Archive for September, 2013
“If there is a price to be paid for this, we will recover from a government shutdown, whether it’s a day, a week or two weeks … something will get resolved, we’ll recover from that as a country. It’s a temporary inconvenience for a lot of people. But if Obamacare is ever implemented, we will never recover from that as a nation. We can never be a free people again.” – Rep. Steve King (R – Iowa)
Hyperbole is common in politics, but “we can never be a free people again”? Really?
Every other industrialized state has a national health care system of some sort. A few have single payer systems run by the government, but most have some kind of mixed system. A comparison of diverse systems shows strengths and weaknesses of each, but the bottom line is that making sure everyone gets health care does not endanger freedom. Quite the opposite!
When in the US you have 50 million uninsured, high levels of medical cost induced bankruptcy, and many poor not getting care because they fear collection agencies, we have a problem. Add to that the fact that health care costs nearly 18% of GDP (compared to 8-10% in most other industrialized states – about 13% in Switzerland) it’s obvious that something has to be done.
So we have real problems with health care in America. We pay more, don’t get more, and leave many people uncovered and scared to access care. Now, perhaps Obamacare isn’t the best plan, but this radical “hostage taking” approach supported by tea party folk like Senators Cruz, and Lee and a variety of people in Congress makes no sense.
Instead of making their case to the public and hoping to get a Republican majority in the Senate and perhaps a Republican President in 2016, they’re acting like terrorists threatening to shut down the government and have the country go into default if they don’t get their way to stop or delay ‘Obamacare.’ That only makes sense if they fear that once implemented the system will work well and the public will like it. Otherwise, they’d be smarter to let it fail on its own and then say “I told you so.” At that point they could reform it or gut it, they’d have the political winds at their backs. Their biggest fear seems to be that maybe it’ll work and become popular!
Or maybe it isn’t rational. King’s quote seems over the top; wild rhetoric is usually a sign of emotion. I believe that within the tea party and among people like Rep. King there is an ideological world view that says that America is becoming something different than what it was and what they think it “should be.”
So what should it be? The tea party seems to have a romantic view of the 1980s. Reagan was President, whites were the clear majority, social conservatism was on the rise, and the US was the dominant world power. That is the world they knew and felt comfortable within. Now, the world is strange. A black man named Barack Hussein Obama is President. The US fiasco in Iraq has shown the limits of American power in a post-Cold War multi-polar world. The financial collapse of 2008, built on 30 years of growing debt and government deregulation destroyed the myth that somehow America’s economy was stronger than others in the West. Gay marriage and changing social mores often shock them – as does the fact that changing demographics means minorities have a much stronger voice in the politics of the country.
It’s not just America that’s changed, but the world is changing. Globalization is weakening sovereignty and creating interdependencies at a rapid pace. The information revolution caused by the internet makes borders less relevant and democratizes knowledge, making old political practices obsolete. The spread of weapons of mass destruction and the capacity of terrorists to deliver deadly blows undermines old military tactics. Indeed, warfare of the future will likely be fundamentally different than in the past, military power isn’t what it used to be.
The tea party represents those who fear this new world. That explains King’s hyperbole. Fear. The changes taking place threaten the core of what he’s used to, and thus he’s afraid his values will be in jeopardy. He can’t truly believe Obama care will mean we can never be a free people, it’s part of a response to what they consider a broader assault on what they think America should be.
Fear also explains the antipathy towards Obama. He represents and incarnates all that they see going wrong with the US. A black man with a foreign sounding name, inexplicably getting elected to two terms, leading the country down a scary “socialist” path. Obama is an establishment Democrat – the left wing of the Democratic party is upset with his centrism. His health care plan was a compromise, less obtrusive than Nixon’s plan back in the early seventies. There is nothing new or radical about Obama – except that he’s President in changing times, and the changes scare them.
Ironically, the changes they fear will be hastened if they shut down government or cause America to default. That will further weaken and divide the polity, and despite their belief that they represent “real America,” their views are increasingly on the margin and will not shape the future. But right now they have enough people in Congress to try to take the economy hostage and do real damage. Hopefully Republican leaders like Boehner will have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to them. Those most hurt by the tea party are conservatives trying to establish a vision of what conservatism must be about in these changing times.
Fresh off a diplomatic victory concerning Syria, the United States may be on the verge of making significant headway in solving the most vexing foreign policy problem of the last 34 years – what to do about Iran? From the 1979 hostage crisis to near war over Iran’s alleged nuclear program, the ability of Iran’s clerics to plot a Machiavellian course to expand regional power has given American policy makers headaches. President Obama, whose foreign policy successes are growing, may have another victory in reach. If so, this will go further in turning around the narrative on Syria. Rather than being outplayed by Putin, Obama may have one of the most significant diplomatic victories since the end of the Cold War.
Many people were surprised when Hassan Rouhani won the June 2013 Presidential election in Iran. A moderate, he espoused closer relations with the West, more civil liberties and economic reform. Gone are the days of bombast from former President Ahmadinejad. No more talk about wiping Israel off the map; instead, Rouhani went to the United Nations to proclaim that no state should have nuclear weapons, and there was no room in Iran for nuclear arms. This clears the way for a deal to end the tense stand off that’s been brewing for over a decade about Iran’s alleged arms program.
That election was proof that however powerful the Iranian clerics are, Iran is still an emerging democracy. Rouhani was not the choice of Supreme Leader Khamanei, yet he won narrowly in the first round. If the elections were rigged, he’d have at least fallen short of the 50% to prevent a second round of voting. Moreover, Iran’s clerics realize that they could lose power in a heartbeat if the Iranian people rebelled against their authority. From 1979 to 2004 there was a gradual liberalization of Iranian life allowed by the clerics because they didn’t want to foment dissent.
In 2004 that all changed; conservatives gained a majority for the first time in the Majles (parliament), and conservative Ahmadinejad won the Presidency. It appeared Iran had changed course and was on a dangerous anti-western trajectory. In hindsight that may have been a short term boost to the conservatives by anger at the US invasion of Iraq. As that ill fated war fades into history, the Iranians appear to be moving again towards becoming a more liberal Islamic Republic.
So what next?
With high level talks between Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif already underway at the United Nations Security Council, the path will be a gradual easing of tensions alongside trust building agreements that could ultimately yield an agreement for Iran to not only end its nuclear program, but allow inspectors to verify its conclusion. That has not yet happened of course, things could still go south. Still, this is a major breakthrough and there is reason to think it’s the real thing.
If so, it’s a very good thing that the US did not choose to attack Iran back in the heyday of Ahmadinejad’s bombast. He’s gone, Iran’s gradually changing as its large youth population ages into adulthood, and the consequences of going to war with Iran could have been catastrophic. The Pentagon thought so – they war gamed it out, and saw considerable danger in attacking Iran. The hawks on Iran will be proven to have been wrong.
The agreement to force Assad of Syria to give up chemical weapons is also important. Iran saw Russia and the US work together, and recognize that despite rivalry between the two former Cold War foes, both share an interest in not allowing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This is far more effective than a US strike against Syria which would have probably done more to show post-Iraq impotence on the part of the Americans than anything Iran would fear.
Most important, though, is the changes taking place in Iran itself. The country has a population with a strong pro-Western streak, well educated and modern. The youth are demanding change. The same dynamic is taking place in Iran as in the Arab Spring, except Iran already has an emerging democracy and more liberal population. It’s clerical class has proven less extremist than pragmatic.
In short, a thaw in the tension with Iran may be a sign that Muslim extremism is also on the wane. Iran is a model of an Islamic Republic, mixing religion and democracy. A stable Iran could help the Iraqis get their democracy back on track, and ultimately be extremely important for the entire region.
We aren’t there yet, but the fruits of Obama’s foreign policy are starting to become evident. He didn’t really deserve the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but by the time he leaves office the world will likely in much better condition.
Germany’s election of September 22, 2013 appeared for awhile to suggest that Angela Merkel would be able to form a majority government, not needing a coalition partner. That has happened only once in German post-war history: the CDU/CSU under Konrad Adenauer had a majority from 1957-61.
The result, however, turned out slightly – and only slightly – different.
With over 71% voting, here is the result of the second ballot, the ballot where Germans choose their party preference:
Clearly the CDU/CSU total of 41.5% is far above that of any other party. But there are a few quirks in the German system. First, a party has to get 5% to have any seats in the Bundestag. This means that in the Bundestag the parties on the left earned 42.7% of the vote. After that and a host of extra seats were figured out the end result in the Bundestag is this:
(*Aside for political science folk: In Germany half the seats are apportioned through single member districts, and half through a second ballot with party preference. However, the allocation of the second ballot seats is done to get the Bundestag to reflect the second ballot results, meaning the second ballot is the most important. This is done at the state level, not the national level. Sometimes in a state a party may win more seats in the first ballot than they deserve based on the second ballot result. They don’t get any new second ballot seats, but can keep the extra seat – the Bundestag is expanded for that purpose. All parties who get under 5% on the second ballot are denied representation in the Bundestag, but can keep any seats won on the first ballot. If they win three first ballot seats they get their second ballot representation. So if the FDP had won 3 first ballot seats, they’d get their 4.8% of Bundestag seats. They didn’t do that).
So with 630 seats, the Union has a conservative block of 311 seats, while the parties of the left have 319. Conservatives would protest that the 4.8% for the FDP and 4.7% for the AfD reflect conservative values (though the AfD’s anti-Euro stance is completely opposite of Merkel’s position), meaning that most voters had a preference for a party on the “right.” Yet those parties didn’t make the Bundestag.
So it’s possible that the SPD, Greens and Linke (left) will form a red-red-green coalition. That seems unlikely. The SPD hates the fact the Linke even exists. Die Linken are getting most of the votes on the left in former East Germany. In the West the SPD got 27.3% and the Linke only 5.3%. Here are results from the East:
In the East the Linke get 21.2 vs. 18.8% for the SPD. The SPD has vowed to defeat the Linke, which was built atop the old Communist party of East Germany, and it’s successor party, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). However, the Linke are not going away – they even got 5% in the West! Perhaps the SPD needs to recognize that the left is divided in Germany and deal with the Linke. Twenty years ago that was impossible because the old PDS was still too communist in orientation. Now that’s faded.
The Greens, also more popular in the West than East, have a strong civil rights background that cause them to see former communists as anathema. All this has meant that the division on the left has been insurmountable – the Linke were poison. Yet that hasn’t been true at the state level, and maybe now that the Cold War is nearly a generation in the past the SPD and Greens need to have serious talks with the Linke.
Merkel, on the other hand, is left in a situation where no one wants to govern with her. From 2005 to 2009 she joined with the SPD for a left-right “Grand Coalition.” The SPD was hurt by that, and there is virtually no desire within the party to join Merkel again – they have nothing to gain and a lot to lose. Better to be an opposition party. The Greens could reach an agreement with the CDU, but on policy grounds they come from a very different perspective. The negotiations would be tough. Beyond that, they see what happened to the FDP, who ruled with Merkel from 2009 to now. In 2009 the FDP had 14.5. They dropped down nearly 10% to the point that their future as a party has been questioned. Governing with Merkel could be poison for the Greens.
So Merkel might end up having a minority government, tolerated by the SPD and Greens (meaning they’d vote alongside the government on most issues while not joining it). That could work, but minority governments are inherently unstable. If a new Euro crisis emerged, she might not be able to get her priorities through the Bundestag.
So her victory is tainted. She’ll have a tough time getting a stable coalition partner and may have to rule a minority government. Or perhaps the SPD will decide that their party is floundering and it’s worth the risk to forge an agreement with the Linke and Greens to create a government of the left. That would shock the world, but certainly is possible. Back in 1969 President Nixon called CDU Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger to congratulate him on the election, only to find that the SPD would reach an unexpected agreement to form a coalition with the FDP, making Willy Brandt Chancellor. It’s possible, though unlikely, that Merkel won’t remain Chancellor.
So today the world reports on Merkel’s victory, and the CDU/CSU as the strongest party in Germany, gaining significantly from their 2009 result. But thanks to Germany’s electoral quirks, this victory may prove hollow – and it may not be a victory at all. Stay tuned!
President Obama’s patience on Syria is yielding perhaps the best policy outcome, even though the process is causing especially the far right to froth at the mouth in condemning Obama for “weakness” or “ineptitude” or a host of things. Of course, within the GOP you have Senator Rand Paul saying that Obama wants to “ally with al qaeda” by opposing Assad, while Senator McCain wants to “help the anti-Assad rebellion.” That means that Paul says fellow Republican John McCain wants to “ally with al qaeda.” And they criticize Obama?
A few points about the Syria case so far. The core of the White House response has been consistent and clear: 1) the US and the international community should not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government against civilians; 2) it is not in the US national interest to get involved in a bloody, on going war in Syria, nor is it in the US national interest to “go it alone” if the rest of the international community does not want to act in enforcement of the norms against WMD; and 3) the United States cannot act effectively if the country is not on board, meaning that Congress must approve any action taken.
The critics of Obama make the error of black and white thinking. They think that if the US believes number 1 to be true, then the US has no choice but to act. Not acting would be weakness, or sacrificing principle. That’s the kind of “all or nothing” thinking that led us to the debacle in Iraq. We may oppose the act of a foreign dictator but choose not to intervene – there have been horrific acts undertaken over the last century, rarely have we intervened. The US has only intervened when it is in the US interest.
However in this case President Obama is dealing with a world that is much different than that of the past; instead of leading the “West” in a bipolar world, the US is major power in a multi-polar world which operates under different principles than before. The Cold War world is past, both at home and abroad the US faces a fundamentally altered foreign policy reality.
- McCain’s not happy with the new GOP isolationists – Paul and McCain
The division between McCain and Paul illustrate the transformation. Paul represents an “isolationist Republican” of the kind not seen since the early post-war years. At that time anti-Communism morphed the party into a hawkish interventionist stance, one that has been pretty consistent through the Iraq War. McCain represents a “Cold War Republican” whose view of the US is that of a global leader of the West, shaping world politics to fit American values and interests. That role was possible in a bipolar world where other “western” states ad no real choice but to support the US. They relied on the US for self-defense and for preserving the global free trade system upon which post-war growth was based. The US could call the shots and expect others to jump.
Obama isn’t the first to realize the world has changed. President Clinton found it extremely difficult to put his Kosovo coalition together, and President Bush had active opposition from France and Germany to his Iraq plans. They colluded with Russia, something that obviously would have never happened in the Cold War. The fact of the matter is the US is now a powerful player in a multi-polar world, with the East-West divide a thing of the past. McCain’s Cold War mentality is obsolete.
The US cannot demand support from the “rest of the West” nor expect to receive it. The debacle in Iraq shows the limits of US military power, and assures that other states neither fear nor worry about the consequences of opposing the US. To be sure, Assad himself fears a US military attack, but also knows that the US no longer is a dominant world power.
Moreover, politics at home are fractured, and it’s hardly Obama’s fault. Assad’s ability to play the American right wing and get them to all but embrace him is an example of a domestic political situation where the far right oppose Obama so virulently that they do not want to have a united foreign policy. McCain isn’t part of that group – he and others like Senator Graham, who have been harsh in their criticism of Obama on other fronts, are ready to support the President now. They just find a party more extreme and virulent than in the past.
Mix the weakened state of the US on the world stage with the fractured and dysfunctional politics at home, and the US simply is not the world power it used to be. It’s not Obama’s fault, or Bush’s fault or any one person’s fault – it’s a result of global and domestic political dynamics that have been building for over twenty years.
Yet despite that, Obama may end up with a real success on Syria – limited international action without risking US prestige and soldiers, advancing at least somewhat the norm against chemical weapons while pressuring the Syrian government. He’s handling the situation with finesse, patience, and a dose of realism. He understands the constraints, and seems to comprehend that the world of 2013 is part of a new foreign policy era. The naysaying pundits can throw out their ad hominems, but the President appears immune to their sting.
One of my projects this year is a series of lectures as part of the “World in Your Library” series sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council. Saturday I traveled to beautiful Southwest Harbor, Maine, a delightful community on Mt. Desert Island. The island, home to Acadia National Park and the tourist destination Bar Harbor, is stunningly gorgeous and I never knew what a gem Southwest Harbor was. In the next two months I have talks in Bangor and two in Kennebunk.
The topic of today’s talk was “Children and War.” The topic is important to me thanks to a course I co-teach with Dr. Mellisa Clawson, a professor of Early Childhood Education. She and I started teaching that course in 2004, and over the years thinking about how war affects children world wide has changed my view on how we in political science think about conflict. “Children and War” is a subject that elicits emotion and pain. One woman said after the talk that her stomach hurt, and she had a hard time taking in the information, even though she was glad she came. She gave me a hug and thanked me. After the talk the Q and A ran almost an hour, perhaps the most flattering response one can receive!
I ended the talk with the video above – “Vagina” by Emmanual Jal. Jal is a former child soldier from the Sudan, whose musical ability and creativity helped him escape and recover from the trauma of being a child soldier witness to and participant in atrocities and horrors. The video is crude in some ways – “stop treating Mama Africa like a vagina, she’s not your whore, not any more….” One woman, a feminist, was at first put off by what she saw as the derogatory use of the term “vagina.” But others pointed out that the video was saying the beauty of Africa – and the vagina – was being misplaced by violence and rape; in this case, rape of Africa’s natural resources, leaving the people poor and subject to horrific violence.
And Jal is, sadly, correct. Our lust for diamonds, oil and gold have lead us in the industrialized West to be complicit in horrific crimes in Africa. We provide the demand for demands, gold and of course oil, and big corporations in collusion with African governments (read: organized criminal gangs aka mafia) provide it. The people who live and work there are left poor, and wars to try to control the resources leave thousands dead and provide the fodder for the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
There are many organizations now that try to “rescue” and rehabilitate former child soldiers — children who have perpetrated atrocities that here would yield the death penalty. Former child soldiers recall how they would feel proud of the terror they’d instill going into a community and killing indiscriminately. Sometimes their leaders would scratch their skin open and rub cocaine into their blood to create a sense of power. They’d tell them they were invincible; the LRA in Uganda would have the children rub palm oil over their body, saying it would protect them, if they believed the Lord was true. If comrades died, they lacked belief.
Up to 40% of child soldiers were girls, all of whom were raped and used as sex slaves, home keepers, and soldiers. If they have children from the rapes, those children would be raised to fight. They often avoid rehabilitation in order to avoid the stigma of having been part of the militias – the stigma of having been raped and used, making them “undesirable” by men in that culture.
But as Jal’s video shows, we are complicit. Our big corporations work with their corrupt governments to cheaply mine diamonds, gold, oil and other minerals. We don’t know or care of the social impact. We pretend it’s just “the market,” and that any problems in Africa are endemic to those countries. We are blameless.
Yet we are not – we make those atrocities possible, and our forefathers through colonialism and greed destroyed the old functioning culture on the African continent to bring them “civilization” – Christianity, government and science. Thus they went from being self-sustaining and balanced to impoverished, unstable and dependent. Crudely, we (in the West overall) raped the continent saying “it’s good for them and they like it.” Yeah, Jal’s metaphor is discomforting, but accurate.
To solve these problems it’s not enough just to try to help former child soldiers. We need to work to build communities with a sense of purpose and identity. Military intervention can’t work without a lot of effort to help rebuild social structures, providing education, basic necessities, and stability to allow community building. But those efforts work against the desire of big corporations of the West – joined now by groups from China also wanting cheap resources – to maximize profit, while keeping Africans poor and divided.
If the people of Africa are kept down, treated as worthless as powerful states and corporations use “the market” to rationalize the plunder their wealth, the people may strike back. In an era of terrorism, new media and easy to obtain WMD, that anger could be given substance. The anger implicit in this video could magnify. It’s in our interests to work together now, rather than close our eyes and simply enjoy the lifestyle we receive by tolerating the violence and abuse by corporations and governments worried more about the bottom line than humanity.
Up until a few days ago I was convinced I’d write a blog entry fiercely critical of Obama continuing the abuse of executive power that has been on display since WWII – a President going to war without Congressional approval. To be sure, in legal terms he could have done it according to the provisions of the War Powers Act, though even that would be a murky case.
The Constitution gives the Congress the power to declare war. The War Powers Act of 1973 does allow a President to use force in cases of an emergency and then get approval from Congress. All Presidents since Nixon have claimed the act to be unconstitutional, although only Presidents Reagan (aid to the Contras) and Clinton (Kosovo) have ignored Congressional opposition and thus clearly violated the act. When force is used, the President is required to notify Congress within 48 hours, and then must get approval for action within sixty days. If approval is not given, the President has 30 days to remove the forces.
While over a hundred reports to Congress have been given, in line with what the act requires, only one (President Ford and the Mayaguez incident) involved a direct threat to Americans. In Syria there is no direct threat to the United States.
Practically the War Powers Act has actually strengthened the executive. Once military action is under way, Congress is loathe to revoke it, least it get painted as having undermined America’s military. Still, most Presidents have insisted it is unconstitutional — that as Commander in Chief the President does have the power to use the military, even absent a Congressional declaration of war. This grabbing of power for the Executive branch reached a pinnacle under President George W. Bush, who used 9-11, the Patriot Act, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to amass more executive power without regard to the will of Congress.
Up until a few days ago, most people thought that President Obama would follow in Bush’s footsteps, refuse to involve an especially gridlocked Congress and simply act in an international coalition that he could forge. This would defy the UN, since the Security Council has not approved action (Russia and China at this point would veto it) and to the chagrin of the anti-war activists who supported Obama, make Obama seem not much different than Bush. So much for that Nobel Peace Prize!
Obama still may go that route. But after British Prime Minister Cameron had to withdraw British support for a strike thanks to opposition in Parliament, it appears Obama recognized the need to slow down. That is a very wise decision.
My hope is that this represents a move away from amassing more power to the Executive and is setting a precedent. Going to war without Congressional approval (absent an emergency) is simply wrong. It violates both the spirit and letter of the Constitution, and makes fiascoes more likely. Yet even if the President isn’t ready to embrace a (for me to be welcomed) weakening of the Presidency, it makes sense. Going to Syria in even a limited role is controversial. To do so with minimal international and domestic support risks his Presidency.
Moreover, the country needs a true debate about the role of the United States foreign policy. America and the world are fundamentally different in 2013 than just ten years ago. After Iraq and Afghanistan there is real question about how eager the US should be to use military power. The Republican party has a new breed of isolationists, still a minority in the party, but gaining clout. Many Democrats (and some Republicans) are convinced we need to learn the hard lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, with 90% of all casualties of military action being civilian these days, would a limited strike make a difference? Would it be moral?
This debate – what to do about Syria – should take place both at home and abroad. There are big issues at stake. Can the UN act – is it possible for Russia and China to find a way to work with NATO and other states to support norms that trump sovereignty? What kind of role do Americans want their country to play in this new world where the US is no longer as dominant, and traditional military power seems unlikely to yield desired political results?
And though Syrians suffer daily from the acts of their own regime, would American action only make things worse? Would Assad use international controversy to increase his terror? If Obama acts without domestic support, would this weaken the United States on the world stage? Yes, Syrian civilians are suffering, and John McCain makes a good point when he says the world should not tolerate that and should help. But going in with guns blazing and no international consensus may do more harm than good.
The issues in play here go far beyond just the Syrian case and cut to the core of how world politics is changing. This is a time both at home and abroad for real reflection and discussion – patience rather than imprudence.