Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Clinton Foundation and the Perennial Campaign Dance

It is interesting to speculate on the shape of an alternative universe in which Bernie Sanders had become the Democratic nominee.  As the GOP unpacked its oppo research on Sanders, and the wider public learned for the first time about his enthusiastic support of the Sandinistas, his admiration of Fidel Castro, his criticism of Israel, and other aspects of his past and present political affiliations, Sanders's image would have morphed, for many right-leaning and independent voters, from that of a plucky and avuncular populist crusader into that of a wild-eyed radical bent on creating the People's Republic of America. In that world, we would have seen Sanders's approval rating (which in our own reality has risen steadily since he began his campaign and now stands at well above 55%) erode to be no better than Hillary Clinton's, which is currently the inverse of his.

This is of course a function of the regular campaign dance that unwinds every four years, when the nation is made aware that the sky is falling and (depending on whom you believe) one of two monsters is rising from the depths of hell to destroy the Union. This year the Clintons, by virtue of having been in the public spotlight and engaged in political affairs at the national level for more than two decades, provide especially rich fodder for such projects. The current scandal being pursued in the press and by GOP surrogates is the "corruption" of the Clinton Foundation, a charitable organization established after Bill left the White House which has raised more than two-billion dollars of donations over the course of its operation, some of it from foreign governments, corporations, and individuals.

The Clinton Foundation has devoted its assets to a number of causes, such as providing anti-viral drugs to impoverished AIDS patients, lowering the cost globally of anti-malarial medication, and teaching improved techniques to poor farmers. The Clintons have never been personally enriched by the Foundation, indeed they have put much of their own considerable fortune into the Foundation's coffers. The Clintons' critics, however, allege that donations to the foundation have been used by private individuals and foreign governments to purchase influence from the Clintons.

Whether one believes such allegations is largely a function of one's assessment of the Clintons' vanity. If you feel that it is really so important to the Clintons that AIDS patients be aided in their name and no one else's, perhaps the charges of influence-peddling hold water. Even if one holds the latter to be true, however, the degree to which that should influence one's vote might hinge on how egregious one deemed these transactions to be. These allegations have been investigated exhaustively, and there has yet to be much credible evidence that Hillary Clinton did anything as Secretary of State that did not fall within the normal parameters of that office.

Accusations concerning the Clinton Foundation are usually paired with indictments of speaking fees garnered by both Bill and Hillary that have contributed significantly to their combined net worth.  It is true that both Clintons have given dozens of speeches in the past fifteen years, for average speaking fees exceeding $200,000.  These fees, combined with large advances on the sale of memoirs, have enabled the Clintons to amass an estimated fortune of more than $100 million.

This story is an indictment of the ease with which fame can be translated into money in our increasingly media-saturated and celebrity-obsessed society, but again the degree to which it should affect one's opinion of the Clintons themselves is an open question. Bill Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, has likewise given many speeches, by one count over 200, at an average fee of $100 thousand. Bush has not enjoyed the success that the Clinton's have at amassing wealth, but the explanation for that clearly does not lie in his having tried less assiduously. We might hope to elect a president that can resist the temptation to cash in on fame, but the candidate that bears those virtues might nonetheless have different baggage (Exhibit A: Bernie Sanders).

Every four years the spin machine of each political party goes into overdrive to attempt to negatively define the image of the opposing party. In 2004 we learned from Michael Moore about the Bush family's investments in Saudi oil and from the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" about John Kerry's war service. In 2008 we learned about Barack Obama's intimacy with Bill Ayers and in 2012 about Mitt Romney's history with Bain Capital.

Clinton critics will no doubt insist that concerns about the Clinton Foundation are substantively different than these past allegations, and that anyone who does not acknowledge the distressing "reality" of Clinton corruption is a partisan shill. The degree to which one accepts such judgments depends on many contingencies. I see very little empirical basis for this censure, but I am obviously speaking through the filter of my own partisan bias.

One thing is, however, interesting to note. The book on which the bulk of these accusations are built, Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer, was published more than one year ago. It is thus interesting that this line of attack is being unpacked by the Trump campaign and its surrogates at this early point in the campaign. If Jeb Bush, for example, were the nominee of the GOP, one would not expect these weapons to be deployed until late September or October, when the "death blow" against the Clinton campaign needed dealing. The early use of this material bespeaks a degree of desperation on Trump's part. He has fallen so precipitously in the polls and dug himself into such a deep quagmire of policy miscues and rhetorical obscenities that he needs something, anything, to take the focus off of him and place it onto Hillary Clinton. Where a more centrist GOP candidate might have been able to use these allegations to appeal to independent voters, Trump can probably only hope to use them to dampen Democrats' enthusiasm for their candidate, or perhaps to inspire some defections to the Libertarian or Green Party tickets. November will tell us whether these tactics had any impact.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Old Nonsense in a New Wrapper

Monday saw the latest in what will no doubt, by November, be an extraordinarily long and elaborate chain of attempts to repackage the candidacy of Donald Trump. Trump delivered a speech in Youngstown, Ohio dedicated to foreign affairs and national security. There are many points of inaccuracy or logical weakness that one might highlight in this address, but the one that interested me most was the passage in which he asserted:

In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test. The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today. In addition to screening out all members or sympathizers of terrorist groups, we must also screen out any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles – or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law. Those who do not believe in our Constitution, or who support bigotry and hatred, will not be admitted for immigration into the country.

This is ostensibly an attempt to recast Trump's earlier call for a total ban on all Muslim immigration or travel to the United States into more "reasonable" terms. Rather than proposing a religious test which would be in flagrant violation of the First Amendment, Trump is now calling for an "ideological test" along the lines of what was done during the Cold War in search of communist spies and saboteurs. While this does minimally sanitize Trump's rhetoric in semantic terms, the practical logic of his proposal of course remains very troubling. The parameters of this "ideology" that Trump would screen for are so vague as to invite monstrous abuse. Would, for example, a devout Muslim who feels Sharia law is more personally binding on her than any civil law (as many orthodox Jews feel about halacha or as many Catholics feel about Church canon law) fail this ideological screening test? There is no real way to know, if one follows the strict wording of Trump's pronouncement. He has left open the possibility that, in the enforcement of his policy, the Venn diagram showing the overlap between world Muslims and "Radical Islamic ideologues" might form a single, coterminous circle.

Beyond these gimmicks of fuzzy logic, the latest Trump "reboot" is offensive for being such a transparent con. By railing against the "ideology of Radical Islam" Trump has switched his key from overt prejudice to dog-whistle broadcasts aimed at the same constituency of bigots. Any cursory examination of the web will find that there is a cottage industry of books, journals, and websites dedicated to spreading the "truth" that Islam is not a religion at all, but a "political ideology bent on world domination" (Google the phrase in quotes if you doubt my word). Thus in posing his "ideological test" Trump is performing the same kind of evasive postmodern wink as was entailed by his shout out to "Second Amendment people," his ramblings about President Obama's birthplace, and so much of what he has contributed to political discourse during his life in the public spotlight.

Trump has pulled such a thin veil over his bigotry that few people outside the US, Muslims least of all, will be taken in by it. Even if it were in any way persuasive, his new rhetoric can not wipe clean the monstrosity of his prior call for a total ban on Muslim immigration and travel. In the same way that no African-American, Catholic, or Jewish citizen could ever trust David Duke (or anyone who supports him), no matter how much he repudiates his past, no Muslim anywhere, "radical" or otherwise, will ever be able to trust that Trump's words or deeds are undertaken in good faith. His first call for a ban should have totally and permanently disqualified Trump from elective office here in the U.S., much less from the presidency of our constitutional Republic. The fact that so many elected officials and commentators have failed to acknowledge that fact is deeply distressing.

This is more than an abstract problem, moreover. In practical terms, the election of Donald Trump, given his logic and rhetoric, will cripple the United States in the struggle against groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda. Because these latter groups are so malignant, it is very difficult for them to draw support from the world's Muslim communities. However, precisely because their only goal is wanton destruction, they only need to attract a very few frightened or deranged people from the world's 1.6 billion Muslims in order to continue their program of mayhem. A figure like Donald Trump, who ratchets up the climate of fear and threat experienced by Islamic society worldwide, plays perfectly into the plans of violent jihadists. It is thus not merely for the sake of abstract principle, but for that of the hardscrabble, nuts-and-bolts task of defeating America's enemies, that we must hope voters see not only through this con game, but also the others that Trump will continue to unpack between now and November.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Toward a Progressive Foreign Policy: The Case of Syria

This essay was first published in August 2013 in the online journal The Washington Spectator. Though the situation in Syria has changed somewhat (particularly the rise of ISIS, which today is a much greater concern than Al-Nusra, though the latter remains active under a different guise), much of the advice I wrote here remains relevant. I agree with Nicholas Kristof, who wrote recently that a failure to intervene robustly in Syria will ultimately be deemed President Obama's greatest mistake. Her support for a more proactive policy in Syria is one of the main reasons that I supported Secretary Clinton's candidacy from an early date. I hope that, if she wins the presidency, she will re-orient our strategy in Syria and the Middle East more broadly along the lines I outline below.

            Since the Great Recession, U.S. politics has been dominated by debates over domestic policy, thus it has almost been forgotten that the downhill slide of the Bush coalition began because of their mismanagement of foreign affairs. The midterm election of 2006 was carried by the Democrats, despite massive GOP gerrymandering, due to anger over the Iraq war. Though the political scene here in the U.S. has shifted radically from that point, most of the foreign policy challenges that confronted us during the Bush years linger on. Moreover, however misguided Bush foreign policy was, it undeniably left an enduring impact on the state of global affairs, creating new problems and conditions that must be faced in years to come. As progressives contemplate the potential for future leadership, it is thus vital for them to ask what principles should animate foreign policy moving forward.
            This is a challenging task. Foreign affairs are not amenable to easy partisan or ideological analysis. There is not a coherently “liberal” or “conservative” approach to foreign policy, “doves” and “hawks,” isolationists and internationalists, can be found on both sides of the aisle. Still, if progressives are to enjoy electoral and governing success in the near term, they need to be able to present a clear and coherent alternative to the neoconservative path blazed by the last Republican administration.
            What should that alternative look like? For all its shortcomings, the Bush White House came into power with a coherent world view, one hatched in think tanks like the Project for the New American Century in the decade or so prior to their taking office. In order to right the ship of state thrown so widely off course by the neocons, progressives must formulate a set of policy guidelines to replace the misguided doctrine of the Bush years.
            Many progressives would insist that the folly of neoconservatism was merely an extreme expression of a general pathology of American foreign policy. They would point to the long, sordid history of American meddling in Cuba, the Philippines, Guatemala, Iran, Angola, Indonesia, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, and a host of other countries, and insist that the projection of U.S. strategic power always serves the cause of neoimperialism. Therefore, they would conclude, the only effective and integral stance progressives might adopt as a corrective to neoconservative adventurism is to reject and restrain the use of American power abroad altogether.
            Though there is merit to this view, it nonetheless comes up against problems. The first of these is empirical. Despite the abundant and tragic damage that has been inflicted by U.S. power over time, there have been several moments when it has played a crucially progressive role in world affairs. The most obvious of these was World War II. Even keeping in mind events such as Dresden, the Japanese internment, and Hiroshima (to name only a few), it is hard to deny that the last half of the twentieth century would have been far worse for tens of millions but for America’s involvement in that conflict. In more recent memory the U.S. missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, while again not without transgressions and abuses, on balance did real and necessary good.
            The second problem with what might be termed “progressive isolationism” is pragmatic. By now, the burgeoning of U.S. power and its insinuation into far-flung corners of the globe is intractably institutionalized and perpetuated by systemic forces that can not realistically be politically undone. Progressives thus have no choice but to devise a doctrine for the operation of U.S. power overseas, or they will inevitably, given the natural pendulum swing of American politics, yield control of it to those, like the neoconservatives, who have a plan and the political will to carry it out.
            In the electorate at large, the military remains one of the most respected and trusted institutions in American society. If progressives can not articulate a coherent doctrine for the military’s global mission, they stand little chance of retaining the support necessary to achieve any significant policy goals, be they foreign or domestic. Conversely, when progressive leaders do project American power to demonstrably positive effect, it strengthens the cause of progressivism more generally, and works to constructively realign American strategic culture.
            Here I would like to propose such a set of principles, and apply them to the specific case of Syria, a significant foreign policy challenge that promises to remain on the horizon for some time. Unlike some progressives, I feel strongly that U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis is necessary. Though some might see this as a recapitulation of the sins of the past, I hope to demonstrate that a distinctly progressive foreign policy doctrine, diametrically opposed to neoconservatism, nonetheless calls for U.S. action in Syria.

1) Understand and Respect the Limits of American Power

            The greatest error of neoconservatism was its absurd overestimation of American power. According to the writings of the PNAC, the end of the Cold War had left America the singular and unchallenged superpower on the world stage. Thus, none of the lessons of conflicts like Korea or Vietnam were applicable in this new situation; America was free to remake the world according to its values and preferences. Iraq demonstrated that concept to be utterly delusional.
            The swift defeat of Saddam Hussein showcased the extent of conventional U.S. military might, but this was nothing the world did not already know. The American military, after all, had been victorious in every standing battle in Vietnam. However, during the ten year occupation of Iraq, the lessons of Vietnam returned to haunt the “Vulcans” running the show in the Bush White House and Pentagon.
            The situation quickly spiraled out of control of the U.S., demonstrating the same general principle expressed by the resolution of the Vietnam conflict: in a foreign nation, the U.S. can not dictate an outcome that does not enjoy the support or assent of a critical mass of that nation’s people. Just as we could not impose a permanent partition of Vietnam against the will of its people, we could not exclude figures like Moqtada al-Sadr from Iraqi politics or impose a regime that would tolerate the presence of a large U.S. garrison like those in Germany, Japan, or Korea. We left Iraq a more violent and unstable nation than we found it, and that was probably the best outcome we could have hoped for from the outset.
            So where then, is there a call for U.S. action in Syria, if our misadventure in neighboring Iraq was so ill conceived? Those who would conflate Syria with Iraq overlook one crucial dimension that distinguishes these two cases: where the proximal action to overthrow Saddam Hussein was almost wholly an imposition of the U.S., the movement against the Assad regime is an authentically homegrown expression of Syrian popular will. The Syrian resistance began as a peaceful campaign for civil rights and representative government, it only militarized in response to the Assad regime’s violent assault upon civilians.
            Under these circumstances, it falls within the scope of U.S. power to facilitate the Syrian resistance.  If, unlike the Bush White House, the U.S. acts in concert with a broad array of international partners and does not engage its own ground forces, it will not be setting the agenda or imposing its will, but assisting the Syrian people to work toward a goal that they themselves have chosen. Will the participation of the U.S. be entirely disinterested and benign? No. But to preclude American involvement on that basis is to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
            No revolutionary movement in history, whether the American Revolution of 1776 or the South Vietnamese Revolution of 1954-1975, has succeeded without external assistance. If we agree with the goals of the protesters that first arose in Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo, then to abandon them in the face of the sacrifices they have made to sustain their movement is an abdication of the ordinary role played by virtually every power in world history. Though the U.S. should not and, contra the theories of the neocons, can not unilaterally impose an outcome in a foreign nation, when a significant mass of people in that society become galvanized to effect change that is aligned with American values and interests, it is both unprincipled and unwise for the U.S. to withhold its assistance.
2) Understand and Respect the History and Culture of Other Nations

           The faith of the neoconservatives in technology was grossly hubristic. In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld famously rejected multiple plans proposed to him by his own general staff, complaining each time that the draft under consideration called for too many troops. He intended to prove that new weapons, communication, and surveillance technology gave the U.S. military such dominance that the old rules of tactical engagement no longer applied.
            On February 26, 2006, the folly of such reasoning was cast into stark relief, when Sunni insurgents, using common demolition-grade explosives, destroyed the Shi’ite Golden Mosque in Samarra, plunging Iraq into almost two years of bloody sectarian war. In staging the invasion of Iraq, the neocons had not accounted for any of the many idiosyncrasies of Iraq’s history, culture, or social makeup, believing that American technological supremacy made all such contingencies irrelevant. They never imagined that becoming the viceregal authority in Baghdad would make the U.S. military liable for the security of every Shi’ite shrine throughout Iraq, or for the safety of Yazidis, Turkomen, and Assyrian Christians, or for a myriad other components of the fragile Iraqi social contract. Any rational person who took these factors into account would have understood, not only the utter lunacy of Rumsfeld’s call for less troops, but that no number of troops the U.S. could possibly muster would have given America control over the fluid state of Iraqi society under occupation.
            Being aware of the complexity and full-blooded humanity of our counterparts in international affairs is a natural corollary of understanding the limits of American power. Beyond this, it is an absolute necessity in navigating the turbulent conditions of an increasingly volatile and dangerous world. Perhaps nothing illustrates this principle better than the baleful link the Bush White House drew between 9-11 and Saddam Hussein. By casting the invasion of Iraq as part of a “war on terror,” the neocons simultaneously strengthened the hand of groups like Al Qaeda while, through distortion and oversimplification, weakening the capacity of the U.S. to effectively respond to that threat.
            This reality was a simple function of demographics. Though the organizers and perpetrators of 9-11 were Arabs, the ideology they espoused had, prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, never achieved significant political purchase in any Arab nations. Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies rose to power in Afghanistan and Pakistan because the society of those nations is a patchwork of different ethnic groups, none of which enjoys an absolute majority. In those conditions, religious extremism becomes a viable organizing force, because religion is a more unifying factor than language or ethnicity. In a country like Iraq, which is 80% Arab-speaking, language and ethnicity unites people where religion divides them between Sunnis and Shi’ites, Muslims and Christians. Thus in the Arab world secular ideologies such as Baathism and Nasserism have historically enjoyed vastly greater political success than the religious extremism of Osama bin Laden or Ayatollah Khomeini.
            The invasion of Iraq gave Sunni extremism the greatest purchase it had ever enjoyed in Iraqi society. Sunni extremists flowed into the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Hussein regime, and the very asymmetry between the U.S. and Iraqi insurgents so lionized by Donald Rumsfeld drove many Iraqis to join or make common cause with groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq. Again, anyone moderately informed about the historical and cultural conditions of Iraqi society should have been able to predict this outcome.
            How, then, does a respect for the history and culture of other nations argue for U.S. involvement in Syria? Ironically, American inaction in Syria is having the same effect as American interventionism in Iraq: it is strengthening the hand of Sunni extremism. Al Qaeda had no greater purchase in Assad’s Syria than it had in Hussein’s Iraq. The decay of the Assad regime, however, is creating the same kind of power vacuum that aided Sunni extremists in occupied Iraq, and the asymmetry between Assad forces and the resistance is likewise driving Syrians to enlist or ally with Al Qaeda or its affiliate groups.
            Those who oppose U.S. involvement in Syria because of the presence of extremists in the resistance are not clearly understanding the lessons of Iraq. The rise of Sunni extremism in both countries is not an expression of the normative state of either society; it is a product of contingent circumstances. In Iraq it was foolish of the U.S. to create the conditions that fueled extremism, in Syria it is foolish for the U.S. to refrain from alleviating the conditions (to the extent that it can) that fuel extremism.
            The imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria (to give just one example of a measure the U.S. might take) would have several positive effects. In the near-term it would retard the growing influence of groups like the Al-Nusra front in the Syrian resistance. Since the power of such groups is a function of the asymmetry of the conflict, making the conflict more symmetrical will deplete their influence in the resistance coalition.
            In the long term, only the closure of the power vacuum in which they thrive will reliably check the advancing power of groups like the Al-Nusra front. The sooner Syrian society returns to a state of normalcy and civil order, the sooner the power of Al-Nusra will wane, as the ingrained secular patterns of Syrian social life revive. It is thus not only in the humanitarian interests of the Syrian people, but in the vital security interests of the U.S., for America to do everything in its power to facilitate a swift resolution to the conflict.

3)Pursue Long-Term Political Progress Over Short-Term Tactical Gains

            The neoconservatives were myopically focused on outdated hallmarks of strategic power, ignoring the rapidly evolving state of world affairs. Thus, though the most destructive attack on the U.S. since Pearl Harbor had been staged by a group of young men armed with box cutters, we invaded Iraq on the suspicion that Saddam Hussein (who had no part in 9-11) might possess weapons of mass destruction (which Al Qaeda does not need to perpetrate acts of terror, and which Saddam Hussein would not have shared with Al Qaeda in any case). This flew in the face of a strategic principle that has been understood since the early revolutionary days of Mao Zedong: the political dimensions of an asymmetrical conflict vastly outweigh its tactical factors in importance.
            In this respect, the invasion of Iraq was an utter disaster. On the tactical side, it did not prevent Al Qaeda from acquiring weapons, quite the contrary. But this was the least of the matter. Politically, the Iraq invasion created an enormous boost in Al Qaeda recruitment. Al Qaeda and its affiliate groups remain a fringe movement, but thanks to the Iraq war they constitute a vastly larger force, and their ideology enjoys far broader appeal than it did before.
            In the wake of 9-11, the strategic priorities of the U.S. should be the reverse of what they were during the invasion of Iraq. In other words, keeping weapons out of the hands of Al Qaeda operatives is much less important than decreasing the appeal of their ideology in the wider Muslim world.  Once again, in this regard passivity in Syria is having the same effect as adventurism in Iraq.
            Opponents of U.S. involvement in Syria often warn that arms given to the resistance will end up in the hands of extremists. Arms, however, are easy to come by. Political capital is not. If the U.S. sits by and allows the Syrian conflict to further degenerate into a sectarian war, the political prestige of groups like Al-Nusra will be greatly enhanced. That will pose a far greater danger to the world than some small arms falling into “the wrong hands.”
            The political fallout from inaction in Syria is arguably already visible beyond the boundaries of the conflict itself. With no power rising to oppose the Assad regime’s use of force in Syria, the impetus for political reconciliation is on the decline throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Democratic opposition leaders have been assassinated in Tunisia. In Lebanon the political process is falling apart, and the conditions of civil war brewing anew. The nadir to which the Arab Spring has fallen is most distressing in Egypt. Watching Egyptian soldiers kill dozens of demonstrators on the streets of Cairo, it is impossible to draw a moral or philosophical distinction between Egypt’s new rulers and the Assad regime in Damascus. These are all conditions conducive to the growth and spread of Islamic extremism.
            It was foolish of the neoconservatives to imagine that the U.S. could control the development of a society as complex as Iraq’s, much less that of the entire Middle East or larger Muslim world. But it is equally foolish to assume that the U.S. can have no constructive influence upon these societies, or that any aspect of U.S. power can be wholly excluded from our engagement in international affairs. Isolation, withdrawal, or rigid passivism are simply not realistic options given the dynamic and dangerous state of the world. Moreover, the ever-increasing interconnectedness and interdependence of the world makes a problem for one nation a problem for all. In the face of such complexity and volatility, the failure to do what good we can in a crisis like Syria’s is equivalent to doing harm.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Doctrine, Practice, Religion, and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Come Together, Right Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Thank You Khizr and Ghazala Khan

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

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

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

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

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

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