What You Should Think About Victory

October 14, 2008

“It is common sense to take a method and try it.  If it fails, admit it frankly and try another; but above all, try something.”

–Franklin D. Roosevelt

In theory, a two party system could provide a sturdy national rudder to guide the ship of state along an optimal path to the future.  Imagine a democratic China where a Red Party promotes traditional values and industrial growth while a Green party promotes modernism and environmental protection.  The Greens could provide support for a wide range of new ideas while the Reds oppose change and strike down the worst of new government institutions.  The end result would be constant improvement without runaway excess.

As wonderful as that sounds, it is merely theory.  Here in the United States, our politics are dominated by one party that emphasizes new ideas and another that favors the status quo.  In theory, while Democrats bring modern values and institutional changes to the table, Republicans obstruct all but the best of those new ideas.  In practice, this simply is not the case.

Many historical Democrats have brought helpful new ideas into the public arena.  Yet the Clinton administration found itself browbeaten by Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution.  After backing down in the fight for universal health care, Bill Clinton signed off on a range of institutional changes that were decidedly conservative.  While catering little to traditional values, his bold spending cuts and restraint with new initiatives were a wild departure from the “tax and spend liberal” brand Democrats’ critics so often apply to them.

Yet the historical record of Republicans is even less consistent with the idea of substantive conservatism.  Again and again a rhetorical emphasis on spending restraint gives way to bold new levels of federal spending.  Some Republicans may have stood in firm opposition to the rise of modern values, but their economic practices have ranged from incoherent to downright hypocritical.  As unpleasant as “tax and spend” may sound, surely it is better over the long term than “borrow and spend.”

Even today that side of the aisle offers us nothing new.  Senator John McCain continues to push for lower taxes on business, lower taxes on high personal incomes, increased defense spending, and a more belligerent posture on the world stage.  Even in those moments when he eschews fearmongering and presents himself as an agent of change, almost all the substance of his policy proposals is a call to stay the course.

Yet his opponent actually does rise up to fulfill the role of a liberal reformer.  Senator Barack Obama sometimes draws on ideas crafted in previous decades, but even his oldest proposals have yet to be given due consideration in national political dialogue.  Only a strong sense of unrest coupled with a spectacular failure of trickle down economics sets the stage for mainstream consideration of sweeping change.  The underlying realities are largely as they were years ago, but the signs indicating a need for change have become much harder to ignore.

It is in this context that some Republicans have taken to decrying a lack of jingoism in Senator Obama’s rhetoric.  The Rovian word count game (as in, “he spoke for an entire hour and did not use the word ‘victory once'”) is a sleazy and often misleading trick.  Yet it is true that the Democratic nominee is reluctant to use simplistic language in addressing complex nuanced subjects.  Rather than make unsubstantiated claims about future prosperity, victory, etc. he favors more precise and technical discussion.

Yet this should not be cast as a liability.  Amidst frequent Republican talk of prosperity, today’s announcement of a plan to increase the income tax deduction for dependents is the first proposal by Senator McCain to offer some benefit to working class families that was not inferred as an inevitable byproduct of making the rich even richer.  Though this does represent substantive change, it is both a departure from the rest of the Republican campaign and an oddly belated effort to acknowledge that America’s real economic distress must be addressed through outreach to the families and individuals in the most difficult of circumstances.

The same can be said for foreign affairs.  Republicans often speak in sure tones of victory in Iraq.  Some have tried to link this to declining levels of violence over there, as if partially cleaning up a mess of our own creation constitutes some sort of victory.  Others focus on the idea of a stable democratic regime able to provide for its own security.  Perhaps that would be a real victory, but it has not been advanced by recent military initiatives, nor is there any Republican proposal that speaks to the heart of political challenges facing democracy in Iraq.

In spite of the blood spilled, in spite of the treasure consumed, in spite of the goodwill lost; the McCain-Palin campaign pushes for continuity in U.S.-Iraq policy.  No matter how many times the candidates employ the word “victory,” neither does much to define it, let alone offer up a concrete plan for its achievement.  Rather than work on rallying the nation behind some sort of real solution to the serious problem, the Republican party has chosen to demonize their opponents for nothing worse than the failure to embrace hollow rhetoric.

Yet the absurdity does not end there.  Senator McCain has frequently told the nation that he knows how to capture Osama bin Laden.  What is he holding out for?  Does he fear such an accomplishment would not catapult him into the White House?  Is it an idea the present administration has refused to implement?  Is it an idea he would withhold from a future administration if Barack Obama should happen to serve as its Commander-in-Chief?

Senator Obama is not fast and loose with terms like “victory” only because to do so without coherent and concrete plans to accomplish victories is dishonest.  When we are honest, a discussion of Iraq must recognize tremendous challenges that no amount of military power can resolve.  Our armed forces are second to none, but that acknowledgement does not imbue them with supreme abilities to address diplomatic, political, or economic problems.  Perhaps the federal approach long advocated by Senator Joe Biden has drawbacks as well as advantages, but at least it speaks realistically to the nature of the situation in Iraq.

Should the next President of the United States be John McCain, I believe everyone would expect much talk of “victory.”  Yet does anyone expect him to swiftly neutralize Osama bin Laden?  Does anyone expect him to smoothly resolve the internal conflicts in Iraq?  Does anyone believe that his economic proposals would remedy fundamental economic problems the man himself was among the last to recognize?

If one does not look beyond the two party system for answers, then the choice is clear.  One alternative leads to a future where there is much talk of victory, while meaningful actions only perpetuate economic and foreign policies framed by the present administration.  The other path leads to a future of much more realistic discourse, with meaningful actions that strike a new economic balance and adopt a new tone on the world stage.  If ever our nation is to achieve real victories over the great challenges of our times, it seems to me that the political choice we must make is clear.

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What You Should Think About Hope

October 13, 2008

“I steer my bark with Hope in my head, leaving Fear astern.  My hopes, indeed, sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.”

–Thomas Jefferson

Virtually all Americans desire a peaceful and prosperous future for our nation.  I can say this with confidence because virtually all <insert nationality here> people desire a peaceful and prosperous future for <insert nation here>.  This is universal human nature.  Even in time of war, opposing forces are each mobilized by concern for the security of their homeland.

The most insidious sort of combatants, terrorists, can be distinguished by life-changing experiences in parts of the world devastated by constant violence.  Unable to imagine a secure homeland, their desperation drives them to undermine the security of strangers and neighbors alike.  Yet even they harbor the twisted hope that shocking violence could raise awareness and bring an end to the brutal oppression in which their darkest tendencies were forged.

Away from the insanity of a place like Belfast during the Troubles or the Gaza Strip today, hope and malice are less likely to intersect.  From the yokels responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing to the killers who lash out at abortion clinics, our homegrown terrorists have clearly lost all hope.  Consumed and deranged by a potent blend of fear and hatred, they lash out despite having no coherent vision of a better future to follow from those actions.

Responsible civic discourse is always degraded by appeals to fear and hate.  Yet it can be elevated by appeals to hope.  This nation has made many monumental efforts through the decades.  Some, like marginalizing indigenous tribes or organizing the Confederacy, were the product of fearful and hateful rhetoric.  By contrast, hopeful rhetoric has inspired our greatest achievements, from the Internet to the Apollo Program all the way back to the Constitution itself.

As fuzzy and sentimental as this analysis may seem, its strength is revealed by the rarity and weakness of exceptions to it.  Direct your mind to the past.  Did a President’s angry words ever serve as the birth cry of a great national success?  Did any dark chapter in our history begin with earnest appeals to the better angels of our nature?  If those questions are answered in the negative, a clear relationship between hopeful rhetoric and real success in statecraft has been observed.

The present election provides mixed messages from both sides.  The Republican ticket offers hope that there will be more use of domestic fossil fuels, more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and more cold shoulders for foreigners seeking high level diplomacy without preconditions.  Few people seriously believe a surge in fossil fuels can address our economic shortcomings, never mind dealing with serious environmental issues.  Faith in the panacea of tax cuts remains popular, though in the present historical context that can only be characterized as blind faith.

As far as American exceptionalism goes, that point is a blend of hope and fear.  It is all well and good when citizens hope that our nation’s conduct on the world stage is so amazingly wonderful that there are no errors to acknowledge.  It is neither well nor good when citizens hope that our nation’s position in the world is so coercively dominant that there is no need to acknowledge errors as they become apparent.  When the line between patriotism and jingoism is crossed, so too is the line between hope and fear.

By contrast, the Democrats’ chief appeal to fear draws mainly from a reasonable apprehension about continuity in public policy after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left their mark on world history.  Sure, occasionally there is a low blow about Senator McCain’s aversion to modern information technology (after all, a President should have no shortage of top quality clerical assistance.)  However, the bulk of the attacks go negative on the record and plans of the Republican nominee — not his personality and assorted minor foibles.

With the rest of their enormous media buys and direct communications, Senator Obama’s supporters articulate real hopes.  His health care proposal may not rid the nation of parasitic middlemen, but it does constitute a real effort to address a serious national problem in terms of access to medical goods and services. Few Americans would argue that poor citizens should be allowed to die in the streets due to the costs of treatment.  Yet some legislate and millions vote as if that they hoped for precisely that.  Not since the early 90s has any prominent American leader tried to realign hope with basic human decency in this crucial way.

Elsewhere, Senator Obama’s idealism takes even more noble forms.  His plans for education and science funding would make our workforce more competitive and could bring about a technological renaissance.  Healing damaged international relationships, getting serious about renewable energy sources, providing tax relief for families that have never seen a six figure paycheck — the list of appeals driven by hope and joined by substantive specifics is lengthy.  Heck, the man even hopes to radically transform [warning: PDF link] the national failure that is our policy on broadband infrastructure development.

Perhaps there is no force in the universe that could silence all the fearmongering and hatemongering noise machines in American politics.  Yet that is no reason at all to bend to any particular agenda.  The ultimate tax cut would not address the realities of homelessness, domestic hunger, and preventable loss of human life that occur in our cutthroat economy.  The ultimate drilling initiative would not address the realities of toxic byproducts, industrial emissions, and rising greenhouse gas levels.

Even if political conservatives accomplished goals as stated in this election cycle, unsolved problems growing, some already devastating in scope, would create far more trouble than the most loud-mouthed partisan pundit ever could.  All loyal citizens bear a duty to disregard, dismiss, or dismantle sources of political fear and hate.  Likewise, civic duty calls for heartfelt hopes to be expressed clearly and harmonized with the realities of our times.

Not even a sitting President gets to live in a United States perfectly altered to suit his every whim.  Hope must be tempered with reason if it is ever to bridge the gaps between our noblest dreams and our daily realities.  Fear and hatred repulse reason and hope.  What Machiavelli wrote on the subject has little relevance in an open society with regular peaceful transitions of power.   Perhaps appeals to fear and hatred have a part to play in popularity contests and power struggles.  Yet they can only diminish any civilized leader’s ability to govern effectively over the long term.

Barring one of the greatest surprises in the history of American politics, the contrast will be clear as voters go to the polls on November 4th.  One candidate offers ample thoughtful specifics in a long list of plans to make life better for honest working Americans.  The other adheres to the failed politics of the past while framing precious few appeals without falling back on themes of fear or hatred.  When taking the time to exercise a citizen’s right to vote, think of which future is more desirable — a nation driven forward by hope or a nation frozen in place by fear — then act accordingly.


What You Should Think About Being Cool

October 6, 2008

“It is only after time has been given for a cool and deliberate reflection that the real voice of the people can be known.”

–George Washington

On the eve of 2008’s second U.S. Presidential debate, I am inclined to reflect on one of the more interesting statements from the first.  Senator Barack Obama observed, “part of my job, I think, as President, is to make government cool again.”  In that regard, the candidate faces an uphill battle.  For thirty years, whatever efforts were made to get positive results from trickle-down economics have been exceeded by efforts to rally popular support for an ideology that characterizes government itself as “part of the problem.”

Millions of American voters consider themselves informed because of fantasies spun from the hot air of passionate extremism.  Rather than recognize the limited technical parameters within which a tax cut is likely to promote growth, their dogma transmutes any tax cut proposal into a surefire remedy for the economic troubles of the day.  Rather than recognize the legitimately constructive role new programs could play in promoting progress, their dogma demands nothing but venom for any economic act the state may take to promote the general welfare.

There is a legitimate difference of opinion about the effectiveness of campaigns to popularize this anarcho-capitalist ideology.  Dissent persists.  Heretical suggestions of imperfection in free markets are increasingly allowed to escape into mainstream media content.  Sadly, to hoodwinked legions, any media not fully co-opted by the ideology of free market fundamentalism is to be dismissed by charges of bias . . . along whatever pesky facts they might happen to uncover.

This preference for reducing politics to a level approaching infantile, regurgitating the false narratives and avoiding absorption of real information, is grossly irresponsible.  It is only natural that someone of a patriotic mindset would feel animosity toward organizations and individuals promoting and acting on these false narratives.  Yet, like the central theory of trickle-down economics, the idea that it is right to fight fire with fire is nice, neat, simple, and generally wrong.

Having the right idea does not bestow the loudest voice.  Perhaps more crucially, having the loudest voice is no assurance that it will sound out the right ideas.  Americans of all political orientations have contributed energy to noise machines.  Yet in this century, it is unmistakable that the substantive discourse of conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. and Peggy Noonan has been replaced by the deceitful manipulations of conservatives like Karl Rove and David Frum.  The leadership of the party in power lacks ability or the willingness to distance itself from blatant scoundrels and laughable incompetents.

The tenor of Senator John McCain’s campaign makes this unmistakable.  At a time when both global and national economies are in severe turmoil, that organization opted to let today’s campaign efforts be dominated by personal attacks and sleazy innuendo.  With a little less than their usual levels of restraint and discipline, Senator Obama’s campaign responded in kind.  On the eve of a historic debate, both candidates have positioned themselves in a gutter where slander and trickery marginalize any role underlying realities may play.

A “fight fire with fire” mentality only insures that a clash will be heated.  In the ideal, a fire may also shed some light.  Given the nature of politics, such heated appeals more often wind up obscuring important realities with smoke.  Alas, there is also a perception issue here.  Credible analysis holds that John Kerry’s “above the fray” approach to slander and personal attacks in the 2004 campaign lost him some votes.  A sufficient amount of dirty fighting from one campaign demands a measure of it from the other to avoid a popular perception of weakness (however misguided that perception may be.)

Yet the grave danger exists, as has long been the case with U.S.-Iraq policy, that saving face and perpetuating false narratives will take priority over making changes and popularizing accurate narratives.  Early in his primary bid, Senator Obama called for “a new kind of politics.”  Even granting that this call may have fallen on deaf ears across the Senate aisle, it should not be abandoned.  For cooler heads to prevail, that which is most vulgar and primal about our politics must not be legitimized.

Perhaps nothing truly defines 21st century American politics better than the desperate need for cooler heads to prevail.  Twenty men with boxcutters attacked this nation over seven years ago.  Because of what twenty men with boxcutters did on a single morning, “everything changed.”  In the absence of cool rational thought, that sort of rhetorical absolutism enjoys popular resonance.  In the absence of cool rational thought, extremist policies may steamroll right over otherwise effective checks and balances.

Twenty men with boxcutters were the most effective terrorists in the history of terrorism.  They were provided unwitting yet essential support by the sitting President, his speechwriters, his advisors, and many lesser officials in the executive branch.  The United States of America was under threat by a criminal network with a demonstrated capability to deploy conventional bombs and knife-wielding fanatics.  The group did benefit from private Saudi financial support and sanctuary in the Taliban-controlled portions of Afghanistan.  Yet its single greatest asset was a U.S. Presidency eager to elevate these scum from a ragtag band of misanthropic cave dwellers into an overwhelming threat to the American way of life.

Shocked, saddened, and infuriated by a real national tragedy (and an emotional impact amplified through the manic properties of contemporary media,) our citizenry was in no position to insure that cooler heads would prevail.  Rather than show real leadership by rising to the occasion, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their associates willfully exploited the situation to advance such barbaric policies as the pre-emptive defense, enhanced interrogation techniques, extraordinary rendition, and the unitary executive.  All cloaked in clinical doublespeak, each one of them does more to undermine American liberty than any British tax act ever did.

It is right that people should be upset by all this.  It is right that people should be upset that there is precious little in the way of substantive discourse emergent from American political conservatives.  Perhaps at some rallies and special events, it is not entirely wrong to allow some of that negative emotion to be vented.  Yet it is certainly wrong to ever let it displace calm cool rationality or cold hard facts.

To the degree that conservatives do express their views with support from earnest analysis and accurate information, that deserves responses supported by earnest analysis and accurate information.  Even when conservatives support their views with only hotheaded bluster and misleading noise, responses should still be solidly supported by earnest analysis and accurate information.  When it comes to political clash, perhaps the best approach to fighting fire is not with fire, but rather with ice (or at least a simple wet blanket.)

If our national leadership ever is to benefit from cooler heads in action, then advocates in possession of rational perspectives must step up with the dignity and poise required to actually be cool.  If Presidential politics is to cease being a venue for mongers of fear and hate, it must become a stage for the projection of confidence and hope.

It is long past time for the demonization of the entire public sector to give way to a rational national debate about the role of government in American life.  Our government is not based on inscribed tablets distributed by a burning bush.  Our government is not shaped by manuals sent here from some higher intelligence.  It is now, and always has been, shaped by the words of American patriots.  In pursuit of the goal to make government cool again, there can be no finer start than to be cool whenever engaging in civic discourse.


What You Should Think About Nuance

August 11, 2008

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

–H. L. Mencken

I believe very few Americans understand the extent to which Democrats and Republicans embrace the same agenda.  From the “War on Drugs” to our unilateral arms race, some of the most wasteful and destructive U.S. policies are not up for discussion.  Concern about the strong emotional reaction any critique of such policies tends to generate outweighs concern about insuring our nation is governed by the best available ideas.  This is why the 2008 election so often seems to be about baby steps in the realm of social progress while events of our times offer the chance of a transformational event.

On the other hand, the crisis in South Ossetia illustrates that there are real differences between the leading candidates.  In the immediate aftermath of the first major outbreak of violence, Senator Barack Obama called for a pull back on the violence and a search for alternatives to military action.  It was an eminently civilized call for restraint.  Senator John McCain ridiculed this plea for peace.  In his eyes, Russia is an evil empire, Georgia was victimized . . . oh, and Czechoslovakia was never dissolved.

Though the man took time to ridicule his rival’s call for non-violent solutions to human struggles, apparently he did not have time to educate himself about the realities of this complex conflict.  Given only a superficial glance, there is no time to see anything other than Russia’s forceful and deadly violation of a neighbor’s sovereign territory.  Yet should we let the foreign policy of the world’s lone military superpower continue to turn on casual glances and gut reactions to world events?

Among the underlying realities are the fact that the people of South Ossetia identify much more strongly with Russian governance than the Georgian regime.  Just as loyalty to the government of Turkey prevents the U.S. from supporting independence Iraqi Kurds so strongly desire for themselves, loyalty to Georgia prevents the U.S. from supporting the desire of the Ossetian people to become united within the Russian Federation. The fact that such a desire is inconvenient to our State Department is a poor reason to behave as if it simply does not exist.

Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, this particular conflict zone was being pulled in two directions.  Early Soviet organizational plans divided Ossetia with an eye toward weakening ethnic identities in order to strengthen the new national identity.  The southern half of the area was incorporated into the Georgian SSR, though some measure of autonomy was recognized.  As with other Stalinist pushes to marginalize ethnicity, as in Chechnya for example, control asserted by the hypermilitant security state gave way to grave problems in future decades.

Today’s Georgian conflict is a delicate matter because there are two worthwhile principles in direct conflict.  National sovereignty is one.  After the first Persian Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush declared “a new world order” and created a solid foundation for geopolitical stability.  With a standard holding that unprovoked international military aggression is always unacceptable, conditions existed that were good for business and good for the peaceful varieties of political reform as well.

Then along comes President George W. Bush, demonstrating that no semantic game-playing is sufficient to prevent the world from recognizing a bold act of unprovoked international military aggression as precisely that.  No serious historian is likely to reflect on these events as an uncommonly bloody and torturously slow “liberation.”  Contemporary world leaders may now exploit this horrible example for their own purposes.

The genie so briefly bottled is once again on the loose.  Even the doctrine of “pre-emptive defense” was enough to accomplish that harm.  Yet, to whatever degree it was a factor in the original push for war, bringing stability and democracy to the people of Iraq is now the closest thing to a legitimate reason proponents of continued occupation can muster to justify their stance.  Yet it is also strikingly parallel to the Russian rationale for this invasion of Georgia.  Past referenda and polls paint a clear picture of an overwhelming desire by the people of South Ossetia to be reunited with North Ossetia, a goal best accomplished by joining the Russian Federation.

Georgian leaders denounce the organized emigration of South Ossetians into Russia as if it were a campaign of genocide.  Yet those migrants willingly, even eagerly, pursue Russian citizenship.  It is simply not honest to suggest that non-violent efforts to strengthen ties between South Ossetia and Russia constituted any sort of attack.  Clearly the principle of self-determination is at issue as well.

On the other hand, even South Ossetia contains some diversity.  For generations, ethnic Georgians and ethnic Ossetians have been intermarrying freely.  Prior to the recent attacks, the Georgian government provided many essential services to the people of South Ossetia.  It would also be dishonest to suggest that the Georgian regime has no claim on that territory.  Defending sovereignty and supporting self-determination — each a justification for a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime — are principles in opposition in Ossetia today.

Should South Ossetia be ceded from Georgia and absorbed into Russia?  Should both South Ossetia and North Ossetia break away from their respective states in order to form a modern sovereign Ossetia?  Should the borders remain precisely where they were one week ago today?  None of those questions need be answered to judge the comments of the two leading U.S. Presidential candidates.  Both speak chiefly to one issue — should this dispute be settled over a conference table or on a battlefield?

It is hard to devise a greater form of evil than “war for its own sake.”  Though the 2008 election looks to be a referendum on the war in Iraq, both sides seem moved much more by emotion than reason.  Mainstream journalists’ patronizing chatter about how engaged and informed the electorate is during this cycle does not reflect a sudden upsurge in accurate fact recall by poll respondents or other measures of informational merit.  As many journalists are themselves more connected to narrative emotions than the underlying realities of world events, it is no surprise that they should mistake passion for savvy in others.

Still, there is good cause to hope that the passions of those who oppose war will, in this rare instance, truimph over the passions of those who support war for its own sake.  Bloodthirsty Americans exist, and in Senator McCain they have found a voice on the national stage.  His ridicule of calls for peace, his oversimplification of a complex conflict into a “black hats vs. white hats” scenario, his deliberate confusion of brute strength with useful effectiveness — all these things make him a true spokesperson for the warmongers among us.  I do not dispute that those Americans deserve a voice in the process.  Yet I would ask, can we do no better than to give that lot yet another term of power with which to lead us down the roads warmongers inevitably lead their peoples?


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.


What You Should Think About Fear

July 1, 2008

“Fear is not the natural state of a civilized people.”

–Aung San Suu Kyi

Senator Joe Lieberman is a fascinating study in missing the point.  I first became aware of this when he embarked on a campaign to censor violence in video games.  Here was a grown man, well-educated, commanding a large capable staff, and placed in a position of moral obligation to be astute on a wide range of issues.  Yet he was convinced of a strong causal link between an entertainment medium and the worst sorts of human behavior.  In joining that misguided crusade, he fell in line with a shameful tradition of cultural conservatives ignoring substance in order to attack music or films or books or even plays.  The same buffoonery has been going on in public squares since the Agora of Athens was established.

Still, this particular Senator never fails to disappoint.  Forget about failing to deliver Florida in the 2000 election (after all, Vice President Gore’s organization bungled Tennessee even worse.)  Senator Lieberman’s misadventures go well beyond an ineffective run for his own Vice Presidency.  Whenever presented with a chance to display some insight into international relations, security issues, and counterterrorism policy; the man displays a natural gift for apparently sincere obliviousness.

Either that, or he is truly a coward.  If this is the case, then he is not merely cowering in fear for himself, but coweing in fear for the entire nation.  After all, less than eight years ago, this great nation was attacked by nineteen men with small knives.  Of course that means we must escalate warfare throughout the Middle East until both Iran and Iraq are merely parking lots for the great shopping malls of Dubai and Saudi Arabia, right?

This is the thing to keep clearly in mind as the security debate unfolds.  Armed only with a clever plan and a few inches of sharpened steel, nineteen men brought the United States of America to tears.  Perhaps because of one subject that is still taboo — the extraordinary weakness that enabled such a modest effort to produce such horrific results — we made a collective choice to fight first and think later.

Thus this choice was made without regard for little matters like target selection, means of engagement, post-invasion planning, etc.  Rather than fight back against those who had bloodied, terrorized, and (dare I say it) shamed us; this nation chose to fight for fighting’s sake.  We did not reform transportation safety to bring about real security upgrades.  We reformed it to satisfy the political desire to make people feel as if action were being taken.  We did not deploy armies to neutralize the actual threat to our safety.  We deployed them to satisfy a convoluted mix of political goals, with greater emphasis on acts that would predictably strengthen Al Qaeda than those that would be likely to weaken or eliminate the group.

For people acquainted with relevant facts, it seems hard to imagine such a stupid response to such an important issue.  In the coarsest levels of political dialogue, many conclude that this is because people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and even Senator Lieberman are all evil men intent on bringing the nation to ruin.  I suppose there is some possibility that apocalyptic delusions of grandeur influence the sitting President’s worldview, and Dick Cheney is disturbingly comfortable in the role of a latter day Darth Vader.  However, I believe that it is nonsense to suggest either of them actually hates America or desires ruin befall our people.

They are simply terrorized.  The goal of the terrorist is to strike fear into the hearts of many people.  Even with the stunningly lethal outcomes of the 9/11 hijackings, American security was not significantly changed.  Rare is the month our driving habits fail to kill more people than died in those terrorist attacks.  A perfectly rational response would be to pursue the perpetrators and their accomplices, implement a sensible transportation safety plan, and go on about routine business.  An understandably irrational response would be to dwell on a mix of anger or sadness for a time, then go forward with the rational response.  Given national leadership that was adequate or better, recent history would have played out along understandable lines.

It did no such thing in large part because a particularly twisted and corrupt subset of politicians happily exploit the fact that fear is power.  Making the absurd leap from Saudi men with boxcutters to an Axis of Evil intent on nuking our homeland was only possible because a traumatized people are vulnerable to the absurd.  It was all made much worse still by political hate media — the sort that continues to draw enormous audiences no matter how profoundly wrong its content has been in the past.  Perhaps there are still some sensible voices on the American political right wing, but they are largely drowned out by other voices that cunningly exploit negative emotions — fear, anger, and hatred — to galvanize resistance against constructive political change.

When Senator John McCain’s campaign recently floated the “we put the nation first, the other candidate puts his left wing agenda ahead of the nation” campaign theme, it seems as if it could only have emerged from a circle of terrorized political advisors.  Like Senator Lieberman, it seems Senator McCain and most of his inner circle are still deathly afraid that the United States of America will prove no match for the next band of fanatics to arm themselves with innocuous tools and a cunning plan.  To hear them speak of strength and experience, to hear them criticize the opposition as weak or soft — the irony that such craven jellyfish would take that tone should be lost on no one.  Alas, it is lost on virtually everyone, including many of their critics.

It would have been a great thing for the world if cooler heads had prevailed in late 2001 and beyond.  Heck, it probably would have been great for the world if cooler heads had taken charge in 2004.  This fall, another opportunity presents itself to let cooler heads prevail.  John McCain may not be more quick-tempered or loud-mouthed than Barack Obama.  However, his continued embrace of bloodshed justified by only the most absurd and implausible of political narratives is a shameful misjudgement that threatens to pile misery atop misery, slaughter atop slaughter, all in one of the most oppressed parts of the modern world.

We should fear terrorists . . . we should fear them even more than we fear lightning strikes, but certainly much less than we fear smog.  All these risks are real, yet they are also all no reason whatsoever for a routine day to be uncomfortable.  The more our behavior reflects a terrorized mindset, the less keenly we will be able to focus efforts on neutralizing actual terrorism.  Even worse, the blundering and slaughtering will continue, perhaps even escalate, while decisions are made based on this terrorized mindset.

It is long past time to overcome this insipid fear, spawned by nineteen suicidal fanatics and nursed into a behemoth by years of carefully calculated political misinformation.  The best security credential anyone could bring to a bid for the Presidency in 2008 is a clear history of opposing misguided military aggression in a climate when such opposition was boldly unpopular.  If we truly want to be strong as a nation, then the time has come for us to show the world no fear.  Endorsing the views and candidacies of leaders still clearly and deeply terrorized by the events of September 11th, 2001 is showing plenty of fear — the very fear by which our true enemies define their own successes.