Archive for May 16th, 2008

Why Bush failed at Foreign Policy

At the outset, I want to point out that I am not one who is as critical about President Bush as some. In his second term he made numerous adjustments in policy which have created a more effective diplomatic approach than in the past, and he moved away from the hubris of the first administration, which acted on the basis of a vast over-estimation of America’s ability to project power.

That said, I was amazed that he leveled an attack on those who would “talk with” terrorists or state sponsors of terrorism as being similar to those who appeased Hitler. While he may have been directing this more at Jimmy Carter, who talked with representatives of Hamas recently, it also seemed to attack Senator Obama, who said that the US should talk with the Iranians. And, I suppose, given that the Iraq Study Group, of which current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was an influential member, said the same thing, Bush essentially called the entire foreign policy establishment appeasers. He also was insulting Yitzak Rabin, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin, Nobel peace prize winners, who reached out and negotiated with people who had been using terror tactics or had been part of an effort to try to eliminate Israel.

Bush’s statement was false on multiple levels. First, the administration seems at times to have a Hitler fetish. Every foreign leader of a state which we have severe disagreements is a Hitler. Saddam was a Hitler. Now Ahmadinejad is a Hitler. There was one Hitler, he led the strongest military power on the planet at the time, and he started numerous wars. Others may have similar traits, but to assume that they are all Hitlers, well, that’s a bit silly. Moreover, you don’t know what another leader really intends until you sit down and talk. Mao Zedong said things as radical as Ahmadinejad in terms of destroying the US, but President Nixon talked to him, and in fact made real improvements in the American-Chinese relationship. Talking is not the same as acting. You can talk and decide you can’t deal with someone. But refusing to talk because you assume the other side is a Hitler because of strong public rhetoric? That’s childish.

Moreover, our allies the Saudis have an official view that Israel is illegitimate and should be eliminated. Their government is more repressive and strict than the Iranian government. The difference is Saudi Arabia is not countering our foreign policy goals, so we work with them. Iran is funding Hezbollah and Shi’ite groups in Iraq. They clearly are willing to use military power to try to expand their interests. But so do we. We invaded Iraq. We support Israeli efforts that many Arab see as keeping the Palestinians in permanent poverty and humiliation. We arm one side, Iran arms the others. Iran hasn’t invaded anyone, we have. Iran and the US are both trying to shape what ends up happening in Iraq. There is tension. But there is no reason not to talk. As that apparent appeaser Winston Churchill said “jaw jaw is better than war war.”

President Bush’s comment was also a gift for Barack Obama, who now can grab headlines fighting with a very unpopular President. The more he can be seen arguing against Bush in this campaign the better it is for Obama, the worse it is for McCain. But the most important aspect of the President’s comment is it lays bare why his foreign policy failed. He has fallen for the temptation to divide the world up into good vs. evil, and then refuse to have anything to do with the evil, while trying to expand the good. The reality is that there are very few Hitlers, despite all the ramped up rhetoric some extremists use. There is good and evil in the world, but it’s not clearly delineated, and there is a lot of complexity and a lot of grey. Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah are real entities, who aren’t going to go away for get defeated through military means. To make diplomacy off limits from the start is to set up a game that we cannot win. President Bush displayed the kind of attitude that has led us to a major debacle in the Mideast, weakening our military, showing the limits of our power, strengthening Iran, and distracting us from real counter-terrorism. His attempt to criticize Carter and Obama demonstrated why he has failed. We are not strong enough to stomp our feet and demand the world adhere to our wishes. We have to talk, we have to use diplomacy. It may not work. But not to try it because we assume that our adversary is another Hitler is a recipe for disaster.

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Same sex marriage in California

In California the state supreme court overturned a ban on gay marriage, essentially making the largest state in America the second state allowing same-sex marriage. This is probably the start of something that, in the course of the next generation, will move from being seen as bizarre or dangerous to common place and normal. In fact, the change taking place (visible especially when talking to young people across the political spectrum) is similar to changes in rights to women or blacks earlier this century. In a generation or two people will be wondering why had there been so much bigotry?

Yet for many people, this is a horrendous decision, threatening the cultural values that hold our society together. Do they have a point? Is this a threat to the family and family values?

On the one hand, the idea this threatens the family seems on its face absurd. The idea that the ability of a gay couple to marry will cause families to suddenly fall apart is clearly ridiculous. No father or mother is going to say, “well, gee, gays can marry now so maybe I should leave my spouse and try being gay for awhile.” How many young couples will choose not to have a family, or treat their family differently because the gay couple down the street now can be legally wed? Indeed, why should the sex and love lives of other people make a difference to anyone? Sure, hardly anyone would want to see people of any sexual orientation engage in intimate acts in public, but allowing already gay, devoted couples to marry hardly alters what the public experiences. This corresponds to my generally libertarian principles: what other people choose and do is their business, and who am I to judge it? I wouldn’t want to be forced to live a life having to deny my basic desires, why on earth would I want to do that to others? For all these reasons, I’ve always thought not allowing gays to marry is a sign of ridiculous backwardness on the part of society, busybodies who somehow think it’s their business to control the love lives of others.

Yet, one has to be fair. The argument against gay marriage is more complex, and has its roots in traditional conservatism. Traditional conservatives were distrustful of anything that threatened the customs and norms of society. It is probably best represented by people like Edmund Burke, who argued, correctly, that the French revolution was going to go bad because society is not held together by laws and governments, but by tradition and culture. The French revolution dismissed religion, tradition, and French customs in favor of rule by pure reason. Soon society fragmented, and it was only a military dictator like Napoleon who put it back together.

Traditional conservatives (as opposed to the usual US right) also are skeptical of a capitalism that values Madonna over Mozart, allows stores to open on Sunday mornings instead of preserving traditional family worship time, and sees people as moving away from the kinds of behaviors, manners, and social norms that defined a more stable and “normal” past. The argument is that allowing gay marriage is part of a general decay of social norms and values which will ultimately fragment society and foster a nihilistic sense of entitlement by individuals to be able to do their own thing, regardless of the cost to society. Gay marriage is not wrong because there is anything wrong with being gay, they would argue. It’s wrong because it sacrifices traditional social norms at the alter of individual freedom/license. It is symbolic of a decline in our social cohesion.

That argument has its strengths, but ultimately I think it fails because it doesn’t appreciate that the modern West has replaced old ‘traditional values’ with a new set of cultural norms. These norms are not “anything goes,” and in fact many of those who most stridently support gay marriage also volunteer and are active in a variety of community building activities. The culture of the “West” is defined not by traditional moral values, but rather values which come less from traditional religious practices, and more from principles of liberty and mutual respect. It’s a pragmatic view of ethics (philosophical pragmatism). This has a lot in common with the ‘cognitive empathy’ discussed yesterday. People no longer focus on things that are different, with a desire to demand conformity to a particular moral code or set of practices. Rather, diverse practices and moral beliefs can co-exist, much like different ethnic groups can co-exist, as long as they act towards each other in ways that are not unjust or disrespectful. In that sense, this is simply a further evolution of the culture of US and the West. And, unlike the French revolution, it’s not a sudden overthrow of all that is traditional, it’s happening slowly, with a new generation showing very different moral ideals than the generation before. That is a kind of natural cultural change, not destabilizing, but in fact helping build a stronger community. Not that there won’t be political and social arguments and battles over the way our world is changing. Such is progress.

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