Thursday, October 27, 2011

Occupy the Ballot Box

I have many excuses for failing to appear at Zuccotti Park. Work and family preoccupy my time. Well into middle age, I simply do not feel hip enough to join the drum circle. Rank laziness is, if I am completely honest, a factor.

My guilt at this lapse is genuine. As income disparity grows, the relentlessly widening chasm between the wealthiest segment of our society and everyone else threatens the very foundation of our Republic. The issues being raised by the OWS protesters are vitally urgent, the crisis of this generation. Yet, all excuses aside, my aloofness reflects a genuine ambivalence.

I can not summon a robust motivation to join the protests because I am hounded by a persistent question: how many of the protesters voted in the last election? This is, I know, a heavily freighted question. The old adage warning us not to assume is well taken, and I might well be surprised by the empirical answer to my query. But I can not shake the doubts my question raises.

If many of the constituencies popularly associated with OWS (I am thinking especially of the young) had showed up at the ballot box in 2010 in the same numbers as 2008, our political landscape would be radically different right now. Real progress would have been made on some of the issues most central to the OWS protest- the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would almost certainly already have been repealed, giving us a start toward redressing the crisis of income inequality.

In that climate, if a Democratically-controlled Congress continued to show reticence to address the concerns of the 99%, a broad-based popular movement like the one we are seeing now could have exerted real pressure to influence the legislative agenda. Alternatively, if the OWS protests had begun before the 2010 race, perhaps they could have mobilized groups that were absent from that electoral contest. It is in this respect of timing that the OWS movement is most distinct from the Tea Party. Though both groups are motivated by similar senses of anger and disaffection, the Tea Party translated that political energy into real effects at the ballot box.

At the moment, it is difficult to imagine OWS having that kind of impact. The Republican House will not be moved one iota from its commitment to obstructionism. Until the legislative logjam is broken, little can be accomplished by way of redressing the widening inequalities of American society. With every passing electoral cycle, the problem becomes more intractable. As wealth shifts ever-upward, the forces of regression acquire new power to entrench and institutionalize the dysfunctional status quo.

The way back from this precipice, however, can not be found in the complete absence of our established political institutions. Money may have corrupted politics to an unprecedented degree, but government action remains the greatest lever for change. The passion and cause of the OWS protesters are admirable, but their means will not attain their goals unless and until they can be translated into electoral impact. All depends on the vote.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The End of the Iraq War

President Obama's announcement of a total troop withdrawal from Iraq by the end of this year is a watershed moment in U.S. foreign policy, and one that should be applauded. Those critics, mainly in the GOP, who excoriate the President for "prematurely" disengaging from Iraq demonstrate their fundamental incomprehension of the situation. This moment is one toward which the U.S. has been heading ever since the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, and it is transpiring under circumstances more optimistic than those for which I and many other opponents of this war had dared to hope. The assertion that this withdrawal may confidently and definitively be deemed "too early" is based on the same kinds of flawed premises that led to the ill-conceived invasion from the outset.

Critics of the withdrawal are not wrong to hope that Iraq will remain relatively stable, peaceful, and prosperous. However misguided our initial invasion of Iraq may have been, since the defeat of Saddam Hussien our soldiers have been fighting and dying to secure the Iraqi people a future free from violence and terror, and it would be a tragic squandering of their sacrifice if Iraq slips back into civil war and anarchy. It is delusional, however, given the experience of the last nine years, to imagine that the long-term stability and prosperity of Iraq hinges on any actions by the United States right now. Since the first tanks rolled across the border in 2003, Iraq has served as an object lesson in the limits of U.S. power. Though America had the might to bring a swift end to the Hussein regime, from that point on it lost control of the situation. Iraqis, representing various constituencies, under varying degrees of pressure and influence from the U.S., have been driving events in Iraq for most of the nine years leading up to President Obama's withdrawal declaration. The removal of our last military personnel brings our strategic influence down to a new nadir, but this is a change to the situation in degree, not in kind.

Those pundits and gurus who declare that the failure to leave 5,000 trainers in Iraq is a disastrous mistake betray either cynicism or ignorance. After nine years of blood and struggle, Iraq remains a conflicted society whose state rests on a tenuous foundation. Perhaps the retention of 5,000 U.S. soldiers could spell the difference between continued stability and a slide into chaos, perhaps not. There is no real way to know. This last fact is not an argument for the ill wisdom of President Obama's order to withdraw. It is proof that the invasion of Iraq should never have been undertaken in the first place.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Obama Doctrine

Even as today's news of the demise of Muammar Gaddafi inspires admiration for the courage and sacrifice of the Libyan people, it is not inappropriate to ask what lessons it holds for U.S. foreign policy. The contrast between U.S. actions in Iraq and Libya is quite stark. In both cases similar outcomes resulted, despite immeasurably greater losses of blood and treasure in Iraq. Perhaps now the theories of neoconservatism, that "unchallenged" U.S. power can remake the world according to America's preferences, may finally be put to rest. In its place Libya has given us an Obama Doctrine, the tenets of which may be listed as follows:

1.  U.S power may be applied in foreign nations to assist trends that serve American interests and embody American values, only when those trends originate and have a substantial and organic basis of support in the nation where the operation will take place.

 2. U.S. power should ideally be applied only when it is most urgently needed, to avert a major crisis or catastrophe.

3. U.S. power should be applied with the lightest possible footprint.

4. U.S. power should never be applied unilaterally, but in concert with the broadest and most capable coalition of allies possible.

The U.S. could do far worse than to embrace this Obama Doctrine moving forward. If it had been followed in places like Rwanda and Darfur, events might have transpired differently. In future, the more nearly U.S. foreign interventions approximate the ideals of the Obama Doctrine, the more likely outcomes will resemble those of Libya rather than Iraq.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Zionist Appraisal of the Release of Gilad Shalit

The release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian detainees has elicited much comment around the world. Many are critical of the terms of Shalit's return, noting that among those Palestinians being released are Hamas operatives and others guilty off horrendous crimes. As a Zionist, I cannot share in the condemnation of this exchange. Though I abhor what I view as the Netanyahu government's criminally negligent obstruction of a two-state solution, I would insist that in this instance they have acted as any other Israeli regime would have done, in accordance with the best principles upon which the Israeli state was founded.

If this exchange were likely to provide incentive for Hamas to abduct more Israelis, criticism might be more warranted, but it is not. Hamas did not capture Shalit with the main goal of freeing jailed Palestinians. They killed four of Gilad Shalit's comrades and took him captive in order to undermine Ariel Sharon's attempt to unilaterally disengage from the Palestinian Authority, which would have thwarted Hamas' aspirations for a "one-state solution." In the wake of Shalit's capture the Israelis re-occupied Gaza, killing many Hamas operatives and capturing many others, more than offsetting any "gains" Hamas has realized from the current prisoner exchange. In the face of those facts, the only arguments to be made against the exchange are the security threat posed by released Palestinian detainees and the propaganda value of a Hamas "victory" in this instance, but both these considerations are displaced by the larger principle embodied in the Israeli government's actions.

The Jewish state exists to defend the dignity and humanity of Jewish life in the face of powerful and enduring threats. On the basis of this urgent imperative, Israel demands a Herculean sacrifice of military service from all its citizens, but is also obligated to requite them with absolute commitment and support. Other governments have given Jews numbers, set them to work, and expected them to die. For the Israeli government to treat Gilad Shalit in such a fashion would be to betray the animating spirit of the Zionist movement. Israel calls on all its men and women to live in death's shadow, but in return it promises to move Heaven and Earth to bring them home alive after the completion of their duty, or, failing that, to see that their remains are properly interred rather than being cast into an oven or a mass grave.

Was the cost to bring Gilad Shalit home high? Yes. Was it right to pay that cost? Yes.

Welcome home, Gilad.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Clear Precedent for the Attack on Al-Awlaki

In the wake of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, by U.S. forces in Yemen last Friday, some commentators have raised questions about the implications this attack has for civil liberties and due process in the United States. Critics express fear that this attack will radically expand presidential powers for use of military forces against U.S. citizens. Such doubts hinge on the assertion that this situation is unprecedented in U.S. military and legal history, however. It is not.

Anwar al-Awlaki is far from the first American citizen to go to war against the U.S. For example: during World War II, two Americans, Peter Delaney and Martin James Marti, served in the SS-Standarte Kurt Eggers, a Waffen-SS unit that specialized in propaganda aimed at Allied nations. Their role in the German military was thus remarkably similar to that performed by al-Awlaki in Al-Qaeda. Delaney was killed in action by Allied forces in 1945.

Senate Joint Resolution 23 of the 107th Congress authorizes the President "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001." As a result, the United States is effectively at war with Al-Qaeda as unequivocally as it was at war with Nazi Germany in 1945. U.S. forces thus had the same legal justification to target Anwar al-Awlaki as they did to target Peter Delaney during World War II.

If there is anything unprecedented about the current situation, it is not in the actions of the President or the military, but in the nature of Al-Qaeda itself as a combatant force.  Peter Delaney formally invited U.S. hostility by donning the uniform of the Waffen-S.S. Al-Qaeda is a much more vaguely structured entity than the Nazi Party, the Wermacht, or the Greater German Reich, thus Anwar al-Awlaki's participation in Al-Qaeda did not generate the kind of formal, activating symbols that made Peter Delaney a target. If the enemy wears no uniform, how can we identify them? In al-Awlaki's case, we could take his word for it. He declared to the world repeatedly that he was a member of Al-Qaeda and that he shared its mission, thus there was no reason to doubt that he was at war with the United States of America.

The apprehension surrounding al-Awlaki's case is, in part, a product of unfortunate rhetoric that has marked U.S. foreign and military policy since 9/11. From the outset, many critics warned of the obscuring  potential of a vaguely labeled "war on terror." The suspicions aroused by the death of al-Awlaki are just this type of consequence. Rhetoric should not blind us to what are evident facts and clear principles, however. Though a "war on terror" may be ill-conceived, a war on Al-Qaeda is just and necessary. In this context, our clearest guides to the identity of enemy combatants in the current struggle are the claims they themselves profess to make. We may never entirely understand why al-Awlaki joined Al-Qaeda, any more than we can understand the motives of Peter Delaney for joining the SS, but both men were equally at war with the United States of America, and suffered the same consequences.