Friday, December 29, 2006

Revolutionary Wealth

I only caught a little bit of this on Book TV, and apparently it was a re-run. I have to confess that I haven't read any of Toffler's work yet, so I'm not endorsing his conclusions, but I did find the portion of the conversation I watched to be thoughtful and thought-provoking. If the U.S. really is spearheading a new civilization and way of life, and I believe that it is, I wish more Americans would consider what they want our historic legacy to be; will history remember us as just another empire that succumbed to selfish materialism and the arrogance of power, or will it remember us as something more, something nobler and better?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Stop apologizing to the Moslem world

This editorial captures some the frustration I feel about our approach to the Islamic world. Among the many mistakes this administration has made, one of the most baffling is its belief that it must flatter and cajole Moslems to get them to embrace Western-style democracy and values. The fact is, while there are many good Moslems in the world, their religion as it is practiced in most of the world today is inimical to our form of government and our values, not to mention modernity as a whole. Western civilization is by no means perfect, but it doesn't need to keep apologizing to Moslems or obsessively worry about upsetting their feelings. The problems in the Middle East have much less to do with mistakes made by the West than they do with deep-seated cultural and religious problems inherent to their societies. The sooner we stop pretending otherwise the better. Let them worry about how the rest of the world perceives them.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Thoughts after Election Day

So, the Democrats won both houses of Congress, a majority of the governerships, and Rumsfeld's head on a platter. Happy days are here, right? A new golden age of peace, prosperity and virtuous government is upon us at last, right? We'll see. In 1994, when the GOP swept both houses of Congress, I was still an active Democrat, but I wasn't terribly sorry about the results of that election. I thought it would do some good for the Democrats to be a minority again and spend some time in the political wilderness. I thought the GOP might actually make some needed reforms and do some good. And in a few small cases like welfare reform, I thought they did. But whatever change they brought was pretty far from the bold promises of the "Contract with America" (which, you might remember, included term limits for members of Congress). I vividly remember John Kasich telling a reporter, who asked in 1997 why the Republicans hadn't eliminated hundreds of useless federal programs like they'd promised, "You just don't get it. The jig is up around here when it comes to cutting the budget." Apparently the spirit of reform that had brought them to power two years earlier evaporated quickly once they were in the majority. My cynicism about our two-party system deepened, and when George W. Bush "won" the presidency in 2000, I made this prediction to some of my close friends, Republican and Democrat alike: even if he served for a full eight years, we would still have a Marxist tax code, social security, estate taxes and abortion when he left office. I said it to my Democratic friends to put their minds at ease, and I said it to my Republican friends as a cynical statement of just how far I believed Bush would really push his "conservative" agenda. And I stand by that prediction. Aside from his consistently conservative social-religious views, there was (and still is) little that is genuinely conservative about this president, or about most Republicans these days. The fact is, whatever spirit of reform occasionally grips one of our two major parties, it always evaporates quickly once they're in power. Despite some sincere people on both sides of the aisle, neither of these two parties has a serious, lasting interest in any kind of meaningful reform. Above all else, they are interested in seizing and maintaining power. With a system that effectively shuts out third parties and thus healthy competition, they have no compelling reason to change, so this cycle continues every decade or so. Now the pendulum has swung back in the Democrats' favor... for a time. We'll see how long it lasts and how much good they actually do. My expectations are pretty low, considering the sorry act they're following. If they could at least provide some restraint on federal spending and a recklessly interventionist foreign policy, I would be grateful. But I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Thoughts on Election Day

I have no interesting predictions to make about the outcome of today's election. I tried to vote but couldn't because I forgot to register within the 30-day window (I recently moved to a new county). Doh. At first I was disappointed, but my straight Libertarian protest vote wouldn't have helped elect a single person to office anyway. As angry as I am at the GOP's rampant betrayal of real conservative values like fiscal responsibility and prudent foreign policy, I just can't bring myself to be an enabler for a stagnant, intellectually bankrupt two-party system. If the Democrats win the House and/or Senate today, it won't be because they captured the public's imagination with better ideas. As is almost always the case, the one party out of power will win because the electorate eventually got too disgusted with the (only other) party in power. Boy, what an inspiring system. As long as the American public doesn't have to grapple with any new ideas... that's the important thing. And speaking of new ideas, I've been thinking more and more about a suggestion floating around out there that we move Election Day to Veterans Day. I like it, for a number of important symbolic reasons, but with the qualification that I would like it to be on Veterans Day weekend. If you want to maximize voter participation, it makes a hell of a lot more sense (to me, anyway) to hold elections on a Saturday than it does on a Tuesday.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Old-school conservatives speak out

This weekend on "Foreign Exchange," Fareed Zakaria interviewed Andrew Sullivan, the author of the new book, The Conservative Soul: How We Lost it, How to Get it Back. Sullivan's unorthodox advice for Tuesday's election? Vote Democratic. Meanwhile, Fareed has an excellent article in Newsweek about rethinking our strategy in Iraq, and George Will derides Cheney and the war in Iraq in general. Whether you agree with them or not, it's refreshing to see "old-school conservative realists speaking out." It's just a shame it took them so long.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Bill Frist's take on Afghanistan

Bill Frist is probably right, but you can't help but wonder what the GOP would say about a top-ranking Democrat going to Afghanistan and suggesting that its government should include the Taliban. At any rate, it's encouraging to see top Republicans beginning to candidly acknowledge that military force alone will not be sufficient to defeat the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ugly truth is that if we really want democracy in the Middle East and South Asia, we will have to accept the fact that Islamic extremists will be voted into office. Hopefully the results in Afghanistan and Iraq will be more encouraging than in Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Conservatism and the "National Will"

While I share Gingrich's concern over the inordinate power of the Supreme Court, I always cringe when I hear so-called conservatives suggesting a course of action that would better reflect the "national will." Conservatism as a philosophy never put much stock in public opinion; in fact there was a time when conservatives saw it as their duty to resist the shifting tides of public opinion as much as possible, recognizing it as a force of mischief in the world, and in democracies in particular. The U.S. Senate was originally conceived as an institution that would resist popular passions and debate issues solely on their merit, which is why senators were not originally elected directly by the people but chosen instead by their state legislatures. The Supreme Court, even moreso, was intended to be immune to the viscitudes of fickle popular opinion. I would expect Gingrich of all people to know this, since--despite his obnoxious personality--he has spoken intelligently in the past about our structure of government and its Founders' intent.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

First, the bad news from Iraq...

Has the war in Iraq made us safer from terrorism? Not according to our latest National Intelligence Estimate. Personally, I don't know how anyone could think it would, at least not any time soon. If the president is right that terrorists fear the spread of democracy in the Middle East and will do anything to oppose it, then it makes perfect sense that the threat of terrorism is higher today than it was on 9/11. As long we retain a huge military presence in the heart of the Middle East, we will be a target for every malcontent suicider (my favorite new word in the president's lexicon) in the region, and we will provide plenty of fodder for the mullahs of hatred to fire up new generations of disenchanted Arabs and Moslems against us. As for the argument that we can either fight them here on our shores or fight them in the Middle East, that's what they call a "false dilemma" in Logic 101, but I will have more to say about that in a future post. The good news from Iraq, however, is that Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders are finally making some concessions to the inevitable by submitting a bill to the Iraqi parliament that would allow for the creation of more autonomous regions.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Those Christian Conservatives Ain't Goin' Nowhere

Here's an old election-year saw: Christian conservatives, angry with the GOP, are threatening to bolt the party or stay at home. I'm surprised anyone still falls for that one. Let's face it, as long as a GOP candidate gets up and says he's against abortion and gay marriage--whether he means it or not, and whether he actually does anything about it or not--he'll get every Christian conservative vote in his district. Period. Their own beliefs to the contrary, Christian conservatives are just as easily manipulated as any constituency out there.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Apologizing for the Truth

I'm neither an apologist for the Catholic Church nor someone who takes pleasure in criticizing other people's faith, but I am a little tired of this feeling in the West that we have to be excessively cautious about offending Moslems when discussing Islam. We can criticize Christianity with impunity in the West, but for some reason Islam is off limits? Yes, we can all agree that the history of Christianity is far from admirable in some respects, and Moslem scholars are as eager to make that point as anyone. So again, why is Islam off limits? Maybe the world should stop indulging Islamic fundamentalists and put them on the defensive to explain why their faith has become so conducive to violence and terrorism. And while we're on that subject, why do no prominent Moslem leaders ever apologize for 9/11 or any of the other dozens of horrific acts committed by Moslems in the past few decades? At best, all we ever get is the usual nonsense about the Crusades and America's support of Israel. Despite the fact that there are many peaceful Moslems in the world, it seems like the collective mindset of Islam is such that it has no capacity whatsoever for self-criticism and correction, but instead needs others to blame for its problems.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Winning the War on Terrorism

Fallows makes some compelling points. Well worth the read.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Has the Pentagon become defeatist, too?

A rising tide of sectarian violence? Illegal militias becoming more entrenched? Conditions that could lead to civil war on the rise? What is this, the doom-and-gloom rhetoric of the Democratic Party? No, it's the Pentagon's latest report to Congress about the war in Iraq. Sure, opponents of the war must feel emboldened by the news, but that's irrelevant. It's important that supporters of the war at least accept the reality of what is, rather than cling to the same tired old fantasies; specifically, that any bad news from Iraq is an exaggeration or outright fabrication of the media's, or that democracy is on the verge of sweeping aside tyranny in the Middle East. To the administration's credit, they seem to be in agreement with the Pentagon's assessment, while still doggedly clinging to the fantasy that democracy is the cure to terrorism, civil war, and damn near everything else that ails the Arab world.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Flawed Arguments, Part I

This truly has me scratching my head. The president is saying on the one hand that any premature withdrawal from Iraq will create the world's worst terrorist state, and on the other hand he is saying we have to stay and help this young democracy. On the surface that seems reasonable enough; who wouldn't want democracy instead of a terrorist state? But while I agree that premature withdrawal is not a sane option (I will have more to say on this later), I'm disturbed by the logic here; if he really believes that American military might is the only thing keeping Iraq from becoming a terrorist state, then he is a) tacitly admitting that his administration's pre-war assumptions about post-war Iraq truly were as wrong as they could possibly have been, and b) acknowledging Iraq's own utter helplessness in creating a democracy. How then are we to believe the prevailing "conservative" wisdom that Iraq can be a beacon of democracy in the heart of the Middle East, emboldening the supposedly pro-American people of places like Iran? This argument doesn't add up: if Iraq cannot build a democracy without a long-term American military presence, why should we believe that places like Iran can? I hear guys like this one on NPR saying Iran is ripe for democracy, but I see no compelling proof; just lots of wishful thinking. Frankly, I'm a jaded man when it comes to any form of optimism about that part of the world, which I have unfortunately seen firsthand (twice). If the people of Iran or anywhere else want democracy, why should they need any help or encouragement from us if that's really what they want? Rise up, depose your tyrants, and proclaim yourselves a democracy if that's really what you want, by God. Where is that good old-fashioned, self-help, do-it-yourself conservative philosophy we used to preach? Why doesn't it apply to our foreign policy, where suddenly conservative values like prudence and realism have become bad words, cynically derided as "defeatist"?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Home of the Assassins

Another op-ed about the need to break up Iraq in order to save it. And it's always mildly entertaining, if a little depressing, when an American official like Attorney General Gonzales visits Iraq and talks about "the rule of law." The people of Iraq have never known anything like the rule of law--as we define it--in modern history. They have only known the rule of violence and terror, either from an absolute tyrant or various factions vying to be the absolute tyrant(s). I'm reading a good book by Michael Oren about the Six Day War of 1967, and the first chapter alone is a good primer for novices (i.e., most of our elected officials) who know very little about the turbulent history of the modern Middle East. Long before Israel ever arrived on the scene, the entire region was a case study in the worst aspects of human behavior practiced on a massive, societal scale. This is the same part of the world that gave birth to the word Assassin. I hope to hell the people of Iraq can beat their own history and use this chance we gave them--albeit at no invitation of theirs--to build a better future, but as always when it comes to human beings, I remain skeptical. If some alien civilization had occupied the heart of Europe and given us a democratically elected government in the middle of the Dark Ages, I would be about as optimistic. Maybe a little moreso, actually.

The Islamic Way of War

As Andrew Bacevich writes in the September 11 edition of The American Conservative: "It’s time for Americans to recognize that the enterprise that some neoconservatives refer to as World War IV is unwinnable in a strictly military sense. Indeed, it’s past time to re-examine the post-Cold War assumption that military power provides the preferred antidote to any and all complaints that we have with the world beyond our borders." While I disagree with Mr. Bacevich that there is anything uniquely Islamic about the "way of war" being fought by insurgents and terrorists in the Middle East, I think his larger point is well taken. There are a number of politicians in this country--mainly self-identified "conservatives"--who believe that conventional military force can reshape that region of the world to our liking. I disagree. We certainly have the ability to destroy any number of regimes we don't like, but when it comes to the harder work of building stable, peaceful democracies in a climate of age-old ethnic and religious violence--and somehow expecting that if only the American people can toughen up and quit whining, our conventional military forces can prevail in that task--we are relatively powerless and horrifically naive. It's not that I think the president's vision of a democratic Middle East is all bad; it's that I think his strategy for realizing that vision is flawed. No amount of open-ended occupations and conventional military force alone will ever produce the results he wants, nor will they produce the results that Israel wants in Lebanon.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A polite but firm letter to Hezbollah

When I read about Kofi Annan demanding that Hezbollah turn over the two captured Israeli soldiers, I was reminded of the Simpsons episode where Mayor Quimby says, "People, take it easy. We are all upset about Mr. Burns' plan to, uh, block out our sun. It is time for decisive action. I have here a polite but firm letter to Mr. Burns' underlings, who, with some cajoling, will pass it along to him or at least give him the jist of it. Also, it has been brought to my attention that a number of you are stroking guns. Therefore, I will step aside and open up the floor." Mr. Annan is in the same hopeless position as Mayor Quimby. Ultimately it's not the U.N., but a bunch of angry guys with guns in Lebanon and Israel who will determine the fate of those two nations.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

More dissent in the ranks

More Republican dissent on Iraq as top GOP frontrunners jockey for position in '08. I had forgotten about Cheney's "final throes" comment until reading this. I also seem to recall Rumsfeld at first denying there was an insurgency, then saying it was only a few hundred strong, and then gradually admitting it was in the thousands. Now the media is saying it's stronger than it's ever been, and a dwindling number of hardcore Bush loyalists are all but convinced that the insurgency/civil war is a complete fabrication of the media's. Now the president himself is saying he and his administration have always said Iraq would be a long, hard conflict. That's not true, of course, unless one remembers that the administration views the war in Iraq and the War on Terrorism as one and the same. Anyhoo, it will be an interesting barometer of the party's mood to see how much traction guys like McCain and Hagel get out of their criticism of the president and the war.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hagel speaks out (again)

Wouldn't it be nice if a GOP presidential candidate actually ran against his party's Johnsonian spending habits and utopian foreign policy and won the nomination? Probably ain't gonna happen, but one can dream.

Federalism for Iraq

News like this is hardly anything new when it comes to Iraq, but it does make one wonder--yet again--how such a bitter religious division can be overcome to forge a stable, enduring democracy. Tocqueville believed, and many conservatives used to believe, that the mores/habits/values/practices of a culture largely predetermined whether a successful democracy could take hold. Today, many conservatives (or perhaps more accurately, neo-conservatives) believe the opposite: that democracy can transform even the most alien culture for the better. They believe in what Pat Buchanan derisively called "the salvific power of free elections." For proof of this salvific power, Wilsonian idealists will most commonly cite post-war Japan. But Japan is a poor example for the case in Iraq, since it has none of the ethnic or religious divisions--indeed, is probably the most homogenous nation on Earth--and did in fact already possess, prior to our occupation, many of the mores that tend to make democracy work, like self-discipline, thrift, and respect for the law. A much better example for the neo-conservative case is probably India, which has managed to muddle along with a functioning democracy in spite of serious ethnic and religious divisions. But if one looks to India as a model for Iraq, one must remember that democracy only took hold there after the partition of 1947, which created the nation of Pakistan. So this raises the valid question, should Iraq be partitioned? It already has a de facto sovereign Kurdish nation within its borders, one that will almost certainly clamor for full independence as all de facto states eventually do. Could there be a Sunni and Shiite partition as well? Peter Galbraith is one of the leading American advocates for a three-state solution in Iraq, but so far this position has been derided as defeatist by the administration, which clings to a utopian view of Iraq where free elections somehow defeat terrorism and end more than a millenium of bitter religious violence. What is most baffling about this position is that our own nation survived--in fact thrived--because our founders recognized the wisdom of joining our original 13 states into a federation in which they could all still enjoy a strong degree of autonomy. Certainly the issue of slavery posed a serious challenge to our system of federalism, and the Civil War changed it forever, but there are few sane scholars today who would argue against the ultimate success of our system. So why do neo-conservatives cling to a utopian vision of democracy and bitterly reject practical solutions based on historical precedent? If anyone has a good answer, I'd like to hear it.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

What the...?

"We will defeat the terrorists by strengthening young democracies across the broader Middle East."? Huh? Is that what we're doing in Lebanon? I hate to sound like a broken record, but I don't think Lebanon's young democracy got any help from 34 days of sustained devastation, and I don't think anything our government has said or done from the beginning of that conflict to date has helped Lebanese democracy in any way whatsoever. All we did was countenance the same failed strategy we've used in Iraq, where the insurgents and terrorists are as strong today as they've ever been. It's kind of hard to build a stable democracy when your people are getting shot at and blown up every day.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Israeli soldiers speak out

Most of these complaints address logistical problems, but for those interested in the strategic issues of this conflict, here's something to ponder: in 1967, Israel defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria in just six days. In 1973, Israel defeated the combined forces of Egypt and Syria in just 20 days of conflict. In 2006, Israel failed to defeat Hezbollah in 34 days of fighting.
Does this mean that Israel is getting weaker? While the complaints of these soldiers suggest some serious problems of military planning and organization, the answer is no. The reason Israel could not destroy Hezbollah--contrary to the early claims of the Israeli and U.S. government--has to do with the nature of the conflict. Hezbollah, like the terrorists we are fighting in Iraq, is an irregular force that fights and hides among civilians. Unlike conventional forces, they don't wear uniforms or line up in formations and march into battle. The only sure way to completely destroy an irregular force like Hezbollah is to completely destroy the civilian populace; any claim to the contrary is simply absurd.
As our own government has begun to realize and acknowledge in Iraq, any victory against an enemy like this must ultimately be a political--not a military--victory. The terrorists and/or insurgents must be completely alienated from the people. Unfortunately, Israel's ill-conceived invasion of Lebanon has achieved the opposite result. It may have temporarily damaged Hezbollah's fighting ability, but it has strengthened its political standing and its support among the Lebanese people.
No, Israel's military is still strong. It's their government's strategy that's weak.

Plan of Attack

I recently finished reading Plan of Attack. Woodward interviewed key members of the administration, including the president himself, and was therefore able to present a very vivid picture of the inner debates and meetings that ultimately led to the invasion of Iraq. There are no shocking revelations in the book, but it does give one a better sense of how and why the CIA got the WMD issue so wrong. Embarrassed by their failure to prevent 9/11 and paranoid about future attacks, they were all too eager to feed the White House crumbs of questionable intelligence about Iraq, figuring it was better to err on the side of extreme caution, and the White House (especially the vice president) was all too eager to seize those crumbs to justify an invasion that many warhawks considered long overdue.
Republicans still smarting from Watergate tend to be suspicious of anything Woodward writes, but the truth is that this book, like the preceding Bush at War, does not present Bush in an unflattering light. Yes, there are the odd Bush moments that make you cringe, but more often than not I found myself somewhat more sympathetic to a president I don't otherwise hold in much esteem.
For those interested in the president, his foreign policy and his key advisors, this book actually makes a good sequel not only to Bush at War, but to James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans as well.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

More on Hezbollah

The New York Times has a piece this morning about Hezbollah's gaining stature in the aftermath of Israel's invasion. As I've already said, the most predictable result of this conflict was a gigantic boost to Hezbollah's political standing in Lebanon, which marks neither a defeat of terrorism nor an advance for democracy in the Middle East. If anything I think it's safe to say that Lebanon is further from the Western democratic fold today than it was last year.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Future of Cuba

I don't know why anyone was surprised that Cubans weren't dancing in the street when Fidel Castro relinquished power to his brother Raul. American foreign policy remains anchored on two hugely flawed assumptions: first, that people in places we don't like (Cuba, Syria, Iran, North Korea, etc.) are hungering for democracy and poised for revolution, and second, that isolating and threatening these regimes will push their people ever closer toward a form of government we prefer. In fact there is plenty of evidence to the contrary; that confrontational policies toward nations like Cuba tend to increase anti-American sentiment and ultimately strengthen their leaders while more rational policies of engagement toward Communist nations like China and Vietnam have tended to produce, if not actual democracy, at least some of the necessary preconditions for democracy (like economic growth). If our government is serious about seeing a democratic Cuba in the future, the best thing it can do is drop our asinine, counter-productive policies toward that nation and attempt to engage Cuba in the same way we've successfully engaged Communist regimes across the Pacific.

Friday, August 04, 2006

... who needs enemies?

The current state of affairs between Lebanon and Israel demonstrates two fallacies guiding President Bush's foreign policy: first, that democracy in the Middle East is the "antidote for terror," and second, that "democracies don't fight democracies." Far from striking a blow against terrorism or making a friend of Israel, Lebanon's democratic elections last year only strengthened Hizbollah's political standing and even gave them a semblance of respectability; a semblance that has been hugely amplified throughout the Middle East by their "victory" over Israel (one has to remember that to the modern Arab mind, anything but complete and utter defeat is a victory, especially against Israel or America). With democratic friends like Hizbollah's Lebanon and Hamas' Palestinian Authority, who needs enemies?

My thoughts exactly, Sir

Yesterday on NPR, a retired Marine officer and Vietnam veteran spoke up about the incident at Haditha. I believe his thoughtful commentary reflects the opinion of most military officers on the subject of war crimes. It certainly reflects mine.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Growing Demand for Renewable Energy

Good news like this gives me some hope. The president has made some laudable moves in this direction, but much, much more needs to be done. It's my humble opinion that renewable energy is probably the most pressing moral, environmental, foreign policy, and national security issue of the new century. America should be blazing the trail on this issue like the bold pioneers we once were.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Putin the Conservative

The irony of Putin's sarcastic comment at the WTO about Iraq's violence-plagued democracy is that while it will undoubtedly irritate many American "conservatives," Putin's attitude is far more truly conservative than our own president's. There was a time in the not-so-distant history of our republic when American conservatives, familiar with Burke and Tocqueville, recognized that a successful and stable democracy had certain prerequisites--among them, a rule of law and order that is not imposed by fear, but by the habits and values of the people themselves. There is a good reason why Putin currently enjoys high approval ratings in Russia; his own country's rush to democracy in the 1990s, at a time when crime was rampant and the central government in disarray, made many Russians yearn for more order and less democracy. The images of Iraqis emerging from the polls with their ink-stained fingers may have stirred our democratic American hearts, but ultimately they will prove meaningless if those same Iraqis have to live in constant fear of terrorist attacks, religious violence, and stray American bullets. We have no choice--and indeed a pressing moral imperative--to help Iraq restore lasting law and order as quickly as possible, but we would do well to remember our Burke and our Tocqueville before embarking on any other democracy-building experiments in the near future.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

A New Direction?

I no longer follow electoral politics as closely as I once did, but one question that continues to interest me is how the Democrats might redefine themselves or sharpen their message. If Nancy Pelosi's "New Direction for America" is any clue, then they still have some work to do. Rather than offering a bland smorgasboard of policy positions, I think they'd be much better served by going after the alternative energy issue full bore. Reducing "dependence on foreign oil" is nice, but reducing dependence on oil PERIOD is not only a saner policy, but one more likely than ever to grab the electorate's attention and revive the can-do spirit that used to characterize our national endeavors. America's future energy is a moral, domestic, national security, and foreign policy issue all wrapped in one, and the sooner our leaders realize it the better. If conservatives won't take a bold lead on this issue, as they ought to, then someone will have to. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I finally finished reading Max Hastings' Armageddon about the battle for Germany in WWII. As always, reading about that horrific conflict gives one some much needed perspective about the current state of affairs in the world. The numbers of soldiers and civilians killed in Germany alone in just the first few months of 1945 is, quite literally, beyond our comprehension today. We are accustomed to thinking of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the ultimate horror of that war, but in fact those two cities--indeed, the entirety of Japan--suffered far less than did Germany, both in terms of civilian deaths and destruction of infrastructure. It's strange to admit, but--had it been possible--it would have been far more compassionate to drop atomic bombs on Germany than to subject them to the horrors of the Allied aerial campaigns and the subsequent Russian occupation.
It's even stranger to admit, considering the popular perception of WWII in the U.S., that no matter how noble our cause in that war, its termination did not in fact mark the triumph of democracy over tyranny, but merely the replacement of one tyranny for another in the entire eastern half of Europe. Without the millions of Russian lives that Stalin eagerly sacrificed on the Eastern front, the Western Allies alone could never have defeated Nazi Germany.
At any rate, I recommend this book to anyone in good need of a healthy dose of historical perspective.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Secretary Zakaria?

Speaking of which, I guess I'm not the first person to have thought of this.

Democracy vs. Stability

Fareed Zakaria, as usual, makes a damn good point about democracy in his latest column. I wish someone would make this guy Secretary of State.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Kurdish Independence

The Christian Science Monitor has a new article about the aspirations of Kurdish independence. That the Kurds have long wanted a nation of their own is no secret; that they deserve one of their own is rarely in dispute, at least in the West. When the Western powers drew up the borders of the modern Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Churchill was one of those who argued for a sovereign Kurdish state. T.E. Lawrence was another.

When the U.S. created the no fly zone above their territory after the first Gulf War, we emboldened their aspirations for independence; now, for the first time, a Western power was affording them a degree of protection from their persecutors. When we demolished Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, we emboldened them even further by removing one of the major obstacles to their aspirations.

I have been called a cynic, a pessimist and a defeatist because I have said since 2002, when the Bush administration began making the case for an invasion of Iraq, that removing Hussein would make a Kurdish state inevitable. In contrast to my "pessimism" is the shockingly naive "idealism" of the Bush administration, which believes a nation as ethnically and religiously diverse as Iraq can raise a unified democracy from the ashes of a totalitarian state. Apparently the lesson of Tito's Yugslavia was quickly forgotten by anyone of consequence is the president's inner circle.

The Kurds have long shown all of the qualities that we dream about when we imagine a future Middle East; they are mostly secular, pro-Western and enterprising capitalists. When they eventually do demand a sovereign nation of their own, there will be many formidable obstacles in their path.

I hope our nation is not one of them.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Women in Congress

Sunday's edition of "Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria" had, as usual, some fascinating facts between segments. One of them was called "Women in Congress/Parliament," and it showed the following statistics:
Saudi Arabia: O%
Iran: 4%
Pakistan: 21%
Iraq: 31%
And the United States? A humbling 15%.
There you have it. There are actually Moslem nations with more women in their national legislature than in the good old USA. What would have been even more fascinating is if Foreign Exchange had first quizzed a random sampling of Americans to match up the percentages with the nations. I'm willing to bet that a vast majority would haved guessed we had the 31%.
I say this not to bash on my own country, but to point out what should be obvious to a nation whose majority of citizens call themselves Christians: that humility is one of the greatest virtues, and we as a nation ought to be more humble, particularly in our opinion of ourselves as Americans. Patriotism can often cross a fine line into idolatry, and it has become fashionable for some politicians and commentators to gleefully rail against those who seem to believe "America is a fundamentally bad nation." Never mind that these same critics often describe America as a modern day Sodom; the point is that any sane, sober and reflective American knows our nation has many shortcomings. We can and should talk about them, and even better, do something about them.
We rant about the need for democracy and opportunity in areas of the world like the Middle East, and yet our own democracy is in many ways less democratic than our parliamentary cousins across the ocean. Do we have runoffs for the presidency? Do we have proportional representation? Do we have more women in Congress than the Pakistanis do in their parliament? Do we have a healthy multi-party system where a party formed only two months ago can win a national election?
The answer to all of these questions is no. Maybe instead of criticizing the speck of dust in our brother's eye, we ought to remove the plank from our own.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Those Who Forget History...

This morning, while reading about the history of the Phillippines over a cup of coffee, a particular passage struck me. Describing America's drift toward war with Spain, the author wrote, "Republican party imperialists passionately denounced Spain, and the Democrats followed, fearful of forfeiting a potentially popular issue." The emphasis is mine.

How sadly predictable. More than a hundred years later, our political parties and our foreign policy are much the same as they were at the dawn of the twentieth century (a century, by no cooincidence, that was the bloodiest in recorded history). One party (usually the GOP) gets fired up with patriotic zeal and warlust, while the other (usually the Democrats) lacks the moral and political courage to take a stand against it, until the war is well under way and the public is showing signs of unhappiness. How anyone on either side of this political divide can today stand up and defend their position as "bold" or "visionary" or "right" is ridiculous. They merely prove George Santayana's point that "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it."

So what to do? Probably nothing; if there is any uniquely human quality, it is repeating one's own mistakes. Collectively, humans seem to have very little interest in studying history and profiting from its lessons, much less in examining their own individual faults and correcting them.

But for those of us who need to cling to some sliver of hope, is it too much to ask that supposedly "Christian" Republicans spend a little more time reading the Sermon on the Mount than listening to right-wing radio? Is it too much to ask that Democrats grow some spine and figure out what the hell their foreign policy is? For that matter, is it too much to ask that we break the morally and intellectually bankrupt stranglehold these two decrepit parties have on our nation? More than a century after the Spanish-American War, all they offer us is the same choice they did then: war, or bemoaning a war already well under way.

When Ariel Sharon got sick of the foreign policy deadlock between the two leading parties in Israel, he started a new party. And they won. And we have the temerity to consider ourselves the paragon of democracy? A nation that can only accomodate two parties--two parties with a proven record of unevolving and unimaginative policies--even after two centuries?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

John Adams Reconsidered

Today I finished reading David McCullough's John Adams, which chronicles our second president's childhood in Braintree (later Quincy) Massachusetts, his notable career as a lawyer, his pivotal role in the American Revolution, his ambassadorial service to France and Great Britain, his two terms as a loyal vice-president to George Washington, his rather thankless term as president, and finally the long twilight of his years which is most famous for the remarkable correspondence he and Thomas Jefferson struck up after many years of estrangement.

Adams had an unenviable role in history, his presidency sandwiched between George Washington's and Thomas Jefferson's and plagued not only be an undeclared war with France, but by what was probably the most disloyal and scheming cabinet ever to afflict any president. Adams is most remembered for the deservedly unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts, which he signed into law. He is less known for his remarkable leadership in the American Revolution, his herculean efforts to keep America from a full-blown war with France (an unenviable balancing act that made him unpopular with the warmongering Federalists and the obsequiesly pro-French Republicans), his creation of the American Navy, and his appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

What most impresses one about John Adams, though, is the remarkable correspondence he kept up with everyone in his life, particularly his wife Abigail and his once-and-future friend Thomas Jefferson. In these letters one sees a very kind, brilliant and compassionate man whose simple Puritan values--from which he never deviated, aside from the sin of pride, to which he often confessed freely--set him apart from the scheming, partisan politics that were born during his presidency. For all his natural genius and accomplishments, one cannot help but feel a little less admiration for Thomas Jefferson in contrast. As close as the two men and their families were during their service in Europe, Jefferson would later resort to some of the most deplorable and underhanded means of discrediting his former friend, while Adams refused to speak ill of Jefferson in anything but private correspondence with friends and family. Perhaps the most baffling development of all was the Republicans' portrayal of John Adams as an aristocratic, pro-British Monarchist, when in fact he lived frugally and humbly all his life and never was either pro-British or a Monarchist. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, while portrayed as a "man of the people" by his supporters, lived as an aristocrat his whole life, supported by more than a hundred slaves and accumulating massive debts through his extravagant lifestyle.

And yet, the warm friendship that Adams and Jefferson restored in their years of retirement makes the closing chapters of the book some of the most touching and inspiring to read. That these two men died on the same day, that this day was the Fourth of July, and that it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration no less, has to be one most awe-inspiring "cooincidences" in the annals of history.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Myth of Isolationism

[This is a slightly longer version of a post I made at Patrick Barkman's blog, The Local Crank.]

From the president's repeated references to isolationists and isolationism in his State of the Union address Tuesday, you might suppose there is a massive movement afoot to literally cut ourselves off from the rest of the world politically, militarily and economically and declare ourselves a "hermit state." The fact of the matter is, nothing could be farther from the truth. There is not a single elected official in our government, nor any group of Americans worth mentioning, advocating anything like isolationism.

Like Shangri La, American isolationism is a myth; our nation has never been, at any time in its history, an isolationist power. From our very founding we have always been actively engaged with the rest of the world, and not just commercially. As early as 1804 the U.S. landed marines in North Africa and William Eaton marched them across the desert---with Arab, Greek and Berber allies no less---to attack the Barbary pirates at the city of Derna. Before the 1930's, "isolation" was only mentioned as a fact of American geography and never in connection with any foreign policy. But in the Spanish-American War, a "policy of isolation" was attributed by the war's proponents to anyone who disagreed with the war and the subsequent assimilation of foreign peoples like the Filipinos. It was also used to label those who advocated neutrality in the 1930's, as the clouds of war in Asia and Europe continued to gather. As Walter McDougall aptly describes in Promised Land, Crusader State, "our vaunted tradition of 'isolationism' is no tradition at all, but a dirty word that interventionists, especially since Pearl Harbor, hurl at anyone who questions their policies."

McDougall argues instead that the true tradition of American foreign policy "isolationism" misleadingly refers to is Unilateralism, a policy "which never meant that the United States should, or for that matter could, sequester itself or pursue an ostrich-like policy toward all foreign countries. It simply meant, as Hamilton and Jefferson both underscored, that the self-evident course for the United States was to avoid permanent, entangling alliances and to remain neutral in Europe's wars except when our Liberty--the first hallowed tradition [of American foreign policy]--was at risk."

McDougall believes there is an "Old Testament" of American foreign policy consisting of four traditions--Liberty, Unilateralism, The American System and Expansionism--and a "New Testament" consisting of Progressive Imperialism, Wilsonianism, Containment and Global Meliorism. By his definitions President Bush could best be described as a Global Meliorist in that he believes America has a divinely ordained mission to "change the world for the better," though there are certainly elements of the other traditions in his foreign policy as well.

And now, unfortunately, his administration has revived that old dirty word "isolationist" as a way to marginalize anyone who questions their interventionist policies, and particularly the war in Iraq.

There is one major problem with this logic that supporters and opponents of the war alike should recognize and candidly acknowledge: most of the war's critics supported the invasion of Afghanistan to capture Bin Laden and destroy the Al Qaeda network there. That they didn't support the invasion of Iraq doesn't mean they suddenly became "isolationists" between 2001 and 2002; it simply makes them opponents of the invasion of Iraq. A casual survey of even just our own history demonstrates that not every military intervention is equally wise or justified. Any time war is an option, it must be debated on its particular merits and not in a sweeping black-and-white generalization that inaccurately dismisses all opponents as isolationists. In the case of Iraq, there were very legitimate reasons to believe it was unwise, at a time when our invasion of Afghanistan had not yet achieved its full objectives, to divide our resources and attack a nation that had no connection to 9/11 and did not--even by the administration's admisson--pose an immediate threat to the U.S. To raise these points is not to advocate a fictitious doctrine like isolationism, but to properly place Iraq in a very different category of threat than Afghanistan.

The president has a valid point when he says that "second guessing is not a policy." The debate over the wisdom of invading Iraq is now a subject of purely academic debate; Congress, as it has increasingly done in the last 50 years, temporized and gave the president an "authorization of force" without an outright declaration of war, and those who voted for it have little to no credibility in revisiting that academic debate now, as American servicemembers continue to die every day in pursuit of a stable and democratic Iraq. The proper debate now should be on how we can bring those servicemembers home in a way that does not immorally abandon the people of Iraq to decades of chaos and violence.

In my humble opinion, the president is doing a grave disservice to a nation that already has such difficulty separating fact from fiction by portraying "isolationism" as the only alternative to his policies. Let's stick to the facts and put aside these fairy tales.

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Baneful Effects of Party Spirit

You'll notice one of the links I've posted is to Washington's Farewell Address, which to my mind is one of the wisest political documents in American history. Among other things--such as his famous declaration of religion and morality as the "indispensable supports" of popular government and his exhortation to cultivate "peace and harmony" with all nations--our retiring first president warned his fellow countrymen about the "baneful effects" of party spirit, which "serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another."

It is easy enough to see how prophetic Washington's words were, both in his time and in our own. And yet Washington was no naive fool; he himself admitted that party spirit has "its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed" and "within certain limits" political parties do provide "useful checks upon the administration of the government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty."

My own opinion about political parties--formed reluctantly after years of cynicism and reflection--is that they are a necessarily evil, that for reasons of basic human frailty democratic nations cannot conceivably conduct their public affairs without them. But, knowing that we are doomed to live with them, I believe our country would be much better served by the healthy competition of multiple parties than it is by the stagnant monopoly (or is it duopoly?) of our two-party system. The predictable response to this idea is that "we would just end up like Italy" with a crazy circus of third parties constantly winning and losing power. I disagree. I think Italy's parliament reflects the boisterous nature of a Mediterranean society descended from feuding city-states, while in Northern Europe and particularly in England, from whom we derived our political system, one seldom sees more than a few parties in office at any given time. But even three parties are often a vast improvement over two, as one of the two dominant parties must inevitably seek to build a coalition with the third, usually by making concessions to one of the third party's key issues. If Greens and Libertarians were elected to the U.S. Congress, one could easily imagine occasional partnerships between the Democrats and the Greens on one hand, and the Republicans and the Libertarians on the other, with the result that at least some Green and Libertarian ideas would get passed into law. If nothing else the Republicans might start paying more than mere lip service to the idea of "minimal government" if the Libertarian Party had a visible presence in Congress. As it stands now, voters who favor 1) smaller government, 2) balanced budgets and 3) a better form of taxation (be it a flat income tax or a consumption tax of some kind) have no choice at all other than two parties that will never deliver all three, or even just two of the three. And that's a real pity.

To compound this problem, Democrats and Republicans in all 50 states have erected many insurmountable legal and financial barriers that keep third party candidates from ever having a reasonable chance of being elected. Martin Gross catalogues some of these barriers in The Political Racket.

One might fairly ask me at this point, "Wouldn't electing more parties to office just make party spirit worse by simply multiplying it?" It might, but in fact it usually seems to have the opposite effect. The reason, again, is that the parties have to play nicer when building coalitions. It is the smug arrogance of uncontested power that seems to fuel party spirit more than anything, as we see in full display in our two-party government. I believe that healthy competition from third parties would shake the Democrats and Republicans out of their complacency and force them to improve, just as healthy competition in the free market often forces competitors to improve their products.

Imagine if Coke and Pepsi had a complete stranglehold on the market for soda, making it next to impossible for competitor brands to be distributed and sold. One can imagine how much nastier the advertising would be between the two companies as they constantly sought to achieve and maintain market dominance. But break up their monopoly and let Dr. Pepper into the market, and lo and behold they have a popular new rival. Faced with a refreshing new alternative, consumers would be much less interested in hearing the tired old Coke-Pepsi attacks, and those two companies would need to find new ways to market their product, usually by improving it.

Perhaps it's a deluded fantasy to think that a multi-party system would achieve the same results, but I don't think so. And it couldn't possibly be worse than the status quo. I've said it before and I'll likely say it again, but in a society like ours that always preaches free speech, choice and competition, it's nothing less than shocking that we tolerate such a stifling, stagnant and increasingly corrupt two-party system.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Democracy in America

I thought about posting a Top 10 list of the books that have most influenced my political philosophy, but Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America towers so far above the rest that it frankly deserves a post all of its own. I've also included a link to an online version of the book for those who have never read it. I actually prefer the J.P. Mayer translation to the one online, but the differences are mainly ones of prose and not of substance.

The nice thing about reading Tocqueville is that you don't have to feel constrained to reading the book from cover to cover. The chapter titles are all so specific, and sometimes completely unrelated, that you can freely skip around and read the ones that catch your interest as independent essays unto themselves. One of my favorites is a chapter near the very end of Volume II entitled "What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations have to Fear."

Tocqueville's perceptive insights about American society and democracy are if anything more important today than they were in the early nineteenth century, and many contemporary authors continue to explore the relevance of his insights today. A good companion piece to Democracy in America is Habits of the Heart, co-written in the 1980's by the sociologist Robert Bellah. Among other things Bellah and his colleagues wrote very eloquently and movingly about the rise of individualism and the decline of republican ideals so much in need today.

The Lyceum is open for business.

The original Lyceum, as some of you may know, was a gymnasium in ancient Athens that served as a place of military exercises and later as a school of philosophy under Aristotle beginning in 335 B.C. Because of my own military background and my interest in philosophy and political science it seemed like the perfect name for this blog, which I created mainly as a forum for amicable discussion with friends who share these interests. In the days and weeks ahead I will occasionally post my thoughts, and I encourage you to read and comment on them. A few words before you do:

1 - I am not terribly interested in partisan politics, though I may occasionally comment on them. I am much more interested in philosophy and political theory, particularly the "first principles" of Western philosophy (from ancient Greece through the Enlightenment) that led to the birth of our nation. I am a republican, not a Republican, a difference I hope to explain in greater detail in future posts.

2 - I prefer discussion to debate, and dialogue to diatribes.

3 - I have many other responsibilities and hobbies that compete for my time, so I may be slow in responding to posts. Bear with me.

Thank you for visiting my Lyceum, and I look forward to hearing from you!