What You Should Think About Abraham Lincoln

June 2, 2011

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

–Abraham Lincoln

Unlike most U.S. Presidents, Abraham Lincoln faced economic hardship as a child.  His father had been a prosperous Kentucky landowner, but young Abraham, at the tender age of 7, watched his family lands taken away due to a legal technicality.  Having resettled in Indiana, he was able to study briefly and sporadically under a series of traveling teachers.  Even so, the bulk of his learning was a function of self-education.  Over time, he grew into a strong laborer.  He did not take every job on offer, but he was often quick to trade his services for the loan of books he had not previously read.

When he was 21, his family relocated once more, to the state he would consider his true home — Illinois.  He soon obtained a loan in order to join a partnership running a mill and general store in New Salem.  Contemporary accounts depict him as an able shopkeeper, but the store did not prosper, and he had to leave the business.  When a battle-hardened Native American known as Black Hawk rallied hundreds of warriors to reclaim his ancestral homeland on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, Abraham Lincoln remedied his unemployment by volunteering for the Illinois militia.  He was particularly honored to have been elected captain of his militia company.

Though young Lincoln did not engage in actual combat, he repeatedly arrived in the aftermath of a clash and undertook the duty of burying the dead.  He would learn much about the costs of war even without experiencing the heat of battle.  He would re-enlist several times, accepting the role of an ordinary private, as his units would be mustered out of service.  He was awarded a land grant for his efforts, though perhaps more valuable were the many new friendships that would prove assets during the start of his political career.  His time in the militia spanned less than four months.  A horse theft on the eve of its conclusion would afford him ample time for reflection as he walked much of the distance from northwest Illinois back to his New Salem home.

Soon after, Abraham Lincoln turned the full force of his energies to politics and the law.  His 1834 bid for a place in the Illinois General Assembly would be his second run for political office and his first campaign victory.  He was the second youngest in a particularly young class of legislators.  Here he kept quiet long enough to live up to his own aphorism, “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”  By the time he was ready to do more than observe and vote, he had such a command of the process that many others turned to him for help in crafting and promoting their own legislation.  Though his Whig party was a shrinking minority, Lincoln’s efforts at leadership did much to help move their agenda through the bicameral Assembly.

During this same time, he also sought and obtained a license to practice law in the state of Illinois.  In 1837, both the capital of the state and the man himself relocated to Springfield.  There Abraham Lincoln formed a law partnership with an old acquaintance from his time in the militia.  In his time as a prairie lawyer, Lincoln would participate in over 5,100 cases.  Among his most notable was the defense of an accused murderer, acquitted after a witness who claimed to have seen the crime by moonlight was impeached with an almanac entry indicating the Moon was in an unsuitable position to provide illumination on the night in question.  He also successfully defended a railroad against claims that its bridge over the Mississippi was a hazard to navigation.  This established a precedent that advanced the cause of economic development extending westward.

Of course, modernity knows Abraham Lincoln best as a critic of slavery and a wartime President who restored the United States after our nation’s only great schism.  He had already served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but he failed to win election to the U.S. Senate.  After a lifetime of promoting obedience to the law and working with traditional political institutions, Lincoln abruptly embraced challenges to the status quo.  He found the infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford to be deeply offensive.  He recognized that many state governments were unlikely to yield to the moral objections against slavery and abandon that institution in his lifetime.  He lent his intellectual force to an increasingly fiery abolitionist movement.

At the same time, Abraham Lincoln became a prominent figure in the emergent Republican Party.  He asserted that the compromises perpetuating slavery were failures of the Founding Fathers and all subsequent American leadership.  With oratorical skills honed before countless juries then popularized by events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he developed a reputation as just the sort of man who could catapult this fledgeling party into a strong position on the national stage.  After winning the Republican nomination for President of the United States, he also emerged victorious in an unusual race that saw the Electoral College of 1860 split four ways.

Before the year was out, secession had begun.  The newborn Confederacy had the benefit of a more skilled body of officers, but its largely agrarian economy would prove an enormous liability.  The great cities of the north, with their industrial capacity, higher standards of education, and technological sophistication would provide a power base that the south could not hope to equal.  The Union Navy acted quickly to inhibit trade, doing much to strangle the Confederate economy that was so dependent on cotton exports.  Quelling the fighting spirit of the rebels was another matter.  President Lincoln went through one senior commander after another, frequently unsatisfied with his generals’ ability and/or willingness to undertake offensive actions.

Ultimately, harsh action was required to restore the nation.  Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman performed the heavy lifting that brought the Confederacy to the point of surrender.  After years of bloody give and take, Grant’s masterful offensives dealt his enemies a string of painful defeats.  Dealing out pain was also a hallmark of Sherman’s actions.  Most remarkably, after securing the city of Atlanta under his control, his forces set fire to all government buildings.  The resulting conflagration was the one of several he would ignite in order to devastate the cities of the south.

Abraham Lincoln himself became no stranger to harsh measures.  His government suspended basic Constitutional rights in order to suppress disloyalty within the Union.  He imprisoned Confederate sympathizers and even some opposition politicians without due process.  He authorized military spending without Congressional approval.  He fully supported the bloody and brutal tactics his most successful generals employed to end the conflict.  Yet he was no barbarian.  As forceful as he was in putting down the rebellion, his intentions were gentle for dealing with the south in the aftermath of the war.

John Wilkes Booth saw to it that history would never learn firsthand of Lincoln’s intentions for the defeated Confederacy.  Formal surrender had occurred just days before the actor-turned-assassin put a bullet in the head of Abraham Lincoln.  Yet Lincoln’s spirit would help to guide his successor in the restoration of the United States as a single coherent nation.  Penalties for war crimes were only imposed on Confederate officers guilty of horrific abuses, like the deliberate starvation of Union captives in the Andersonville prison.  Even the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was a free man no longer facing treason charges within four years of his initial arrest.  Both Abraham Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, understood that healing the nation required viewing even the most ardent rebels as U.S. citizens, entitled to the same levels of fairness and respect due any Yankee.

The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents.  Though his time in that office was dominated by the Civil War, his success at restoring the Union was an incredible feat achieved in the face of growing public unrest about the costs of war.  Subsequent leaders have made pretense of facing “an existential threat” to the United States of America, but Lincoln confronted an actual threat that grave.  His willingness to do what had to be done, knowing full well what it was like to arrive on a battlefield littered with corpses, holding in his heart a passionate commitment to due process and the rule of law, is what made him a truly exceptional leader.  A far cry from twenty men with boxcutters, he had to deal with the loss of nearly half of the nation, and deal with it he surely did.

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What You Should Think About George Washington

May 30, 2011

“Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind. Not only does your pocketbook suffer for it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved.”

–George Washington

The United States of America was forged in battle.  Yet this nation was neither created nor conceived to become a dominant military power.  To the contrary, it was our founders’ ability to defy a military superpower that gave rise to the most authentically populist form of government the world had seen since ancient Greece lost its original democracies.   Extraordinary leadership and unwavering determination made all the difference.  Neither the manpower of the Continental Army nor the skill and equipment of allies opposing the British Army were overwhelming.  The decisive outcome of the Revolutionary War would not be predicted by any purely military analysis of the capabilities each side was prepared to field in when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Even the legendary leader behind this outcome, George Washington, was no great conqueror.  His early military experiences as an American officer fighting for British interests were fraught with misadventure.  In 1754 Colonel Washington surrendered his militia to the French, negotiating a bloodless withdrawal from a hopeless position.  By the end of 1755, his greatest accomplishment involved minimizing losses during the retreat of the disastrous Monongahela expedition.  He emerged from the crucible of defeat as a strict disciplinarian and a cautious tactician.  He went on to promote the prosperity of Virginia by defending the colony’s western frontier with impressive efficiency.

By the time revolutionary sentiment was strong among British possessions in North America, George Washington had already established himself as a commander gifted in the transformation of uneducated and undisciplined volunteers into effective fighting forces.  Yet the ranks of these forces only measured in the hundreds.  His only decisive victories had been won against indigenous tribes equipped with few, if any, firearms.  In 1775, when the Continental Congress asked him to take command of their army, he was selected more by default than acclaim.  The delegates did not recognize how perfectly suited he was to lead an army of underdogs, but they did recognize that he was one among very few prominent American revolutionaries with real experience at military command.

So it was that the fate of our aspiring nation was placed in the hands of a man best known for mitigating the damage from past military defeats.  War had already erupted with the clashes at Lexington and Concord in Massachusettes.  Yet Continental forces amounted to little more than impromptu militias.  Even the core of the army was only committed to single year terms of service.  General Washington immediately set about organizing the military — clarifying chains of command and insisting on rigorous drilling to maintain cohesion when forces were not otherwise engaged.  He held his ground when it was wise to do so, yet he employed his considerable experience at retreat in maneuvers that did much to preserve the modest combat assets of a fledgeling nation.

This leadership went beyond uncommon exercise of military caution.  Washington eventually overcame political resistance in order to restructure the Continental Army as a more stable and durable institution.  Disease and the elements claimed one quarter of his forces during the winter at Valley Forge, but the survivors emerged as tough disciplined professionals on par with the veterans of European conflicts.  Yet even when equipped for plausible victories, he continued to show restraint.  He would strike when the British blundered into a position of extraordinary vulnerability.  Otherwise, he dedicated himself to the preservation of the army and the maintenance of rebel control over an overwhelming majority of colonial territory.

By fighting only the most favorable battles, General Washington bought the revolution time enough to succeed.  Diplomatic achievements, first in France and then elsewhere, forced the British to deal with bigger threats than the loss of American colonies.  He reminded the world that having more men and better equipment does not insure victory.  When he went on to promote adoption of the Constitution and serve as the first President of the United States, he continued to emphasize the value of caution and restraint.  He warned against the costs of lengthy military commitments abroad.  He was openly hostile to the emergence of partisan politics.  He only embraced conflict when he believed doing so was crucial to the survival of the nation.  For example, he personally took command of state militias in order to put down a violent rebellion sparked by one of the federal government’s earliest efforts to raise revenue.

This makes it all the more ironic how George Washington is viewed in some circles today.  Know-nothing fools imagine he would be quick to rebel against federal taxation, when in fact he did not hesitate to put down such a rebellion through force of arms.  Right-wing ideologues imagine he would support costly and deadly exercises in foreign regime change and nation-building, when in fact one of his most clear admonitions was a directive to avoid such entanglements.  Jingoistic bombasts imagine he would take pride in America’s overwhelming military might, when in fact he dedicated much his life to achieving victories while minimizing loss of life and public expense.  It is unlikely that George Washington the man, general, and President would have any respect for the George Washington of Tea Party folklore.

As this Memorial Day comes to a close, I believe it is wise that we ask ourselves, “are we remembering those noble and honorable people who have served this country at great personal risk, or are we celebrating the elective violence and hyperactive warmongering that now consumes over $1 trillion of our $14 trillion national economy?  If we are to truly remember and honor those who were selfless in service to our nation, do we bear no obligation to act against those who engage in the manipulation of political processes and world events for the sake of personal enrichment?”  I believe George Washington would be proud to know that the United States commands the strongest military on Earth.  I believe he would be horrified to know that we only manage to realize that goal by spending 40% all the money the entire planet spends on military procurement.

When we look at the way George W. Bush and Barack Obama launch wars, there is a dramatic contrast.  The former indulged in radical spending increases, made a profound national commitment, ineptly managed alliances, refused to articulate precise objectives, and seemed to believe that merely having an exit strategy was the same thing as accepting defeat.  The latter engaged in modest spending, made a cautious national commitment, harmonized smoothly with allies, and expressed a single clear goal.  The exit strategy for U.S. involvement in Libya remains fuzzy, but otherwise the contrast is dramatic.

First names aside, it is unmistakable which of these leaders is more like the first man to hold the office of President of the United States.  If the entire electorate could be bothered to actually remember the first and greatest of our military commanders, our nation could enjoy a clear path to a more peaceful and prosperous future. As the foremost of our Founding Fathers himself once observed, “experience teaches us that it is much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it is to dislodge them after they have got possession.”  There is no shortage of hard work ahead for modern day patriots intent on taming the beast of runaway military and security service spending.  Yet it is work that must be done if we are truly to honor the memory of those who made this country great in the first place.


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 the Central Intelligence Agency

December 22, 2007

“Spies cannot be employed without a certain intuitive sagacity.”

–Sun-Tzu

People seeking fame and public honor are not well-served by careers in espionage. This is especially true for operatives, analysts, and support personnel employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. It is no false appeal for sympathy when CIA employees point out that their agency takes all the blame for bad work product yet normally takes no credit for good work product. After all, half the point of covert intelligence gathering is to remain covert. Public scrutiny of a fresh success only reduces the chance that it might be repeated.

For different yet equally valid reasons, the CIA and the Supreme Court have tended to be apolitical as institutions. After all, reality is what it is, regardless of what candidates may claim or a President may desire. In its best moments, neither the rhetoric nor the wishes of public officials alter the findings of the CIA. Alas, as with the Supreme Court, effective corporate dominion over the U.S. federal government has made bad politics an inescapable reality for all public servants performing particularly influential work in Washington D.C.

It may be that this is a quirk of perverted idealism. The context in which tax rate cuts actually generate revenue increases is extremely narrow. Yet this does not prevent many politicians, pundits, and their followers from clinging to the belief that tax rate cuts are always certain to generate enormous increases in productivity and revenue collection. Sex education focused so intently on abstinence messages as to deprive students of crucial factual information about human sexuality will tend to increase rates of teen pregnancy. Yet that reality does not prevent many public figures from endorsing the perpetuation of ignorance as a matter of public policy.

With that in mind, it seems less surprising that a Presidential administration eager to bring about Saddam Hussein’s execution should take action without regard for the underlying reality that his regime never belonged on any accurate top ten list of foreign threats to American national security. When Ambassador Joe Wilson undertook a viable, if not exactly covert, effort to gather intelligence related to allegations that Saddam Hussein’s government was intent on acquiring Nigerian uranium, it was predictable that White House officials would refuse to let any underlying reality trump their propaganda point on that issue.

Less predictable was that their effort to discredit his findings would take the form of gross misconduct that compromised the covert status of an experienced CIA operative. This had the immediate effect of endangering the lives of intelligence agents and collaborators ferreting out secrets from the tangled world of high finance in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations. Supervisors had no choice but to shut down that operation immediately. Now neither the public nor the intelligence community may ever get to the bottom of nefarious dealings between wealthy Saudi jihadists and international terrorist organizations.

Yet that political attack on someone who was, at that time, an apolitical public servant also had the long term effect of spreading fear throughout the ranks of the fearless. CIA field operatives are as well-trained as the most elite combatants in military special forces. Not only are they prepared to kill by surprise without hesitation, but they are also trained to face certain death without reservation. However, they are also trained to keep their work and their professional identities a secret. If anything at all scares a CIA operative, it is the thought of being outed to the public in a major media outlet.

Career field personnel with the CIA may well be our nation’s most precious human resource. The actual number of them is rightly regarded as a state secret, but details of recruitment and training procedures indicate they must be less numerous than Navy SEALs. The unnecessary loss of a single field agent can have negative consequences for national security. That all of them should be distracted or intimidated by thoughts of their greatest fear becoming a reality is a truly serious matter.

Thus we see the rush into the Iraq war not only being advanced by public attacks on the Wilson investigation into Nigerian uranium commerce, but also sustained by the implicit threat that raising doubts about White House misinformation would amount to career suicide. Though the circumstances of an analyst are not the same as those of a field operative, the interaction between the CIA’s pathological secrecy and this threat of publicity may explain why there was so little authoritative dissent in the wake of “mushroom cloud” rhetoric about Iraq.

History retains crucial facts. Saddam Hussein was a narcissistic tyrant deeply in love with his own skin — not some Hollywood villain obsessed with building a doomsday device. His interest in weapons of mass destruction prior to the first Gulf War was real, but so too was his interest in personal survival (not to mention retaining power) in the aftermath of that conflict. Only deep ignorance about the nature of Saddam Hussein, and perhaps human nature itself, could produce an analysis concluding that his regime persisted in developing weapons of mass destruction or that he would ever pursue an agenda that might justify a second American invasion of Iraq.

This view is confirmed by his actions during the rush to war. The imposition of UN weapons inspectors was no small thing. It amounted to a national humiliation. No doubt most U.S. Presidents would have no tolerance for similar intrusions into our most secure and secretive government facilities. Yet when American forces took up positions suitable for launching a large scale attack, Saddam Hussein immediately welcomed UN inspectors into Iraq. To them no territory was forbidden and no door was closed.

Preliminary assessments from people on the ground in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction indicated clearly that Hussein’s government was not working on such deadly devices. To people who were in touch with the realities of world events, this was entirely unsurprising. To people whipped into a frenzy of bloodlust by political hate media and other sources of misinformation, the findings of UN inspectors were beyond surprising — they were simply not to be believed. The facts on the ground, as assessed by people actually present on the relevant ground, took a back seat to the talking points of zealous warmongers.

Yet CIA Director George Tenet (presumably with some support from underlings) was complicit in this hoodwinking of the American people. Now thousands of brave Americans are dead, tens of thousands of Iraqi bystanders are dead, many more of each have been deprived of limbs or sanity, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, all to combat a threat that did not actually exist. It is not even clear if the people of Iraq today are better or worse off than they were living under the rule of a selfish and sadistic tyrant.

It is hard to assess just how well the CIA functions as 2007 comes to a close. No doubt Porter Goss did some damage, but it may also be the case that backlash against the politicization of intelligence gathering has done some good. Ultimately, when it comes to what you should think about the CIA, the most crucial insight is the legitimacy of that backlash. As a nation we are strong to the degree that our intelligence gathering resources, acting as our collective eyes, see as clearly and truly as possible. To the degree that this national vision is clouded by political pressures, it becomes impaired and diminishes our ability to develop sound foreign policy goals.

In the end, reality will be what it is, regardless of ideology or ambition. It is true that hopeful national leaders can rally vast resources to change the face of history. Yet this change can only take effect in the future. No amount of hope or fear can alter the reality of what has already occurred. A wise President will understand that gathering intelligence is about getting at the truth. It is extremely foolish to corrupt the best available means of seeking truth for purposes of propping up a false narrative. To do so promotes attempts to interact with that false narrative — attempts that are destined to turn out badly when plans based on lies crash headlong into incompatible realities


What You Should Think About the War in Iraq

December 2, 2007

“He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.”

–Persian proverb

I recall being mystified at the enormous disconnect between reality and “journalism” as I watched a little Fox News Channel almost every day from the emergence of the Clinton-Lewinsky story up through the end of the impeachment effort. Yet bemused puzzlement gave way to alarm as I also made a point of keeping tabs on that network during the rush into the Iraq war. While they spoke in sure tones of Saddam Hussein’s advanced nuclear weapons program, I saw qualified unfettered weapons inspectors concluding no such program existed. While they predicted a quick clean military operation that might cost $1-2 billion, I foresaw a protracted bloodbath.

More disturbing still, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and MSNBC all made the same sort of mistakes FNC did. The “mainstream media” may not have been quite so willing to celebrate bloodlust. Yet every network on that list gave airtime to transparent partisan shills spouting extreme misinformation. Every network on that list presented anchors giving the voice of authority to false narratives generated by White House propagandists. If ever there was a time to rigorously check the facts in a story, that was it. Be it fear of public backlash or lack of access to government officials or parent corporations losing government business, something drove each of those media organizations to take an active role in a campaign of national misdirection.

In fairness, actual public officials were not quite so brazen as political operatives working the media. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed downright circumspect by comparison when he predicted a little complexity in the operation along with a total price tag that might run as high as $50 billion. Yet he joined the chorus of deception when it came to that “the Iraqi people will greet our soldiers with flowers and candy in the street” forecast. Even with thoughtful planning and minimal collateral damage, such an expectation was naïve. Blind faith in the certainty of such an outcome may explain why planning was so thoughtless and the invasion itself generated so many civilian deaths.

Like voting for George W. Bush in 2000, using overwhelming military force to accomplish regime change in Iraq may be regarded as a well-intentioned mistake. Real geopolitical or historical savvy would be required to see the folly of a brute force approach rather than (as was actually done in Afghanistan) working with indigenous people to help them achieve liberty with dignity and autonomy. On the other hand, by 2004 it seemed that outright idiocy was required to overlook the dangers of continuity of Iraq policy as well as the Presidency defined by it.

Though I am not aware of any loyal Bushies admitting to it, perhaps the underlying thinking was that a full scale invasion was required to secure control of Iraqi oil. Yet even if the policy was shaped by thoughts of a resource grab, it was not framed or implemented competently. Forces on the ground were given orders to leave military supply depots unsecured in order to provide immediate protection for the oil fields. What sort of thinking could possibly lead planners to believe forces hostile to America could do less harm with explosives stockpiles than with oil wells?

People with genuine respect for the lives of coalition soldiers and/or the lives of Iraqi civilians would surely have surely recognized problems and pushed for new ideas, perhaps even new leadership, at this point. Rather than accept Secretary Rumsfeld’s initial offer of resignation, the sitting President prioritized saving face over saving lives. The fall of Baghdad was celebrated and already marginalized critics were “put in their place” by jubilant (though also ignorant or dishonest) public figures. Up went the Coalition Provisional Authority; out went every cop, bureaucrat, utility worker, and teacher affiliated with the Ba’th Party; and some truly idiotic thinking about the importance of limited government was put to the test.

Rather than give Iraqi people genuine freedom along with encouragement and support to forge their own institutions of popular rule, a long list of mandates was imposed. At times it seemed as if Rush Limbaugh himself was dictating the shape of things to come in Iraq. For example, American authorities insisted that the new Iraqi government should accept an absolute limit of 15% on income tax. After all, we wouldn’t want the new Iraqi government doing crazy things like providing quality health care to countless collateral casualties or rebuilding devastated infrastructure at a brisk pace.

Most problematic of all was the American insistence that Iraqi oil resources be placed under private ownership. This went far beyond anarcho-capitalist ideology and into the realm of outright kleptocracy. Exxon did not generate this natural bounty. Chevron executives have no ancestral claim to Iraqi sands. Even from an American perspective, there was no justice in taking such a valuable resource out of the hands of the Iraqi people in order to let foreign corporations gorge themselves on oil profits. Imagine how that American directive registered in the minds of the Iraqi people, not merely in desperate need of that revenue, but also entitled to it by any reasonable standard.

Still, what is the plight of an entire nation when there is a Presidential face to be saved? Even as some understanding of Iraq’s internal politics slowly penetrated the thick skulls of relevant American officials, there was no acknowledgement of any legitimate grievances the Iraqi people might feel toward an occupying power. Of course simply maintaining an occupation is itself cause for concern. What American would be comfortable living under martial law imposed by a distant military power? How many of our citizens would stop at nothing to strike back against the invaders? Is it any surprise that in 2004 the most popular video rental in Iraq was Red Dawn?

In light of all this, what else could the White House do but stay the course? Apparently, they did eventually come to consider an alternative — the troop surge. In a land where military occupation is the primary fuel for the fires of anarchy and terrorism, more intense military occupation is the way to go?!? Perhaps today’s war planners are hopeful that insurgents and Al Qaeda affiliates will eventually lose interest in the causes for which they are willing to die. All that can be ascertained clearly from this policy is that there is no amount of blood and treasure that would cause George W. Bush to acknowledge the unthinkable — he might actually have committed a major blunder that changed the course of history.

In the end this disastrous reality may be a natural outgrowth of late 20th century conservative political thought. Again and again, errors are met with denials or evasions rather than recognition and change. It seems as if some people believe that strong enough faith in that which is untrue can reshape reality to make trickle down economics work or environmental damage inconsequential or even brutal warmongering constructive. Talk alone, growing less and less reasonable even as it grows more and more vehement, is employed as an alternative to adaptation in the face of serious problems.

Even if one grants that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man who had to go, it remains the case that the hardships of Iraq today are not caused by any threat that might be overcome with superior military might. Political problems require a political solution. It is inexcusable that the day after Saddam Hussein was pulled from his spider hole was not a day in which sweeping demilitarization of U.S.-Iraq policy was announced.

There is much work for diplomats, and perhaps spies as well, to perform inside Iraq. Perpetuating the bloodbath over there has added enormous difficulties to the challenges already inherent in the Iraqi situation. A new approach, in which officials make a good faith effort to face facts, then a similar effort to be honest with the public in both Iraq and the United States, would be a wonderful step in the right direction. Substantial reduction in the profile as well as the scope of the occupation would also be a form of progress. Instead policy seems oriented entirely around delaying the point at which error must be conceded. To me, it seems like this is procrastination of downright murderous proportions.


What You Should Think About Pacifism

November 29, 2007

“From pacifist to terrorist, each person condemns violence — and then adds one cherished case in which it may be justified.”

–Gloria Steinem

Even in more tranquil times, there is no shortage of commentary meant to remind non-violent citizens that legions of trained killers stand at the ready to provide security for the nation. No doubt much of human history reveals that force of arms provides a means to keep a hostile enemy out of a nation’s heartland. Yet more circumspect analysis also demonstrates that force of arms provides a means to produce hostile enemies. Could it be that there is more to achieving a security goal than having the most guns or the best fortress?

The bizarre state of the world in the aftermath of America’s “headless behemoth” foreign policy provides a new perspective on some old ideas. From the earliest clashes in military history, there have been questions about the justification for war. No one remotely acquainted with the realities of warfare could carry on without any doubts about the endeavor, even if military culture vigorously promotes thoughtlessness in this arena.

To be fair, soldiers in the thick of it are more effective if no weighty political cogitations distract from the urgent business at hand. Yet this same culture so useful in the field also has drawbacks. Once the fog of war has cleared and some opportunity for reflection presents itself, this mindset creates difficulty reconciling doubts raised by the experience of waging war with political justifications for the violence.

Since ancient times, it has been common for a head of state to have extensive personal experience with military service. Thus the entire history of governance is heavily influenced by, if not a “might makes right” attitude, at least a “having might is more important than being right” attitude. In Europe (sans Switzerland and a few other pockets of exceptional thoughtfulness,) from the Middle Ages to the middle of the 20th century, it was accepted that a genuinely defensive stance was inadequate. Responsible governance was presumed to include cultivating enough military might to fight alongside allies, lend credibility to aggressive posturing, and project force to distant lands.

Even today, blatantly stupid ideas like “war is good for the economy” or “war is essential to driving technological progress” are widely believed. Centuries upon centuries of social paradigms make it such that questioning or contradicting these unsound assumptions is regarded as a sign of weakness. It may be that the negative response is as much primal as it is cultural. Yet it surely is not intellectual.

There may be a subset of human beings who are best able to achieve their potential in some context provided by war. Yet to promote war as a means of promoting human achievement is downright senseless. Many of those who have achieved great things in a wartime context were just as capable of achieving great things in some peaceful pursuit. More to the point, surely that portion of humanity inclined to thrive in warfare is not a strong majority. Then, even if I were mistaken about that point, how much innocent blood may be spilled in the name of creating a militant environment for human achievement? Could the inspirations of war ever exceed the lost loves and labors of lives cut short by the consequences of combat?

War for war’s sake is only a good thing to the degree that someone has developed a profoundly misguided notion of “good.” Yet there remains the matter of defense. Wherever there is prosperity or power available for the taking, there is the risk that aggression will occur. George Orwell is known to have asserted, “we sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence upon those who would do us harm.” To someone just beginning to attain the first glimmers of enlightenment, such a statement seems to suggest that peace and prosperity rest on an essential foundation created by awesome military forces ready to lay waste to prospective national enemies.

That assessment comes from an ignorance of the interconnectedness of all things. Did a sniper stuff the pillows on which this peaceful sleep occurs? Did a gunboat pilot assemble the frame of the bed? Was the mattress put together by an artillery crew? Is the heating and plumbing that makes our homes comfortable first invented by a team designing killing machines? Were our city streets planned and paved with the oversight of combat-hardened generals? To turn the simple-minded interpretation of Orwell on its head — dedicated warriors eventually find safe places to sleep away from the battlefield because most everyone else stands ready to perform constructive and creative activities on their behalf.

For too long, the darkness of tribalism and barbarism has lingered in our modern institutions. In the halls of power, even from the lips of those who avoided service themselves, characterizations of military forces as “the backbone of our society” are sincere. Yet they are also archaic and misguided. If we accept that military organizations are the essential core of strength our society possesses, then we define our greatness chiefly by our power to kill and destroy. I would think even an overwhelming majority of military personnel would hope for a more noble perspective from national leaders. Alas, this affliction remains severe in the United States, and it is hardly absent from other nations in the modern world.

Even amongst warriors, the trait of being peace-loving is correctly regarded as a virtue. Yet when it comes to absolute pacifism, hawks, chicken hawks, and plenty of doves all seem willing to agree that it is foolish. Personally I agree that there are plausible scenarios in which defense of others or defense of self justifies actions intended to neutralize a real and imminent threat. Yet no small part of the pacifists’ wisdom is understanding how incredibly rare these situations are if you do not make it your business to instigate or escalate hostilities.

An absolute pacifist runs the risk of doing wrong by failing to take the most effective course of action in protecting the innocent. Everyone else runs the risk of doing wrong by performing willfully destructive actions that do not serve any protective purpose. Which is the greater risk?

In the personal context, fluid situations and instantaneous needs can lead to situations where thoughtful reflection is not an option. Within limits both reasonable and practical, there should be some tolerance for honest mistakes. In an international context, however fluid the situation, opportunities for contemplation are usually abundant. To go to war when the underlying facts are not subject to thorough investigation or the stated cause(s) are unreasonable or the overall plan is unrealistic is to perpetrate the very worst sort of mistake. Only a team of lazy minds paired with dark hearts could let the desire to order an army to do violence take priority over the moral imperative to avoid unnecessary warfare.

Perhaps absolute pacifists are fools. Yet if we see clearly, then we see that life makes fools of us all. There is much more to be learned from the fool who thinks differently than from the fool who echoes our own thoughts. When we cut through useless divisiveness, we are left recognizing that abhorring violence is innately rational, perhaps even innately good. While we who are not absolute pacifists set about establishing the grounds on which we would support acts of violence, there is much benefit to be found in considering the very best arguments against those acts. If we cannot even face the questions of those who condemn all violence, how can we possibly believe our own justifications for it are legitimate?