Monday, December 01, 2008

Obama and Israel

President-elect Obama's choices for his national security team suggest that will he adopt a gradual and cautious posture toward changes of course in foreign policy. One arena in which he would be well-advised to embrace an early proactive engagement, however, is U.S.-Israeli relations. Until its very waning days the Bush administration treated this relationship with what it no doubt perceived to be "benign neglect," ignoring the Palestinians and offering no suggestions to or critiques of Israel's Kadima government. The result has been a totally moribund peace process and an exacerbation of instability throughout the Middle East.

The situation needs saving badly, and a solution will not come quickly or easily. Much time and effort will have to be spent working back to the point at which the peace process stalled eight years ago, so even minimal forward motion toward genuine peace is a distant prospect. If the new administration begins work on day one, there is some small hope that progress could be achieved in a second term.

Unfortunately, U.S.-Israeli relations is an area in which the President-elect's disposition toward caution might be highly intensified, even, perhaps, to the point of paralysis. Throughout the election campaign, relations between Obama and some elements of the American Jewish community remained strained. Questions about Obama's past associations and their associations played to visceral fears of anti-Semitism. Liberal Israelis are excited about Obama's election and look toward a renewed and robust U.S. effort in support of a two-state solution. They imagine a revived commitment to bilateral policy-implementation with the Palestinian Authority and an opposition to ultra-orthodox settlers who impede plans for Palestinian sovereignty. Obama may be reluctant to take even steps far short of such as these, however, for fear that any moves in support of Palestinian statehood will be interpreted by American Jews as confirmation of their darkest suspicions, unleashing a political firestorm that will impede reelection hopes in 2012.

One can only hope that this latter scenario will not come to pass, and that Obama's Israel policy will more closely approximate the hopes of liberal Israelis than the inertia which might appease suspicious American Jews. One effective measure that Obama might take in circumventing the political problems he faces at home is to delegate the task of Arab-Israeli peace to a trusted and capable proxy. The natural choice in this regard would be former president Bill Clinton. Clinton came closest of any outside intermediary toward brokering a stable two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, and the agreement to which he brought Yassir Arafat and Ehud Barak outlines the basic parameters of what is most likely the best achievable deal for all sides.

If Clinton were made minister plenipotentiary for Mideast peace, with his own staff and budget (under the supervision of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), the sheer prestige, credibility, and celebrity power that he brought to the table might go a long way toward jump-starting the peace process again. According to his own memoirs, the failure to reach a long-term resolution in Israel-Palestine is one of the deepest regrets Clinton harbors concerning his own legacy, thus in Clinton's surrogacy Obama could harness not only talent and intellect but a haunted yearning for redemption. Finally, the credibility that Clinton enjoys with all segments of the U.S. population would buy the Obama administration the political cover it needs to pursue a robust and proactive Israel policy.

Whether or not to delegate U.S.-Israel policy to a surrogate is a tactical question to which there are many possible answers. The larger strategic issue leaves no room for doubt, however. If Obama hopes to enhance the global position or preserve the domestic security of the U.S., he can not treat U.S.-Israel relations with the same degree of neglect as his predecessor.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Plumbing Joe the Plumber

At last night's debate, John McCain unveiled a new line of attack against Barack Obama, the "Joe the Plumber" offensive. The plumber in question is Joe Wurzelbacher, a resident of Holland, Ohio who posed a question to Obama on the campaign trail this Sunday. Joe was concerned that under Obama's tax plan, a business he plans to purchase that has revenues of $250,000-280,000 dollars would have its taxes raised. The entire exchange was caught on camera, Obama goes through the specifics of his tax plan with Joe in rather extensive detail. In the end he suggests that, with capital gains cuts and other small-business incentives built into Obama's plan, Joe may actually see his taxes cut, though he could not guarantee that without looking at the particulars of Joe's business.

All of this might have been less than a footnote to history, except that Obama uttered three words which are a lightning rod of American political discourse: "spread the wealth." A cursory survey of the blogosphere and pennings of the commentariat reveals that these remarks of Obama's will be among the most misquoted in the annals of American politics. Republicans will hammer away at these three words to craft them into a singular message: "Obama wants to take your hard-earned money away and give it to other people."

This kind of rhetoric is always good for stirring up partisan anger. It bears no relation to what actually passed between Obama and Joe Wurzelbacher on the campaign trail in Ohio, however. Obama never told Joe that he wanted to "spread his wealth around." If you watch the video and listen carefully to the exchange, the context in which the three dread words are uttered is this:

OBAMA: My attitude is, if the economy is good for folks from the bottom up, it's going to be good for everybody. If you've got a plumbing business, you're going to be better off if you've got a whole bunch of customers who are going to pay to hire you. Right now the economy is so pinched that business is bad for everybody, and I believe that when we spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.

So there you have it. Obama is not talking about taking Joe's money away and giving it to those in need, he is talking about spreading purchasing power to a broader segment of the economy so that service providers like Joe will have an expanded revenue base. This makes good economic sense, and is about as "socialist" as a BLT with cheese is kosher.

Mr. Wurzelbacher has evidently, in subsequent interviews, decried Obama's ideas as socialist and detrimental to the American dream (though, it is interesting to note, as of this writing he has yet to endorse John McCain). Joe is an appealing and likable figure, and it would not surprise me if this fifteen minutes of fame translates into a career move from plumbing to politics. I think that John McCain's attempt to use Joe as a political icon will ultimately backfire, however.

Some people, like Joe himself, will watch his encounter with Obama and come away with the impression of insidious socialism. My guess is, however, that if the video of Obama's conversation with Joe Wurzelbacher gets the airplay it should, it will reinforce the positive impressions that the electorate has been building about Obama himself. Here is a man who, as of Sunday, had been on the campaign trail for a grueling two years, enduring constant attacks to his judgment and character. Confronted with a direct and challenging question about his policy he was not irritated or dismissive, but candid, earnest, and respectful. He addresses Joe's concerns with rigorous detail and minimum rhetoric, every inch the statesman who is sensible of his personal accountability to the voter. If that is not the kind of person we should have as our president, I do not know who is.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Same-Sex Marriage as a Civil Right

The decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage is a welcome step forward in the struggle to advance the cause of American civil rights. Though it has already (and predictably) been attended by conservative complaints about "legislation from the bench," the decision is in the best tradition of constitutional jurisprudence and faithful to our nation's most basic values. This was noted most forcefully by historian Joseph Ellis (New York Times, February 29, 2004) in the wake of a parallel verdict by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Of the principles encoded in that state's constitution by its author, John Adams, Ellis wrote:

[L]ike Jefferson's more famous formulation of the same message, Adams framed the status of individual rights in absolute and universal terms. Certain personal freedoms were thereby rendered nonnegotiable, and any restrictions on those freedoms were placed on the permanent defensive. At the very birth of the republic, in effect, an open-ended mandate for individual rights was inscribed into the DNA of the body politic, with implications that such rights would expand gradually over time.

In 1848, for example, the women at Seneca Falls cited Jefferson's magic words to demand political equality for all female citizens. In 1863 Lincoln referred to the same words at Gettysburg to justify the Civil War as a crusade, not just to preserve the Union, but also to end slavery. In 1963 Martin Luther King harked back to the promissory note written by Jefferson to claim civil rights for blacks. Now the meaning of the mandate has expanded again, this time to include gay and lesbian couples wishing to marry. With all the advantages of hindsight, it now seems wholly predictable that America's long argument would reach this new stage of inclusiveness.

In Ellis' formulation, the recognition of same-sex marriage rights is an organic development of the intrinsic evolutionary trajectory of our ongoing American Revolution. This assertion finds corroboration in the work of Gordon S. Wood, who wrote in his masterful The Radicalism of the American Revolution:

The republican revolution was the greatest utopian movement in American history. The revolutionaries aimed at nothing less than a reconstitution of American society. They hoped to destroy the bonds holding together the older monarchical society-kinship, patriarchy, and patronage-and to put in their place new social bonds of love, respect, and consent. (page 229)

The radicalism of the American Revolution was to celebrate and give priority to all forms of self-definition and social station rooted in personal autonomy and freedom of choice. Institutions that kept the individual locked into hierarchical structures beyond his or her control-the monarchy, the nobility, the established church-were rejected in favor of liberal safeguards that empowered people to determine their own place in the community and the world. Among the institutions most impacted by these revolutionary currents was the family. Membership in one's natal family was not a matter of personal choice, and thus not only did family ancestry diminish in importance in the revolutionary American society, but a whole series of systemic reforms were embraced that decreased the power of the family over the individual. Consequently, marriage increased in importance as a foundation of one's social and civic identity. Marriage is the only kinship relation that is truly elective, thus marriage has evolved in American law and politics as the paramount familial bond- surpassing all others in intimacy and legal cogency. No U.S. official or institution would allow two spouses to be kept apart by their parents or siblings, for this would be to privilege an involuntary relationship over one forged by a couple's own free will.

Conservative critics typically complain that the legalization of same-sex marriage will "alter" the age-old definition of marriage that has remained unchanged for eons. This is pure fallacy, however. Marriage has been evolving profoundly and constantly within our society and as a result of our republican Revolution. The very fact that the marriage bond in America is first and foremost forged by each spouse's declaration of intent (the fabled words "I do"), and that it can be undone by a reversal of that same intent (among the earliest developments in American family law was a liberalization of the institution of divorce) marks a radical break with the manner in which marriage operated as an institution for most of human history. This principle, moreover, has not been a constant in American history, but has evolved by stages and degrees as our republic has developed. As recently as 1993 spousal rape was not considered a prosecutable crime in many states, a vestige of the old, illiberal doctrine that marriage was a bond rooted in procreational biology rather than mutual affection and consent. The recognition of the rights of same-sex couples to enter the marital bond embodies the same imperative that has impelled the evolution of American marriage as an institution throughout the nation's history: the preservation of individual dignity and personal autonomy (in the words of the Declaration of Independence, the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness").

The most recent decision in Connecticut is a progressive unfolding of this imperative, but it will no doubt engender vehement resistance. Unfortunately, this year's Democratic presidential candidates are committed to the shopworn triangulation that opposes same-sex marriage but embraces "civil unions." At this late hour it is unrealistic to expect Barack Obama and Joe Biden to flip-flop on this issue, and economic issues so overwhelm the discourse of this electoral cycle that consideration of same-sex marriage is not likely to achieve much traction. Political tidal forces are bringing this issue to a head, however, and it will not long be possible for politicians on either side of the aisle to prevaricate. It can only be hoped that Democrats will stop running from their political convictions in this regard, and will embrace the position that clearly occupies the downhill slope of history: that same-sex marriage is a civil right, and one that should be safeguarded for all citizens throughout our American Union.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

McCain, Vietnam, and Pakistan

The difference between John McCain and Barack Obama over foreign policy toward Pakistan has generated much press coverage of late. It was revisited in last week's debates, and has received new vitality this week from video showing Senator McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, agreeing with Obama that U.S. forces should wage attacks against Islamist militants across the Pakistani frontier. McCain's campaign has trumpeted this dispute as exemplary of Obama's inexperience and naïveté, but it is more indicative of McCain's own tone-deafness on and ahistorical sense of foreign policy.

The counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is failing because it is caught in one of the oldest strategic traps in military history. When an insurgent force can exploit the frontier zone between two jurisdictional authorities as a safe haven, it achieves massive leverage over its counterinsurgent opponents. Any student of Chinese history is aware that this pattern played itself out repeatedly through successive eras. A rebel force would lodge itself at the frontier between two or more provinces and nimbly jump back and forth across that boundary. When authorities in one province were mobilized to fight the rebels it would withdraw to the periphery of a neighboring province to replenish and recuperate. Because coordination between provincial authorities was poor, and the peripheral areas of provinces were generally sparsely penetrated by official personnel, rebel groups could survive this way for decades. This strategy was exploited effectively by the Nien (1851-1868) rebels in the late Qing dynasty and again by Communist guerillas against the KMT in the first half of the 20th century, to name just two instances.

It is ironic that John McCain would not recognize this pattern in present-day Afghanistan, because another classic example of the use of this strategy to defeat a counterinsurgency was the war that so shaped McCain's own character and outlook, the Vietnam War. Viet Cong and NVA opponents of the Republic of South Vietnam were free to operate back and forth across the frontiers of Cambodia and North Vietnam, placing U.S. and ARVN counterinsurgent forces at a crippling disadvantage. McCain is fond of repeating U.S. soldiers' pleas to "let us win" in Iraq, making the explicit comparison to Vietnam. He insists, however, that he would tie the hands of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in precisely the manner that insured defeat in Vietnam.

I am not suggesting that the war in Vietnam could have been won had the U.S. adopted a more "hands free" strategy. Such a strategy could not be pursued in Vietnam without risking a global conflict with China and the USSR, which is why the Vietnam War was an intractable strategic task from the outset and should never have been undertaken. Nor is the pursuit of a cross-border strategy along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier without risk. Trespassing upon Pakistani territory by U.S. forces could incite massive hostility from the Pakistani people, and could, in the most extreme scenario, lead to the collapse of the Pakistani state and the onset of a state of anarchy in that large and nuclear-armed nation.

These risks must be weighed against the single stark contrast between the conflict in Afghanistan and those in both Vietnam and Iraq, however. Unlike the latter conflicts, that in Afghanistan is of vital urgency to the security of the U.S. The forces that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 were lodged in Afghanistan and are currently fighting among the insurgents there. The U.S. can no more relinquish this counterinsurgency than it could refrain from retaliating for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Given that the safety and security of the nation is at stake, the U.S. must pursue all necessary means to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan. It therefore has no choice but to treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single operational theater. If Pakistani territory is treated as "off limits" in the prosecution of the counterinsurgency, then the conflict in Afghanistan will end in the same manner as the war in Vietnam. If John McCain does not realize this fact, he is a poor student of history and a poor judge of foreign policy.

The challenges of operating within the Afghan-Pakistani theater are acutely complex. Every tool in the strategic arsenal of the U.S., military, diplomatic, and economic, must be used simultaneously in careful coordination with one-another. The tactical and political consequences of each action must be weighed cautiously. U.S. political and military leaders will have to walk a virtual razor's edge: discovering how they may operate within Pakistani territory without either broadening the conflict or precipitating the collapse of the government in Islamabad. All of these tasks will require the total focus and full resources of the U.S. government, a fact that argues in favor of a leader who understands that the invasion of Iraq was a distraction, and that it must be wound down in order to shift focus to Afghanistan.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Welcome to Iraq

After more than five years of trying to remake Iraq in our image a transformation has finally occurred- the US has become Iraq. As the nation teeters on the brink of financial meltdown three factions duke it out. The Shiites and Sunnis in Congress bicker over emergency measures, while the Kurds in the White House remain sidelined.

Conventional wisdom holds that an advantage of our bipartisan system (despite its many drawbacks) is its intrinsic flexibility in a crisis. Because it has the capacity to gel into two negotiating camps emergency compromise measures can be reached quickly, freed from the complexities of a multilateral debate. Well, kiss those days good-bye.

This tripartite standoff might seem to parcel blame out equally to all concerned. In fact, however, the fault lies with the two Republican sides of the triangle. The policies that brought us to this juncture are all Republican ones. Deregulation of capital markets combined with tax cuts and deficit spending created an enormous speculative bubble, the bursting of which has created the current crisis. The sectarian rift which has opened up in the GOP is between the White House, which has belatedly awoken to the need for a compromise of the ideological principles that created this disaster, and House Republicans, who with their proposals for new tax cuts (!) are intent on continuing to walk, lemming-like, down the same path that has brought us to this precipice. There are differences of degree to be distinguished here, but both sects are guilty.

It is hard for those of us who have endured years of Republican sanctimony about how tax cuts and deficits create wealth to contain our anger at this point. If tax rates had remained at their pre-2001 levels, the $700,000,000,000 being poured into this bailout would have been prevented from fueling a speculative bubble in the first place. Imagining what might have been done with that money in the hands of responsible leadership is enough to make one weep. Investment in alternative sources of energy, health care, education, infrastructure: capital improvements that would have both stimulated the immediate consumer economy and generated income streams of wealth for generations to come. Instead that money has been gambled away, or at least the part of it that has not been spent on luxury cars and vacation homes for speculators. For shame.

There has been enough talk of patriotism. Any citizen who continues to suborn the politics of House Republicans has no right to call themselves a patriot. Anyone who cares about this country should be on the phone to Republican representatives and senators, demanding that they reach a compromise solution to this crisis. Hopefully, as Paul Krugman wrote in today's New York Times, adult heads will prevail and catastrophe will be averted. If not, we may be visiting a future in which being compared to Iraq would feel like a lucky break.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Lessons of Vietnam (and Iraq) Lost on GOP

Watching the Republican convention one might well have become confused as to whether the U.S. was winning the conflict in Iraq or had already won it. Triumphalism and optimism were the watchwords of the day. The only theme that was elaborated upon as enthusiastically as our imminent victory in Iraq was the benighted inclination of Barack Obama to forestall it.

This is all effective rhetoric, but is a deeply ironic message from a presidential campaign that repeatedly claims to put country first and party second. It is especially disappointing from John McCain, a veteran of Vietnam. Iraq differs in many important respects from Vietnam, but in one aspect they are the same. Iraq is, as Vietnam was, an extended counterinsurgency mission, the political dimensions of which are of greater importance to ultimate success than strictly military operations. As in Vietnam, U.S. efforts have been impeded by its leaders' failure to identify the obstacles of the mission, to define its goals, or to communicate these clearly to the public at large, resulting in a crippling gap between the expectations created by government rhetoric and the evolving reality on the ground.

This lesson of Vietnam was roundly ignored by the Bush administration in the lead up to and early stages of the Iraq war. Overconfident predictions of WMDs, promises that the mission would pay for itself in Iraqi oil revenues, that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators, that casualties would be light and the mission short in duration, and premature declarations of "Mission Accomplished," all deprived the Bush administration of any semblance of the credibility it required to manage the conflict, and drained the U.S. public of the political will to support the war effort. After this grossly negligent dereliction of the duty of commander in chief, one would think that President Bush's party would seek to avoid making this same mistake yet again.

Any chance at effective governance in the face of the Iraq conflict will require careful management of the expectations of the electorate: persuading citizens of the merit of adopted strategy while yet eliciting from them the patience to endure setbacks and unexpected contingencies. Instead, the Republicans are squandering any prayer of administering effective policy in pursuit of short-term political success. Pumping up the citizenry's expectations of victory is well-suited to the aspirational tendencies of our American culture, but it is heedlessly rash given the difficulties and uncertainties that face us in Iraq. To paraphrase John McCain: the Republicans, with McCain leading the charge, are putting their ambition to capture the White House before any consideration of what would be best for the U.S. if they actually do so.

Almost all of the claims that various GOP speakers made at their convention are not true. The U.S. is not safer as the result of the invasion of Iraq; Al-Qaeda has not been materially weakened by this mission in aggregate. Any battlefield losses Al-Qaeda suffered in Iraq have been more than offset by the recruits the U.S. occupation has attracted to the cause. Any demoralization Al-Qaeda has suffered due to recent setbacks in Iraq is offset by the gains made in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where skills and tactics learned in battle against U.S. soldiers in Iraq are being applied to tragic effect. While it is true that Al-Qaeda's position in Iraq itself has degraded over the last year, it still has far greater purchase there than it did during the regime of Saddam Hussein, which was virtually none at all. Nor has the Iraq conflict significantly deprived Al-Qaeda of resources. The material needs of Al-Qaeda are so small that they are virtually limitlessly replenishable.

Moreover, "victory" in Iraq is neither imminent or assured. The New York Times had an excellent piece in Friday's Op/Ed, co-authored by Lt. Colonel John Nagl, one of the principal architects of the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine. It warns that one cost of recent improvements in Iraq has been decreased U.S. influence: the more confident the Iraqi government feels in the security of its own position, the less it is inclined to heed U.S. demands. This implicitly means that the evolving situation will become increasingly unpredictable in years to come. As far as the situation has improved in the past year, hard times and hard sacrifices may yet lie ahead, a contingency for which U.S. leaders should begin to prepare the public right now.

The GOP knows that these facts are all complex truths, and that any attempt to articulate them in extended debate will leave Democrats' vulnerable to being caricatured as "nervous nellies" and defeatists. However, Democrats do not necessarily need to focus overmuch on the factual inaccuracies undergirding Republican rhetoric. They only need to point out that John McCain, among other Republicans in the the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, repeatedly predicted: "[W]e will win this conflict. We will win it easily." The question then becomes why the American people should accept McCain's assurances a second time. Moreover, it raises severe doubts about the wisdom of giving such assurances, given the damaging effect such overconfident predictions have had on the political conduct of the mission thus far. One would like to believe that John McCain has not, as he has accused his opponent of doing, traded what is in the best interests of the nation for what is politically expedient. A more charitable view would be, as has been said of him recently, that he "just doesn't get it."

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Reproductive Freedom as a Civil Right

The choice of Governor Sarah Palin as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee is among the most surprising and intriguing developments to hit the American political scene in many years. That it will materially impact the current electoral contest is undeniable. How and to what degree that effect will manifest itself are open questions, ones likely to occasion debate among political analysts long after the last ballot has been cast.

One effect that is hopefully clear to observers on both sides of the partisan divide is an increase in the urgency of the issue of reproductive freedom. Two facts that obviously figured in to the choice of Governor Palin as running-mate are her potential appeal to fellow women angered at the persistent glass ceiling of American power and her high profile among fellow social conservatives as an advocate of the so-called "pro-life" political agenda. These two forms of appeal work at cross-purposes to one another. This state of affairs should occasion open, frank and critical discussion of the issue of reproductive freedom, though inertia may (perhaps "most likely will" is more apt) cause the campaign debate to run along well-worn ruts, making it as oblique and obfuscatory as it has been for many years.

The Democrats would be especially ill-advised to let such a state of inertia prevail. Already the signs of it are distressingly apparent. At the recent "faith in politics" forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren, when confronted with the comparison of the practice of abortion in the U.S. to a "Holocaust," Barack Obama did not offer a robust defense of the principles of reproductive freedom that have animated Democratic policies on this issue. Rather, he went in to the evasive rhetorical tailspin that has ubiquitously typified Democratic discussion of abortion in recent years: abashedly detouring into the topics of facilitating adoption, educating teens, and making prenatal care more widely available.

This is only one of many examples of how Democrats have ceded control of both the political discourse and their own public image to Republicans in recent years. Through self-censorship Democrats not only grant the Republicans unlimited freedom to frame the issue, they make themselves look like opportunistic pols who do not really believe the content of their own campaign positions. In a race that looks to be very close and in which the stakes are high, such political anemia will once again prove fatal, especially on the issue of reproductive freedom.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the Clintonian position that abortion should be "legal but rare," but if Democrats leave off their positive engagement with the issue at that point they will abdicate any chance of depriving the GOP maximum political traction from the nomination of Sarah Palin. Reproductive freedom can not be reduced to a question of the morality of abortion. It is a civil rights issue, and one that impacts women profoundly (though not exclusively).

The failure of Democrats to fully engage the debate over reproductive freedom has allowed flagrant misconceptions to persist among the voting public. Many people, if closely questioned on the issue, would express the view that the legality of abortion is basically a lifestyle issue. "Pro-choice" advocates, so they assume, propose that abortion should be legal to prevent the sexually active from being burdened by any unintended consequences of their behavior. Reproductive freedom thus reduces, in the eyes of many on all parts of the political spectrum, to a defense of an individual's unfettered pursuit of personal happiness. However sympathetic many voters may be to such a stance, this distortion of the issue and its philosophical content saps the defense of reproductive freedom of its moral force and social urgency.

The question of the legality of abortion is one of freedom, but of a kind much more fundamental and constitutionally significant than that of personal lifestyle. Believers in reproductive freedom begin from the premise that whatever else a fetus might be, it is first and foremost a part of a woman's body. "Pro-life" advocates would insist that the central question pertaining to the legality of abortion is "what are the 'rights' of the 'unborn?'" Advocates of reproductive freedom, however, insist that the first question in this debate must be "what are the rights of a woman with regard to her own body?" Tag-lines like "legal but rare" elide this basic philosophical concern and thus trivialize the issue of reproductive freedom and its advocates.

As a result, lost in the current anemic discourse is any awareness that to ban abortion would entail a vast increase in the power of the state. No American would tolerate a law that empowered the government to prevent a woman from having surgery to remove cancer. Pregnancy, like cancer, invariably has profound physiological effects, with potential health consequences ranging up to and including death. We accept that an individual should not have to appear in court to have his or her tumor assessed as benign or malignant, it is not a great leap to the position that a woman should enjoy the same discretion with regard to a fetus.

The important thing to remember in this regard is the reality of state power and how it operates. Imagine a rape victim who has a pre-existing condition that makes her pregnancy life-threatening. As the fetus grows in her body and her health deteriorates over weeks and months she is forced to wait for a court hearing, or to sit in a courtroom and answer the questions of a state prosecutor as to her medical condition and character (is she lying? has she bribed her doctor to lie for her?). Perhaps she will die before the court completes its findings, perhaps she will be allowed the medical treatment she needs and live. Either way, can anything that happens in that courtroom genuinely be called "justice?"

The ethical and moral injustices that flow from this augmentation of state power are exacerbated by the power dynamics of American society at large. One in every six women in the U.S. is the victim of sexual assault during her lifetime. In an average year more than 570,000 women are the victims of domestic violence, ten times the incidence of such violence against men. An estimated 20 million Americans have been the victim of parent incest. To comprehensively ban abortion would be to effectively harness the full power of the federal government on behalf of rapists and abusers. An abusive man who wanted to leverage his power over a woman would only need to impregnate her, ensuring that the state would intervene to insist that he be the father of her child.

Any redemptive objections ("any unwanted child may be given up for adoption") are contingent on the most benign circumstances. For a woman who has been trying to escape an abusive man, falling under his sway for nine months might be a death sentence. Moreover, those who discount such concerns as trivial ("the law already protects abused women") have an unrealistic image of how state power operates. Any legal climate in which the "rights" of the "unborn" were given equal status to those of a woman would empower men in ways that many citizens would not anticipate but are a virtual certainty. Imagine a pregnant woman who has been systematically raped and abused, though her husband has been clever enough to allow no witnesses and leave no physical marks on her body. She climbs aboard a long-distance bus to escape (perhaps fully intending to carry her child to term), but is dragged off the bus by police because her husband has filed a complaint accusing her of intending to abort their unborn child. Anyone who scoffs at the possibility of such a scenario knows little about American legal history.

It is against these injustices that believers in reproductive freedom take a principled stand, in the view that they represent a moral evil far superseding any that might hypothetically flow from legalized abortion. Advocates of a ban on abortion, of course, view the philosophical parameters of the problem very differently. In their eyes the "unborn" have all of the rights of a human being, and thus to legalize abortion is to condone murder. These citizens are entitled to their views, but they are not entitled to have their principles exclusively privileged in the public square.

There is nothing intuitively obvious, philosophically ironclad, or religiously universal about the proposition that the "unborn" have the same moral status and rights as a living human being. The Jewish Torah, for example, though it treats the killing of a fetus as a crime, sanctions it as one many orders of magnitude less severe than the murder of a human being. Moreover, proponents of the assertion that life begins at conception must address the statistic that 40% of all conceptions spontaneously end in miscarriage. It is fair to ask of those who insist that the law be rewritten to redress the inconsistency between the treatment of "abortion" and "murder" if they are as consistent in their treatment of "death" and "miscarriage." For example, every time a sexually active woman has her period late, should investigations be done to determine whether or not she had conceived an embryo? If she had, should final rites be performed for her "child?" Should investigations be opened as to whether her behavior may have contributed to the miscarriage, making her guilty of "negligent homicide?"

The question of whether or not life and all of the rights pertaining to it begin at conception is, of course, a matter of faith that cannot be resolved logically or empirically. For a person of a particular faith, the example I gave above of a rape victim facing death due to her pregnancy is no argument for the legalization of abortion. Her position may be tragic, but it is a function of the will of God. Defenders of reproductive freedom ask whether it is right or just for the government to force women who do not share that faith to submit to its strictures, even at the cost of their own lives. Beyond this, believers in reproductive freedom stand opposed to the degradation of our constitutional system and its safeguards of individual rights that would result from a government that exercised such arbitrary and invasive power over one half of its citizenry but not the other.

The fact that their views hinge on articles of faith does not disqualify opponents of reproductive freedom from championing them in the public square. It does make it fair, however, to assess the political implications of faith-based positions in quantitative terms. For example, a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 26% percent of respondents believe that abortion should be illegal in "most cases," 18% believe that abortion should be illegal in "all cases." Support for a ban on abortion is thus a minority view, albeit one that accounts for a substantial plurality of the electorate. These raw statistics, however, make the position appear more mainstream and less contingent on particular religious views than is actually the case. As many as 20% of "pro-life" advocates are against legal contraception. This is a logical extension of religious objections to reproductive freedom, as the attempt to avoid conception may be construed as a contravention of God's will as serious as abortion itself. Though logically perfectly consistent with support for a ban on abortion, this stance reflects a world view and social outlook far more out of step with mainstream American culture than the mere fact of opposition to abortion would suggest. If (hypothetically) this number were subtracted from the block opposed to reproductive freedom, a constitutional amendment legislating the findings of Roe v. Wade would most likely pass ratification.

All of these dimensions of the issue go unseen as long as Democrats continue to run from their own beliefs and seek rhetorical cover in tepid formulas like "legal but rare." If they are to win this presidential contest, they must give full-throated voice to the reasons why a ban on abortion would be a civil rights disaster. At the very least, they should scrutinize their opponents' position and their understanding of its human implications. Does Senator McCain see no connection between reproductive rights and the widespread abuse of women? Does Governor Palin favor a ban on contraception to supplement that on abortion? Some of her more extreme social conservative supporters might be particularly interested in her answer to such a question, especially if it is negative. If Democrats do not proactively engage this debate, John McCain and Sarah Palin will derive substantial political capital from their "pro-life" stance without suffering any of the political liabilities of their assault upon reproductive freedom and Americans' (particularly American women's) civil rights.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Reclaiming the Dark Night

Alert: Spoilers below. Read on at your own peril.

I have recently taken a break from blogging to pursue scholarship, and in turn took a break from scholarship to go see The Dark Night in our local multiplex. Nothing boosts one's credibility like a declaration against interests, so as a college professor it should earn me some trust to declare that this was one of many superhero movies I have viewed and enjoyed, and by far my favorite to date. Since seeing it, though, I have been distressed to hear commentators and pundits broadcasting the idea that this was somehow a "pro-George W. Bush" movie; that its latent message is to vindicate and defend our president from the short-sighted criticism of "the left." It has occurred to me that this movie will reach vastly more Americans and have far greater impact than any of the ancient Chinese texts I have been writing about all summer. Moreover, as someone who believes that the presidency of George W. Bush has been a disaster, I am loathe to yield The Dark Knight to his apologists. I thus hereby leap into the fray over how this text should be interpreted.

Part of what makes The Dark Knight so enjoyable is that it is undeniably very topical. The late Heath Ledger's "Joker" is an apt analogue of the terrorists who so dominate headlines today. I would thus follow the "pro-Bush" pundits as far as admitting that the film does encode some commentary on current events. In the film we see Batman and his fellow spirit Harvey Dent take a principled stand against terrorism that is publicly unpopular. Both men stand up for the idea that rules sometimes have to be bent in order to fight the forces that threaten the very social fabric itself, and both men suffer public scorn on that account. This is where "pro-Bush" readers draw a similarity between Batman and Bush, but this is where the similarity ends.

The metaphorical heart of the movie is a story that Alfred, the butler (played, in a brilliant piece of casting, by Michael Caine), tells Bruce Wayne about his days as a colonial official in Burma. There he encountered a bandit who committed murder and mayhem to very little purpose. Jewels the bandit had stolen were found in the possession of small children. "Some men," explains Alfred, "just want to watch the world burn." This principle, Alfred explains, is in operation in the attacks by the Joker upon Gotham City. In enlisting the Joker's aid Gotham's criminal underground has unleashed a force that they don't understand and can not control, and everyone is in peril as a consequence.

The moral of Alfred's story is delivered later in the movie, however, and is overlooked by anyone who seeks an enthusiastic endorsement of George W. Bush's presidency in this work of fiction. Bruce Wayne asks Alfred how the Burmese bandit was eventually caught, and Alfred replies, "We burned the forest down." Those who would read this as declaring that "sometimes harsh measures must be taken" are reading the text through a very phantasmal lens. Anyone who suggests that British colonial policy in Burma should be the role model for anything should read The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U. One does not have to seek that far outside the text to contest such a distorted reading, however. One need only remember that Alfred had described the bandit as a man who wanted "too see the world burn." In the end, therefore, thanks to the tactics Alfred and his comrades employed, the bandit GOT EXACTLY WHAT HE WANTED.

In The Dark Knight we see that, in their understandable zeal to arrest the Joker's nihilistic assault on Gotham, Harvey Dent and Batman come very close to burning the forest down. Harvey Dent applies torture to a deranged criminal in search of information, a tactic even the steely-eyed Batman finds reprehensible (draw your own connections to current events). The Batman himself violates the privacy of every citizen of Gotham by building an illegal surveillance system (ditto).

Though this tactic does, indeed, discover the Joker, it does nothing to foil the criminal's plans, as it was always his intention to be caught eventually. The Joker is shooting for bigger game than sowing mere terror, he is attempting to undermine people's trust in and decency toward one another, thus working to unravel civil society itself. By violating the privacy of his fellow citizens, Batman plays directly into his hands. In the end (though a few well-placed punches from Batman help), the Joker's plan is not foiled by high-tech surveillance or illegal torture. Rather, the Joker is defeated by ordinary citizens' refusal to be baited into harming one-another and by the integrity of Lucius Fox (the scientist portrayed by Morgan Freeman) in destroying the surveillance machine built by Bruce Wayne.

I will not go as far as "pro-Bush" pundits in declaring that this is an anti-Bush text. Like most admirable works of art it is thought-provoking and complex; attempts to reduce its message into neat formulas do violence to the text (as ironic as that may be to say about a "text" riddled with so many loud explosions). In the final analysis, every audience member has the right to take away what message he or she most perceives in the movie. On that score, one of the most significant moments in the movie for me was the point at which the Joker begins to burn the enormous pile of cash belonging to his underworld "employers." When they ask, amazed, why he would do such a thing, he replies, "My work only requires gasoline and explosives, and those are cheap." Taking policy advice from a comic-book movie is no doubt a stretch, but this is the principle I would distill from that screen moment: when faced with an opponent whose material needs are as small as the Joker's, invading another country will not seriously deter him.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Obama Was Wrong About the Surge (But Right About Everything Else)

Today's New York Times reports that US troop casualties in Iraq have fallen to virtually the lowest point since hostilities there began. Only five US soldiers have been killed in combat since the beginning of July. This is welcome and heartening news, and combined with steadily decreasing civilian fatalities among Iraqis testifies to the effectiveness of the "troop surge" begun in January. It is clear that those who opposed or doubted the troop surge, including Barack Obama (and myself), were wrong. The surge has not cured all of Iraq's ills, but to deny that it has improved the situation in that country is simply tendentious.

Obama's judgment did not measure up to that of Senator John McCain in this matter, but it surpassed and continues to surpass it in virtually every other respect. The successes of the surge do not vindicate the decision to invade Iraq in the first place, nor are they likely to do so. Nor is the surge an end unto itself or a path to ultimate victory, as John McCain seems to view it. Iraq has, for the moment, been brought back from the brink of chaos, but it is still a society wracked by terrible discord and in peril of cataclysmic collapse. The danger of McCain's repeated rhetoric about how "the surge is working" is its potential to lull American policymakers back into the delusional mindset that brought on the Iraq war in the first place: the misbegotten belief that conditions in Iraq are ultimately under American control.

The surge is a testament to the valor and ingenuity of America's armed forces, but to recognize that reality does not negate the fact that none of the surge's effect would have been possible if the US had not found competent Iraqi partners in Nuri al-Maliki's government, the Iraqi Army, and the Anbar Awakening. The charge that "withdrawal=defeat" rests on the fallacious assumption that Iraqi society will tolerate a massive US troop presence indefinitely, a notion for which there has been no empirical proof (quite the contrary). The peace that has been won can only be kept if the responsibility for maintaining it can be successfully transfered to the Iraqi government, military, and police. Otherwise the gains of the surge will begin to unravel and chaos will return.

One might well object that having been wrong about the surge, its opponents are on poor ground to maintain that gradual disengagement is best suited to the likely dispositions of Iraqi society. This is to ignore much of the evidence that continues to fill daily newspapers, however. Though violence is down in Iraq, it cannot be called "low." The forces of entropy in Iraq may be fatigued, but they may also be playing a wait-and-see game in the run-up to the US election. Both, indeed, may be true at once. Though US troop casualties are down, the cost-per-troop of the Iraq mission (representing, in part, the extraordinary precautions that must be taken to ensure force security) are still astronomically high. Moreover, common sense dictates that any foreign force, whether of US soldiers or Martians, would face insuperable difficulties in keeping the peace in Iraq for the long term. Iraqi society is so deeply divided that it is almost impossible for any outside element to cultivate and maintain the role of "fair broker" between mutually hostile factions. In the long run, nothing can replace the Iraqis' negotiating a stable social contract among themselves, a process that will ultimately require the disengagement of US forces.

Senator McCain seems to think that his superior wisdom in supporting the surge should be an argument that carries him to the White House. That tack, however, opens the question of whose judgment was better with the regard to invading Iraq in the first place (if we are to argue the past...), and on that score Obama is likely to carry the argument for most Americans. They seem to feel, as I do, that whatever good news there has been of recent, the costs of the Iraq war have been too high and the risks are still very, very severe.

Obama would be well advised to remain focused on the future, though, because there he has a better argument than McCain as well. Withdrawal does not equal defeat, as McCain would contend. Disengagement from Iraq, rather, is the only path to potential victory. No peace in Iraq will endure unless it is one that the Iraqis themselves establish and superintend. Thus Obama is right that the long-term mission given to US commanders like David Petraeus should be to plan for and execute the ultimate disengagement of US combat forces from Iraq. This is the argument that Obama can wield very effectively against McCain this fall. Disengagement is the best way to honor the sacrifice of our troops, as disengagement is the only path that may yield the long-term fruits that could still be reaped from their struggle: a stable, prosperous, and sovereign Iraq.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Obama, Race, and History

In today's Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer offers a denunciation of Obama's recent speech on race relations that is exemplary of its reception by many Americans. According to Krauthammer, the speech is a "brilliant fraud." This judgment hangs on two points. Firstly, Obama asserts a false "moral equivalence" between the private sentiments of his white grandmother or leaders like Harry Truman (who was known to use racial and ethnic epithets) and the public sentiments of Jeremiah Wright. In doing so, Obama confuses "the moral difference between the occasional private expression of the prejudices of one's time and the use of a public stage to spread racial lies and race hatred." Secondly, Obama relies on what Krauthammer calls "white guilt" in falsely contextualizing Wright's speech: "By context, Obama means history. And by history, he means the history of white racism....But Obama was supposed to be new. He flatters himself as a man of the future transcending the anger of the past as represented by his beloved pastor."

These arguments will no doubt be persuasive to many white Americans who are shocked at the level of anger expressed in Jeremiah Wright's sermons. This is unfortunate, as Krauthammer mischaracterizes Obama's assertions and offers up an analysis built on flawed logic. What strikes me as most objectionable in Krauthammer's analysis is his misuse of history. On the one hand Harry Truman's racial views may be dismissed as "the prejudices of his day," while on the other any attempt to explain black anger as a response to white racism is invalid. This is clearly a double standard. By contrast, Obama's speech expressed a much more nuanced and coherent historical sensibility:

"Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety...The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America. And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright."

Obama does not claim, as Krauthammer would have him do, that Wright's attitudes are the natural product of white racism. He does, however, admit that Wright's "bitterness and bias" are an organic gauge of the state of public discourse in the black community today; not in the sense that all or most blacks agree with Wright, but that a critical portion of the community is at least willing to overlook his biases in assessing his leadership. In other words, to use Krauthammer's phrase, Wright was guilty of no more than expressing "the prejudices of his time." Thus Obama "could no more disown [Wright]" than he could "disown the black community."

Still, Krauthammer's argument about the moral distinction between "public" and "private" expressions of racially charged sentiments might be cited by way of rebuking Obama. This ignores, however, the ways in which the nature of "public" and "private" discourse changes over time. Harry Truman might have felt constrained in the expression of his views in ways that Jeremiah Wright did not, but this is more a gauge of the historical state of race relations than the moral status of either man. One fair test might be to search for a genuine moral equivalent, for a white leader that Americans revere despite his or her
publicly expressed views on race.

In a speech in Springfield Illinois, the "Great Emancipator" Abraham Lincoln declared, "There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people to the idea of indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races ... A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation." In his debates with Steven Douglas, Lincoln asserted, "...I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people...There is physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality..."

These sentiments are naturally abhorrent to our present-day sensibilities, and despite being tolerated in the political discourse of the nineteenth century were, in absolute terms, as morally deficient then as now. Do such realities invalidate the present-day reverence in which Americans hold Lincoln? Are we wrong to build monuments to him, place his picture on our currency, to count him among the greatest Americans who have ever lived? I would argue not, and Barack Obama would agree. What he indicates, however, is that to be American is and was to inhabit a social reality that chronically and violently distorts our orientation towards issues of race, no matter what side of the racial divide we inhabit (or whether, like Obama himself, we stand astraddle that divide). There are many points on which one might protest the comparison of Jeremiah Wright to Lincoln, but in this one respect they are equal: in their problematic orientation toward questions of race (and here one must note that Wright has not, to my knowledge, said anything as personally disparaging of whites as those remarks about blacks quoted above) they are equally American.

Barack Obama launched his campaign for the presidency in Springfield, Illinois, on the steps of the same state house where both he and Abraham Lincoln served as legislators. Obama speaks with frequent pride about his historical connection with Lincoln, and wrote with passion about the inspiration he draws from Lincoln in an essay in Time. In assessing Obama's response to the Jeremiah Wright controversy, one must ask what a reasonable response would be if one were to confront Obama with the words of Lincoln's Springfield speech (of which Obama himself evinces being aware). Would anything less than a complete denunciation of Lincoln and repudiation of Obama's former praise amount to a betrayal of the black community? Or, could he reasonably reject and denounce Lincoln's abhorrent statements while persisting in his judgment that Lincoln had been "our greatest president?" If one accepts that the latter response to Lincoln's flawed legacy would be understandable, it is difficult to explain why Obama's current response to the controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright is not.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Obama on Iraq

Of late there has been a concerted effort to cast Barack Obama's position on Iraq as inconsistent, naive, or politically cynical. Most recently Michael Gerson claimed that where John McCain won his party's nomination for resisting "overwhelming pressure," Obama will only win the Democratic nomination "because he surrendered to that pressure." By Gerson's telling, McCain's support of the surge showed political courage, whereas Obama's continued support of a phased withdrawal in the face of the surge's effects both contradicts earlier positions he articulated and amounts to mere pandering to the supposed Democratic "anti-war" base.

Smoothly plausible as arguments like Gerson's may be, none amount to more than political spin when put to the least empirical test. No one, least of all John McCain, can claim to have possessed a crystal ball or to have been perfectly consistent in his or her policy advice on Iraq. Where in 2003 McCain expressed confidence that the war would be brief in duration and would virtually pay for itself, today he preaches the need for firm resolve and stoic sacrifice. No doubt he and his supporters would insist that his analysis has changed rightly and naturally as conditions on the ground in Iraq have evolved, and that this is no more than the strategic wisdom of any leader concerned for the security of our Republic. There is little to dispute in such claims, except to point out that any such explanation for Senator McCain's changeability with respect to Iraq applies equally to Senator Obama, a fact that commentators like Gerson would seem to hope we will ignore.

In fact, the basic strategic principles underpinning Senator Obama's orientation toward the Iraq war have remained unchanged since his now famous speech opposing the war delivered in October of 2002: "I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." Obama has always understood, in ways that McCain and Clinton seemingly do not, that the US has never been in control over how the Iraq conflict has evolved. All pundits and leaders have been in the position of making inaccurate predictions and changing policy prescriptions precisely because there have been few or no criteria by which one might judge what the short- and long- term effects of applying US power might be. Iraq's destiny has always been in the hands of Iraq's people and Iraq's leaders, it has never been in the United States' power to do anything more than catalyze forces already at work in Iraqi society at large. Those forces are so entropic and so volatile, moreover, that even Iraq's most firmly entrenched social and political leaders cannot confidently predict how the political terrain will shift and change from one month to the next. It is thus utter folly to imagine that any US plan will effect transparent outcomes.

McCain's call to remain in Iraq for "one hundred years" still clings to the myth of US omnipotence- any outcome we imagine may be achieved if only we Americans summon the resolve to accomplish it. Such sentiments make for good copy, but one can only stand amazed at the strategic folly of an aspiring US president tying himself to such an unequivocal threshold of success. By equating withdrawal with defeat, McCain has narrowed all of his strategic options to one- remain in Iraq irrespective of the harm or benefit the US presence might cause. To do otherwise would be "surrender."

By contrast, Obama's strategic position has always centered on the pragmatic core of the policy problem rather than symbolic superficialities like the false choice between "withdrawal" and "staying the course." As he said in July of 2004, "The failure of the Iraqi state would be a disaster." It is this problem, and not some abstract notion of "victory," that has been the focus of Obama's policy advice since his speech of 2002. Obama has argued consistently that the viability of the Iraqi state itself, and not some permanent US presence in Iraq or other symbolic benefit, must remain the focus of US policy efforts, and that to that end eventual disengagement from Iraq is our best and clearest course. Many scoff at Obama's position as naive, but after five years and tens of thousands dead and wounded on all sides such scorn says much more about the deep-seated ethnocentrism of US leaders and pundits than it does about Obama's judgment.

John McCain has undoubtedly been catapulted to the head of his party's ticket by his support of the surge. In January McCain's stance seemed as prescient as that of Obama's 2002 speech in defiance of the war itself. But as the months drag on, there is less and less cause to believe that the surge is the magic bullet that will forestall "the failure of the Iraqi state." Obama cannot claim to possess a crystal ball any more than McCain, but he can claim to have correctly perceived the limits of American power going in to this conflict. In other words, he is among the few American leaders to have predicted just how unpredictable this policy endeavor would prove to be. In that light, Obama's call for a phased withdrawal may be no more sure a solution to the crisis than John McCain's exhortation to stoic resolve, but it is likewise no less sure. Moreover, it recommends itself by virtue of two facts: 1)it has not as yet been tried in the course of this five-year tempest; 2)it is the considered analysis of one whose judgment has proved remarkably wise thus far.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Selling the Hundred-Year Sojourn

Though it has fallen somewhat below the political radar in recent weeks, the coming election will nonetheless be as much a referendum on the Iraq war as any other issue. The differences between the two remaining Democratic candidates on this score are negligible by comparison the position of the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain. Thus whatever the outcome of the Democratic contest, voters will be presented two clear alternatives on the issue of Iraq.

McCain's position is exemplified by his oft-quoted declaration that the U.S. should stay in Iraq for "a hundred" years, "as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed." Senator McCain has recently complained that these remarks are being distorted. His complaint has some logical basis, but as he himself admits, he could hardly expect otherwise. Democrats routinely cite McCain as if he endorses the decision to carry on with hostilities for one-hundred years, if necessary. The point of McCain's remarks, as he is quick to point out, is that American troops will be able to remain in Iraq for one-hundred years because (so he claims) hostilities there will end soon. Once the resistance to US occupation has been quelled, it will be possible for US troops to withdraw to bases and remain peacefully garrisoned in Iraq just like our forces based in South Korea or Japan.

Though Senator McCain may express some chagrin at the way his remarks are taken out of context, they are not, in fact, being distorted as egregiously as he would insist. Most often the "distortion" is exclusively one of omission: "John McCain says we will be in Iraq for one-hundred years." This kind of statement lacks the qualifiers that conditioned McCain's initial claim, but it does not substantively misrepresent his words. The rhetorical impact of such statements does not arise from a distortion of Mr. McCain's meaning, but from skepticism (latent or self-conscious) on the part of the listener that the stable homeostasis McCain predicts can ever be achieved. American troops have been in Iraq for five years now, and though we have seen rates of violence and casualties go up and down over the course of that time, a steady loss of American life has been a constant. Mr. McCain's vision of a future Iraq that is not lethal terrain for US soldiers is not something that experience has intuitively disposed American voters to accept.

This is the challenge facing McCain going in to the general election in November: persuading the American public that his vision of strategic success in Iraq is correct. For all that Senator McCain is being lampooned, one must admire that from the outset, he has laid down conditions for "victory" in Iraq much clearer than any articulated by the Bush White House over the entire course of the conflict: the US must stay and fight in Iraq until it is no longer necessary to fight to stay. In order to win the general election in November, McCain will have to persuade American voters that this vision of victory is both possible and necessary.

The possibility of arriving at the point where Iraq is no longer lethal terrain for US forces is the hardest sell. Critical as McCain has been of Bush administration policy under the Rumsfeld Defense regime, he shares President Bush's vision of Iraq as a basically bilateral struggle, between the US and its allies on the one hand and those opposed to US interests on the other. If there are only two contenders in Iraq, it should be possible to fight through to a point where one contender quits and the other is left standing.

If Senator McCain can persuade the American electorate of this bipolar picture, he may succeed in winning their assent to his strategy. An alternative picture, however, seems to enjoy broadly intuitive traction among the US populace. This is of Iraq as a multipolar conflict, implicating both a variety of groups and factions within Iraq itself and an array of interests among foreign nations throughout the region. This view perceives that alliances and conflicts among and between the different forces in Iraq are constantly shifting and realigning, making it impossible to predict what the long-term impact of any application of US power will be upon the course of future violence.

An example of the pragmatic differences between these two perspectives may be drawn from the recent "surge." From the point at which the increased deployment of troops was completed last summer until the end of last year, US troop fatalities in Iraq declined; from 101 in June to 23 in December. But 40 US soldiers died in January of this year, and 29 have died this month thus far. Senator McCain would interpret this as a clear-cut tale of bilateral struggle: from June to December of '07 US forces had our enemies on the run. In January and February they have rallied an counterattacked, with variable success.

Plausible as such a reading may be, it is not the only or most persuasive one. Those disposed to view Iraq as a multipolar conflict would insist that the greater infusion of US troops (along with other factors unrelated to US military action) had produced a proportional increase in stability. The point at which fatalities reached their nadir was thus not the place at which US enemies "rallied," but the point at which the capacity of US forces to assist in creating stability reached its margin of diminishing returns. Whether or not US casualties continue to fall is thus not dependent on whether US enemies are defeated, but on whether Iraqi society becomes more orderly; a contingency that is seemingly beyond US control from this point forward (unless we decide to gamble that a further infusion of troops might garner more order).

Senator McCain and his surrogates are already promoting the former assessment of the surge: "the surge is working." On the surface this would seem to be a rhetorically unassailable strategy, as it would appear to box in any Democratic opponent to the position that "the surge is not working," which will seem defeatist and unpatriotic. After five years of war, however, the American public is likely to intuitively see this for the false dichotomy that it is. The fact that the surge has had positive effects does not argue for the conclusion that the US is any more in control of the conflict than it has been since day one. The situation may not get any worse if the current status quo is maintained, but there is no guarantee that it is going to get better, and it must do so in order to give McCain's scenario credibility. It is entirely possible that the surge has brought violence and casualties levels down as low as this strategy can, and that they will continue to fluctuate within a variable band indefinitely as long as current tactics are applied.

The longer such conditions persists, the less likely McCain's prospective hundred-year sojourn will appear, and time is not on his side. The clock began ticking as soon as he made his "hundred years" remark. In the intervening months between that point and November, Americans will view conditions on the ground in Iraq as an empirical test of how long we will have to wait before McCain's peaceful "hundred year" sojourn begins. If US fatalities fall below the threshold they reached in December '07, or if there are marked indications that Iraq is becoming safer for US personnel (for example, a sharp decrease in the cost of providing security to American soldiers and officials), then McCain will enjoy an electoral boost similar to that which aided him in securing the Republican nomination. If the conditions of January and February remain characteristic however, skepticism of McCain's position will be even more widespread and intense by October than it is now, and Iraq will be a serious liability going into November's polls.

The only argument Senator McCain will be able to fall back on in the face of such skepticism is the necessity of fighting to preserve a permanent US presence in Iraq. Here McCain is on firmer ground, for he can appeal to Americans' fear that Al Qaeda could profit from a US withdrawal. Such arguments are not likely to gain much traction, however. McCain obviously feels that Al Qaeda will remain in Iraq until the US "flushes them out," but this is a position that has become somewhat fatigued among the electorate at large. Most Americans now realize that Al Qaeda had no purchase in Iraq before the US invasion, and that its recent decrease in strategic power in Iraq is due far more to Iraqi resentment of Al Qaeda brutality and fanaticism than military action by US forces. If it does not seem that a "peaceful sojourn" will be possible, Americans will be ill inclined to keep our soldiers in danger in order to do what Iraqi society seems well equipped to do on its own.

"Fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here" is likewise not an argument that will be broadly persuasive. Americans realize that this is asymmetrical war- the resources that Al Qaeda requires to create mayhem are minuscule by comparison to the resources the US must expend in order to hunt them down overseas. No one can really believe that the expense of fighting in Iraq, which can only be some tiny fraction of what the US has spent, has left Al Qaeda short the cost of a few boxcutters and a dozen or more airplane tickets. If damaging Al Qaeda's operational capabilities is forwarded as a justification of further operations in Iraq, most Americans are likely to be left with the impression, "there has got to be a better way."

The last "necessity" argument, one that McCain cites often, is the imperative to withhold any semblance of a propaganda victory from Al Qaeda. As soon as the US begins to withdraw, so this argument goes, Al Qaeda will trumpet to the world that it has driven the American infidel from Islam's heartland. Such a prediction is likely true, but this does not in and of itself make McCain's argument a persuasive one. If Americans remain or grow more skeptical of the prospects of a "hundred-year" sojourn, and Al Qaeda is certain to claim victory whenever the US disengages from Iraq (whether now or fifty years from now), the question then becomes: "How long do US soldiers have to die simply to refuse Al Qaeda bragging rights?" The world can see that Al Qaeda is vastly less powerful in Iraq now than it was back in the dark days when it controlled much of Anbar Province, and there is little prospect of those times returning, regardless of what the US does. Continuing to spend blood and treasure so that a bunch of thugs refrain from making a self-evidently hollow claim is not likely to be perceived as wise strategy by voters come November.

McCain and his supporters seem to believe that the Democratic position can be successfully portrayed as defeatism to the voting public, but their confidence in this regard may well prove unwarranted. Once the Democratic nominee squares off against McCain, he or she will have a very simple yet elegant message with which to counter McCain's more difficult "hundred-year" sell: "Senator McCain promises that if we stay in Iraq and continue to spend blood and treasure as we are now, we may eventually be able to sojourn there one-hundred years. But what if staying in Iraq has produced as much benefit (for both ourselves and the Iraqi people) as it is going to? What if the only way to improve the situation is to begin to disengage from Iraq? What if disengagement could actually reduce the violence and increase stability? There is no guarantee that it would work, but is it not worth trying?" Many American voters are already very receptive to this line of reasoning, and (depending on how conditions evolve in Iraq itself) by November their numbers may be vastly larger.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Kosovo "Newborn"

The images now coming out of Pristina make for heady news. It is not every day that one witnesses the "birth" of a new nation, though the end of the Cold War set off a cascade of such events that does not seem to have run its course just yet. It was perhaps predictable that both the EU and the United States would recognize the emergent state, but neither that nor the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the event can dispel the real causes for worry that this issue presages.

In a historical sense, Kosovo's declaration of independence continues a debate about self-determination and sovereignty first raised and briefly pursued robustly in the immediate aftermath of World War I. That discourse collapsed under a panoply of political pressures, however, and since then it has never been taken up on the international level in a systematic way. With the Cold War's end some scholars and pundits predicted a global transition to a "postnational age." That prediction is far from bearing fruit, however. The world is more balkanized today than it was ten years ago, and all indications are that the trend will continue apace.

None of this is to suggest that the Kosovars were wrong to declare independence or that those elements of the international community that have welcomed them acted ill. However, critics of the event like Vladimir Putin of Russia, whatever else anyone may think of them, raise distressing concerns that can not be shrugged off or wished away. If one examines all of the factors contributing to the nascent sovereignty of Kosovo, one recognizes that some or all of them are replicated in myriad situations throughout the world. This places the international community in a very difficult position. If Kosovo is treated as a systemic precedent, this will open a Pandora's box brimming with "suspended conflicts (to borrow Putin's phrase)" that could create havoc of various kinds worldwide. If Kosovo is treated as an idiosyncrasy (i.e. a "fluke"), this will debase principles of human rights and self-determination that have been central to the hopes of a more humane world order for the past century or more.

Consider some of the particulars of Kosovo's history in comparison to other parts of the world. Kosovo's populace is mainly ethnic Albanian, their only claim to a nationhood separate from that of Albania itself is the unique historical experience of living under Serbian rule. A similar argument, however, could be made for the nationhood of Taiwan. The claims of Serbia to sovereignty over Kosovo are generally held to have been abnegated by the cruelly abusive nature of Serbian rule. A similar argument could be made in favor of Chechyan (to name only one people) independence. The US is disposed to recognize Kosovo (in part) because to do otherwise would be to countenance the continued subjection of a Muslim population to a Christian nation, and that perception would materially damage US strategic efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Kurds, however, could reasonably complain that in this regard the Kosovars have benefited from the arbitrary vagaries of identity politics, and that any objective scrutiny of the principles on which the US has recognized Kosovo should compel the embrace of a sovereign Kurdistan.

All of these caveats may seem like the mark of exaggerated pessimism, but they point to a larger problem that will not go away and that the international community ignores at its peril. Multilateral negotiations must take place to work out an international framework whereby the community of nations agrees to address and adjudicate questions of disputed sovereignty. Such an imperative is especially urgent, in that these disputes are the chief impetus to the use of "terror," thus the political dimension of any "war on terror" hinges upon the successful resolution of this problem. The questions are obviously too complex to be resolved in a single meeting or in any compressed time frame. A series of summits over the course of a decade or more would be warranted. Even before a comprehensive resolution was reached, however, such a process might help cool the superheated political climate that pushes ongoing sovereignty disputes further and further into the terrain of violence. Here is a case, moreover, where the US might exert international leadership and contribute to the stability and security of the world at large. If the President of the United States called for such summits to be convened, the international response would most likely be very positive, even from "volatile" quarters such as Russia and China. A presidential campaign might be the perfect venue in which to float such an idea....