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 pigs’ 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

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Trumpocalypse and Rule #1

As a long-time Douglas Adams fan, I found inspiration for basic parenting technique in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Always impressed by the salience and cogency of the motto ("Don't Panic") inscribed on the cover of the book that gives the novel its title,  I presented this to my infant daughter as "Rule #1 of Life, the Universe, and Everything." Over the years it has proven a handy mechanism during temper tantrums, bouts of disappointment, and various and sundry emotional rough-spots.

Viewing the current political scene, it becomes plain to me that the efficacy of "Rule #1" extends far beyond the personal or domestic realm. Like many other observers I am deeply dismayed by the rise of Donald Trump in the ranks of the GOP, and view the prospect of his nomination as a singular political disaster the likes of which our nation has rarely witnessed in my lifetime. But viewing the scenes of violence in Chicago last night and reports of the Secret Service "swarming" to protect Mr. Trump in Ohio today, I cannot help but feel that the larger political response to the threat he poses is being detrimentally impacted by flagrant and tragic inattention to Rule #1.

As I have written in past posts, a Trump presidency would be cataclysmic for our nation and a defeated Trump GOP candidacy only slightly less harmful. As bad as both of these outcomes are, however, there is one that would be worse: if he or his supporters are violently injured in the course of the current campaign. Trump has, deliberately or not, turned his candidacy into an indictment of the legitimacy of our system of government. Nothing will make that challenge more persuasive, lasting, and effective than a violent attack upon him or his supporters. Such acts would "prove" to his supporters (and to neutral observers) that Trump's opponents, those of any party who claim to defend the inclusive, constitutional, democratic order that Trump derides, are moral cowards and intellectual hypocrites. Nothing would do more to undermine faith in our system of government and impede the working of its institutions.

None of this is meant to defend Trump or to minimize the threat he embodies. Whatever demurrals he or his campaign might make, Trump has deliberately fostered a climate of tension and violence at his rallies. The resulting scenes of chaos ostensibly argue for the kind of "strong" authoritarian leadership he claims to offer, thus further enhancing his appeal among the types of voters that have powered his ascent. Though these tactics are reprehensible, responding to them with fear and anger will only add gasoline to the fire.

Expressions of protest against Trump are all well and good, but expressions of rage serve no useful end. Donald Trump's greatest ally is, to borrow FDR's phrase, fear itself, followed closely by anger. To deprive him of that power, anyone dedicated to opposing him must embrace Rule #1- Don't Panic.   Anger only enhances his appeal, and violence used against Trump or his supporters is not only morally wrong, it is the height of strategic folly. The only way that the challenge Trump poses can be defeated is at the ballot box. If Trump is physically attacked he (or his movement, if he is killed) wins, in which case everyone loses.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Kasich Pledge

As my distress mounts in the face of a likely Trump GOP candidacy, I have begun to cast about for ways that Democrats like myself might meaningfully influence the outcome of the Republican nominating process. I am an unapologetic left-wing partisan. I have voted for every Democratic presidential candidate since Michael Dukakis, and until now there have been no circumstances under which I would have imagined voting Republican. Moreover, I greatly admire the two potential Democratic nominees in this race. I have had an "I'm with Hillary" sticker on my car for many months now; I think she would make an excellent president. Though I prefer Hillary to Bernie Sanders, if he prevailed I would, under normal circumstances, swiftly jump aboard his bandwagon in the general election, as I deem his policies far superior to that of any of his potential Republican rivals.

The stakes in this election, however, have risen catastrophically high. A Trump candidacy, even if he should lose, will do so much damage to the fabric of our Republic, that all conscientious citizens are called upon to do what they can to prevent it. Why is this the case? The first and most obvious reason is that if Trump is nominated, there is a chance he will become president. Democrats who are thrilled at the prospects of an "easy win" should take a moment to reflect that anything can happen between now and November. I personally think that a Trump nomination is most likely to result in a Democratic win (for either Sanders or Clinton), perhaps even a landslide that radically redistributes power to the detriment of the GOP more generally. The prospects of such a partisan windfall should not be enough to make anyone welcome a Trump candidacy, however. Because Trump himself is so unqualified, because he has demonstrated so little respect for the political process, and because he has built an electoral coalition on a foundation of racism and xenophobia, a Trump presidency would be disastrous in a way that no prior presidency in the history of this country could rival (even those of James Buchanan, Richard Nixon, or George W. Bush).

But this is only the worst case scenario. In point of fact, the best case scenario, in which Trump runs as the GOP nominee but loses, is still catastrophically detrimental to our nation. As David Brooks notes in a recent column, for many decades we have been living through an era of increasing disaffection with the political system and disenchantment with our fundamental institutions. The various organs of the government have progressively lost dignity and legitimacy in the eyes of both the citizenry and the elected officials who inhabit them. We do not have to guess where the end of that process leads, it is foretold in the fate of other systems where similar forces were at work: the early Chinese Republic, Weimar Germany, and Spain on the eve of that nation's civil war.

The United States is of course a very robust and resilient Republic, and the self-correcting mechanisms built into our Constitution have seen us through many crises in the past. But there is a limit to the regenerative elasticity of any system. Donald Trump is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. His candidacy could so profane our politics and debase our national discourse as to irreparably drain our institutions of the capacity to govern. This, moreover, discounts the horrific damage he will do (has already done) to the reputation of the United States abroad. In an age when the struggle against Al Qaeda and ISIS requires intense and strategic political acumen, our national security can not afford a presidential candidate who casts us as the caricature demonized in jihadi propaganda.

As much as I cherish the prospect of a Clinton (or a Sanders) presidency, and as much as I fear the potential fallout of GOP control of the White House (new attacks on Obamacare, a return to policies that favor the super rich, a neglect of the environment, etc.), I am forced to admit that it would be better in the long-run interests of the country for the Democrats to lose against John Kasich than for them to win against Donald Trump. In an effort to sway my Republican compatriots, I thus make this pledge: if you nominate John Kasich, I will vote for him in the November election, no matter who is the Democratic nominee. Needless to say, this pledge entails a resolve to use not only my vote but also my time, effort, and money, to oppose Donald Trump should he be the nominee.

I can envision many objections on the part of both Republicans and Democrats, but I will refrain from laying out my arguments against them here. This may well be deemed an empty gesture, but I would urge my fellow Democrats to follow me in making this pledge.  If nothing else, it would signal a willingness to rise above partisanship and forge a new electoral coalition for the greater good of the nation. I hope that my dire forebodings are wrong, and that we will either not be saddled with a Trump candidacy or that its occurrence will not be as damaging as I foresee. In any case, I do not want to feel later on that I sat idly by while the storm gathered.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Donald Trump Can Not Be President

It is being said in many different ways in many different venues, but it is important enough to bear reiterating: Donald Trump can not be president. Like most public utterances, this one has several different subtexts and connotations, all of which are being vetted in various precincts of the blogosphere and punditocracy. I would like to speak to a very narrow range of this principle's meaning. I do not mean that Donald Trump can not be president in a moral sense, or a geostrategic sense, or by reference to the basic tenets of our system of government, though the assertion is true in all these ways (and others).

I mean that in the most practical, workaday sense of the phrase, Donald Trump can not be president. After his pronouncements in support of a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., there is no way that Trump could possibly perform the most basic functions of the office of president. No leader of a Muslim country (and few leaders of any other country that has a substantial Muslim minority, like France or the U.K.) could possibly engage in diplomacy with a Trump administration without suffering incalculable political damage at home. None of our alliances with nations like Turkey, Iraq, or Afghanistan could be maintained. U.S. military facilities in places like Turkmenistan might have to be closed. Trade pacts with Muslim nations would dissolve. The flow of commodities like oil might well stop. At the very least, the cost of doing business in the Muslim world would become subject to a "Trump surtax." All of these consequences flow immediately and spontaneously from Trump's pronouncements on a Muslim ban. It is a bell that can not be unrung. If he repudiates his comments tomorrow he will be no less hobbled in his potential for office.

This presents a conundrum to the Republican Party. If it nominates Trump, it is putting forward a candidate for president that is fundamentally unfit for office. Any candidate that upholds his or her pledge to support Trump if he is the nominee is either lying to the American people or is failing in a fundamental duty of citizenship. This is not partisan hysteria or liberal snark, it is a raw fact. Donald Trump can not be president of the United States. Anyone who denies this reality contributes to the political dysfunction that he embodies.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Postcard from the Right Side of History

In his address to the nation tonight President Obama conveyed much of significance to the American people. His reminder that ISIS does not represent the larger faith of Islam and his call for Americans to continue to treat one another with fairness and respect irrespective of creed were vitally important. His declaration that the United States will prevail because we are on the right side of history was reassuring.

I have long been a supporter of the President, and I trust that his efforts in our defense are earnest and reflect what he perceives to be the highest strategic wisdom. However, even with the positive steps that he took tonight, I fear that the President has mishandled both the politics and the strategy of the conflict with ISIS in ways that could profoundly tarnish his legacy if not redressed.  

In political terms the President has seemingly underestimated the severity of unease stirred by ISIS's barbarity and resilience. Whatever the view may be like from the White House situation room, from the perspective of Anytown USA the threat from ISIS seems to be intensifying in ways that would justify a much higher degree of urgency than has been projected in the President's public pronouncements. As a continuing stream of grotesque images fills the nightly news, the perception grows that some radical change in strategy is warranted to confront this threat. In that climate the President's measured assessments and calls for incremental tactical change appear out of touch with the severity of the crisis.

The problem is compounded by the fact that there are indeed changes in strategy that might be effective. The most salient of these is our posture with regard to the Syrian civil war. The President is no doubt right that we should refrain from entering another major land war in the Middle East with US ground forces. Since that is so, however, we must find a way of uniting local forces within Syria and Iraq for the fight against ISIS, a task that can never be achieved as long as the Assad regime remains in power.

In his speech tonight President Obama listed resolving the Syrian civil war as priority number four in his plan to defeat ISIS, a stance that is consonant with what has been our policy since the Syrian civil war first began. If President Obama wanted to broadcast the adoption of a new strategy (and he should), he should have made it clear that the removal of the Assad regime is now America's first priority in the struggle against ISIS, a goal for which we expect the compliance of all powers operating within the region, including Moscow. The removal of Assad will no doubt prove difficult in the face of Russian opposition, but if it is to be achieved at all it first must be articulated as a non-negotiable security concern by President Obama. At the very least, risking political capital in this way on a shift in strategic priorities would reassure citizens back here in the United States that our leaders understand the urgency of the crisis and are undertaking bold action to redress it.

The President is no doubt right that in the struggle with ISIS, America sits on the right side of history. But he would be foolish to assume that we will remain there if we allow the political climate in our nation to deteriorate. As Franklin Roosevelt warned, fear is a corrosive force that can eat away at the foundations of civil society and the rule of law. If, partly from a belief that our leaders are asleep at the wheel, fear metastisizes throughout the body politic, it will lead to spasms of sectarian violence and institutionalized discrimination against Muslim-Americans that undermine our democratic system. At that point, the right side of history might look like a distant and hazily remembered place. Like the President I have faith in the resilience of our nation, and I do not doubt that any dark times ISIS inspired would be temporary. We are best advised, however, to send ISIS swiftly to its scrapheap, so that we may continue to enjoy the view from history's right side uninterrupted.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Terrorism in San Bernadino

Wednesday's shooting in San Bernadino is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Heartbreaking because of the devastating loss and pain it has inflicted on the victims and their families. Infuriating because it is an act of malice so destructive, so conducive of strife and division, and at the same time so utterly pointless, that one can not but reflect on it with anger.

The misery of the event itself is compounded by the inevitable absurdity of the political discourse that has followed in its wake. In this instance we do not have to puzzle over the murderers' associations or thought process to determine whether what they did is an act of terrorism. Their actions can be read at face value. If this were purely some sort of personal workplace vendetta, why would the murderers leave explosives to kill (or even to frighten, if in fact the devices were deliberately nonfunctional) first responders arriving at the scene? What could they have been aiming at, other than the targeting of random civilians to incite fear? Whatever motivated their depraved acts, the acts themselves constitute the very definition of terrorism.

 The questions that pundits are asking in the wake of this crime are indicative of how little we have come to understand the world more than fourteen years after 9/11. Why would the murderer's target co-workers? Why, given the armaments they had accumulated, would they not seek a venue where they could cause more loss?  What did they hope to achieve?

These murderers targeted their co-workers because they were terrorists, and that was precisely the means by which to create the most terror. Not merely terror, but sustained and destructive paranoia. By giving no overt signs of their "radicalization" and by leaving no explicit indication of their "beliefs," these criminals sowed the seeds of suspicion and fear. Does the potential for this kind of violence lurk in my Muslim co-worker or neighbor? Do I need to worry about the mosque in my community?  The effectiveness of this strategy is immediately apparent: the mosque of which the San Bernadino attackers were members has already begun to receive death threats. This is the diabolical logic of Wednesday's terrorist attack. Whether it was the idea of the murderers themselves or of some distant member of ISIS or Al Qaeda with whom they were in contact is of little consequence.

Given that this was an act of terror, how should we as Americans respond? The first step we must take is to clearly understand the strategy of the enemy, our failure in which regard is manifest in our anguished search for a motive or a larger plan. Monstrous as it is, the attack in San Bernadino boils down to one more step in a long con that groups like ISIS have been running on the US and its allies for decades. We are perpetually inclined to believe that violence on this scale must be in service to some larger "constructive" goal: the establishment of a new order or the creation of some new institution.

But none of the groups we have been fighting have anything approaching a long-term blueprint for change. Even ISIS with its jumped-up "caliphate" are basically glorified oil thieves and gangsters. There is no "there" there. The terror that these groups sow is not done in service of anything remotely resembling a "People's Soviet" or new "Reich." The terror is an end unto itself. Because ISIS and Al Qaeda have no achievable ultimate goals, the best they can hope to do is to perpetuate themselves, and because there is no enduring benefit that these groups can offer anyone as an inducement to join, they must enlist their enemies to drive members into their ranks. This is the essence of the long con: create terror so as to create oppression; so as to create oppressed Muslims willing to sow more terror; and so on. None of the strategists behind this program have any concrete idea of where this cycle will lead (one imagines that in occasional reflective moments they console themselves that such a problem can be left with God), they are only resolved to keep the wheel spinning.

If this is the nature of the threat, how can or should we respond? Since the ultimate goal of these attacks is terror, the most effective response is simply to refuse to be afraid. If we treat one-another with fear and suspicion, if we deprive one-another of basic rights and dignity, or if we stoop to acts of sectarian violence, the terrorists achieve the only victory of which they are capable. If, however, we simply remain determined to live with one-another, work together, communicate, and treat one-another with fairness and respect, the terrorists lose.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Party Like It Is 1932

Godwin's Law famously (and wisely) warns against all comparisons to Adolph Hitler upon the internet.  Such counsel is difficult to follow, however, when an American political candidate does everything short of painting on a toothbrush mustache and goose-stepping with arm extended in a stiff salute. Donald Trump's recent assent to the idea that Muslim Americans be given special identifications is so grotesquely reminiscent of the yellow "Star of David" badges issued by the Nazi regime as to boggle the mind.

The situation might be tragically laughable if Trump himself were not still gaining in the polls. In the wake of the Paris attacks, a climate of fear has understandably settled over Europe and America, and it is creating a wind to fill the sails of Mr. Trump's political ambition. The crude words about immigrants and border security with which he launched his campaign seemed comic until it became clear how deeply he had struck a nerve in a portion of the American electorate. Now, even beyond those precincts in which Trump's message was initially welcomed, events have conspired to make him appear a prophet to many voters.

"Appear" is the urgently operative word here. A large portion of the American electorate has been conned, and Donald Trump is not the perpetrator of this deceit. Trump himself is among the victims over whose eyes the proverbial wool has been pulled. ISIS has convinced everyone that their Muslim identity is the most salient and significant fact about them, when in fact our obsession over their religious claims plays perfectly into their malignant agenda.

This is not to rehearse tired arguments about how ISIS are "not real Muslims." Of course the members of ISIS are real Muslims. But that is no more significant than the fact that Yigdal Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin of Israel in 1995, was a real Jew. In a world of 1.6 billion Muslim inhabitants, "watch all the Muslims" is about as effective a strategy for fostering security as "watch all the Jews" would have been for Rabin's bodyguards before his tragic death.

This myopia is not confined to the political right, moreover. Liberals who preach that combating ISIS would best be done by lecturing Muslims on values of secularism, feminism, and pluralism have likewise been sucked in by the ISIS grift. We should no doubt all champion secularism, feminism, and pluralism in any context and to the degree that we can, but to imagine that this will have any impact on the strategic conflict with ISIS is a fantasy. Right now any list of the greatest champions of secularism, feminism, and pluralism in the Middle East would have to include the Ba'athist regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, and it is the hatred of that government's lethally cruel autocracy, not any particular love of ISIS's religious ideals, that has kept ISIS afloat in Syria for so long.

However misguided Mr. Trump's view may be, the fear that is fueling its ascent is real, and its effects are not only visible here in the U.S. France has its own Donald Trump in the form of Marine Le Pen, and Germany in the person of Frauke Petry. If the problem of ISIS lingers and the terror they inspire intensifies, the fortunes of all these politicians will continue to rise. Anyone who at this point dismisses the possibility of "President Trump" is sorely deluded, and such a judgment is even more true of anyone who doubts that such an outcome would be a disaster comparable to the elections that transpired in Germany in 1932.

The emergency confronting our leaders is dire, and the responsibility weighty. As hyperbolic as it seems to say, the future of the free world literally hangs in the balance. If an effective strategy against ISIS is not swiftly adopted and applied, future generations will look back on this as the watershed moment that undid much of the hard won progress of the late twentieth century.