Sunday, December 04, 2016

#Clownarchy Calling

The moment I realized just how dangerous a Trump presidency could be came back in March, when I watched  a town hall meeting with the prospective GOP nominee moderated by Chris Matthews. In response to a question about reproductive rights, Matthews and Trump fell into a long exchange about the mechanics of a ban on abortion, with Matthews pressing Trump on the issue of how such a ban would be enforced. After several attempts to deflect or dodge the question, Trump finally declared, "The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment."

What alarmed me was not the illiberal principles underlying this pronouncement, but the look on Trump's face as he made it.  He looked as if, reluctant as he was to be pinned down on a politically sensitive issue, he was nonetheless sensible of delivering the wisdom of Solomon. His tone said, "Here comes the straight shooter again. Watch and learn, America. This is how it is done."

Only someone who was blissfully and totally ignorant of the state of debate concerning reproductive rights could have projected that air of self-satisfaction. Looking at him in that moment, one could see that the howls of protest that would arise from Republicans across the ideological spectrum, even among his most ardent supporters, would come as a total surprise to Mr. Trump. He had no idea that he had just demolished a carefully cultivated rhetorical position (the insistence that an abortion ban would NOT requires sanctions against women) that "pro-life" advocates had spent years building and defending.

This is the peril posed by the Trump presidency. Mr. Trump is not merely ignorant. His ignorance extends to a complete incomprehension of just how ignorant he is. He in fact knows so little that he is insensible to the danger of just how little he knows.

This problem has been on display since his ascent to the position of President-elect. Whether he is equating the loss of citizenship with a year's incarceration or alleging millions of illegally cast votes without proof, Trump does not seem to have the slightest understanding of how his pronouncements will be perceived or the potential damage they may do to his credibility. His supporters might view such antics as "bold," but for them to truly be bold there would have to be some evidence that Trump understands that they entail risk, and such evidence is missing. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, those risks are real.

The most alarming example thus far has been Trump's congratulatory phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. This was an enormous breach of the protocols of "strategic ambiguity" that have been the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Taiwan Strait for more than four decades. The Strait is the most dangerous flashpoint in the world, surpassing even the DMZ of the Korean Peninsula. Though formally a province of China, since the flight of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government to the island at the close of China's civil war in 1949, Taiwan has had its own president, legislature, constitution, and judiciary. Moreover, there is a large faction in Taiwanese politics that resents mainland exploitation of Taiwan (which began long before 1949) and who would seek a break from China at all costs.

At the same time, the citizens of the People's Republic of China on the mainland harbor deep and painful grievances over European, American, and Japanese imperial aggression against their homeland, the history of which includes the forced cession of Taiwan to Japan as a colony in 1895. Any formal declaration of independence by Taiwan would thus be met with massive popular unrest on mainland China to rival the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989. No government in Beijing, even one that had been democratically elected, could survive the political firestorm that would follow a Taiwanese declaration of independence.

It has thus been the policy of the United States to keep the peace through a diplomatic balancing act calibrated to maintain the status quo. On the one hand, our government concedes that there is only "one China" and that Taiwan is a part of it. There can thus be no "President of Taiwan," as the island is not sovereign. On the other hand, we maintain close informal relations with Taiwan (through the office of a "trade consul") and provide the Taiwanese military with billions of dollars of advanced military hardware, to dissuade the mainland government from trying to settle the conflict militarily.

This homeostasis has been maintained by every president, Democrat and Republican, for more than  forty years. Donald Trump's decision to not only receive a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen but to then tweet his thanks to "the President of Taiwan" is thus an unprecedented move for a president-elect. Politicians and commentators may debate the wisdom of this maneuver (I personally find it incredibly foolhardy), but no one can deny that this is an enormously consequential and risky shift in our foreign policy. If the President-elect did not mean it to be read that way, he did not understand what was at stake. If he did intend some significant statement, his choice of the telephone and Twitter as the media with which to make it (and the tenure of his sitting predecessor as the time to do so) were unthinkingly irresponsible. Either way, this latest gaffe is another in a long string of signs that Mr. Trump does not understand the role of the President or what is at stake in its conduct.

With Mr. Trump we are quickly entering terra incognita in the history of the modern presidency. The response of the Chinese government to this latest provocation reveals a trajectory for our future path. In a face-saving maneuver, they have blamed the incident on Taiwanese "trickery." While this preserves Sino-U.S. amity, it likewise reduces Mr. Trump to the status of an ignorant dupe. This is the inevitable direction in which Trump's presidency will evolve: as more actors cannot or will not take his words or deeds seriously, his persona will progressively transmute  into that of a clown, and the Presidency from a sovereign Executive into a #Clownarchy.

Confucius taught that, "If one conquers oneself and returns to ritual for a single day, the world will return to humaneness (Analects 12.1)." This is a profound insight into the universal nature of civil authority. Civil power relies on the regularity, predictability, and dignity of ritual and protocol. Though personal dynamism and charisma can be effective in performing a role like President of the United States, those assets will be counterproductive if one is unable to subordinate one's own selfish idiosyncrasies to the essential ceremonial parameters of the office. There are occasions when a civil official must simply do and say what protocol demands, a necessity that all of our presidents have acknowledged and successfully fulfilled to varying degrees.  Mr. Trump does not have the ability to recognize what those occasions are or even the shallowest knowledge of what the ceremonial aspects of his office entail. More perilously than that, he does not recognize that this is a problem. The whole world may suffer as a consequence.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The South (or the North, or the West...) Will Rise Again, and Again, and Again: Viewing the Electoral College from the Perspective of Chinese History

On July 20, 1842, during the Opium War, British soldiers and warships captured the garrison town of Zhenjiang, at the juncture of the Yangzi River and the Grand Canal in the Qing Empire's Jiangsu Province. When news reached the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1821-1850) in Beijing, he authorized his emissaries to treat for peace. Though Qing resistance up to that point had been robust, the capture of Zhenjiang gave the British control of a fatal fracture point in the larger imperial edifice.

With the Grand Canal blocked, little tax revenue could flow from the southern reaches of the empire to the capital. Two-thirds of the population of the Qing empire lived south of the Yangzi, and the economic disparity south-to-north was even greater than the demographic one. The per capita GDP of the agriculturally and commercially rich southern Jiangnan region was nearly twice that of more arid, sparsely populated northern districts like Qinghai and Gansu. The revenue system of the Qing, which drew tax receipts into the capital on the North China Plain, served as a wealth-transfer mechanism from the wealthy south to the impoverished north. Disrupting that flow for any length of time could  cause the precarious social contract holding the empire together to unravel.

In the wake of the Opium War the worst fears of the Qing government were realized. In Guangzhou (Canton) in 1837, the young scion of a southern gentry family, Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864) had for the second time sat for and failed the imperial exams that were  the surest route to political, economic and social success. The pass rates on the exams were extraordinarily low throughout the empire, but the odds were made even worse for southerners like Hong by the imposition of quotas favoring candidates from disadvantaged northern regions. His rage and frustration at this second failure induced a nervous collapse: he fell into a feverish state in which he had prophetic visions. After the Opium War he came to understand these visions as a divine calling and began to gather followers. The movement that he began eventually threw the Qing Empire into civil war, with large parts of southern China breaking away to form the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom from 1850 to 1864. Unity was only restored after conflict that left as many as 20 million people dead and the economy of the empire shattered.

The Taiping Rebellion is only one (though admittedly among the worst)  of the many instances of cataclysmic breakdown experienced within the Chinese empire over the 2+ millenia of its history that were, in part, induced by inter-regional tensions and conflicts. Successive imperial regimes struggled to hold together an expansive domain throughout which social and economic capital were unevenly distributed. Though Chinese leaders developed and maintained redistributive mechanisms to offset regional disparities (for example, the quotas favoring northern candidates in the imperial exams), these were not generally elastic and responsive enough to relieve the persistent centrifugal forces driving the component regions of the empire apart. The problem, moreover, remains an urgent concern today, as attested by the recent unrest over Beijing's refusal to allow two secessionist legislators to be sworn in as members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council.

This history poses lessons for those of us contemplating the issue of the Electoral College in the wake of the most recent election. Not only has the Electoral College subverted the results of the popular vote for the second time in less than twenty years, but the 2016 race has yielded an unprecedented disparity between popular and electoral vote outcomes. At this writing, Hillary Clinton leads by 1.7 million votes in the popular tally (a 2.7% lead) and is down by 58 Electoral College votes (a 20% deficit). That the relative differential between the two vote tallies should be so wide understandably creates a sense of profound unfairness- the impression that the democratic will of the people has been effaced by an arcane institution.

Though there will be renewed calls for the abolition of the Electoral College, the historical experience of China should give us pause to wonder at the wisdom of such a course. Like China, the United States is a vast and diverse domain in which social and economic capital are unevenly distributed and the interests of different groups vary widely from region to region. The most recent election has starkly highlighted the regional tensions straining our social fabric, with voters in the industrial Midwest and rural Appalachia mobilizing to deliver an electoral result that radically undermined conventional expectations. Donald Trump would not have won this election unless poor and working class voters in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin had defected from the Democratic Party in favor of his disruptive campaign, and that movement would not have resulted in a Trump victory absent the auspices of the Electoral College.

This being the case, as predictably as there is and will remain pressure to dismantle the Electoral College, there will be strong resistance to any campaign in this direction. To understand why, it is useful to contemplate what a presidential campaign would look like if such contests were decided purely by the popular vote. Candidates would focus almost entirely on the densely populated coasts to the exclusion of the interior, and on urban centers to the exclusion of more sparsely settled rural districts. By giving disproportionate leverage to more rural and sparsely populated states, the Electoral College forces candidates to wage truly national campaigns and to float policies that can win the votes of more marginalized citizens.

The 2016 election provides an object lesson in these redistributive dynamics. At this writing, Hillary Clinton leads the popular vote tally in California by 2.5 million votes. Thus if one eliminates California's total from the national tally, Donald Trump wins the national popular vote by 800,000 votes. This is a reflection of the fact that the Electoral College weights the popular vote of smaller and less densely populated states heavily, such that a vote cast in West Virginia is worth three times that of a vote cast in California. While that disparity might seem strangely arbitrary, to citizens in West Virginia, which has a per capita GDP of $38,567, it no doubt feels very fair that their votes should count more than those of their compatriots in California, who enjoy a per capita GDP of $61,924. In light of these facts we can see that in the 2016 election, the system as currently constituted has (or at least will be perceived as having) delivered a shocking victory to rural and industrial working-class voters over coastal elites; one that they would never have achieved in the absence of the Electoral College. For this reason, any move to eliminate this institution will be perceived as an attempt at the kind of "rigging" so loudly decried by the more acrimonious rhetoric of the recent campaign.

As votes continue to be counted and Hillary Clinton's lead in the popular vote widens, anger at the mechanics of the Electoral College will no doubt increase. In contemplating the situation, however, we must clearly understand that the elimination of the Electoral College cannot be taken for granted as an obvious "fix" to a quaintly arcane and obsolete institution. Reversion to the popular vote to decide presidential elections is and would be a drastically radical change to our larger social contract, one that materially impacts the interests of millions of citizens and significantly redistributes power across the political terrain. There are good philosophical arguments to be made against the "unfairness" of the Electoral College, but the historical experience of China demonstrates that there are likewise good practical and even ethical arguments on the other side of the issue. We must acknowledge and account for all of the consequences of changing the current system as we debate the issue moving forward, and undertake any such discussion in a spirit of extreme sensitivity to the interests of all groups that would be affected by any reform.



Thursday, November 17, 2016

#NotNormal

The last election leaves the majority of voters facing grave alternatives in responding to the election of Donald Trump. One understandable reaction has been to deny his legitimacy as president-elect altogether, as expressed by the slogan #NotmyPresident. Though there are valid political and moral arguments to support such a stance, it is, as I have written in previous posts, very unwise. We have now been through a series of presidential elections the outcomes of which have been decried as illegitimate by different sectors of the electorate. If this trend continues there is a strong possibility that it will eventually be impossible to convince a critical mass of the populace that the president wields legitimate authority at all, and the system will finally collapse.

This does not mean, however, that we are forced to simply accept the results of the most recent election fatalistically. Trump's transgressions and provocations demand resistance. Thus it is incumbent upon those who recognize the threat that Trump represents to find an idiom of resistance that will produce constructive results. In this regard, it is possible for us to accede to Trump's legitimacy as POTUS but to deny him the power to normalize the aberrant political values and practices that have come to embody "Trumpism."

Such resistance, begins, of course, with the defense of basic constitutional safeguards. If Trump should try to institute genuinely illiberal policies (for example, a mandate that Muslim-Americans register in a special database) opposition must be total and unequivocal: noncompliance and civil disobedience are the only response. But resistance should not and cannot await such blatant provocations. We must begin by opposing subtle shifts in values and practices that, even if Trump should refrain from material assaults on civil rights, would corrode the austerity, credibility, and coherence of our basic institutions. 

Trump's appointment of Stephen Bannon to the post of "chief strategist" exemplifies such a shift in standards. Bannon has (or does a credible job of pretending to have) a substantial world view, one that has elements that will appeal to working class voters and even to some progressive activists. But as editor of Breibart News, Bannon has associated with and given encouragement to some of the most toxic elements at the margins of American politics. The excuses he makes for the presence of anti-Semites, racists, homophobes and misogynists among his colleagues can only seem plausible and reassuring to someone who is not directly threatened by such figures. Moreover for someone who approved the publication of headlines such as "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive And Crazy," "Hoist It High And Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims A Glorious Heritage," "The Gun Control Movement's Human Shield" (about former Representative Gabby Giffords), and "Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew" to seek broad mainstream acceptance would have been unthinkable even a few weeks or months ago, much less an official position inside the house of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. No conscientious citizen should treat the presence of Bannon in the White House as tolerable, and we must exert relentless pressure on the Trump administration to repudiate him. This is not a call for petty "political correctness," but a defense of the fundamental standards of civic decency and fairness.

Even if we can prevent Trump from warping the gauge of civic virtue, the alteration that he has induced in the climate of political rhetoric will be difficult to redress. When President Obama declared that Mr. Trump was "unfit for office" many of us were (and still are) inclined to agree. But it cannot foster broad confidence in our institutions when, in the conventional course of the "peaceful transfer of power," voters see the same President that had declared Mr. Trump "unfit" reassure them that their future was secure in the new President-elect's hands.  This, moreover, is just an inkling of what we may have in store. When Trump declared his opponent the "most corrupt person ever to run for president" and President Obama the "founder of ISIS" he was a private citizen. When he runs for re-election, what might Mr. Trump say as POTUS, and how completely will it undermine his  credibility when it comes his turn to relinquish power?

We are compelled to concede that Donald J. Trump is legitimately President-elect of the United States. But we are not compelled to admit that any aspect of the values or practices he brings to that office are proper, tolerable or fair. As citizens we have to vigilantly observe Mr. Trump's conduct and ideals, and by word and deed we must make clear that his breaches of procedure, decorum, and decency are #NotNormal, and never will be. 




Monday, November 14, 2016

An Open Letter to President-elect Trump and His Supporters

To President-elect Donald J. Trump and My Fellow Americans Who Voted for Him:

         I write to you out of a concern for the country that we all love. The contest on November 8th was free and fair, and in any ordinary election year it would only be left to congratulate the winner, allow the transition team to work, and await January 20th. This is not an ordinary election year, however.

         Mr. Trump, I wish that I could congratulate you, but the manner in which you conducted your campaign precludes me from doing so. You are the first modern president-elect to have joked about killing journalists. Or to have toyed with the idea of forcing people to enter a special registry because of their religion. Or to have waxed nostalgic about "the good old days" when dissent was met with bludgeoning. Or to have declared a member of the judiciary incompetent to serve because of his ethnicity. Or to have threatened to have citizens' marriages declared invalid. With these and other inflammatory statements you excited the enthusiasm of one-half of the electorate, but in so doing you completely forfeited the trust of the other half. Your defenders might protest that these statements were only bluster, but now that they are the words of the future President of the United States, no one who might be affected by them can view them as amusing or benign. You have squandered the confidence that you will need from the people you hope to govern, and as a result the whole constitutional edifice in which you are about to play a key role is endangered.

        You have expressed skepticism of or derision for the many who have taken to the streets to protest since your election. This is a serious mistake; the fears and concerns of those protesters are undeniably legitimate. Secretary Clinton was right to say that her supporters owe you an "open mind," but the insistent calls of the protesters for fair treatment are the best response that one can expect from an open-minded citizen given the tone of your campaign and the nature of your provocations.

         In all honesty, Mr. Trump, because I have been a lifelong Democrat and oppose many of your stated policy goals, under the best circumstances the most you could have hoped for from me was a posture of "loyal opposition." As things stand, however, we are a long way from the best circumstances. Though I accede the legitimacy of your election and revere the office that you will hold, I cannot offer you the normal deference a citizen owes his or her President before you repudiate the bigotry and illiberality that was the hallmark of your campaign. Unless and until I have been given reason to believe that you will fulfill your constitutional role in good faith, without injury to the rights and freedoms of the groups that you threatened (Muslims, women, Latin@s, people of color, LGBTQ citizens) I must add my voice to the protesters now decrying your election.

        Though, in fairness, you have made some statements that were reassuring, they have not been enough. Your thanking of Secretary Clinton for her service and your televised call for your supporters to refrain from expressions of hatred both showed the proper spirit of reconciliation. But in the same way that you galvanized your supporters during the campaign with audacious gestures, you must find some dramatic signal of your determination to win back the trust of those you have alienated.

         In this regard you have gotten off to a bad start. Your appointment of Stephen Bannon, a man steeped in white supremacist, ethnic nationalist, and anti-Semitic politics, completely undermines the confidence of those you need to win over. A reversal of that decision would go a long way to establishing trust. Beyond this, some political sign of your determination to forge an independent path might force people to reassess their impression of you. If, for example, you were to recommend the confirmation of Merrick Garland as a Supreme Court Justice during the lame-duck session of Congress, this would project a willingness for fair compromise that might ease your opponents' fears.

       To my fellow Americans who voted for Donald Trump, I offer my unreserved congratulations. Your civic activism has garnered an historic and transformative victory, your feelings no doubt resemble my own in 2008 and 2012. I would only ask that you, like President-elect Trump, give serious consideration to the apprehensions of voters like me that were on the other side of the last election. Mr. Trump comes into his office under the greatest trust deficit of any president since the Civil War. It will take careful leadership on his part to insure that he can get around all of the obstacles that he has placed in his own way, and earnest citizenship on the part of everyone else to move the process of reconciliation forward to the point where his presidency has a chance to succeed. Though we are bound to disagree in the months and years ahead, if we proceed in the spirit of mutual respect and open communication, we can ensure the continued flourishing of the constitutional order that is our shared legacy as Americans and in which we are all blessed to participate.

               Sincerely,

               Andrew Meyer

Friday, November 11, 2016

Aboard the Wonkatania, Entering the Tunnel

There's no earthly way of knowing,
Which direction we are going....

            My brother, a lifelong Republican, posted these words from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Facebook on Tuesday night, as returns began to suggest that Donald J. Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States. The sentiment struck me as the most apt among many similar expressions of alarm and dismay from friends, colleagues, and family members that night and the next day. Whatever else might be said about this election, it is undeniably true that Donald J. Trump has left us in a state of profound uncertainty as to exactly what will happen when he becomes the captain of the ship of state on January 20.

Even his victory speech at 3 A.M. on November 9, while reassuring in tone and substance, was an object lesson in the erratic and volatile nature of his public persona. It was gracious of him to declare that, "Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country." But one could not be blamed for being confused by the contrast this posed to his statements of the previous Friday, when he declared that ""Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency of the United States." If he can swing so wildly in less than a week (and it must be stressed that this is only one of many such examples), we are unquestionably left guessing about what manner of Donald Trump will emerge in the time between now and January 20, much less how many different Trumps we might encounter in the days, weeks, and months after that.

While it is difficult to predict with any confidence exactly which way Trump will steer, a few clear inferences can be made from the substance and tone of his campaign rhetoric. The constant stream of invective that he let loose against Muslims, women, people of color, Latin@s, and others gives millions cause for anger and fear, and has given millions of others license to vent their darkest feelings. 

Thus, while I agree with Secretary Clinton that we owe Trump an "open mind," the best that one can expect from an open-minded citizen at this point is an urgent skepticism about his future actions. This anxiety is corroborated and exacerbated by the clear presence among his supporters, however small a minority of his coalition that they might be, of individuals and groups (e.g. David Duke, the KKK) that cherish racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic ideals.   Precisely because Trump's public persona is such a mercurial and enigmatic entity, the extremist elements of his coalition (who are left in as much uncertainty as the rest of us exactly what he plans to do) will expect and demand for President Trump to translate bigoted words into bigoted policy. 

All of this uncertainty leaves open the question of how those of us in the majority that voted against Donald Trump should respond to his victory. Calls for healing and reconciliation are understandable, but are premature. Trump comes into the presidency under the biggest trust deficit of any president-elect since the Civil War. Unless and until he closes that trust deficit, we must put constant pressure on him to ensure that the most destructive aspects of his campaign do not find their most malignant expression. We must march. We must protest. We must write letters. We must donate to organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU.

But at the same time that we make clear the political price Trump will pay for carrying his bigoted rhetoric into action, we must not forget Rule #1. We must not give way to panic. Violence at this juncture will only make the situation worse. Violence will drive Trump into the camp of the David Dukes and Alt-Right monsters who were so energized by his vicious campaign. 

I sympathize with the protesters carrying signs saying #Notmypresident, but they are being very foolhardy. Our best defense against Trump now is not to deny that he is the president, but to force him to act like one. If he is the president, then he is restrained by the Bill of Rights, and the independent judiciary, and the separation of powers, and a host of other mechanisms that can be used to prevent him from encroaching on and abrogating citizens' rights. If we refuse to acknowledge that he is the president, then he will not feel constrained to act like one, in which case he becomes a bully with an army, a secret police force, and big pile of nuclear weapons. 

Anger and fear are warranted, but panic is not. Civil disobedience should be reserved for use against infractions of the constitutional order and policy goals of the highest priority, and violence should be eschewed entirely. If Trump is determined to use his power in bad faith, the most effective strategy will be to call attention to his transgression of rules on which the security of all citizens, even his supporters, depends. If we begin from the premise that he is so illegitimate that any and all rules might (or should) be broken to obstruct him, we will induce a total collapse of the system through the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

If we assume for the moment that Trump can be persuaded to fulfill his constitutional role in good faith, the question remains as to what the most effective strategy of "loyal opposition" might be. In this respect Democrats should seriously reflect on the lessons of the last election. Though Trump's victory was obviously won, in part, through reprehensible tactics, it cannot be denied that some part of his support derived from a rejection of the neoliberal politics of the last 25 years. Working class and rural voters from states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania threw their support to Trump in the hope that any change to the status quo might improve their quality of life. These were constituencies that used to give their allegiance to the Democratic Party, and the failure to deliver policy solutions to ease the impact of globalization and recession drove these voters to abandon Democrats in this election cycle.

 As a result, we no longer have divided government. The GOP has control of both Congress and the White House, and we should be prepared for them to use that power to effect policy. Some might counsel that the Democrats should use what little power they have left, in the same manner as Republicans have done for the last six years, to obstruct all policy and prolong gridlock. That would be extremely unwise for several reasons.

Firstly, the Democrats' power has ebbed to such a low nadir that total obstruction is not likely to work. If all that stands between the GOP and the passage of new legislation is a Democratic Senate filibuster, Republicans will eventually eliminate the filibuster altogether. Even if they do not, the concentration of GOP power in the both the executive and legislative branches at both the state and federal level will allow them to steamroller over a Senate filibuster using executive orders, the budgetary process, and other governance "work-arounds."       

Secondly, the attempt at total obstruction is likely to come at a prohibitively high opportunity cost. Democrats will be forced to do triage to see what policy measures can be preserved in the face of the oncoming juggernaut. In that respect, the highest priority should be placed on the concerns and problems with the most severe long-term consequences. The clear winner on those terms is the issue of climate change, as a reversal of the measures taken by the Obama administration will have catastrophic effects for the global environment in the future. Democrats should fight a rear-guard action to preserve the Paris Climate Accord and other environmental measures, horse-trading tacit compliance, however painful and distressing, on other policy goals of the Trump administration (repealing the ACA and Dodd-Frank, renegotiating NAFTA).

Thirdly, allowing for the easing of gridlock is, counter-intuitively, the best strategy for overcoming the political disadvantages now faced by the Democratic Party. Obstruction worked well for the Republicans because they are a party ideologically committed to the Reaganesque dictum that government is always part of the problem, not the answer. Thus hobbling government's ability to improve people's lives reinforced the narrative on which the party mobilized its base. 

But Trump's lopsided electoral college victory was only made possible by drawing in the support of disaffected working class voters in regions that have been impacted by globalization, technological change, and the lingering impact of the Great Recession.  These voters have genuinely suffered, and they have been galvanized and excited by the prospect of change promised by a Trump administration. They will expect results, and like most people swept up in populist movements, their enthusiasm and patience will be short-lived. The only measures that will genuinely improve these poor and lower-middle-income voters' lives are those that have been the mainstay of Democratic policy goals for many years, like a raise in the minimum wage, expanded funding for higher education and worker retraining, and public investment in energy and infrastructure. If Democrats allow the policy machinery to move again, there are thus two possibilities. 

The first is that the Republicans use their legislative mandate to actually enact policies that Democrats have supported for years, hoping to take credit for the resulting good effects. If and when this should be the case, Democrats should join them (as Nancy Pelosi has offered to do with Trump's suggested infrastructure spending bill) on principle, as such policies stand to improve people's lives. Statesmanlike patriotism would not be the only reason to do so, however. 

A move like this on the part of the GOP is almost surely bound to backfire in political terms, or at the very least to have a wildly unpredictable impact at the polls. Voters are not so blindly and non-ideologically partisan that the GOP could get away with doing what it has told its base voters for years would amount to catastrophic malpractice. This would be especially true if GOP lawmakers actually raised the revenues needed to fund such programs. The resulting dissonance in Republican ranks would give Democrats ample opportunity to make gains in 2018 and 2020, especially as this scenario would provide a case study to prove the timeworn Democratic contention that government can be made to work for people.

The second, and more likely outcome of an end to gridlock will be that the Republicans will do what they have promised to do and what they have reliably done in the past: cut social programs, cut taxes (especially for the wealthy), and lower regulations. In the best case scenario, this will have the same results that it had during the presidency of George W. Bush: wage stagnation for the working and middle class, and windfall profits for corporations and wealthy investors. It is possible that Trump will successfully re-institute protectionist barriers to global trade, but without some robust government intervention to ameliorate the disruptive effects of such policies, it is unlikely that they will do much to improve workers' lives (if such robust interventions are undertaken see scenario 1, above). In this second scenario the white-hot enthusiasm of working class voters for the Trump Revolution will most likely transmute quickly to bitterness and disappointment. In either of these scenarios, the most probable political result of allowing the machinery of policy to work again would be to give the GOP just enough rope to hang itself.

Finally, refraining from total obstruction is the best long-term course, both for ameliorating the recent damage done by Trumpism to the larger political culture of the nation, and for laying to rest a political strategy that the GOP has used successfully for more than four decades. Trump scraped together his minority coalition through a combination of reality-TV shock antics and a deployment of the venerable "Southern Strategy" first developed by Lee Atwater and Richard Nixon. Constant successive breaches of the bounds of good taste, conventional courtesy, and even standards of moral decency kept people entertained and distracted during the 2016 campaign, preventing them from focusing on Trumpian liabilities like total ignorance and a complete lack of specific policy plans. Meanwhile, Trump exploited floating white anxiety about the election of the nation's first African-American president to sell voters a doomsday picture of an America vastly worse than empirical reality would attest, seizing upon anecdotal episodes and incidental data to confirm whites' suspicions that, with Barack Obama in the White House, something must be deeply wrong. This is not to minimize the very real pain of Rust Belt workers and rural farmers that have continued to suffer, but the flames of their discontent were further fueled, in part, by seeing their distress reflected back to them in middle- and upper-middle class white voters passing along the meme that, in spite of their own experience of recovery and regrowth, the country had "gone to hell."

Though these paired strategies delivered Trump a shocking electoral college victory, they are not likely to work again if gridlock ends. By placing such high-stakes bets and employing such hyperbolic rhetoric, Trump has written a loan note against the political good will and credulity of his working class supporters that will be very difficult to cover with actual results. If positive change is not swift and tangible, it will discredit Trump's claims that Barack Obama was uniquely responsible for recent hardships. 

Moreover, if the gridlock ends, Trump and his party will not be able to use the same reality-TV stunts to the degree he has in this cycle. It will be impossible to avoid a discussion of policy once the GOP has had a chance to put its preferred policies into effect. Even if, to the good fortune of the American people, the GOP chooses to enact policies that bear some good fruit, Democrats will be the clear winners in any return of the national discourse to matters of policy. The GOP will need some Democratic votes to clear ideological hurdles in search of policy success, thus Democrats will be able to take some credit for any successful measures. And once voters are reminded of the good that government can do, Democrats will be able to argue for further policy initiatives eschewed by the GOP that would be appealing to workers, like laws to support union membership and strengthen collective bargaining power.

There is no way to sugar-coat the moment of peril at which we stand on the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration. Through his reckless and unthinking use of hateful and irresponsible rhetoric, he has corroded the basic bonds of trust that a president-elect must foster and protect if he is to have any chance of successfully fulfilling his constitutional role at home and abroad. His defenders dismiss his attacks on women, Muslims, Latin@s, LGBTQ citizens and others as "bluster," but now that he is about to assume a mantle of enormous power every word he said is of course being taken deadly seriously by everyone concerned. His constant flow of invective and profanity was entertaining and made for good television, but in political terms it was the equivalent of playing with matches next to an open barrel of gasoline. Trump will have to tread very carefully if he is to overcome the obstacles he has put in his own way. If he fails, not only his own administration, but the entire constitutional system upon which he has put such egregious strain, could collapse catastrophically.

However Trump conducts himself, it is the responsibility of all of us who voted against him to hold him accountable and to monitor his moves. This election has changed many things, and we should be prepared for that. But it has not changed our rights and responsibilities as citizens. We will have to engage the political sphere under different conditions than most of us expected, but the basic task remains the same: guide the ship of state so that it ultimately takes us all to a better place for ourselves and our children.
        


Sunday, November 06, 2016

Why I'm with Her

In my last post before the election I would like to write about why I will be extremely proud to cast my vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton to be the 45th President of the United States. I have been a supporter of Secretary Clinton's since long before Donald Trump became the GOP nominee. I donated to her campaign during the Democratic primaries and voted to make her the nominee over Senator Bernie Sanders. If she wins the election on Tuesday it will be to the great good fortune of our nation and its people.

Though I understand the qualms of many of my friends on the left about Clinton, I cannot share them. Yes, she is a friend of corporate interests and Wall Street. But we have a political system that requires the building of broad coalitions across complex regional, social, and economic boundaries, thus it is not possible to completely eliminate the influence of corporate or financial interests in the negotiation of policy. For all her amity to corporate elites, Clinton has a proven track record of fighting for the interests of vulnerable groups: minorities, children, the working poor. She wants to make the system work more inclusively and has shown that she can do the hard political work necessary to achieve progressive change.

As for the caricature of Clinton as a uniquely corrupt malefactor, that is totally and obviously false. Clinton has lived in the public spotlight for three decades, she has been very transparent about her political and business dealings. If she had done one hundredth of what she is accused of, there would be overwhelming and irrefutable evidence to make Trump's "Access Hollywood" tape look like an "Our Gang" episode.

Hillary Clinton is committed to and shows obvious concern for issues that will be of vital importance in the near term. She will fight to arrest the course of climate change. She will make expanding economic opportunity a priority. Her record of past success during her time as First Lady and in the Senate holds out hope that she will make headway on these issues despite strong political headwinds.

The area that drew my support to Secretary Clinton early on was foreign policy. As Secretary of State, she was instrumental in the execution of policies that were most effective during the Obama administration: renewing diplomatic relations with Myanmar and Cuba, negotiating a halt to the Iran nuclear program. In the continuing crisis in Afghanistan and the Middle East, Clinton has been a voice in favor of a hard-nosed pragmatism that will be needed in the years ahead. Her support for "no-fly zones" in Syria exemplifies the kind of course-correction needed to help the US deal more effectively with the threat posed by groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram.

Hillary Clinton is knowledgeable, intelligent, and has demonstrated an almost inexhaustible reserve of political endurance. It is difficult to imagine any candidate that could have conducted this campaign as doggedly or strategically as she has done against the unique challenge posed by Donald Trump. I have every confidence in her leadership, and will be very pleased to have the opportunity to cast my vote for her on November 8th.

Friday, October 21, 2016

There's Got to Be a Morning After

It is a sobering thought that, whatever the outcome on November 8, on the morning of November 9 we will yet be a nation in which Donald J. Trump has held the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States. That fact alone will pose challenges for our country moving forward, and will continue to derail our political system unless citizens and political leaders rally to the cause of changing course. Even if our electoral process never again produces another Donald J. Trump, our institutions will progressively erode and eventually collapse unless we confront and redress cultural and social problems that Trumpism has exposed, created, or exacerbated.

The social problems exposed by the Trump phenomenon are fatally perilous and extraordinarily daunting. Though much (perhaps most) of Trump's support has derived from partisan inertia (in other words, many of the voters casting their ballot for Trump would have done so for any GOP candidate), and some of it is rooted in various forms of bias (racism, sexism, xenophobia), Trumpism would never have achieved the degree of traction it did if Trump himself had not spoken powerfully and appealingly to a core constituency of dispossessed and disenfranchised voters. The people of areas like the "Rust Belt," where globalization and automation destroyed the job market, and rural Appalachia, where already excruciating poverty was intensified by the Great Recession and the sequester; have been utterly failed by both government and the private sector. Though much of the country is slowly recovering from the disruption of 2008, many regions are in the grips of a steady decline that extends back decades, and that in the wake of the Great Recession has become a cripplingly vicious cycle of destruction and despair.

For these voters, many of whom are entering the political process for the first time in this election cycle, a vote for Donald Trump makes pellucid sense as a vote against a system by which they feel betrayed. Unless we can make our institutions work for everyone, the strife and damage produced by these tragic conditions will continue to undermine the foundations of the system in unpredictable but assuredly dramatic ways. Robust policy measures must be adopted so that economic vigor may be restored to or instilled in chronically impoverished communities. Some of the policies that are likely to be high on the Democratic Party's agenda, such as a rise in the minimum wage or expanded access to higher education, would constitute a move in the right direction.

But both parties would be unwise to ignore international trade and immigration as factors contributing to the woes of the working class, however vexed the discourse on these issues has become in the age of Trump. With complete sensitivity to the rejection of racism and xenophobia, all policies and regulations in these domains should be assessed for their impact on real wages. For example, it would be acceptable to either regularize the status of undocumented workers so that they may demand higher pay (a policy that would be especially effective in tandem with a raise in the minimum wage), or to impose harsh and consistently enforced penalties on employers that hire the undocumented (obviously, both of these policies could, perhaps should, be adopted at once), but it would be madness to assume that the electorate will tolerate an indefinite persistence of the status quo.

If moving to redress current conditions were our only worry, our circumstances would be critically dire. But the situation is exacerbated by impending developments certain to make all of these issues worse. Existing and developing technology will continue to drive globalization and automation in ways that will be difficult or impossible to counter with legislative measures. Take, for example, the automated cars currently being pilot-tested on the streets of Pittsburgh. If and when such vehicles go into mass-production and utilization, what will become of the 10 million Americans that are currently employed in some capacity as drivers? This kind of dislocation is not going to be manageable by a piecemeal programmatic approach. We are going to have to imagine and establish new organs and forms of government service and entertain radical changes in our social contract in order to meet these challenges. A cabinet-level Department of Employment Transition or a new social welfare system such as a Universal Basic Income (or both) will have to be instituted to forestall crisis.

As serious as the social problems exposed by Trump's candidacy are, they can at least be engaged through concrete government policies. In this sense, the cultural problems exposed or exacerbated by Trumpism are perhaps even more challenging. Trump has trivialized and vulgarized our national politics in a way that is corrosive of the civic spirit necessary to the persistence of our system. His attacks on the credibility of basic institutions such as the judiciary or the electoral process undermine faith in democracy. Unfortunately, Trump is only the worst and most recent malefactor in a process that has been ongoing for many years. Trump could not have trivialized our politics to the degree that he has unless we had all been complicit in trivializing our culture more generally before he ever hit the campaign trail. It was no accident that a reality TV star should rise to prominence in our celebrity-obsessed era, or that a huckster and sensationalist should command hundreds of hours of free air time in a media culture driven by commercialism and the inerrant demand of the audience to be entertained. Even beyond the general shallowness and laziness of our recent intellectual habits, the persistent march of the discourse into further and further recesses of postmodern irony has laid the groundwork for Trump's rise. No one should be shocked when an electorate that gets most of its news from comedians (from both Coulter and Limbaugh on the right or Stewart and Maher on the left) is easily persuaded that basic guarantees like the First Amendment are laughably disposable.

Even more distressing than the damage done by trivialization and vulgarization to the austerity of our institutions is the impact they have had on our values. The reduction of serious issues to partisan and politicized rhetorical contests has debased the impact of crucial ideals. The logical tools to counter the real threat that Trumpism poses to racial equality were blunted by the hyperbolic rhetoric leveled at past candidates such as John McCain or Mitt Romney. The urgent struggle to counter the vile misogyny embodied by Donald Trump himself is impeded by past partisan efforts to deflect criticism from the misogyny of Bill Clinton. Unless political leaders on all parts of the spectrum are willing to draw a line and publicly defend basic principles, even if they conflict with partisan interests, the debasement of our political life (and the accompanying decay of our institutions) will continue long after November 8.

Exactly what can be done systemically to set our culture on a new course is an exquisitely difficult question. I personally feel that the "low hanging fruit" in our condition of cultural vulnerability is the generally prevailing state of civic ignorance. The statistical number of Americans who don't know how many branches of government there are, or the name of the current Vice President, is shockingly high. If we could persuade people to learn more, they might think more, and if they thought more, they might take the principles and ideals at the heart of our system more seriously. I wrote previously about a policy proposal that might engage this problem, providing monetary incentives for students to learn more in order to earn federal college tuition assistance.

Whether or not we were to adopt such a program as I propose, one thing is certain. This election has done real and lasting damage to the fabric of our Republic, and as happy as we will all be to see it resolved on November 8, our cause for relief will be slight. The harm that has been done will have to be repaired, and the approaching challenges will have to be faced. The real work of fixing what has gone wrong begins the morning of November 9, and is sure to continue for some time to come.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Trump, Disqualified

     As we anticipate the first debate tonight between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I would like to plead the case as to why Trump  goes into this contest already disqualified from being the President of the United States. I do not mean "disqualified" in a narrowly technical or legal sense, but in a logically objective one, the way someone who had spent a year posting on Facebook how desperately she wanted the Patriots to win the Superbowl would be logically disqualified from serving as referee for that game.
    My judgment is not rooted in some estimation of Trump's character or state of knowledge. Trump may be a much finer, more decent man than the one he plays on TV, and he may know much more than he lets on. He obviously has engaged in some corrupt business practices, but whether or not that should disqualify him from the presidency is an arguable question. Rather, he has disqualified himself by a number of statements he has made and positions to which he has committed himself over the course of this campaign. He stands in such stark breach of the political norms of our system that he can no more reasonably fill the office of President than a publicly rabid Patriots fan could fill the position of referee.
    An old Chinese adage states that "racing chariots cannot chase down one's own words," and in making certain utterances Donald Trump has shaped his public persona in ways that make it utterly incommensurate with the office of President. He is the proverbial square peg pleading to be jammed into a round hole. Indeed, this metaphor is much too quaint. More apt would be to compare him to a virus, which if introduced into our system by being given the office he seeks, will cause breakdown and dysfunction on an unpredictable scale.
    Below I've listed what I deem to be the six most egregiously disqualifying statements made by Donald Trump over the course of the campaign, with my explanation as to why they are so problematic. This is obviously a very partial list that could be greatly expanded, and there is room to quibble about their order of importance. I offer them as food for thought as people prepare to watch the debate:

6) "If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes." Asked whether he would defend our Baltic NATO allies against a Russian attack, NY Times interview, June 20, 2016.
   Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia joined NATO in 2004, over the strong objections of Russia. These Baltic states are in a similar relationship to Russia as the Ukraine- large ethnic Russian minorities live in each, and each nation disputes control of some territory with their larger neighbor. The potential of an outbreak of hostilities along these frontiers is thus very high, and no one who seeks to be Commander in Chief should EVER leave the Russians in any doubt that we stand ready to make good on our commitment to defend our NATO allies, so as to prevent the Russians from doing anything that might snowball quickly into a World War. In making this statement Donald Trump has guaranteed that the Baltic region will be radically destabilized as soon as he takes the oath of office, and he will never be able to conduct diplomacy concerning this region or the affairs of the NATO alliance more generally with the baseline confidence that a new president requires from allies and other counterparts.

5) “26,000 unreported sexual assults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?” Tweet, May 8, 2013.
    Aside from the doubt that this casts on Trump's general capacity as Executive to ensure the 14th Amendment's guarantee of the "equal protection of the law" with respect to issues of gender, this quote taints Trump's credibility as Commander in Chief in relation to the soldiers serving under him. How can soldiers expect him to serve as a fair broker in resolving this chronic problem if this is his professed perspective on its cause? How can they trust that they have his respect if this is his general estimation of their character?
  
4) “I am prepared to — if they’re not going to take care of us properly...” On whether he was prepared to see South Korea and Japan develop nuclear weapons, CNN, May 4, 2016.
     The entire balance of power in Northeast Asia has been predicated on the demilitarization of Japan and the security partnerships between the US and Japan and South Korea, respectively. For Trump to signal that he is willing to alter that balance of power invites mayhem and discord. The Korean War was in part set in motion by the North Korean leadership's misinterpretation of official pronouncements coming out of the US. With this kind of loose talk Trump tempts fate.

3) “We should have kept the oil. Now we go in, we knock the hell out of them, take the oil, we thereby take their wealth. They have so much money.” Speaking about Iraq on Fox and Friends, August 11, 2015.
        Trump's repeatedly stated intention to take Iraq's oil undermines any and all credibility that may remain in our Mid East policy. Millions of Middle Easterners are already highly suspect of the motives of the US, this will confirm them in their worst suspicions. If Trump actually carried through on the policy he would make us a bandit nation in breach of international law. Even if he never acts on this declaration, his simply having made it will cast a shadow on everything the US does in that region from the moment he is sworn in until doomsday, as every president that succeeds him would be viewed through the lens of this pronouncement. Even staunch allies such as Kuwait and Bahrain would be reticent to cooperate with us, out of fear that their assets would be targeted as plunder.

2) “He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall.” Explaining why Judge Curiel could not fairly try a lawsuit concerning Trump University, June 3, 2016, interview on CNN.
      This statement will forever poison Donald Trump's relationship with both the Latino community and the judiciary. For a man who seeks to be the Executive to call into question the competency of a sitting judge because of his ethnicity is beyond the pale, it fundamentally undermines his capacity to serve as a functional agent within the system of checks and balances that the Founders designed. For an agent of one branch of government to arbitrarily question the legitimacy of officials of the other branches of government is terribly corrosive to the credibility of the system as a whole. No one who wanted to serve the system in good faith should ever have indulged in this kind of invective. 

1) "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." December 7, 2015, campaign press release.
      In principle, this is a breach of the "no test of religion" clause of Article VI of the Constitution and of the First Amendment's prohibition against "the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion [or] impeding the free exercise of religion." This is such an egregious attack on the foundations of our Republic that it alone immediately disqualifies Trump from seeking the office of President. Beyond that, as I have written before, this statement is such a profound breach of the trust of the larger Islamic community that it would effectively hobble Trump in his relations with 1/5 of the world. Even if he repudiated this statement entirely and apologized for it, he would be met with mistrust and hostility in any country that had a significant Muslim population, making the most mundane aspects of foreign relations insuperably difficult. 
      Any one of these statements would have disqualified Trump from serving as President. If he knew how problematic they would be and made them anyway, he demonstrates a contempt for the office that precludes him serving it with any modicum of authority. If he did not know that making these statements would undermine his administration, he manifests a lack of competency that likewise disqualifies him from serving. Questions about whether Trump is a racist or a sexist are interesting, but their relevance to this contest are negated by the evidence of Trump's own words. On the basis of what Trump himself has said, he cannot serve as President of the United States. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Millenials, If You Believe in Global Warming, Vote for Hillary (Not Gary Johnson)

A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Hillary Clinton losing support among younger voters. In that survey, though Clinton enjoys the support of 41% of the electorate nationally, only 31% of voters aged 18-34 give Clinton as their choice in a four-way race. These younger voters are not rallying to Donald Trump, he exhibits a comparable gap between his national support and that among younger voters.  Rather, it would seem that a large segment of the youth vote that helped carry Barack Obama into the White House is contemplating defecting to Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee. He polls 29% of voters aged 18-34, a number far above his aggregate support of 13% among the national electorate at large.

This is counter-intuitive, as polls consistently show the environment to be among the concerns that most motivate younger voters, especially the crisis of global warming. Gary Johnson has managed to create the superficial impression that he is an environmentally conscious candidate. This is in part a function of his personal biography- he is an inveterate outdoorsman and seasoned mountain climber. He has suggested in interviews that he might be open to a "carbon fee" to reduce emissions. But a Johnson presidency, if it ever happened, would set back the fight against global warming by decades.

The Libertarian Party that nominated Johnson is a hotbed (no pun intended) of anti-global warming skepticism. A recent survey taken by the party of its own members found that a plurality agree with Donald Trump that "this whole global warming thing is a hoax." In his report of the survey's results, the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party, Wes Benedict, noted, "My natural inclination is to distrust politicians' proposals that grow government. I also distrust the scientists who live off government grants and benefit from generating hysteria over global warming." His attitude exemplifies the ideological stance of the party as a whole.

For all his attempts at bamboozling younger voters into believing otherwise, Gary Johnson is very much in lockstep with his party on the issue of global warming. He immediately drew intense fire from his co-partisans for his expressed willingness to consider a "carbon fee," and began backpedaling on that pronouncement. More troubling, when asked  in an LA Times interview whether he supports the Paris Agreement, the first effective international protocol that unites the world in the fight against global warming, Gary Johnson predictably dodged the question. His answer gave no position on the accord itself, only some pablum about the power of market forces to protect the environment that might have been lifted from the Libertarian Party platform.

Hillary Clinton suffers from the perception, during a time in which voters on all parts of the political spectrum want to see significant change, that she represents continuity. But on the issue of global warming this conventional wisdom overlooks the fact that we are in the midst of a profound change in US environmental policy that must be fostered and perpetuated if ecological catastrophe is to be averted. The Obama administration invested enormous effort and political capital into negotiating the Paris Agreement, a hugely significant reversal of the fossil fuel-friendly policy of the George W. Bush administration. For all the criticisms of this accord as not having gone far enough, it is the most robust and effective global policy response as yet formulated to the problem of global warming. Given the time frame in which action must be taken, the Paris Agreement is the best and last foundation on which the world has a chance to build moving forward. If the Agreement were scrapped now (say, because a President Johnson or a President Trump reneged on America's commitment to the accord), there is little chance that an effective response, coordinating all of the nations that would need to sign on board, could ever be negotiated again. In this sense, for an environmentally conscientious voter a vote for Hillary Clinton, who will affirm and build on the Paris Agreement, is wiser even than a vote for the Green Party nominee Jill Stein, who effectively advocates jettisoning the accord and going back to the drawing board, a recipe for political disaster.

Millenial voters are those for whom the issue of global warming is most urgent, as they will live to see the worst impacts of environmental degradation if the greenhouse effect is not redressed. For a millenial to vote for Gary Johnson is a vote against one's own interests on a scale that is difficult to exaggerate. Hillary Clinton may be a career politician and a member of the Washington establishment, but in this election cycle, for someone concerned about the mounting crisis of global warming, she is the only choice for President of the United States.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Call Bibi's Bluff

On Friday, September 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a short video on YouTube entitled "No Jews." In it, he asks why the presence of Jews on the West Bank (he uses the nomenclature preferred by Gush Emunim settlers, "Judea Samaria") should be considered an obstacle to peace, and accuses Palestinian leaders of pursuing "ethnic cleansing." He compares the Jews living in the Occupied Territory to Arabs living in Israel, noting that "no one would seriously claim that the nearly two million Arabs living inside Israel [are] an obstacle to peace." The implicit rhetorical question is superficially persuasive: if Israel does not require that two million Arabs depart its borders, why would the Palestinian Authority need the 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank to relocate?

This rhetorical question of course overlooks the most salient comparison to be made between Arabs living in Israel and Jews living in the West Bank: they are all citizens of Israel. They thus are all enfranchised to participate in the political affairs of a sovereign nation, unlike the Arab residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu's short diatribe thus elides the heart of the issue. West Bank settlers are not a problem chiefly because they threaten peace, but because they obstruct Palestinian sovereignty (in a way that Israeli Arabs do not, in Israel's case). In this latter respect it is not the fact that they are Jews which is at issue, but the fact that they are the citizens of a sovereign power that does not formally lay claim to or accept ultimate responsibility for the land on which or the people among whom they live. 

To dwell on the faultiness of Netanyahu's reasoning, however, is to fall into the rhetorical trap that he clearly wishes to set. He expects that all of his political opponents, on hearing his glib and audaciously specious pronouncements, will become apoplectic in voicing the reasons why Jews must of course depart the Occupied Territories. He knows that the aesthetics of this exchange favor him. No one looks good when calling for the expulsion of Jews, especially when those calls are fueled by indignation over the mendacity of one's interlocutor.

In making this rather brilliantly Trumpesque rhetorical sally, however, Netanyahu has inadvertently set a trap for himself much more ironclad than any he has laid out for his opponents. If he seriously, in his position as Prime Minister of Israel, wants to lay down a marker committing the Israeli state to the moral imperative of allowing Jewish settlers to remain on the West Bank, the international community should call his bluff. If forcing Jews to leave the West Bank would be ethnic cleansing, then all world leaders, those of Israel included, should feel compelled to do whatever is necessary to let them stay. 

In this regard, who can doubt that the most egregious motivator of ethnic cleansing on the West Bank today is the de facto state of apartheid driving a wedge between its Jewish and Arab residents? If the world hopes to prevent ethnic cleansing, nothing is more imperative than the immediate establishment of Palestinian statehood. Only when Jews and Arabs on the West Bank are all citizens enjoying a sovereign franchise will the risk of ethnic cleansing be averted.

There is no reason that Jews could not continue to live in that future Palestinian state, either as naturalized citizens or as resident aliens holding permits from their host government. As long as they remained law-abiding and paid taxes into the Palestinian fisc, then as Netanyahu suggests they ought to be welcome. Pragmatically such a plan would face challenges. The residents of Ofer might violently oppose living in any state that is not the holy Jewish kingdom they envision, and radicals on the Palestinian side might try to attack their Jewish neighbors in order to incite an Israeli-Palestinian war. But the idea that four million Palestinians must be kept forever stateless and disenfranchised in order to accommodate the comfort and preferences of 400,000 Jews is as ridiculous as asserting that....well, as asserting that ethnic cleansing is the only path to peace.

If Bibi insists that the relocation of Jews living in the Occupied Territories would be ethnic cleansing, then let him put his money where his mouth is. Let Israel commit the political and economic capital needed to avert such a moral outrage. With sufficient funds and human resources, Israel could facilitate the safety and security of the Israeli residents of the West Bank in the wake of occupation. Palestinian statehood now! It is the only way to avert the catastrophe of ethnic cleansing against which Prime Minister Netanyahu so sagely warns us.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What is Aleppo?


The cease-fire in the Syrian civil war brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov opens a new chapter in American foreign policy. This is not to suggest that the cease-fire itself will necessarily prove strategically consequential in the long sweep of the conflict. It may ultimately be as fragile as previous attempts to arrest the destructive course of this interminable war. But the terms of the ceasefire itself, and its provisions for intelligence-sharing and "joint targeting" between the U.S. and Russia, represent a fundamental shift in the American response to the evolving conditions of the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.

In the early days of the Arab Spring the Obama administration adopted a posture of proactive support for the forces of political liberalization in the Arab world, and unequivocal opposition to those leaders determined to use coercion and terror as a means to stay in power. The high point of this stance was embodied by the "mission to protect civilians" undertaken by NATO in the face of Libyan leader Muammar Gadafi's imminent slaughter of opposition groups headquartered in Benghazi.

That strong stance against state terror and in support of liberalization has progressively eroded in the years since the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens in 2012, and is finally extinguished for good and all by the terms of the current ceasefire in Syria. Though this might seem like an extreme claim, brief contemplation of the agreement and its consequences makes the point clear. For example,  the ceasefire unconditionally includes groups like Hezbollah that support the Assad regime under its umbrella, while tasking elements of the Free Syrian Army to physically disengage from units of the Al-Qaeda affiliated Levant Conquest Front (formerly known as Al-Nusra) in order to enjoy the ceasefire's protections. With Russian and U.S. forces agreeing to strike consensual targets on intelligence gathered by both nation's security services, it is virtually inevitable that U.S. warplanes, acting on Russian intelligence, will eventually conduct bombing raids against Free Syrian Army forces that have been trained and equipped by the U.S. No Syrian can credibly be expected to believe American protests that "Assad must go" in the wake of such an event. Thus, in essence, the ceasefire cedes control of the political agenda being pursued by foreign brokers in the Syrian conflict to Moscow.

This strange passivity on the part of our current leaders in Washington D.C. is echoed by the state of political discourse in the ongoing presidential election campaign. When asked what he would do about Aleppo, the Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson (former Governor of New Mexico), notoriously asked, "And what is Aleppo?" The fact that polls do not indicate he will pay much of a political price for this gaffe would seem to suggest that the broader American electorate is paying as little attention to the situation in Syria as Johnson himself. More tellingly, Johnson's proposed "solution" to the Syrian crisis (when he eventually became clear as to what was being asked), that the US should "join hands with Russia...to diplomatically bring that to an end," is virtually identical to the path already being blazed by the Obama administration. There thus seems to be a general dearth of urgent or creative thinking about the Syrian crisis within the American political establishment at large.

In stumbling upon his verbal misfire Johnson has inadvertently given voice to a question that all Americans, indeed all conscientious global citizens, arguably should contemplate.  Viewing the photo of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, drawn by rescue workers from the rubble of his family's apartment that had been destroyed by a Syrian government air raid, we should all have pause to ask ourselves, "What is Aleppo?" That photo brought to my mind Picasso's famous artistic invocation of Guernica. In the same way that the bombing of Guernica in 1937 was a sign, ignored by the democracies of that time, of the rising tide of fascism and the destructiveness of the approaching World War, the suffering of Aleppo is an embodiment of forces that will continue to roil the world if the democratic nations of our own time do not effectively respond.

The current outlook is admittedly bleak, but it does not need to remain so. At this low point, even a change in the conversation about Syria would constitute progress. Secretary Clinton, whose candidacy has become mired in petty scandals and rhetorical quagmires, could seize the opportunity to refocus the presidential campaign on genuine matters of policy. She is known to have supported a different course in Syria in the past, one that committed the US more robustly to opposition against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. She has refrained from highlighting this aspect of her record out of deference to President Obama, but at this juncture she is unlikely to successfully turn the conversation toward matters of policy unless she can highlight some way in which she plans to depart from the current administration. Since that is true in any case, it makes pellucid good sense to advocate an independent course in Syria, as it would serve the dual purpose of revitalizing her campaign and raising consciousness about a problem that is of vital importance to the security of the entire world.

In the most narrow factual sense, Secretary Clinton does not need to be asked "what is Aleppo?" But in a more abstract, existential sense, the question stands out very saliently. What is Aleppo? Is it a warning? An omen? An indictment? A human and moral catastrophe? Aleppo is all of these things, and more. Unless a leader like Secretary Clinton can summon the courage to focus our attention on this question, we will not like the answers that time and history eventually bring back to us.

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.