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 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.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Doctrine, Practice, Religion, and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Come Together, Right Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Thank You Khizr and Ghazala Khan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Equivalency Con

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 04, 2016

Heroism in Dhaka

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Trumpism and Orlando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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