a petition I, for one, would sign aboard. If the rise of Trump has taught us anything, it is that informed and conscientious citizenship matters now more than ever.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Thank You Khizr and Ghazala Khan

The speech delivered by Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia was among the most powerful moments ever to occur at such an event. One of the most vexing aspects of this election cycle for many observers has been the seemingly negligible political price paid by Donald Trump for his proposed ban on Muslim immigration. In a nation that fundamentally forbids the making of any "law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," it is inconceivable that the nominee of a major party should advocate a religious test for travel to and from our shores. That fact was brought into stark relief by the sight of Khizr Khan, whose son US Army Captain Humayun Khan sacrificed his life to save his fellow soldiers in Iraq, brandishing a copy of the Constitution in defiance of Donald Trump's illiberality and bigotry.

The only thing more remarkable than the power of that moment itself has been the absurdity of some of the response in its aftermath. The Khans have come under attack from all parts of the political spectrum. They have become a kind of political Rorshach Test onto which anyone with an agenda may project a political message. From the left they have been decried as apologists for the invasion of Iraq or American imperialism more generally. From the right the accusations have been widely variable, ranging from charges of crass electioneering and commercial opportunism (Mr. Khan's law firm has done work assisting Muslim immigrants to the US) to being agents practicing "taqiyya (concealing of one's actual religious beliefs for the purpose of deceiving non-Muslims)" on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood. This last charge (grounded in a footnote to a law journal article Mr. Khan wrote in 1983) is particularly horrific, as it entails accusing the Khans of sacrificing their own son in service of a charade.

All such criticisms and accusations are ridiculous and shameful. What Khizr and Ghazala Khan said in Philadelphia was a truth that transcends partisan politics. Though Mr. Khan included an endorsement of Hillary Clinton's candidacy in his remarks, what he said would have been equally valid in any context and at any venue, and the Khans' authority to make this indictment of Donald Trump as the parents of a fallen soldier is unimpeachable. If they need any excuse for their particular choices, the mere fact that the DNC was willing to provide them with a visible platform from which to deliver a vitally important message is more than explanation enough. 

The Khans are worldly and well-educated people. They must have known that they were inviting vastly negative attention, though they may not have anticipated the precise level of vitriol they have received. Standing up to be heard took incredible courage, especially since it required them to revisit the painful loss of their son. 

The Khans have done a profound service for all Americans. By creating a teachable moment they have helped achieve breakthrough in enlightening large portions of the American public about the enormity of Donald Trump's illiberal policies. By stepping forward and risking opprobrium they have demonstrated to the world that the United States is not the Islamophobic monster demonized in ISIS propaganda, but a nation where people of all faiths can still claim the rights and duties of citizenship and speak with the authority of our most basic values. 

These gifts the Khans have given us will only be preserved, however, if the Khans themselves can be shielded from the most malignant forces aligning against them. If the public and the world at large see the Khans drowned in a sea of invective, then the "clash of civilizations" variously promulgated by ISIS, Donald Trump, and others will win the day. It falls to all who understand the validity of the Khans' message to carry it into effect in our reception of their brave and unselfish gesture. I have started a petition online to thank the Khans for their courage and their sacrifice. Please sign it.  Doing so will show that you stand with the Khans, and against discrimination and religious intolerance.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Equivalency Con

There are many ways that the American electorate is going to be sold the idea of a Trump presidency in the months between now and November. Tales of commercial protectionism, macho disregard for the Geneva Convention, and the fungible relationship between The Art of the Deal and the art of diplomacy will be repeated ad nauseam in all media at all hours. But the most insidious rhetorical device that will be used is a meme that circulates below the radar, in print and online. Its genius lies, in part, in the fact that it is not immediately recognizable as a bit of electioneering, and one might not perceive that the person peddling it is a Trump surrogate.

The meme to which I refer is the proposition, articulated in various ways, that Hillary Clinton is "as bad as Donald Trump." Clinton's ambition, her penchant for scandal, her failures of competence (so we are told) are so egregious as to make a vote for her as much of a risk as one for Trump. Whatever baggage Trump brings to the table is more than matched by the flaws and liabilities of the presumptive Democratic nominee.

This rhetoric is exceptionally clever because, on the surface, it appears critical of Trump. It is counter-intuitive to campaign for someone by acknowledging his flaws. But the net effect of this argument, if one assents to it, is to normalize a vote for Trump, at least within the context of this election. If the prospective election of either major-party candidate entails similar risks for the country, a voter is free to choose whichever candidate most closely aligns with his or her partisan preferences, without concern for the larger systemic effects of that vote.

The perceived efficacy of this strategy on the part of Trump's camp is a measure of just how eccentric Trump's candidacy is.  Like so much of Trump's campaign, this claim of equivalency is a con. The fact is that there has never been a major-party candidate like Trump, and no presidential candidate has ever posed the enormous risk that he does to the fabric of our social contract and the coherence of our institutions. No candidate in living memory who had built an electoral coalition by advocating the ostracism of religious and ethnic minorities has gotten as close to the White House as Donald Trump. That fact alone is enough to give one pause, much less the prospect of an actual Trump administration.

The point can be illustrated by reference to yesterday's speech by former President George W. Bush during the memorial service for the police officers slain in Dallas. In policy terms Bush was among the most polarizing presidents of modern times. Yet in this moment of crisis he struck a quintessentially "presidential" tone, mourning the fact that, "Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions." This was precisely what the nation needed to hear, and was what one would expect from an individual invested in the continuation and robust health of our system of government.

Contrast that with Trump's remarks about Mexican immigrants, or Muslims, or President Obama's potential culpability in the wake of the Orlando shooting. It is not a question of whether Trump might ever, in his heart or mind, agree with the sentiments expressed by President Bush. Such speculation is moot, because Trump has built his public persona in a way that would be undermined by the kind of conciliatory gesture offered by the former President. Trump's candidacy is animated by divisive and entropic forces that would shake the foundations of our Republic apart if they become transmuted in November into a presidential mandate.

 Where Trump could never (without fatally damaging his "brand") deliver the kind of remarks offered by President Bush, Hillary Clinton could quite naturally  (as her husband did on many occasions as president). Whatever her flaws, Clinton is a figure of and for our larger system of government. One can bemoan the perils that her policies might pose for our economy, or our culture, or our geopolitical security, but one cannot plausibly claim that her election would pose an existential threat to our constitutional order in the manner of a Trump presidency. The proposition that "Clinton is as bad as Trump" is a con, and those who perpetuate it are aiding Trump's electoral chances whether they realize it or not.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Heroism in Dhaka

Terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad, following so closely on the heels of the terrible mass-murder in Orlando, cast a pall over today's holiday here in the US. In a world that defeated fascism and survived the Cold War, the continuing crescendo of sectarian violence mocks hope and sows disenchantment and malaise. There is one detail of the tragedy in Dhaka, however, that should cause those committed to peace and shared prosperity to take heart.

The terrorists who attacked the Holey Artisan Bakery chose it because it is a frequent destination for expatriates living and traveling in Bangladesh. Thus, beyond being an act of senseless violence, the Dhaka attack was also an assault on the very forms of international communication, exchange, and cooperation that embody the best tendencies of our postmodern world. The attackers underscored their commitment to isolation and tribalism by attempting to separate the patrons and staff of the bakery into "foreigners" and native Bangladeshis, declaring their intention only to do harm to non-Muslims.

Following this logic, the terrorists offered to release Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain, a twenty-year-old college student visiting his home in Dhaka during summer recess from Emory University. Faraaz, however, had come to the bakery with his classmate Abinta Kabir, an American, and their friend Tarishi Jain, from India. Both women were dressed in "Western" clothing, and the terrorists offered them no mercy. Faraaz refused to abandon his companions, and was found among the dead when the bakery was finally retaken by the Bangladeshi military.

It must be small comfort to Faraaz's family, and to the loved ones of all of those taken by terror in recent weeks, but in Faraaz's heroism we can clearly see the impotence and ultimate demise of groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al Qaeda. Faraaz understood a truth that is beyond the capacity of the moral imbeciles that commit acts like the attacks in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad. Our ties to one-another as human beings are vastly more important than any debt we as individuals owe to abstractions such as "Islam," "Christianity," or "Judaism." Indeed, these latter creeds only retain value and power to the extent that we honor and fulfill the former obligations. In this sense, Faraaz was not only a much better person than his attackers, but a far superior Muslim.

As we here in the US celebrate the two-hundred fortieth anniversary of a document that declared all "equal" and endowed with rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," it is appropriate to honor Faraaz and his sacrifice. The truth for which he died is the same, in essence, as that declared by the Founders in 1776. Though the tragedy of Faraaz and his companions shows us that the struggle to realize these ideals continues and may yet be long, the courage with which he embodied them inspires confidence that they are sure, in the long run, to prevail.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Trumpism and Orlando

The horrific attack that took forty-nine lives in Orlando Saturday night is such a moral catastrophe that, in some sense, any discussion of its political implications must be profane. The sheer number of lives destroyed and the gratuitously evil motives underpinning this act render any attempt to place it into a political context absurdly venal. I thus venture into the ensuing debate about this tragedy with trepidation and apologies.

Though any political discussion of the Orlando shooting is morally fraught and irreducibly callous, the response of the presumptive GOP nominee to the crisis has lowered the bar to a new threshold that would have been difficult to anticipate mere weeks ago. Listing the ways in which Trump's comments violate good taste and proper reason would be a Herculean task unto itself. His self-congratulation about having been "right" about "radical Islam," his renewed calls for a ban on Muslim immigration, his veiled accusations against the President of the United States- all are enough to make the gorge rise and the mind reel.

I would endeavor, however, if I may be forgiven for doing so, to set aside the many logical and moral objections that might be made to Trump's arguments, to focus on their practical fallacies. Trump presents this tragedy as a test case proving the cogency of his position- a validation of "Trumpism" as a whole, especially with relation to foreign policy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Among the many tragic aspects of this event is the manner in which it was foreordained to be politicized. Through mad luck or evil intent the murderer in Orlando concocted a crime that implicated a bevy of flashpoints in American society and culture- homophobia, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, debates over gun control, etc. In the ensuing discord over the meaning of this horror, its very nature as an act of terror has been partially obscured. This unfortunate turn has been, in part, facilitated by Donald Trump. His insistence that this crime must only be construed as motivated by "radical Islam" has inspired a countervailing claim that the role of ISIS in this atrocity must be discounted altogether.

Both of these positions are false. On the one hand, this murder would not have happened outside the contexts of rampant homophobia, gender stereotyping, lax gun laws, and other contingencies. On the other hand, it is not plausible to suggest that this murderer, however twisted his personal psychology, would have been motivated to act exactly as and on the scale that he did without the larger context of ISIS and its global "jihad." Without ISIS, this man could not have viewed himself as anything but an angry and frustrated murderer. ISIS provided him with a universe of "value" in which his terrible crime could be construed as part of a "revolution."

More important to this discussion than the killer's motives are those of ISIS. This act fit perfectly into their world view and ideally served their twisted agenda. ISIS of course does not represent even a fraction of Muslims worldwide, and its program can not in any way be taken as characteristic of Islam as a whole. But ISIS does desire that its supporters carry out attacks against innocent civilians- the more random and gratuitous the better. The fact that this murder targeted groups with whom those most opposed to Islamophobia were in sympathy made this attack even more laudable from ISIS's perspective. Anything that detracts from Americans' (and Europeans', and any non-ISIS supporters') ability to make sense of the conflict, thus sowing more anger and paranoia, plays perfectly into ISIS's goals.

In this latter sense, the comments issuing from Donald Trump since the attack in Orlando took place could not have been more pleasing to ISIS if they had written the words themselves. Trump's assertion that the Orlando attack should make people fear all Muslims dovetails perfectly with ISIS's world view. On this ISIS and Donald Trump agree- Islam, properly understood, is something that non-Muslims should fear. The fact that the vast majority of Muslims do not believe this (and have as much to fear from jihadi terrorists as anyone else) is of little consequence to ISIS, and they can only be happy that Donald Trump is helping to get the message out.

The problem is more than one of messaging, however. The Orlando attack underscores a way in which ISIS has been more successful and poses an even greater threat than prior groups like Al Qaeda. Though 9/11 was devastating, it did not succeed in inspiring mass lone-wolf attacks as we have seen in San Bernadino and Orlando. ISIS's success in taking and holding territory in Iraq and Syria, giving physical form to the maliciously absurd fantasy of an emergent "caliphate," has fueled the imagination of deranged and/or aggrieved individuals in ways much more dramatic than that of other jihadi groups.

Against that context, Trump's "America first" advocacy of withdrawal, isolationism, and war by proxy (for example, farming out the struggle against ISIS to the likes of Vladimir Putin) is the height of folly. Orlando demonstrates that the US must remain engaged, and must prosecute the war against ISIS until that group has been destroyed and its ersatz "caliphate" dismantled. Donald Trump presents himself as the tougher, wiser agent in the "war on terror," but this notion, again, could not be further from the truth. Of the two presumptive major-party nominees in this election, it is Hillary Clinton whose record and world view are proven more effective to respond to the threat embodied by atrocities like Orlando.

Orlando shows that we have serious social problems that must be redressed here in the U.S. But it also demonstrates that the threat of ISIS is real. To deny that the former is true, as Donald Trump implicitly does, is malice and folly. But to deny that the latter is true is also egregiously unwise.

In order to effectively confront ISIS, the US must be vigilant about protecting the rights and freedoms of Muslim-Americans at home, but must likewise be aggressive in our pursuit of ISIS militants abroad. This is precisely the opposite of the prescriptions posed by Donald Trump. He would have us curtail the rights and freedoms of Muslim-Americans here in the US (thus driving more unbalanced or aggrieved individuals to commit acts of violence), while leaving the fight against ISIS militants abroad to clients and proxies. His "strategy" is thus a bizarre inversion of the course that should and must be taken to confront this danger. One of the many reasons that we should reject Trump is precisely because the threat of ISIS is real, and his approach to confronting it will result in continuing disaster.




Sunday, May 08, 2016

Islam and the Threat of Radical Trumpism

Donald Trump has made the use of the term "Radical Islam" a centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda. As he declared in his much-anticipated speech on the subject, "we’re in a war against radical Islam, but President Obama won’t even name the enemy, and unless you name the enemy, you will never ever solve the problem." This kind of rhetoric has become very conventional in Republican circles, so that his remarks at the Mayflower Hotel might seem to put him in the mainstream of center-right politics. This impression is false, however.

The true nature of Trump's foreign policy orientation toward the Muslim world is exemplified by a story that became a staple of his stump speech on the campaign trail beginning in February. He seems to have acquired it from an internet meme that began circling in various forms shortly after 9/11. According to Trump's telling, the event occurred during America's suppression of Muslim uprisings in the Philippines, circa 1913. It concerns the military governor of the district in which Muslim rebels were operating, General Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing:

"They were having terrorism problems, just like we do...And he caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pig's blood- you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs' blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: 'You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened.' And for 25 years, there wasn't a problem. Okay? Twenty-five years, there wasn't a problem."

Trump generally ends his retelling of this tale by declaring emphatically, "That's history folks," and by underscoring the need for a new "Black Jack" Pershing. Like Trump's claim that "thousands" of Muslims celebrated in Jersey City on 9/11, this event never happened. Yet his fascination with this story explains much about the tenor of his campaign and his embrace of the shibboleth of "Radical Islam."

On the surface this story is simply about the need to be more ruthless in prosecuting the war against terror. But the embellishment of "pig's blood" speaks to something deeper. The moral of the story is that the same religious superstitions that are motivating Muslims to commit terror can be used to incapacitate them. Devout Muslims believe (so say the propagators of this meme) that exposure to pig's blood will prevent them from being reborn in paradise, so the breach of this taboo works on Muslims like kryptonite on Superman.

Setting aside the fact that Muslims cherish no such belief, and that expecting such a tactic to work even if they did would be ridiculous (if they could be so easily deterred by the exposure of their corpses to unclean substances, why would any ISIS member ever blow him or herself up in a public place?), this story provides us with a window onto the inner logic of Trump's world view. No wonder that he places such stress on the importance of using the category "Radical Islam." Since Islamic belief is so central, both to the motives of terrorists and the tactics by which they might be defeated, it would of course stand to reason that if you do not assent to this label you would "never solve the problem."

In essence, what Trump means by "Radical Islam" is simply "Islam." For him, anyone who takes the teachings of Islam seriously will sympathize with terrorists like ISIS, and anyone who takes them seriously enough (the "radicals") will join ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram in their war on the U.S. To deny this is "political correctness" that is all too characteristic of our "stupid" leaders.

This is why Trump feels so comfortable advocating a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Anyone who professes the Muslim faith is, for him, implicated in anti-American hostility. While they may not have done anything wrong yet, it only awaits the right conditions for them to become "radical."

Trump is far from the only figure to espouse such views. I have devoted several posts to outlining why this perspective is fallacious. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding, not only of Islam, but of religion more generally and the way it operates in society and history. Until recently this view has only impacted the policy advice coming from very marginal precincts of the American political system. But now that it has captured the nomination of one of the major political parties for the presidency of the United States, it has become a malignancy threatening the body politic as a whole.

To anyone who would accuse me of hyperbole on this score, I would ask, "What is Trump proposing, other than the ostracism of an entire religious minority here in the U.S.? How can we square this with our most basic values?" I can not help thinking of this problem from the perspective of myself and my family. If Donald Trump were advocating that Jews not be allowed to enter the country, how would I respond? I would feel betrayed by anyone who could find any excuse to vote for him. Our Muslim compatriots are entitled to feel the same way.

Our politics has been marked by too much stridency and smugness in recent years. But that excess does not argue for tolerance or reticence in this instance. It is not "political correctness" to state that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for bigotry and discrimination, it is a bald fact. Unless and until he publicly retracts and repudiates his anti-Muslim views, there is no way to square support for Donald Trump with the basic conscientious imperatives of American citizenship.




Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Advantage Sanders

Historians will no doubt mark last night's Indiana primary as a watershed moment in American politics. Imagine, one year ago, suggesting to a random selection of pundits and elected officials that Donald Trump would, on May 3, 2016, become the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. On asking them for a written response to that proposition, you would have received a stack of essays that, whatever their stylistic and thematic differences, concurred in framing the notion as insane. Today the world is a different place.

This restructuring of fundamental laws, moreover, applies on both sides of the aisle. In the old world, the natural course for the second-place candidate in the Democratic nominating contest would be to close ranks with the front runner and form a unified front for the upcoming general election. This is, in fact, what Hillary Clinton did during the race of 2008, when despite having won more votes and only 4% fewer pledged delegates, she conceded the contest to Barack Obama and formally nominated him on the floor of the Democratic convention.

Those who view the current race through the prism of the old rules will no doubt expect Bernie Sanders, given world enough and time, to behave in the same way as the Hillary Clinton of 2008. They will be sorely disappointed. To understand why this is so it is useful to imagine an alternative past. What would have happened if, in 2008, Hillary had persisted in framing the nominating process as a "contested contest"? She could have forced the superdelegates at the 2008 convention to choose between herself and Barack Obama, and perhaps even wrested the nomination from him. She refrained from that course because it would have fractured the Democratic coalition and, whether she succeeded in seizing the nomination or not, thrown the election to the Republicans. In the long run, forcing a contested convention would have foreclosed Clinton's future in Democratic elected politics.

Sanders is operating under none of the constraints of Clinton circa 2008. He does not worry about his future in Democratic elected politics because, by the old rules, he should not have a present in Democratic elected politics. If one year ago you had told the same random group of pundits that, at this point, an avowed socialist would hold more than 40% of the delegates to the Democratic convention, the written response would have been comparable in tone to that produced by the Trump exercise. Sanders has consistently sought the nomination of the Democratic party in the service of an economic populist agenda, and anyone who is waiting for him to compromise his agenda in service of the party's electoral hopes will wait in vain.

Moreover, anyone who believes that Sanders's constituency is frivolous or ephemeral in their support, ready to rally behind Clinton in the face of a Trump candidacy, is likewise self-delusional. Free trade agreements, wage stagnation, the erosion of organized labor, infrastructural decay, and a shrinking public sector have debilitated large swaths of the American public, leaving them feeling angry at and betrayed by the entire political system. Their support of Bernie Sanders has been given in clear understanding of and approval for his agenda, and if he breaks ranks with the Democrats they will follow him, or throw their support to Donald Trump, who is offering different solutions to similar problems.

Sanders has it in his power to scuttle the election for the Democrats, and he will use it if they do not bend to accommodate his agenda. What, then, should the Democrats give him? Short of the nomination, anything he wants.

The situation of the Democratic party exemplifies the shibboleth about "crisis" and "opportunity" being synonymous in Chinese. A wrong move at this point will hand the country over to the tender mercies of Donald Trump. But the Democrats still have a chance, that the GOP has forfeited, to capitalize upon this historic moment. By nominating Donald Trump the Republicans have forgone the opportunity to forge a new electoral coalition in favor of a malignantly nativist politics that has no long-term future. By contrast, if the Democrats can compromise and cooperate, they stand the chance of bringing constituencies back into the fold that have been abandoning the Democratic party since the days of Ronald Reagan. A new progressive politics could be on the horizon. It only awaits Clinton and Sanders to meet the test of leadership.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Trump, Abortion, and the Law

The furor from both sides of the aisle concerning Donald Trump's call yesterday that "some form of punishment" be instituted for women who seek an abortion is a rare window onto one of the most distorted dynamics in American political discourse. This flap may do more damage to Trump among Republicans than all of his prior intemperate statements combined, stretching back to his first attack upon John McCain as a "loser" who let himself be captured by the Vietnamese. The reasons for this outrage are illuminating, both about the nature of Trump's candidacy and the politics of the larger discourse concerning abortion and reproductive rights.

On the surface, Republican anger is centered on the degree of ignorance and phony pandering revealed by Trump's words. Trump, a public figure who until very recently supported reproductive freedom, has obviously not done the least bit of study or reflection upon the principles and theory of the "pro-life" activism he now claims to espouse. His words betray a total ignorance of the current consensus among mainstream GOP politicians.

But if ignorance and pandering were enough to spark outrage, Donald Trump should have been in much worse shape long before now. Trump's evasions and vague ramblings have repeatedly revealed how little he knows about issues of foreign and domestic policy on which the GOP has been campaigning rigorously for decades. This case is unique because, speaking as the GOP frontrunner, Trump has done material damage to a rhetorical position that the Republican party had long taken for granted as safely established.

In calling for women to be punished, Trump has done what no "pro-life" advocate is ever supposed to do, and left the GOP once again exposed to accusations of waging a "war on women." But if Trump's discomfiture is on some level deserved, his crime is also arguably one of undue candor.  The move to criminalize abortion inevitably raises the issue of enforcement, and the idea that enforcement could avoid punishing women, directly or indirectly, is absurd.

This is made plain by the strained retraction issued by Trump's campaign short hours after his comments broke. Women seeking abortion would not be punished in a Trump administration, we were told, only their doctors, because a woman in such an instance is a "victim." This is in line with the current position of "pro-life" activism, but is incongruous from a campaign that has repeatedly decried "political correctness."

What but political correctness (and latent sexism) could consign half of the population to "victimhood" if they are complicit in an act deemed the moral equivalent of murder? This is to deny the agency and autonomy of women, to insist that they need special protection, not only from their doctors, but from themselves. It is especially clear in the case of a woman who, as in the dark days of caustic chemicals and wire hangers, attempted to administer an abortion to herself. Trump (and "pro-life" activists in general) would presumably also deem such a woman a victim. But this makes the "pro-life" position strangely identical to that of the defenders of reproductive freedom. Moreover, if she is a victim, then by driving her to self-mutilation instead of the care of a doctor the "pro-life" legal regime would punish her as surely as if it had clapped her in jail.

These types of logical and rhetorical problems are rarely brought to the surface by our national discourse on reproductive rights, because partisans on both sides of the issue are content to cleave closely to scripted talking points and avoid all discussion of the principles underpinning the issue. Democrats and Republicans assume that the degree of support for either position is "baked in" to the political demography, thus there is never any need to educate or persuade. In this respect, Donald Trump has done us a favor by inducing a moment of rare probity into a routinely rote and anemic discourse. It would be wonderful if the debate of these issues could remain as robust through the fall, but as Trump's opponents in both parties exhaust the political points that can be scored from this gaffe, the conversation will most likely revert to being as insipid as usual.








Thursday, March 17, 2016

Vladimir Putin Can See Sarah Palin From His House

The recent surprise announcement by Vladimir Putin that Russia will be withdrawing the bulk of its forces from Syria is reminiscent of Sarah Palin's decision to leave the governorship of Alaska before her term was done. In the same way that Palin justified her decision by characterizing it as a courageous refusal to "go with the flow," Putin has declared victory as if his current withdrawal had been his aim all along. The main difference between these two cases is that in the latter instance, many people are buying it. The strange cult of Putin as some kind of strongman/strategic genius seems to have inexhaustible legs in American political discourse, thus it is easy to find examples of pundits praising this most recent development as a bold gambit.

This is not to indulge in "he's turning tail and running" machismo. I have very little interest in whether Mr. Putin deserves his "strongman" reputation or not. But the suggestion that this policy on Moscow's part has produced any significant achievements to justify or redeem it is strained at best. Russia has bought some breathing room for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. Though this is an undeniable real-world effect, why it is in anyone's interests, including those of Russia, is as yet an imponderable.

When historians many decades from now sift through the evidence of the Syrian civil war there will no doubt be long debates about Russia's role, and one of the key interpretive questions will be whether Mr. Putin ever had a coherent policy, or whether he has been improvising from the outset. I will not play Karnak and predict who will have the better side of that debate. But, barring some miraculous result in the peace negotiations between warring factions in the Syrian civil war, the "he was just winging it" judgment may ultimately be the kindest reading that can be made of Putin's actions.

None of the coherent goals one might posit for Russia's policy meet any basic test of value. Assert Russia's relevance in the Middle East? If that was the object, it was achieved at a steep cost of increased misery to the Syrian people and decreased capacity in the fight against ISIS. Deflect attention from meddling in the Ukraine? The hordes of desperate refugees driven to the sea in part by Russia's machinations cannot produce fond thoughts in Europe.

The most cogent reason for Russia's intervention in Syria is the one that Putin himself gave to the UN, that the fight against jihadi terrorists such as ISIS must depend on the continued persistence of forces like the Assad regime. This, however, is a policy rooted in a view of the Syrian people (and Arabs more generally) so cynically pessimistic and paternalistic as to rival the xenophobic ramblings of Donald Trump. Now that Putin is set to (at least notionally) demobilize his forces with the civil war still raging and ISIS as strong or stronger than when he began, the best that can be said of him is that he has perhaps recognized the limits of Russian military power better than George W. Bush did in the case of America's involvement in Iraq. To anyone who would cite this as an example of Putin's strategic wisdom, however, it would have to be noted (as was true in the case of George W. Bush) that the one thing Putin could have done better than withdrawing "at the right time" would have been to refrain from deploying his forces in the first place.

The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and Putin's deployment of Russian forces to Latakia both stemmed from the same fundamental mistrust of the people of the Middle East, a refusal to acknowledge that they might effect social and political change on their own initiative. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has been hampered by the same dysfunctional mindset, in kind if not degree. Putin's decision to withdraw forces now gives the lie to comparisons portraying him as more "tough" or "dynamic" than President Obama. In the end both leaders were willing to apply comparable levels of force to the Syrian theater. Indeed, President Obama proves the more durable "warrior," as our air campaign against ISIS will continue as Russia draws down.

The relevant comparison between Russia and the US is not over which nation was willing to drop more bombs- that is an effective draw. The real contrast concerns which nation was willing to back its principles with military force. President Obama correctly recognized early on that "Assad must go," that Damascus's use of military force against its own people made regime change (achieved militarily or politically) necessary for stability and peace in Syria. The US has erred in failing to construct a robust policy on that basis, because we did not trust the Syrian people to replace the Assad regime with a government to our liking. Thus we allowed the civil war to drag on and to create a power vacuum conducive to the rise of ISIS. If the US had been as willing to use its strategic power to oppose the Assad regime as Russia has been to support it, the Syrian civil war might already be over, and ISIS might never have existed (or at least might be on its way to defeat).

Those who continue to laud Vladimir Putin are drawing the wrong lessons from history. The consequences of American passivity may be a cautionary tale, but its moral is complemented by that to be drawn from the story of Russia's "dynamism." Though America's failure in Syria demonstrates that correct principles will not be of help if a nation lacks the courage of its convictions, in Putin's decision to withdraw we see that no amount of military power will prevail if the political principles underpinning its use are misguided.




Monday, March 14, 2016

Letter to Senator Bernie Sanders

To the Honorable Senator Bernie Sanders:

      Like many Americans I am deeply distressed by the incidents of violence that have transpired at rallies for the front-runner in the Republican nominating contest, Mr. Donald Trump. Though you have rightly condemned Mr. Trump for irresponsibly encouraging his followers in these incidents, and have stated that no candidate should welcome or incite violence, you have yet to issue a direct plea to your own supporters to refrain from violence of any kind.

        Some admittedly very dishonest pundits on the right are broadcasting a false narrative that asserts a moral equivalency between yourself and Donald Trump, claiming that your supporters are equally to blame for incidents such as what transpired recently in Chicago. Though this is absurd given the context of Mr. Trump's inflammatory behavior, even so, at such a fraught moment in our civic life all political leaders come under an onus to enjoin their own supporters to reject violence.

        You have shown great integrity and sterling leadership, both in Congress and on the campaign trail. Please use that moral authority accrued through long service to intervene positively in the current crisis. A clear plea from you asking your supporters to abjure violence in all forms would work powerfully and urgently to mend our civil discourse and elevate our political life from the depths into which it has fallen. 

         Donald Trump seeks to expose our "politically correct" civic culture as morally bankrupt and materially impotent. Only strong moral leadership on the part of his opponents can defeat his gambit. I hope that you will show Donald Trump, his supporters, and the rest of America that our inclusive democratic politics still claims the allegiance of people motivated by integrity and self-restraint. In any case, I hope this message finds you well and I thank you for your attention on this matter.

                                                             Sincerely,

                                                              Andrew Meyer