Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November 30, 2011

On Tuesday The New York Times op-ed pages produced another example of ambivalence, or inconsistency, similar to those I mentioned on November 21.
Roger Cohen devoted his column to “the doctrine of silence,” by which he refers to the secrecy with which the present administration conducts various kinds of low-level warfare, including drone attacks and assassinations. The new policy is a “radical shift from President Bush’s war on terror,” but “has never been set out to the American people. . . . President Obama has gone undercover.” His opinion of the new departure is ambivalent: “I approve of the shift even as it makes me uneasy. One day, I suspect, there may be payback for this policy and this silence.”
Most of his discussion was devoted to the risks and benefits of the policy, rather than to secrecy, but his ambivalent approval persisted:
So why do I approve of all this? Because the alternative — the immense cost in blood and treasure and reputation of the Bush administration’s war on terror — was so appalling. In just the same way, the results of a conventional bombing war against Iran would be appalling, whether undertaken by Israel, the United States or a combination of the two.
There is another alternative: not killing people, a radical notion to be sure, but one which at least should be recognized as an option. To put it in strategic terms, are any of the people we target really a threat to us? Only if Mr. Cohen answers in the affirmative, and ignores any moral objections, could his first comment override his second: “So why am I uneasy? Because these legally borderline, undercover options . . . invite repayment in kind, undermine the American commitment to the rule of law, and make allies uneasy.”
At the end, he turned, more or less, to the secrecy issue: “Just because it’s impossible to talk about some operations undertaken within this doctrine does not mean the entire doctrine can remain cloaked in silence.” However, rather than asking the President to justify the doctrine of silence, Cohen wanted a speech approving his preference for limited, covert operations:
Of course [Obama] does not want to say much about secret operations. Still, as the U.S. military prepares to depart from Iraq . . . and the war in Afghanistan enters its last act [?], he owes the American people, U.S. allies and the world a speech that sets out why America will not again embark on this kind of inconclusive war and has instead adopted a new doctrine that has replaced fighting terror with killing terrorists.
Cohen seems to believe that the covert actions have contributed to “restoring America’s battered image.” It’s not clear to me how assassinations, by air or otherwise, including at least one of an American citizen, shielded from the public and unauthorized by Congress, restore our image, especially, as Cohen acknowledges, they “undermine the American commitment to the rule of law, and make allies uneasy.”
This doesn’t seem to be the season for clear thinking at the Times.

101. Glenn Greenwald dissected Cohen’s column to make the point that reporters no longer question authority: “American journalists are the leading proponents not of transparency but of secrecy, not of accountability but of covert decision-making in the dark, not of the rule of law but the rule of political leaders.”

Monday, November 21, 2011

November 21, 2011

On November 14, The New York Times, in an opinion column and a house editorial, commented on the pseudo-tough mindset of many contemporary conservatives, as embodied in some of the Republican candidates for the presidency. The subject was waterboarding.
The column was by Frank Bruni, one of several new hires on the opinion page. He posed this question: “If we truly believe ourselves to be exceptional, a model for all the world and an example for all of history, then why would we practice torture? Specifically, should we waterboard prisoners?” He answered in the negative, while noting that several Republican candidates are for it despite stressing American exceptionalism. He also appeared to mock Rick Santorum’s suggestion of clandestine missions to kill Iranian scientists. He closed with this: “we have to be careful about how far we go — how merciless our strategies, how self-serving our positions — because the rightful burden of the leadership we insist on is behavior that’s better than everybody else’s, not the same or worse. Exceptionalism doesn’t mean picking and choosing when to be big and when to be small.”
I don’t know whether the parenthetical was ironic or was intended to be taken literally. I would more or less agree with his statement if it were the former. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case, as revealed in the preceding paragraph: “We face difficult decisions and a tricky balancing act when it comes to keeping this country safe . . . . And there’s no doubt we can’t be as high-minded as we’d sometimes like. I for one am not losing any sleep over Awlaki.” In other words, we should be principled and exceptional except when it’s convenient not to be. Assassinating Iranian scientists isn’t a good idea, but assassinating an American citizen is OK. Torturing a suspect is bad, but obliterating one with a missile is not an occasion for lost sleep.
The Times editorial criticized the Republican candidates’ views on waterboarding, but it too managed to muddle a statement of principle, although on a different subject. It referred to Mitt Romney’s claim that, if he were elected, Iran would not have nuclear weapons, and pointed out that he didn’t explain how he would manage that. It added: “Mr. Obama prudently has not taken military action off the table — no president should — but war would be a disastrous option. It would only set back the program, not end it, and would fan anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment.” If war would be a disastrous choice — leaving aside whether it would be justified — why should it remain on the table?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

November 19, 2011

On November 1, the House reaffirmed that our national motto is “In God We Trust.” As there was no drive to change or abandon it, the reason for this action is not apparent. The vote revealed an odd set of priorities in a country with its economy in shambles and unemployment stubbornly and cruelly high.

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post suggested sarcastically that the choice might be due to semantic confusion: “ ‘God’ and ‘job’ are both three-letter words with the same vowel. House Republicans may have been confused by the similarity, much like the dyslexic agnostic who wonders if there is a dog.” Perhaps the House was concerned that we might succumb to atheism. Perhaps it was an admission that Congress, both houses of which are under direct or indirect Republican control, is incapable of, or ideologically incapacitated from, doing anything useful or even necessary, and so must rely on divine intervention. Saving the planet is an example.

Representative John Shimkus, a Republican of Illinois, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, believes that we shouldn’t worry about climate change because God has promised not to destroy the Earth. At a hearing in 2009,91 he made his point by quoting Genesis. Following the Flood, he said, God promised Noah: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”92 Q.E.D. Leaving aside whether that should be taken literally, drastic climate change would leave day and night, etc. in place, so I don’t find much consolation there.

However, Shimkus didn’t rely entirely on the Old Testament; he offered this from Matthew: “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds from one end of the heavens to the other.”93 That seems a bit off the point, but to Shimkus its message is clear: “The Earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this Earth.” He added, apparently still thinking of Noah, “This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.” What about the other hazards of warming? Perhaps he can find a proof text to reassure us that deserts will not expand.
In the same hearing, he argued that there is no need for a cap-and-trade system to limit CO2 emissions because carbon levels were much higher in the age of the dinosaurs, when flora and fauna were abundant; “there is a theological debate that this is a carbon-starved planet, not too much carbon." He reiterated his beliefs last year.94 No need to debate the science; it’s a religious issue.

To Shimkus, “God’s word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.” Apparently it also provides all-encompassing prophesy. In other words, everything has been determined. Why then did he run for Congress? He could have stayed home and, equally passively, awaited the improvement or destruction of the world, as the case may be.
A Republican state representative from Minnesota, a member of its House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, agrees: "It is the height of hubris to think we could [destroy the planet]." (He wants to lift a moratorium on coal-fired power plants). He also argued that we won’t run out of oil or other natural resources: "God is not capricious. He's given us a creation that is dynamically stable. We are not going to run out of anything."95
These comments echo the declaration of the co-leader of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh that it is it is presumptuous to think that man could destroy God's earth. “I refuse to believe,” he told us, “that people, who are themselves the result of Creation, can destroy the most magnificent creation of the entire universe.”96 (The other leader is Grover Norquist; he represents a different sort of ideological blindness).
Its being election season (although when isn’t it?), no doubt many more appeals to heavenly aid will be heard. Already, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann have indicated that they were called by God to run for the presidency, following in the footsteps of George W. Bush.
Mixing religion and politics always is a risky business. However, if appeals to religion were merely general and benign — a nonpartisan expression of a desire to do good — its presence in politics would not be so worrisome. Instead, for years now, religion has been a prisoner of the right, where it has been identified with reaction, selfishness and, at least rhetorically, violence.
An aspect of the last is the cozy relationship between religion and guns, two expressions of which I noticed recently. One came from Herman Cain, who told a Republican group “I kinda like my guns and Bible and I ain't going to give them up," producing a roar of approval.97 The other was contributed by a Representative Poe, Republican of Texas, who illustrated the point by describing with approval a t-shirt worn by a Texas “preacher” reading “I love my Bible/I love my guns.”98
On Wednesday the House voted to compel states to allow anyone to bring a gun into any state if he holds a permit from another state, no matter how lax its laws. According to Representative Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana Republican, God issued a divine gun permit: “Mr. Speaker, rights do not come from the government. We are, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights.”99 In his exegesis, one of those rights is self-defense, which leads him to the Second Amendment, thence to the right to carry a concealed weapon, and finally to a right to carry anywhere. As Gail Collins summarized the heavenly endowment, “Among these rights are life, liberty and a pistol in the glove compartment.”100


92. Genesis 8:21-22
93. Matthew 24:31
96.The Way Things Ought to Be , p. 152
100. New York Times , 11/16/11

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

November 8, 2011

President Obama has announced that American troops will leave Iraq at the end of the year. Predictably, hawks have denounced the move, and him. To Mitt Romney, “[t]he unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.” The hawks conveniently ignore the fact that withdrawal was contemplated, at this time, by the agreement made by President Bush in 2008. However, somehow it must be Obama’s fault.
Charles Krauthammer, reaching into the past for a slogan, captioned his November 3 column “Who lost Iraq?” and answered himself, not surprisingly, that Obama did. That silly formula, made infamous by its application to China, was entertainingly ridiculed by Mary McGrory during the Reagan years. Referring to the mining of harbors in Nicaragua, part of our strange war against the Sandinista regime, she spoke of the woes of “Patsy Senate, Ronnie's consort.”
Patsy's upset because Ronnie didn't tell her about the mining. He says "don't you remember that when I told you about all the wonderful things we are doing down there to stop terrorism - bombing airports, burning houses, killing people - I mentioned mines?" But Patsy insists she wasn't told. Still, she hates to be difficult. Ronnie can be so brusque; he does things like accusing her of "losing" countries she didn't know she had.
I suppose that Krauthammer would say that the jibe isn’t fair because we “had” Iraq. His argument does depend on that assertion — we can’t lose something we didn’t have — but in what sense did we have it? As a satellite, possession or dependency? As an ally? As a source of oil? I’d be interested to see the answer, as it also might bear on why we invaded.
At some point, it’s necessary to ask whether we are better off than we were before the invasion of Iraq and, even if so, whether that justifies the cost. The hawkish, or timid, answer, is that we must maintain our security, and that invading, devastating and occupying Iraq was necessary to that end, and continuing to control it also is necessary. Is there any evidence of that? Given that Iraq was not involved in 9-11, the argument that there has been no further attack won’t work.
It is not too much to say that waging war on Iraq was an imperialist undertaking, which makes relevant observations from two books discussing the declining years of the Roman Empire. Both deal with the monetary cost of imperial power.
[I]n the wake of the great crisis of the third century, the provision of security became an increasingly heavy charge on society, a charge unevenly distributed, which could enrich the wealthy and ruin the poor. The machinery of empire now became increasingly self-serving, with its tax-collectors, administrators, and soldiers of much greater use to one another than to society at large.89
The same might be said of us; certainly much of the revenue is spent on “national security,” and many have become wealthy from that allocation of resources. The deficit is due in no small part to military spending. As to ruining the poor, here’s the other source:
The effect of military spending on government budgets is plain enough . . .: investments of one kind diminish investments of another. "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed." That's not George McGovern whining in 1972. It's Dwight D. Eisenhower just stating the facts in 1950. 90
Then there is the human cost. On Veterans’ Day we should remember how many American lives have been lost or shattered in this foolish, immoral, unlawful project. There won’t be much thought given to the Iraqi casualties, though; we don’t have a holiday for the victims of unnecessary wars.


89. Edward. N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (1976), p. 5
90. Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007), p. 75. The Eisenhower quote is from a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November 1, 2011
I have been critical of conservatives for using inflammatory language, for making outrageous accusations and for obstructive tactics. Is that unfair? Do they have justification? Joe Nocera, one of the recent additions to the opinion pages of The New York Times, would say yes. In a recent column he argued that liberals are responsible for the present state of politics.
On October 22, he noted the anniversary of the rejection, in 1987, of the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. He thinks that the nastiness in contemporary politics started then and, since the guilty parties were Democrats, they now are in no position to complain. “His nomination battle is . . . a reminder that our poisoned politics is not just about Republicans behaving badly, as many Democrats and their liberal allies have convinced themselves. Democrats can be -- and have been -- every bit as obstructionist, mean-spirited and unfair.” I wouldn’t greatly disagree with that if it were simply an historical statement, a description of a single episode. Leaving out “every bit as,” it is a fair critique of aspects of the Bork nomination process. However, Nocera’s claim that the “the line from Bork to today's ugly politics is a straight one” doesn’t follow. It rests on three arguments.
Bork should have been confirmed
This conclusion is implied, but clear. Nocera began by emphasizing Judge Bork’s credentials:
The rejection of a Supreme Court nominee is unusual but not unheard of . . . . But rarely has a failed nominee had the pedigree -- and intellectual firepower -- of Bork. He had been a law professor at Yale, the solicitor general of the United States and, at the time Ronald Reagan tapped him for the court, a federal appeals court judge.

Moreover, Bork was a legal intellectual. . . .
He then argued that Bork’s views (he mentioned Roe v. Wade and the First Amendment’s application to pornography) could not “be fairly characterized as extreme.” It is true that Bork’s views on specific legal principles were not as extreme as some claimed, but there was a more general, issue. As Bork conceded, the issue was judicial philosophy. The Judiciary Committee and the Senate decided that his would not serve the Court or the country well, which was correct. One of his supporters offered this test for confirmation during the hearings: whether the nominee’s views were “within the acceptable range of contemporary American legal thought.” The Committee and later the full Senate decided that they were not, and they were right. My comment at the time was this: “He is, I think, outside the mainstream in two related, fundamental ways: he views the law primarily as an intellectual exercise, not as a vehicle for doing justice & equity, and he lacks humane instincts, or as [former Attorney General Nicholas] Katzenbach kindly put it, judgment.” Ironically, Judge Bork confirmed the former point in a book written following, and largely about, the hearings, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law .

Behavior during the nomination is the cause of inflated rhetoric in the present.
Nocera argued that “[t]he Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics.” I don’t know whether “in some ways” was intended to refer to a specific qualification; if so, it wasn’t stated. In any case, the argument that the nomination battle explains present-day Republican tactics and language is implausible. One might as logically excuse Democratic behavior toward Bork as a reaction to the Hiss hearings.
Nocera offered this as evidence: “For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the ‘systematic demonization’ of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist.” It’s true that some of the attacks on Bork, especially before and during the Judiciary Committee hearings, were full of distortion and exaggeration and, although they didn’t typically include direct character assassination, that was the effect.
Nocera offered two examples. One is a speech by Senator Kennedy, delivered before the hearings, about “Bork’s America,” in which “women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters . . . ." That was unfair and inflammatory, and may have encouraged other excesses. The second is a memo by the Advocacy Institute, “a liberal lobby group” which, according to Nocera, described Bork as "a right-wing loony," and proposed that he be portrayed "as an extreme ideological activist." The former, assuming it was stated in public, was out of bounds, although perhaps too silly to be taken seriously. Whether the latter was fair comment at the time could be debated, but Bork certainly put himself in that category with his 1996 book, Slouching towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and America’s Decline .
Nocera is not alone in finding some long-term effect on attitudes. David Brock, in Blinded by the Right: the Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, said that “[f]or the conservative movement, the hardball tactics of the anti-Bork effort would give license to mount a decade-long campaign of revenge and retribution.”87 (He didn’t identify the end point of the decade, but presumably it was the Clinton impeachment). However, the excesses in Republican and conservative rhetoric can’t be traced to the Bork nomination. There are two principal considerations.
First, the rhetoric of the right is characterized by a different type of personal invective. Republicans and conservatives have accused Democrats and liberals of being, at best, less than real Americans and, at worst, traitors. Tea Party signs claiming that the President is a foreigner, a communist, a fascist, or the antichrist are in this mode. During a Congressional election a few years ago, a local political flier attacked the Obama health care proposal as "socialized medicine" and to be sure we didn't miss the point, that this is un-American, it included a picture of a Soviet officer. Senator Rand Paul, referring to oil-spill culprit BP, accused President Obama of sounding "un-American in his criticism of business." There are many examples.
Some rhetoric goes beyond denunciation. Ann Coulter produced the following gem at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002 (and was invited back):
In contemplating college liberals, you really regret, once again, that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals by making them realize that they can be killed too. Otherwise they will turn out to be outright traitors. . . .
Second, this was not a new phenomenon in or after 1987; it existed at least as early as the McCarthy era. As one reporter put it, “Over the decades Democrats have been targeted by political attack campaigns that employ the same defamation and distortion tactics used in the McCarthy years, campaigns that smear opponents with charges of being un-American, unpatriotic or, as the nation witnessed again during the 2004 presidential election campaign, of giving ‘aid and comfort’ to America's enemies.”88
Behavior during the nomination is the cause of obstructive tactics in the present .
At the end of his column, Nocera returned to the first term in his description of “obstructionist, mean-spirited and unfair” behavior: “The next time a liberal asks why Republicans are so intransigent, you might suggest that the answer lies in the mirror.” As with rhetoric, so with intransigence: it’s difficult to take seriously the notion that Republicans stubbornly oppose President Obama’s policy proposals because they still are mad about the rejection or treatment of Judge Bork. They obstruct when they cannot prevail because they adhere to a platform which seeks not only to prevent new progressive initiatives, but to march us backward by many decades. The illustrations of that are too numerous and familiar to require repetition.
As to both points, Nocera didn’t attempt to justify the behavior of contemporary Republicans, but merely shifted the blame, in essence giving them a pass. At some point, present blame for present actions must be assessed, especially for a group claiming to be champions of personal responsibility.


87. P. 47
88. Haynes Johnson, The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism, p. 462
Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day