What You Should Think About Experience

July 2, 2008

“The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war.  Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin.  But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.”

–Ernest Hemingway

The past few days have seen interesting public debate about the role of military experience in national leadership.  Since long before this Presidential bid, Senator John McCain upheld his military service as a credential applicable to political leadership.  In doing this he perpetuates a long-standing tradition linking military service to political leadership.

Dozens upon dozens of generations ago, civic-minded Romans were inspired by tales of Cincinnatus.  Perhaps the ultimate citizen-soldier, the man discovered he had been selected to serve as dictator in time of crisis when a VIP delegation arrived unexpectedly at his humble farm.  Bold leadership turned into legend as he was credited with preserving and strengthening early Rome while it was under attack by rival factions on the Italian peninsula.

Ever since, Western civilization has placed a premium on military service as a credential for political leadership.  In brutal primitive times, with ordinary citizens constantly facing threats from nature and warmongers alike, there was some sense in this.  Orienting governance around security policy was often necessary and appropriate.  Ancient peoples really did inhabit a world where quality of life could not be sustained without regional military supremacy.  Fortunately for us, the 21st century is not a world fraught with turf wars and pillaging hordes.

Yet it seems not all of us are mentally up to the challenges of inhabiting more enlightened times.  For some Americans, the aggression of nineteen men with boxcutters justifies a perpetual siege mentality every bit as extreme as the militarism of the Roman Empire.  Our quality of life in the modern United States is more gravely undermined by the expenses of militaristic governance than any plausible consequences of ending a unilateral arms race.  That is not to say we should leave our nation defenseless or even abandon plans to expand the numbers of active duty troops in our armed forces.  However, it is to say that an entire society deeply dedicated to military supremacy is a society that fails to engage adequately on a wide range of issues each more crucial to quality of life than new high tech weapons systems conceivably could be.

Still, the citizen-soldier archetype resonates in Presidential politics.  On one level perhaps it should.  Honorable military service reveals character traits that many voters legitimately demand of their leaders.  It is foolish to contend that military service is the only way to become a good person.  However, the crucible of war is a meaningful test.  Integrity, loyalty, and determination are difficult to fake on the battlefield.  Courage and selflessness may also be evident (though history is thick with tales of courage and selflessness that ultimately turn out to be propaganda pieces rather than events that actually occurred.)

There is no doubt that Senator McCain served honorably in wartime, endured much abuse as a prisoner of war, and went on to fulfill command responsibility.  The value and dignity of his service is only questioned by those setting up straw men — no significant critic of McCain has characterized his military record as less than honorable.  His supporters raise the specter of that criticism because it galvanizes their movement to believe he has been “attacked” in this way.

The worst of what has actually been said by anyone of consequence was a remark General Wesley Clarke made in response to a question about this link between military service and political leadership.  In a moment Senator Obama accurately characterized as artless, the general said, “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.”  The response from McCain’s supporters has been intense.  Yet what precisely is their concern?  Did John McCain never ride in a fighter plane?  Did he never get shot down?  Did General Clarke overlook something in the Constitution about military service as a credential for the Presidency?

While that remark was crude, it seems insane to reject a crude truth in favor of elegant spin.  In reviewing the documentary Carrier, I was struck by the apolitical nature of life among naval aviators.  Whenever the subject of justification arose, an overwhelming majority of pilots (as with the ship’s crew) took an agnostic view.  Rightly, military personnel in time of war do not agonize over the nuances of foreign policy.  They do their duty because it is their duty, not because the majority of them have strong opinions about which flavor of foreigners deserves to be bombed under order of the current regime. The order alone is all that is needed to act.

Provided that orders are not sadistic or inhumane (like running an extermination camp or a torture chamber,) the morality of military service demands fulfillment of duty.  Military culture frowns upon questioning orders, though questions and discussion that do not interfere with diligent and prompt fulfillment of orders do no harm (and sometimes quite a bit of good.)  Still, my broader point is that a history of being a good soldier only proves that one may retain characteristics of a good soldier.  When Senator Jim Webb attempted to clarify a crucial distinction between executive leadership and front line combat, he too was denounced for attacks on McCain’s service that Webb did not actually make.

The only real attack here, an attack entirely justified, is an attempt to change thinking about the relationship between being an effective warrior and being an effective national leader.  The very issues that naval aviators habitually avoid deliberating are those that merit tremendous time and attention from a U.S. President.  If anything, the “my country, right or wrong” attitude that helps combatants stay strong while pursuing nebulous objectives or dealing with incompetence spilling down the chain of command is an attitude that weakens one’s ability to exercise sound judgement in an executive role.  I believe even the most jingoistic Americans would, all other things being equal, rather see U.S. policy in the right than in the wrong.  A dutiful President must agonize over nuances of political decisions in precisely the ways a dutiful combatant must not.

One aspect of legitimacy in the tale of Cincinnatus is that he was a patrician with a history of political activism.  Though he was virtually conscripted to serve as head of state, his selection was not a consequence of skill with sword and spear.  It was because he had demonstrated thoughtful judgement and sound leadership in previous efforts to shape Roman policy.  His service was noble and selfless, but it was informed far more by his past political life than his past military activities.  It was the strength of his wisdom, not the strength of his belligerence, that preserved Rome during a time of great troubles.

Perhaps the closest analogs in American political life would be John Fitzgerald Kennedy and John Kerry.  They both seemed influenced by the perception, especially common among young men, that miltiary service builds reputations useful in later pursuit of public office.  That perception remains valid even today.  However, at its heart is a prejudice like the belief that tall men make the wisest leaders — an archaic misconception that resembles racism without race.  It is a prejudice that allows ignorance to be substituted where enlightenment belongs.  Still, both men risked life and limb, sustaining injuries that would cause lifelong pain, to make good on a promise to serve this nation in time of war.  That merits honor to be sure, but does it have anything at all to do with positions on security policy and foreign affairs?

The disturbing aspect of the experience debate is not that someone dared to raise such questions.  It is that the very idea of suggesting military service does not equate with executive excellence was so easily mischaracterized as a personal attack.  It is a question most civilized nations have long since asked and answered, liberating them from perpetual militarism for its own sake.

In assessing the character of a candidate, performance under fire is certainly a legitimate factor.  In assessing the quality of a candidate’s politics, performance under fire is entirely irrelevant.  So long as a contrary view remains popular, voices in the public square do well to attack it.  Real men do not cower behind the ad hominem defense when it is so clearly their opinions, not their persons, that are subjected to withering critique.  To employ that unresponsive evasion fails to address the attack even as it reveals something else — the poor character of the man who would employ such a tactic.

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What You Should Think About Charisma

January 9, 2008

“I think he has a warm engaging personality. . . but you know, the Presidency is more than just a popularity contest.”

–Al Gore regarding George W. Bush

As I roam the Internet’s vast array of comments regarding last night’s New Hampshire primaries, I find my thoughts returning again and again to a disconnect I have yet to see others highlight. A strong theme in Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign seems to be that Sen. Barack Obama is running more on charisma than substance. Yet the favorable result her campaign achieved last night occurred on a day when no story seemed to generate more press than her own emotional outreach.

Prior to the tearless moment many described as “crying,” Sen. Clinton seemed almost averse to emotional appeals. The role of students willing to educate themselves about the caucus process was clearly crucial in Iowa, but it might be fairly argued that Sen. Obama was running a campaign powered by hope. Fear, the other side of that same psychological coin, seems to be at the heart of Sen. Clinton’s distinctively emotional message. In those few utterances, she showed solidarity with the millions of other Americans profoundly troubled and saddened by the behavior of the sitting administration.

Rationally, the message should have little bearing on a Democratic primary contest. To be more precise, it should work to her slight disadvantage. From security policy to civil rights to international relations, Sen. Clinton is a good deal closer to President Bush than any of her top few rivals. People who are deeply concerned that this nation has traveled far along an unhealthy course ought to be at least a little bit wary of anyone so quick to support militarism, secret police, unrestricted free trade, etc. Veering away from Sen. Obama, Sen. Edwards, Rep. Kucinich, et al. in favor of Sen. Clinton actually weakens political condemnation of the status quo.

On the other hand, very few people vote purely on detailed knowledge and considered contemplation of specific policy positions. Though a broad range exists, practically every vote cast is influenced by some blend of political analysis with the human factor. Unlike the “make sure you get at least one good laugh out at every press event” day in the Clinton campaign, this display of human feeling registered as genuine.

No doubt it was, at least to some degree. In the debate about the authenticity of her emotions, most commentators seem to take an extreme position. Sensible folks mostly lean toward the “it couldn’t possibly have been staged” view while the dittohead legion is quick to dismiss the moment as entirely insincere. It is as if all these people so intent on analyzing political theater lack any understanding of actual theatrics.

While some performers will falsify even the most powerful of emotions, others draw upon their own real feelings to act out moments of extreme sorrow or bliss. In my estimation, the striking of a melancholy chord was deliberate, yet this display was accomplished by drawing upon an entirely genuine and personal anxiety fueled by thoughts of continuity in the direction of American political progress. After all, who needs to dwell on thoughts of a deceased pet or lost love to reach a blue mood when there are thousands of deceased soldiers, tens of thousands of deceased Iraqis, and America’s lost credibility to inspire dark reflections?

Just as people may be drawn to Barack Obama’s upbeat appeals to the better angels of Americans’ natures, it is hard to resist feeling sympathy at the sight of Hillary Clinton’s passionate concern about the flow of recent history. She faces a peculiar challenge — strength is a virtue among leaders, but a woman who fails to show any hint of emotional vulnerability appears unusual in a displeasing way. The vulnerability she displayed was perfectly understandable. Even so, it managed to generate a visceral appeal that echoed constantly through the narrow channels of mainstream media coverage.

I believe it would be irrational to try and reduce voting decisions to a pure calculus of political positions. Phenomena like personality and affect have bearing on job performance, most especially when the job involves grappling with weighty issues and responding to crisis situations. I do not wish to separate myself from the chorus of voices bemoaning the lack of political expertise most Americans take with them to the polls. Still, it is worth clarifying that character also has a vital role to play in the choices expressed in those particular booths.

In the end this primary process may merit a place of note in the political history of the 21st century. Just as the current President’s abuses of power may well be much more egregious than those of Richard Nixon, the public desire for political change may also be greater than it was in 1974. After all, the 2006 legislative elections clearly did not amount to a political reckoning comparable to Nixon’s resignation. Barring a sudden sea change, the next President of the United States will be selected by the Democratic Party.

For now, the top two contenders are both articulate and capable individuals with impressive public service achievements yet relatively little experience holding elective offices of their own. As voters react to blends of policies and personality, Senators Clinton and Obama will each make many efforts to inspire support from the American people. For a relatively young candidate emergent from an unusual background and confronted by residual racism in a nation that embraced a “separate but equal” doctrine up through the 1950s, these efforts will tend to involve straightforward appeals to hope for a better tomorrow. For a candidate emergent from decidedly conventional background and confronted by gender stereotypes that remain strong even in the most progressive nations, the task of generating enthusiasm from supporters is much more complex.

In the end, this effort to connect with the American people is only the beginning of a process the winner will be obliged to continue throughout his or her term(s) of service. A head of state must do more than raise a constructive voice in setting a nation’s policy agenda. Such leaders also must speak out effectively in many other contexts. From mourning in the aftermath of national tragedy to rallying support for significant reforms to speaking authoritatively to foreign leaders, we all benefit from a President’s ability to communicate with emotional force and integrity.

Voters have a civic duty to do much more than respond to gut feelings, but those feelings are not without value. Between the nature of the process and the shallowness of the media, the next three hundred days are likely to be thick with efforts to increase levels of public goodwill generated by political candidates’ force of personality. With a confluence of planning and spontaneity, the personal charisma that follows from these efforts will have much to do with selecting and defining the next leader of the United States of America.


What You Should Think About Patriotism

October 14, 2007

“There are two Americas. One is the America of Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson; the other is the America of Teddy Roosevelt and the modern superpatriots. One is generous and humane, the other narrowly egotistical; one is self-critical, the other self-righteous; one is sensible, the other romantic; one is good-humored, the other solemn; one is inquiring, the other pontificating; one is moderate, the other filled with passionate intensity; one is judicious and the other arrogant in the use of great power.

–J. William Fulbright

Well before terrorists transformed the New York City skyline, America’s loudest political conservatives made no secret of beliefs that their kind had a monopoly on patriotism. With a shocking national trauma came much greater zeal in these assertions of patriotic supremacy. The sense in those claims has always been elusive. On an obvious level, confusing ideological conviction with national loyalty is problematic. Yet there are much more subtle and insidious problems with this phenomenon as well.

A public stirred by strong emotions may be so moved as to accept arguments that it is innately patriotic to agree with national leaders. The powers that be are presumed right without any regard for the particulars of their positions and actions. This creates a situation where no distortion of fact nor abuse of power is subjected to adequate public scrutiny. The greatest virtue, and the greatest strength, of popular rule is discarded in favor of a paradigm that conflates a nation with its present regime.

Clear understanding can come through direct experience. Hermann Göring lived long enough after the fall of the Third Reich to share what understanding could be gleaned from his role in history. During the Nuremburg Trials, psychologist Gustave Gilbert was able to engage the former Luftwaffe chief in extensive frank conversations. In one exchange, Gilbert seemed confident that democracy would prevent any American President from dragging the nation into acts of imperialist aggression. Göring disputed the notion that popular rule could restrain such belligerence, “all you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

At the very least, wars in Viet Nam and Iraq validate that insight from a doomed Nazi aviator. The rationale for waging full scale war in each instance was simply not credible. False narratives crafted by White House media experts generated public support for each misadventure. Deliberately misleading language or even outright lies were not subject to sufficient public scrutiny. Warnings of dire threats from remote corners of the world were at odds with verifiable facts. Still fears swept over our nation. Promises of a swift military campaign paving the way for a rosy future ranged from implausible to absurd. Yet they were passed along by esteemed journalists as if they were the result of sound informed analysis.

Years enough have passed that the hindsight on Viet Nam is nearly universal. The domino theory characterized capitalism and democracy as fragile flowers that would certainly be crushed by the indomitable power of communism and fascism unless vigorous military action was taken. Nonsense it may be, but it was a foreign policy doctrine that spawned all manner of affirming editorials and even scholarly works of support. It was just one among a legion of lies that only brought America to war because sound skepticism was denounced as anti-American sentiment.

Just as the Soviet Union was real, so is Al Qaeda. Just as Viet Nam was no stepping stone to Kansas, the road to terrorizing the U.S. homeland did not run through Iraq. That past tense is appropriate, because today the many thousands of Iraqi widowers and orphans know the deepest of miseries, all courtesy of Uncle Sam’s bullets and bombs. It is reasonable to think that a small portion of these tragic victims should become consumed by hate, willing to sacrifice themselves as tools of mayhem. There can be no doubt that today Iraq is home to many terrorists dedicated to making Americans suffer.

Yet, as with the domino theory, arguments that prewar Iraq posed a serious threat to U.S. national security were bogus on their face. After all, Al Qaeda’s foremost priority was to eliminate secular governance throughout the Middle East. Saddam Hussein presided over one of the strongest secular governments in the region. Christians, agnostics, and even atheists were all protected under his regime. He was a brutal tyrant, but in that regard he was one of many. Some others continue to enjoy the active support of America’s present administration.

It was reasonable to assert that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. On the other hand, “he has to go” was the peak on a mountain of nonsense that would have collapsed if only a healthy measure of skepticism had been applied. As with Viet Nam, the call to make war against a non-threat was infused with both great urgency and absurd optimism. Pundits supporting the aggression predicted a total price tag of one or two billion dollars, likely to be repaid within a year or two by a gratefully liberated Iraq. Anyone who disputed that American troops could expect spontaneous gifts of flowers and candy from Iraqi civilians was ridiculed as anti-American and ill-informed.

Misguided appeals to patriotism blinded the nation to the realities of pending disaster. Thousands of our own soldiers have joined tens of thousands of slaughtered Iraqis in paying the ultimate price for this war. Yet it has done much more to degrade conditions in Iraq than to improve them. Hopefully one day that territory will be a better place to live than it was under Hussein’s Baathist regime. Presently the reverse is unmistakably true. As for the two billion dollar price tag — we should be so lucky that a week passes without spending that much on Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As it happens, Thomas Jefferson never said or wrote, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Yet history does reveal that there are instances where dissent against leadership provides a service to country while support of leadership constitutes a disservice. The American Revolution took place to give free people a chance to live in a society where the head of state wields limited power and is not regarded as a personal embodiment of the nation itself. Strains of imperialist monarchy return whenever an American President or his supporters use patriotism as a shield against reasonable critiques of flawed public policy or inaccurate public information.

Supporting a President does not make you a good American. Opposing a President does not make you a good American. Making your best effort to become informed about relevant issues, then expressing your earnest opinion without regard for its relationship to any President’s agenda — now those are the deeds of a good American. Leaders, the great as well as the terrible, will come and go. The same is true of policies. So long as the nation endures, service to it demands conscientious honesty. To do less, be it out of fear or hatred or even something as simple as a desire to conform, is to fail profoundly as an American patriot.