Archive for April, 2009

Republican Self-Destruction?

The choice made by Arlen Specter to leave the Republican party and join the Democrats is yet another sign that the GOP is in big trouble.   To be sure, Specter’s move is dismissed by the right wing of the party as meaningless — he often sided with Democrats on some red meat issues of the Republican base.   They can also criticize him as having been politically motivated.   Back in the primary season as the Obama-Clinton race reached a crescendo, a lot of liberal Republicans changed their party allegiance to Democratic in order to vote in that primary.   Most haven’t bothered to switch back, leaving a more right wing base of primary voters, ones likely in the current climate to back his opponent.   Specter’s best chance at re-election is as a Democrat.

Yet the driving force of this change is a strong current in the Republican party to shift to the right.  The base, not used to not having power, and believing that the failure of the GOP under Bush was caused too little adherence to the core right wing agenda, believe the best way to get back in power is to firmly grasp conservative “principles” and do all they can to stop the “socialism” of the Obama administration.   Moreover, they are committed to what they call a “culture war” over things like same sex marriage and abortion.   Pragmatic Republicans who compromise and see a ‘culture war’ as a bit silly are skewered as “RINOS” – or ‘Republican in Name Only.”   They want an exclusive club.

The Democrats, on the other hand, have embraced pro-life, pro-gun, and more conservative candidates, including Specter, whose position on labor issues often contradicts Obama’s.   The Democrats learned that the key to winning a majority is to have candidates that speak to the constituency of a particular state.  A pro-gun pro-life conservative Democrat is a better choice for a state like Georgia, while in urban centers you might have Democrats who truly are socialist.   The Obama administration has to ride herd on this cacophony of Democratic voices, but if it can craft compromises and make deals, it can get a lot done.

Here in Maine, moderate pro-choice Republican Olympia Snowe is dismayed by the way the Republican party is changing.  In the northeast, where few Republicans get elected to office, the red meat right wing agenda has little appeal.   To be Republican here is to distrust centralized government, be fiscally conservative, support a strong military, and see individual rights as paramount.   On issues like abortion, gay marriage, and most social issues there are divisions.  The libertarian side of the party is at least as strong as the socially conservative side.  Moreover, there is a New England pragmatism that refuses to look at issues like health care and immigration in purely ideological terms.  There are problems to be solved, let’s make compromises and deal with them.

Looking at the demographics of the country, there is little reason to expect a more ‘ideologically pure’ Republican party to succeed.  Perhaps they think that “when Obama fails” the public will simply turn to them as the only alternative, and then they can implement their agenda.    But that’s delusional thinking.  Bush arguably was failing in 2004, but still defeated Kerry.  And despite the fact the GOP and President Bush were immensely unpopular in 2008, if it wasn’t for the economic crisis and McCain’s weak campaign (and pick of Sarah Palin for VP), the Republicans might have still pulled off a victory.  People compare the parties, they don’t just dismiss one and choose the other.  Obama gave people a sense of hope and confidence, while projecting pragmatism.   If he had spouted left wing slogans, he’d have lost.

This inward spiral of the GOP is, however, typical of parties who lose power.  Not wanting to accept it, or knowing what to do next, the activists — usually the most extreme — push hard and develop a more extreme agenda.   Almost always this leads to electoral defeat after electoral defeat.   This causes party leaders to resign, and their replacements recognize that they need a more inclusive vision.

At first they drift towards mirroring the other party.  This happened in Great Britain after the Labour party fell from power in 1979.  They veered far left, and after a series of loses Tony Blair shifted the party to the center, and accepted many of changes conservative Margaret Thatcher had put in place.   This took the Labour party 18 years.  In Germany the Social Democrats followed a similar path after losing power in 1982, only regaining it 16 years later with Gerhard Schroeder steering the party to the center.

Unlike the UK and Germany, the US has a Presidential rather than a parliamentary system, and therefore it is possible for a charismatic and effective leader to hasten the change.  However, just winning the Presidency isn’t enough, as proven by Nixon in 1968 and Clinton in 1992.   Nixon governed as a rather liberal President, while Clinton turned out relatively conservative.   The cycle tends to be first the losing party goes into the wilderness and tries to figure out its identity in a new political era.  This often leads to activists and extremists defining the agenda.  Then as a new group of leaders get sick of failure, they make compromises and become a “light” version of the dominant party, making inroads as the dominant party starts making errors due to being in power too long or not noticing changes in public opinion.  Finally, the new dominant party loses big as the party that had lost power rebuilds and develops a new creative message with a popular leader.   Such realignments are rare — the last two were in 1980 and now 2008.  The also tend to take place in times of economic trouble.

So what are Republicans to do?   Until they reject playing to the far right and trying to engage in unwinnable culture wars, they are likely to be in the wilderness.   People blame their philosophy for the economic collapse, and criticism of Obama ‘pandering’ to foreign leaders is ineffective given the foreign policy failures laid at the feet of the GOP.  People want a President who gets along with others.   Making gay marriage a rallying issue actually helps the gay marriage cause, that’s how unpopular the far right has become.  Support for gay marriage leaped from 33% to 44% in recent months.  The public isn’t about to get emotional about that issue when the economy seems to be in collapse.

Ultimately, they need to come around to recognizing that while their base has to be listened to, a two party system requires inclusive and diverse parties.  They need a Snowe-Collins-Specter approach to forcing the Democrats to compromise in the Senate.  The strident ‘get rid of the Rinos’ attitude only limits their power, placing less of a check on the Democrats.  And while some may think that will hasten Democratic failure, the policy changes that get put in place may be impossible to turn back.

So to my two Senators — Snowe and Collins — I’d say wait it out.  The party will come back to you.  The country needs moderate Republicans ready to create a functional check and balance system that allows compromise and cooperation.  In fact, you can still serve that function working with conservative Democrats.   In some ways the Northeast is looking today like a mirror of the Southeast after Reagan’s election, when conservative Democrats switched parties and the GOP became dominant.  That’s not healthy, two viable parties are good for the nation, and for individual states.

The GOP is not dead.  But the extremist wing’s agenda is obsolete and anachronistic.  They are holding on to it and have enough support that they think they can revive it.   In time, those illusions will fade, and a new vision will be developed to speak to a new era, and address the Democratic mistakes that are sure to be made in coming years.  C’est la politique.  The political pendulum swings, the Republic endures.

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Political Principles

(This reflection is motivated in part by responses to yesterday’s post ‘Tortured Logic’ and the principle behind rejecting torture.)

The term “principle” gets used a lot by people to justifytheir political beliefs.  Principle usually means adherence to a particular position, and the more principled one is, the less willing one is to compromise.  But rarely can principles be followed without compromise.

If someone is anti-abortion and wishes to use government force (rule of law) to prevent abortions from occurring, a few things follow.  First, there is a principle of the sanctity of life, defining life at conception.  Second, there is recognition that governmental force to limit freedom can be legitimate.

This can lead to dilemmas.  Someone cannot have a principled position against abortion and yet support the death penalty or the use of war as a policy tool.  War kills.  80% of the deaths in modern war are innocent civilians.  Balancing that cost with the benefit of using war to achieve ends (e.g., protect the country from dangers, overthrow dictators) makes the principle of ‘the sanctity of life’ something which can be compromised for political expediency.    If that’s true for war or the death penalty, it certainly can be true for abortion (which is why the Catholic church opposes all three).

The same goes for government coercion.  If it’s OK here, in principle there is nothing against government using force for anything — how it gets used becomes a political issue, rather than one defined by principle.

Another example:  Anarchists believe that government is immoral, claiming freedom as their principle.   However, in anarchy powerful people can use that power to force others to do their bidding, even without government; if that’s OK, then the core value isn’t freedom, but individualism.  A collective should not be empowered to deny an individual to do what he or she wants.   Yet even a voluntary collective acting to protect individuals within it contradicts the principle of individualism.  To the person being acted upon by this voluntary collective, it may as well be a government limiting their freedom.  When worked through logically, it becomes virtually impossible to justify anarchism on the basis of principle.   Alas, the same is true with taking a principled stand against torture.

The principle behind opposition to torture is opposition to the violation of another person in ways that cause psychological and physical distress.   To hold that principle absolutely would be to become a complete pacifist — more so even than the person who opposes abortion, since there the concern is life, not injury.

If there is ever any reason where doing physical or psychological harm to someone is permissible, and then the issue becomes how those conditions get defined and under what contexts.    Is water boarding torture?  How about pulling out finger nails?   Why one and not the other?  One can point to legal definitions, but those definitions are simply the result of somebody else grappling with these questions.

Approaching it this way, torture is a linguistic marker, delineateing those acts of coercion we consider immoral.   And, since it assumes that some such acts of coercion can be allowed, the drawing of the line is driven by compromise and personal/cultural norms rather than clear analytical principles.    It involves the level of damage to the individual, the amount of pain, long term psychological damage, and perhaps also violation of social norms.   One can build arguments rationalizing virtually no physical or mental coercion, to one that justifies even ripping out finger nails if effective at getting information from an enemy.   Once it becomes a matter of drawing lines, we can find ways to justify drawing the line anywhere.

I would argue this that is true for every issue, the number of people who truly live according to clear, uncompromised principles is exceedingly small.  Even then, their reason for embracing a principle is personal — it appeals to them somehow, probably at an emotional level.   Principles are held because of ones’ personal belief system.   Moreover, both our principles (values we hold as true) and the compromises we make involving them are driven as much (or more) by the heart as the head.  Emotion often trumps reason.  The emotion can be fear, anger, insecurity…or love, concern, and empathy.

So perhaps it’s wrong to look to reason and the head for core principles.  Maybe it’s best to start from things like putting love, empathy, and contentment as core values, and examine our points of view on politics and life by asking whether or not we’re being motivated by something like love, or something like fear.   That won’t give us clear, objective methods for determining what is the right thing to do — but the kind of objectivity offered by using reason is, as noted above,  an illusion.   And, while the head can build complex modes of rationalizing what one wants to believe, the truths of the heart and/or gut might be harder to obscure.

And why love and empathy rather than fear and anger?   After all, many people feel far more comfortable rationalizing fear and hatred, and see love and empathy as ‘wimpy’ and unrealistic.   To me that comes from a deeper principle, a sense of unity in all reality.   Plotinus called it “the one,” while Muslims embrace it as Tawhid.  But if there is a union beneath all reality, then love is acceptance of this reality, while anger and fear is an attempt to flee reality.  Accepting reality usually works best.  And this principle seems to work for me, so I choose to hold it.

So what is torture, when are certain kinds of physical and psychological acts against individuals immoral?   I can’t say for sure, I have to look at the case at hand and then look into my heart and decide.   If I see anger, fear, or hatred as a core behind my thoughts, I step back and question my reactions.  In much of the torture debate it is the rhetoric of fear and anger that drives defense of these practices, while those who see the humanity of the victims have their ability to show love and empathy derided — how can one feel any sympathy for a terrorist.   And the terrorists, I’m sure, feel the same way about American military personnel.  I chose not to participate in that dance of fear and hatred.

Moreover, fear obscures.   It causes the imagination to massively magnify threats, what one imagines suddenly becomes what one expects.  That adds to the capacity to rationalize any act to counter that fear.  And when people sacrifice what they know is right in the name of fear, they start to hate themselves and soon become unable to break loose and get stuck in an edifice of rationalizations and compromises of principle that swallows them up, causing them to see the world as a cold, dangerous, place, full of enemies.   I choose not to live in that kind of world.

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Tortured Logic

I’m convinced that at some point in the future this era of American politics, lasting from the 9-11 attacks to the election of President Obama, will be one of shame for America.  I’m not talking so much about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Despite problems now in Afghanistan, few people defended the evil Taliban regime and perhaps our biggest error was not to stay and spend the time and money necessary to reconstruct Afghan civil society.  Kabul was a bustling place back in 1978 before the Soviet invasion, the country had problems, but nothing like the current ones.  Done right, we might now have been looking at a military and political success story, perhaps with much of the Taliban and even Bin Laden behind bars.

Iraq was clearly a major error.  In policy terms, it made it impossible to truly do what was necessary to keep Afghanistan from falling apart, and it became a quagmire that swallowed up the Bush Administration and Republican dominance of US politics.   If you didn’t have the Iraq war, you wouldn’t have President Obama.   It has made it harder to deal with the economic crisis, harmed America’s position in the world, stretched US military capacities and showed the limits of US power.  The idea that success in Iraq would put pressure on Iran and Syria yielded the opposite result: failures in Iraq emboldenend Iran and Syria.

Yet for all the problems associated with Iraq, if it wasn’t for the use of torture and the indefinite detention of/abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and at foreign CIA ‘detention centers’ across the globe, the amount of shame would not be as great.  There was at least a rationale behind the invasion of Iraq and a belief, no matter how naive, that somehow this would ‘spread democracy.’  Most of the deaths there have not been at our hands, even if they are the result of US actions igniting a civil war and ethnic violence.  That, at the very least, implies shared blame (and a lot of it going to al qaeda, who did all it could to ignite the violence).

What the US did to suspected terrorists and prisoners by allowing torture (under the euphemism ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ perhaps the most vile euphenism since ‘ethnic cleansing’) and anything the top levels of the Bush Administration thought appropriate, is the source of the greatest shame.   This sounds harsh, but we may find comparisons to totalitarian regimes or even Nazi Germany hard to avoid (indeed, such comparisons are made consistently in overseas media).

Are these comparisons valid?   On the one hand, no.   Comparisons to Nazi Germany, for instance, are so steeped in emotion due to the holocaust that even if one can find legitimate points to compare, it will end up being clouded by the enormity of Germany’s crimes.   And, though the public went along with it, guided by the usual mix of nationalism (it’s not hard to find blogs where posters and commentators seem to love the testosterone rush of condoning such techniques and championing them) and naivete (our government is trustworthy, so we should trust them), the real perpetrators were a small group of lawyers and bureaucrats who defined their powers as being able to even suspend the US Constitution and everything the country stands for if they thought it appropriate.

Ron Suskind, quoting Dick Cheney, calls this the “one percent doctrine:” if there is 1% a chance the country could be at risk, then anything goes to work against it, even torture.   This is, at it’s most crass and basic form, a sacrifice of principle to fear.  It is literally a sacrifice of the principles upon which this country was founded.

But, one might argue, after 9-11 there was a kind of paranoia in the country, people feared another strike any day, and panic reigned.  Well, that’s the goal of terrorism.  We should expect our government not to give into panic.  We should expect our leaders to recognize that first of all, compared to the dangers of all out nuclear war which we lived with daily in much of the 20th century, this threat was relatively small and managable.    Or, if you want a less sympathetic read, they should not have used 9-11 to amass unprecedented power and control.   There clearly should have been a firm voice saying “the last thing we can let the terrorists do is force us to give up our core principles.”

Instead, the terrorists won.  The US engaged in vile acts, with photos to prove it, that now can be thrown in our face any time we act self-righteous about our values and human rights.   We have been shown to be hypocritical in terms of what we claim we stand for on the world stage, while being weakened in ill advised conflicts.  Osama Bin Laden and the attacks of 9-11 did little to harm the US in a meaningful way.  Our response, however, has done dramatic harm (including the cheap credit released to keep the stock and housing markets up, helping create a severe economic crisis).

We can’t undo the past.  Prosecutions in cases like this would be very difficult for a variety of reasons.  But we can let the light show on what was done, and how.  We can show who wrote the memos approving the acts, and what the rationale was.  We can be truthful and open, and vow “never again.”   We also can learn from this: it becomes easy in times of fear and uncertainty to give in to the baser instincts and sacrifice principle for political expediency.  And perhaps in the grand scheme of things, there are cases so extreme that such must be done.  But nothing can justify the actions undertaken the last eight years that embraced systematic and approved torture.  We must be open, and cast aside those who say this should be ‘one of life’s mysteries,’ as if we shouldn’t question our leaders if they violate core values.    To be open, honeset and to admit error is strength, not weakness.  The strong apologize, the fearful think apologies show weakness.   We should be strong enough to live according to our principles.

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Islam and West

I’ve stated many times that I hold no set religious belief — I can’t fit myself into dogmas and theologies created by other humans trying to understand something that remains at least in part a mystery.  I am heartened by similarities across faiths, and a sense that there is a spiritual, even divine side of existence, even if God — or Allah or Brahman — remains incomprehensible to the human mind.  I believe in a unity of experience — or Tawhid or Nirvana or union with the Holy Spirit — that transcends our daily travail.  I’m convinced that this world is only a reflection of something spiritual and transcendent.

Yet we are in this world, at a given time and place in history, and we have to deal with the problems of our experience in the now in the world at hand.   I suspect that if we try to escape it through mystical retreat, drugs, fantasy or even suicide, we’ll just re-experience the same sorts of problems until we confront them.

After the 9-11 attacks  I decided to learn as much as I can about the Islamic faith.  I expected to find something extremely harsh and rigid.  Instead, the more I learned, the more I came to respect and admire Islam, its teachings and its history.   At its best, like Christianity, Islam is a beautiful and exquisite faith.   Islam unites a community in a sense of belonging and caring that is to be admired and respected.

Last summer this led me to start a blog series called “Islam and the West,” which had six posts between mid-May and July 17th, when part six appeared, Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  By July the excitement of the 2008 election and the subsequent economic crisis drew my attention away from that task, and I even took the “page” off my index (it’s back on there now).   As we grapple with economic woes and serious problems in the West, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the fact that our future success is predicated on our ability to forge a respectful partnership with the Muslim world.   So I am restarting that series, hopefully to regain the pace I had last year of about a post a week dedicated to the series (in general I aim for four to six posts a week).

Islam began as a movement to reform Arab customs and replace a harsh polytheistic cacophony with a clear monotheistic faith.  Muhammad’s work is impressive.  Either he was divinely guided as Muslims believe, or he was a genius who brought together aspects of Christian, Jewish and Zorastrian thought, but his teachings were clearly designed to produce a social revolution in Arabia, benefiting especially women and the poor.  Even the poorly understood and often misrepresented concept of jihad was meant primarily as a personal struggle against temptation, akin to St. Paul’s admonition that Christians “fight the good fight of faith.”

Yet as beautiful and profound as each faith may be, religion is something that can be manipulated by the fanatical or ambitious to get people to do their biding.   It might be the Christian televangelist who hauls in massive donations — and then is caught with prostitutes or engaged in corruption.  It could be the angry Arab Muslim who believes his land is being controlled by greedy westerners — and then supports violence and terrorism.    It might be the sociopathic US Congressman who advocates hitting Mecca with a nuclear bomb should al qaeda hit us with nuclear terror.  That was Tom Tancredo, who apparently feels just as comfortable in the soulless extremist role as does Bin Laden.

These people do not reflect the true wisdom and virtues of their respective faiths.  Throughout history people have used the beauty and intuitive pull of spiritual faith to propagandize and warp religious expression.  It could be the Christian Salem witch trials, the Arabs undercutting Muhammad’s reforms in their interpretation of the Haditha, Savanarola in Florence or Cromwell in Great Britain.  It could be Arab Kings who used Islam to justify expansion of their empires, or the Ottomans who embraced Islam to lend legitimacy for their military dictatorship.  As I noted in the a post last year “The Violent West,” no one in the West has any justification to feel our culture superior to that of the Muslim world.  No culture has a history of such violence and lack of concern for other cultures than the West.

That doesn’t mean the West is uniquely evil, as a Bin Laden would claim.   The West also brought about the enlightenment, individualism, and certain notions of universal human rights.   Scientific progress blossomed in Europe, and the West ultimately overcame slavery, the lack of rights for women, and an early capitalism that was originally oppressive and vile.

So I ask readers of all faiths — Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, whatever — to endeavor to put aside the cultural arrogance that so often leads people to think “we” are somehow better and closer to the truth, while “they” are strange and warped.   That kind of thinking creates biased interpretations of reality which foster miscommunication and misunderstanding.  Rather, let’s start from the assumption that while there are evil and ignorant people in all cultures and societies, most of us are good people, want to live in peace, believe that love is more important than theological differences, and hope for a world of cooperation.

If the good, peaceful people across the planet can reach out to each other and cooperate, then the evil, fearful, hateful folk don’t have a chance to succeed.  I’m under no illusions that my blog’s exploration of these issues makes a huge difference, my readership is small.  But we all know the butterfly effect — a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can ultimately ignite a series of changes that alter weather patterns.  If we all do our part, whether in blogs, donations, community events, efforts in mosques, churches or synagogues, teaching, and reaching out to others, then who knows how the world might change.

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Teflon Obama?

Ronald Reagan had it.  Bill Clinton did not.  George W. Bush certainly lacked it.  And, though it’s too early to know for sure, Barack Obama seems to have a coat of teflon rivaling that of Reagan, the original ‘teflon President.’

Teflon, of course, is that substance that used  to coat pans to prevent things from sticking.  Reagan, it seems, could make gaffe after gaffe and do all sorts of controversial things without having it ‘stick’ — he remained popular and effective.  Politico’s  Jon Martin wrote a piece yesterday “Obama Skates while the Right Fumes,” noting that Obama is ‘getting away with’ actions that Bill Clinton would have been skewered for.   Easing restrictions on Cuba, long extremely controversial, seemed a minor story.  Gay families at the Easter Egg hunt, shaking hands with Hugo Chavez, listening to an anti-American diatribe from Daniel Ortega, seeming to bow before the Saudi King, or admitting past US “arrogance” before  a French audience would seem to be a red meat feast for the right wing.  Yet while all this causes rage among the right wing talk shows and certain parts of the blogosphere, it hasn’t extended beyond those audiences — people who dislike Obama anyway.  One can imagine a Jedi Reagan looking down “the force is strong in this one.”

There are lots of explanations for this phenomenon.  Perhaps Obama is still in his honeymoon phase with the American people (though that didn’t help Clinton), or maybe the economic problems are so prevalent that people really aren’t focused on sidelight issues like who the President shakes hands with.  None of these issues are substantive, they are all at best symbolic.  When the country is risking depression, people don’t fixate on symbols or worry about gay families at Easter egg hunts. 

I think the answer is more profound.  Larry Sabato, a very highly regarded political scientist, has proclaimed the 2008 election a “re-aligning” election, the first since 1980.   The previous re-alignment was in1932.  Franklin Roosevelt enjoys teflon to this day, and was even cited by Reagan as one of his personal heros.  I believe that the country has shifted politically and culturally in recent years, and the result is a different perspective on issues than one would have had in the past.  Obama is “getting away” with this all because most of the public is fine with what he’s doing.  

Most Americans are convinced that President Bush was far too arrogant in foreign policy.   People elected Obama in part because he represented a change away from an arrogance now associated with the least popular politician in the US (Dick Cheney) and issues like torture.   Attitudes towards homosexuality have undergone a cultural sea change.   20 years ago it was radical to promote civil unions.  Now states are moving towards gay marriage, with the youth having a fundamentally different mindset on the issue than the generation before.  

In fact, the Cold War mentality that still defines much of the right, especially those who call themselves ‘movement conservatives,’ is anachronistic.  Calling people “communist” or “socialist” doesn’t have near the same impact it had thirty years ago.   Decrying Obama’s economic policies — and there is much to be critical about, to be sure — is more difficult when it appears to most people that Republican free market policies led to the meltdown in the first place.  

Bluntly: Republican policies have been judged as failures by the American public, and thus GOP criticism is not seen as credible.  That, combined with the cultural changes of recent years mean this is a new political world, much different than the America of just a decade ago.   Just as liberals had a hard time accepting the changes Reagan brought in 1980, many conservatives are flabbergasted by the transformation taking place now.

Before 1980 it was cool to be liberal, conservatives were made fun of (think Archie Bunker), and the US had an expanding social welfare system, much of it built under Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford.   There was no real “Christian right” with any clout, and Nixon’s “detente” with the Soviets undercut fear of Communism.  After Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974, people even talked about a permanent Democratic majority, wondering if the Republican party could even survive.   Then came a series of foreign policy setbacks, the hostage crisis in Iran, and an economy defined by high inflation and unemployment.   Suddenly people wanted change.

The election of Ronald Reagan really brought forward cultural changes that had been brewing in the 70s.  The 70s were perceived by many as being defined by an excessive ‘anything goes’ attitude.   There already was a desire by many to return to earlier values.  Ronald Reagan personified this shift, and by 1984 the term ‘liberal’ — eagerly embraced in the seventies — had become ‘the “l” word that Democrats avoided.  The left early on could not believe things were changing so dramatically, and Reagan did suffer in early opinion polls due to the recession he inherited.  But he recovered, and thus began the era of Republican dominance. 

Bill Clinton was like Richard Nixon.  Nixon had been considered very conservative, yet as President  expanded social welfare programs, allowed Maoist China to take its seat on the UN Security Council, and was unable to challenge liberal dominance.    Clinton was ostensibly liberal, but would cut social welfare programs, and fail to implement health care reform or other liberal agenda items.  Neither 1968 nor 1992 were ‘realignment elections.’

Expect the next thirty years or so to be defined by a different ethic than the last three decades — realigning elections signal political and cultural change.  The US probably will become more cooperative on the world stage.  Culturally, the election of a man named Barack Hussein Obama shows that the public no longer fears difference in the way it used to.  Gay marriage will expand, the Christian ‘right’ is already being written off by Republicans who do  not see political strength in following their agenda.

Realignments are necessary; they reflect changes in society, usually breaking out during a period of crisis and uncertainty.   As such, they can’t be guided by one individual or party.   Obama’s election symbolizes real cultural change, but its form is yet to be determined.

Even the recession is unlikely to alter the course we’re on.  Roosevelt managed to hang on through a long depression; if people believe that the choice is to give Obama more time or go back to the past, they’ll choose Obama.  The teflon is real, and it transcends the man.

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21st Century War

We all know what war is.  It’s armies taking on other armies, conflict involving Generals, soldiers in uniforms, and states battling for land or perhaps some kind of ideal.  Such is the war of movies — the Nazis vs. the allies, or the US and the Soviet Union in a Cold War, with fears of a Soviet move through the Fulda Gap, and danger of nuclear annhiliation.

Such a view of warfare is increasingly misguided and anachronistic.  Back in WWI about 90% of the war casualties were soldiers (though, to be sure, the flu epidemic caused in large part by the war led to mass civilian death), in Iraq 90% of those killed are civilian.   Wars blanket sections of Africa, usually not with national armies fighting against each other, but with militias and movements in conflict with governments (which are often corrupt, fragmented units).  Though these movements spout ideological principles, usually they are more like organized crime.  The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) are not really about a Tamil state, and they certainly do not represent the Tamil people on Sri Lanka.  Rather, they traffic in people, drugs and weapons, and are willing to train would be terrorists.   Peace in Sri Lanka — which now appears achievable — means that the leaders will lose a lot of income.

In Sierra Leone Foday Sankoh was not about some kind of socialist alternative to the pro-western governments of the eighties.  He and Charles Taylor of Liberia wanted money from the diamond trade.  Under the guise of a civil war they could use the anarchy and lack of law enforcement to profit handsomely without being accountable in the form of taxes or regulation.  In southern Sudan a 2005 peace agreement is endangered by government and rebel posturing, in part because there is dispute over who will get the profits from the oil fields in the region.

In most of these wars the violence is cover for crime.  As long as the violence is intense, there will be no enforcment of law, and thus anything goes.  They sell women into slavery, put children on the black market, make drug or weapons deals — the dirty underside of the world economy can operate without watchful eyes.    The outside world, still seeing war as a dispute between groups with different goals, believes that somehow mediation or conflict resolution can end the fighting.  But usually it can’t, since the people involved count on the fighting to continue.

If the fighting were to stop they’d lose their anarchy, there would be more attention to their actions, and they might find themselves in legal jeopardy.  To prevent that, they try to assure that the fighting is as brutal as possible in order to make it very difficult for reconciliation.  Children are turned to soldiers at young ages, young girls are forced to become sex slaves to the soldiers, and bodies are mutiliated as child soldiers 12 to 14 years old learn to commit mass murder and horrific atrocities.  Often the young boys have cocaine smeared into open wounds and are given other drugs to keep their minds in a daze as they kill and terrorize.

Even in places where it isn’t that extreme, civilians suffer.  Somalia should be a breadbasket for northern Africa, but instead people suffer famine and starvation due to war lords fighting for power and wealth, using Cold War era weaponry and engaging in crimes such as piracy — something that definitely reflects lack of rule of law!

So war today is less rule bound, more likely to hit civilians, often less about ideology or state interests than criminal acts and money making, and most often found in the third world.   Terrorism can be seen as a tactic of this new kind of war.   It focuses on civilians, does not usually involve states (though states can support or ‘sponsor’ terror acts) and often is as much about money as ideology.   The Basque movement, for instance, has become more overtly like an organized criminal gang, while the Taliban and Afghan war lords focus on opium production.  Terrorism is the one tactic that can project this kind of violence into the “civilized West,” potentially subjecting us to the horrors suffered in distant parts of the planet.

Yet most analysts still fixate on states and militaries.   Will Iran get a nuclear warhead, will Israel attack Iran, will the Koreas go to war, what about China and Taiwan?  These are theoretical wars, all very unlikely to occur (even if Iran gets the bomb, they know they’d be obliterated if they attacked Israel), but yet they get the most ‘play’ in the world of punditry.  The Pakistan-India conflict, combining a bit of both the old and new in Kashmir, has even seen all out war become less likely each time they avoid allowing a crisis to go out of control.

Simply, among powerful states the risk of nuclear war is too great to allow a real war to start.  Among wealthy states and stable states aspiring to wealth, globalization and interdependence makes war fundamentally irrational.  We have created a world where war of the sort we’ve known is literally disappearing.  All out European war is certainly a thing of the past, a weakened Russia is more concerned about oil and gas influence than conquest (let alone ‘spreading communism’), and China is so involved in the US economy that it fears too deep a US recession.  We are closer to world peace than ever!

Yet, there remains a few pesky problem areas, with the brunt of the real wars involving third world failed states and organized criminal behavior.   We should be able to deal with these.    In most of these conflicts, small bands of criminals (and often as a counter part a small band of criminal government leaders) fight, with most of the population opposed to the fighting and fearful.  It’s usually not major movements fighting each other, more like mafia families in a brutal gang war.    And the only true military threat to the West — terrorism — comes from the prospect of these gang wars projecting themselves outward.

But our pundits remain ‘fighting the last war.’  We’re wedded to the notion of war as a military venture involving states and armies.  While we’ve learned how to use terms like “asymmetrical conflict,” we haven’t really come to grips with what it means when the major form of warfare is now of a sort very different than that which our military was designed to confront — and our inability to really understand how to confront it has been on display in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rather than focus on weapon systems, technology, military preparedness, and strength, we need to recognize that the solution to the problems driving 21st century war requires a multi-dimensional approach to building stability in regions with poverty, corruption and instability.  It will require states working with NGOs and IGOs (Non-governmental organizations and Inter-governmental organizations) to build transnational civil society and develop local efficacy.   This has started, and in places like Sierra Leone and Rwanda there has been progress.   But while military actions may at various points be necessary, they will more likely be stopping pirates off the coast of Somalia than engaging in an all out war.

It’s hard for Americans to get our heads around this new kind of war.  It’s not what we’re used to, it defies old military stereotypes and threatens the kind of military spending that has become addictive to so many states and districts.  But unless we really grapple with the fact that war in the 21st century is fundamentally different than in the past, we could be setting ourselves up for disaster by commiting the age old mistake of ‘fighting (or preparing for) the last war.’

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Iran and Roxana Saberi

Iran’s conviction of 31 year old Iranian-American ABC journalist Roxana Saberi on espionage charges has provoked international outrage.  Moreover, it appears to have been both a secretive show trial and perhaps one where the defendant was tricked into saying things that were used against her.  In any event, what could be more angering than having a country falsely imprison a beautiful young journalist, with virtually no one believing she is guilty.  Clearly, now is not the time to be extending an olive branch to Iran, or attempting good faith measures!  Or is it?

The world of global politics is opaque and confusing.  Americans have been conditioned to see foreign countries as acting as a kind of ‘unified rational actor.’  Thus Iran is treated as a fiction-person, an individual who in this case is misbehaving; we should certainly not reward such actions.  On the contrary, we should condemn and punish Iran, just as we would condemn and punish an individual who would violate the liberty of another.

That way of seeing the world yields simplistic analyses of global issues, often allowing emotion to guide public opinion.   Taking a deeper look, however, things aren’t so easy.

First, Iran is a country of political factions.  The hardline faction has been dominant, but does not maintain a monopoly on power.  Moderate and even liberalizing factions exist, and have their own bases of support and power.  And it isn’t all about America, religion, or politics.   There is a lot of oil money involved here, there are economic arrangements and deals that go to those who have the most power and control the action.

Second, this prosecution is likely meant by the hardline faction as a provocation to the West to try to stymie any attempt by the US to improve relations with Iran.   The Iranian hardliners were a weaker lot back in 1999, when President Clinton considered moves to improve the relationship between the US and Iran.  They could not prevail in elections, and some questioned whether their hold on the Guardian Council (the group of clerics that has the final say on Iranian law and who can be a candidate for public office) would remain as solid.    Iran’s clerics are also not a unified group.

The Ayatollah Khomeini, archetect of the revolution that deposed the Shah and installed the current fundamentalist regime was a strong believer in theocracy.  Yet other clerics have different views.  The Iraqi Ayatollah Sistani, who lived in exile in Iran during much of Saddam’s rule, had a different view, one that saw the clergy as absent from most of day to day politics.  Many religious folk in Iran share that view, even if that currently isn’t dominate in the Guardian Council.   Because of the diversity of perspectives, Iran’s religious elite could not embrace complete theocracy as a form of government.  They had to opt for democracy, and currently Iran is the most democratic country in the region, save Israel.

That democracy means that the fundamentalist hold on power is always tenuous, and has to respond to changes in public opinion.   For the extremists, George W. Bush was the best thing to happen to them — a gift from Allah.  First, he made war on their arch enemy — Saddam Hussein — and helped bring their fellow Shi’ite Muslims to power in Iraq.  Shi’ites are only about 10% of the Muslim world, but most Iranians and 65% of the Iraqis are of the Shi’ite sect of Islam.  Iraq went from being a secular Baathist state to an Islamic republic.   Moreover, the bombast of the Bush Administration made it easy for the extremists to arouse anti-American fervor, leading to their first electoral victories since the revolution.  The surprising rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was due in large part to growing Iranian anti-Americanism.

Since then, they maintain power by provoking reactions to their statements and policies.   Threats to attack Israel, controversies over Iran’s nuclear program, and the on going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have bolstered the extremists’ hold on power.  They want the relationship between the West and Iran to be cold, they want provcative anti-Iranian rhetoric and actions to come from the West, they parlay that into anti-American public opinion which supports them.

It is quite likely that the conviction of Saberi is an effort by the extremists in Iran to block any rapproachement between Iran and the US, and to undercut the appeal of Obama to the Iranian public.   The economic problems caused by the drop in oil prices plus a general lack of good governance by the conservatives in power has given Iranian moderates new hope.   If the public moves away from knee jerk anti-Americanism to a sense that cooperation is possible, moderates might again win a majority in the Majles, and perhaps defeat Ahmadinejad in the upcoming Presidential election.

Looked at in that way, using this as an excuse to ostracize, cut back on confidence building measures, and maintain pressure on Iran would be to play into the extremists’ hands, at the expense of the moderates.  We’d be being played as suckers, doing just what the extremists want, ostensibly because we oppose them.   Because most Americans don’t understand the complexity of Iranian politics or world affairs, the reaction to the Saberi conviction is knee jerk and emotional — precisely what the Iranian fundamentalists hope for.

So while the US has to maintain pressure on Iran over this case, this can’t be allowed to torpedo Obama’s efforts to fundamentally alter the relationship.  Iranians are ready for a government that is more open to the world, and more moderate in its approach to religion and international politics.  Iran is a democracy where the people want more control, with limits on the ability of the elite to hinder following the will of the people.

So President Obama shouldn’t take the easy political route of simply condemning Iran over this, and playing to populist emotion.  This case is a sign that the fundamentalist in Iran are weakened, and they know it.  They want to rachet up the emotion and rekindle anger.  A cool head and rationale, patient response is the best way to assure they do not succeed.

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