The Political Animal

Iraq and “Last Days in Vietnam”

At the Los Angeles Film Festival I caught Rory Kennedy’s powerful and moving Last Days in Vietnam. If you think you are familiar with the story of the botched and frantic – and heroic – American evacuation of Vietnam, with the fall of Saigon, including some many tens of thousands of lucky Vietnamese, this film will set you straight. There is an iconic photo from that time of desperate Vietnamese climbing a spindly ladder to the narrow roof top of the American Embassy and the last helicopter out. In truth, it was not the American Embassy (rather the home of the assistant CIA station chief) and there were many more helicopters. There is much, much more to the story. It is a tragic story, and near its close, ex CIA operative Frank Snep, one of a host of American and Vietnamese who recount their experiences of the evacuation, offers the sadness with which he recalls the end of the United States experience in Vietnam and how it represents for him the nature of the whole experience.

The North Vietnamese committed their massive violation of the Paris Peace Accords, by invading the South, in February of 1975, twenty five months after the accords were signed, and the subsequent withdrawal of American combat forces. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. The American evacuation, because U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin until then refused to even consider planning one, was effected in a single day, April 29, 1975, into the dark morning of the thirtieth.

The consequences for the South Vietnamese, especially those known to be allied with or sympathetic to the U.S. were great. Up to one million Vietnamese were subsequently interned in the infamous reeducation camps, where mortality rates have been estimated at 10% per year. “Boat people” refugees numbered 1.6 million. What followed were decades of economic stagnation, and for those of the South, the loss of political freedom that persists today.

As the North’s rapid advance southward progressed, President Gerald Ford appeared before Congress with a request for over $700 million to fund an American response, including the possibility of the reintroduction of American military forces. The American people and their representatives were in no mood. As the end credits rolled, carrying with them the enormous sense of the loss, the folly, and the betrayals worked into the very start of that American endeavor, the thought occurred to me: who would argue now, after that long war, fought at such price, with no gain, that the United States should have returned to Vietnam in 1975, in the baseless belief it could have achieved in the end any of what it had failed to achieve the last time around?

Instantly, the answer occurred: the same people now arguing for a return to Iraq, who wish we had never left, who never learn from history. For these people the sum total of political wisdom in international affairs is Hobbes, Machiavelli, and von Clausewitz, Munich and the historical anomaly of total victory in the Second World War, and an American Exceptionalism perverted from an empirical historical achievement into a moral inherency that paves an imperial road not only to folly but to ruin.

If one were to draw out the implications of the judgment these voices make on American military dominance in the post-War era, the seeds of national decadence were planted almost at the reaping of the nation’s greatest harvest: from Korea to Cuba to Vietnam, Taiwan, Iran, Afghanistan and beyond, nothing but lack of national will, a weakness of backbone to fight the ultimate fight, the failed moral courage to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.” Kennedy completed the thought, “in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He neglected to add in foreign lands, and even when one needs to construct the friend out of grass or clay. The only truly morally sufficient, which is to say total, military achievements were the pathetic accomplishment of invading Granada and the discretely achievable goal of capturing Manuel Noriega in Panama. Even the resounding military success of the Gulf War was compromised, to these foreign policy hands, by George H.W. Bush’s careful decision not to move on Baghdad, a decision ratified in its own resounding fashion by the Iraq War. That is to say the judgment not to advance on Baghdad was confirmed for all but those for whom it was a moral as much as a strategic failure, and who hawked a whole new ward to achieve that end.

Who in 1975 would have been led by McNamara, Rusk, or Westmoreland back into the paddies of Vietnam? Who would not have cried out in repugnance at the shameless reappearance of any of them on the national stage in order to pretend to strategic wisdom, never mind moral suasion, while hawking further military misguidance? These are people who would have reduced the Thirty Years’ War to the bromide of “staying the course.”

While the Arab world continues to struggle in its political development, related, profound strains of Islamic culture reject modernity and illiberally, even barbarically erupt against it. Influences go back a century and far longer. The program and the pitch for external imposition of liberal democratic structures over these conditions has been already an intellectual scandal with mortal consequences and of historic proportion. Those who once again make the pitch – the Cheney’s, McCains, Kristols, Wolfowitz’s, et al – deserve the censure of history, not the spotlight of lazy broadcast journalism and the assembly line of op-ed pages.

As tragic were the consequences of South Vietnam’s fall, there is no reason at all to believe a reengagement there would have produced a lesser tragedy to substitute, or a lesser failure than the first engagement. When the mission is mistaken, no amount of backbone, bombast, or bombing will extract success from it.

The arrogant misreading of history is that missionary liberal democracy can redirect world historical and long-term regional social developments through force of imperial might and inherent moral superiority. This arrogance is, in fact, a signature of post-Columbian imperialism. And when the folly has ended, imperial democracy leaves the Sykes–Picot Agreement or the patchwork of African nation-states and comforts itself in mad, blind delusion that it left the places it tarried better off for the visit. The greater and tragic truth is that we are guided through history by the vaguest sense of a destination while wearing a blindfold. Just ask the people unlucky enough to host the imperial visits.

From the fallout of the Arab upheavals, so sadly and natively labeled the Arab Spring, to the theocratic insanity and barbarism that has come to possess too broad a strain of Islam, the Middle East and North Africa will host dangers for the liberal democracies and the United States for an immeasurable time to come. There may well be times, soon and later, when the United States will need to carry out smaller and larger military operations to destroy enemies and counter threats there. It has not been called by some the Long War unknowingly. But such purposeful actions in self-defense and in careful protection of the national interest are a categorical remove from nation building, and from committing the nation’s human and other resources on behalf of nations and governments that offer no manifest political and cultural alliance. Such military miscalculations – such as the Iraq War in the first place, and any return there to bolster the Iraqi government – actually have, and would, work counter to American self-defense and the protection of American interests, by draining will and resources from what must be accomplished in the attempt achieve what cannot.

James Madison, on a very different domestic topic, warned in Federalist No. 10 that

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.

He understood that the times, as the leaders, would not always be so great. They were not great or enlightened in 2003. The same figures, unreconstructed and unconscionable, are no greater now, their cause and argument no more supported by the short or longer history of events. They are a danger to the republic. The doors need be barred against them.


Indian Country

A Second Look: The Honor of the Mascot, or A Team by Any Other Name

washington-redskins-helmet-logoThe latest publicity over the very name of the Washington Redskins is only the most recent eruption in a longtime simmer. As recently as 2009, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case dating back to 1992. This should not surprise given that the Supreme Court has never overturned Johnson v. McIntosh, its 1823 decision in which it justified the European conquest of Native American lands by right of the Doctrine of Discovery and asserted the United States’s assumption by inheritance of this right. The decision remains the law of the land. It is as if Dred Scott v. Sandford‎  were still accepted law. Fittingly, too, the 2009 decision was over the matter of trademark – an economic interest such as those that fueled all the conquest and abuse of Native America.

The latest effort against the Redskins denigration also began with a challenge to trademark. Now President Obama has weighed in, and for certain kind of American for whom neither the conquest, nor Johnson, nor the legacy of both is problematic, the very fact of Obama’s judgment belittles the case. That Lanny Davis, of all legal counsel, has been retained as Redskins representation offers its own ready commentary on the quality of the quarters to which adherents now retreat. All this foolishness about identity politics. (Crie those, generally, whose identity was never the reason for social difficulty.)

I wrote about this specific subject at length once before, on June 8, 2009.

From “The Honor of the Mascot, or A Team by Any Other Name”

Periodically, because of such suits – and actions on a more local level, against school athletic teams – the subject gains a degree of national attention. Some non-Natives are automatically sympathetic: of course, there shouldn’t be such team names. No Washington Redskins anymore than a Los Angeles Kikes, Washington Niggers, New York Spics, or Cleveland Bohunks.

Those less sympathetic generally argue from two positions. One is that of an apparently deep fatigue (so arduous has been the burden) with what is sometimes referred to (for instance, now, in the conservative opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor) as “identity atlanta-braves-logopolitics.” This is a fatigue generally ironically experienced mostly by those who have never been the victims of the original identity politics, namely racial or ethnic discrimination. (Ah, but give them credit; they are born again.) And there is no group identity that has been longer both under attack and disregarded on this continent than that, collectively, of the various Native nations.

The other position – less explicitly presented but quite apparent – is that of the sports fans who don’t want their hallowed traditions messed with. Team names, statistical records, stadium rituals are all part of the mythic regalia of an athletic Valhalla. You want to disrupt all that for – the Indians? Of course, few would say exactly that, so one defense of current practice with regard to the Washington Redskins is that “Redskin” is not a derogatory term like those others I used. Sports Illustrated, of all publications (how curious) conducted a poll in 2002 that offered results indicating that an overwhelming majority of Native Americans did not object to the term. In 2004, the Annenberg Public Policy Center produced a similar poll.


Setting aside any consideration of the particularly problematic nature of polling what is, at this point, a very demographically complex Native population, one has first to note that there still, nonetheless, appear not to be athletic teams named the Los Angeles Semites, Washington Negroes, New York Hispanics, or Cleveland Slavs. And we might point out as a reasonable and parallel historical argument that, hey, the Indians signed all those treaties, didn’t they? It was all on the up and up. They agreed to it!

Besides (goes the further argument), we’re paying them a compliment. We’re honoring them (but not those Semites, Negroes, and, well, you get the point) for their courage and dignity and similar such encomiums. One has to wonder, if the Native population had managed to hold off and limit the European advance on the continent in any significant way, had achieved any measure of victory – at far greater cost to non-Native life, as is the nature of war – would the present-day fans of Redskin “courage” and “dignity” be nonetheless similarly enamored? One tends not to ennoble one’s conqueror. The defeated don’t make pets of the victorious.


Check the major American dictionaries: “Redskin” is defined as a derogatory term. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the American Counseling Association, and the American Psychological Association have all adopted resolutions opposing the use of Native American images as athletic symbols and mascots. Yet there remains something essential that most Americans do not get.

A few weeks ago, we spoke with Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma:

For generations now, what is the language or frame of reference we’ve accepted? Because of American history, it is based upon color. It’s very simplistic. Those are fairly shallow criteria…. There are a lot of other barriers that the United States and the American people don’t even recognize as a barrier. A very clear one is the Washington Redskins…. If we look in D.C. today, here is the capitol, here is the class of people who really should understand American history…but have so little understanding that the Washington Redskins – half the congress goes to those games, and you can go to their offices and see those derogatory caricatures.

The dominating mentality of the conqueror persists, little altered by time. The ownership of the Washington Redskins and its executive leadership condescend to praise Native Americans as they belittle them, by exercising a power that only the dominant can wield over those subject to that power – in this case, the force of an arrogant cultural disregard masking unremitting greed. So it was in previous centuries; so it is now. Twice in the nineteenth century the Cherokee had their Tribal lands removed from them because, beneath all the subterfuge, the government and whites simply wanted them for their own economic interests. An underlying truth in the case of the Washington Redskins is that a change in the team’s name, affecting branding and team identification, would have significant economic consequences for what is currently the second most valuable team in the National Football League.

Until now arguments in court have centered on trademark law and the timeliness of the plaintiff’s applications. This is how it has always been. But if there were a Los Angeles Kikes or a Washington Niggers, all quaintly dressed up in their most becoming cultural stereotypes, how long ago would growing popular outrage have forced the issue beyond the bounds of the blind technicalities of law?

A fine compendium on the issue.


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The Political Animal

The Obama Doctrine


There is one. It is not simple and direct like the Monroe, Truman, or Carter doctrines. For this reason, those who are Obama’s foes and those who have always underestimated him, or who fail to see the world as he does, can easily caricature the manifestations of it. The Obama doctrine is more complex, at a more complex – which is not to say more challenging – stage of international history. It is more like a practical philosophy than a doctrine, but because it is practical it does, like a doctrine, dictate forms of behavior by the United States, in response, at this stage in its development and in the context of its specific history,  to kinds of developments at this stage in world history.

The Obama doctrine is not simply an advocacy based on an ideal determination that the world has moved beyond the necessity of brutal conflict. It is not a simple, steely profession of the necessary willingness to engage in brutal conflict wherever the challenge of it is laid before the United States in opposition to its interests or ideals. The calculations are more complex than that. It is an intent to lead by shaping, as much as possible, the evolution of events rather than by serving as the first to rush to respond to events in the belief that a strong wind in one’s face is the sole and unchanging mark of leadership. It is a vision of world leadership founded in unchallengeable strength, both military and domestic social and economic strength, that is not imperial.

Barack Obama is the first post Cold War president possessed of a clear vision of the next phase of the American experience, and how the nation’s course and commitments must develop beyond the structures of the Cold War. For those who wish to believe the nation is already there, what he offers is too little, too beholden to the institutions of power. To those for whom the Cold War was not truly in any way historically particular, but just an ahistorical structure of power relations and conflict dynamics, any military reticence is treated as a calamitous drop of the baton. What’s more, Obama has served as president against probably the most obstructionist, narrow-visioned and narrow-minded congress any president has ever faced, assuming office, too, in the midst to two wars and the second greatest economic crisis of the past hundred years. Against a completely unsympathetic opposition party and with the support of a base that often refuses to acknowledge the crueler world Obama does clearly recognize, to have expected any transformative reordering of a half-century international alignment should have been beyond any expectation.  That he has accomplished anything beyond crisis management, domestically or internationally, is an astonishing achievement. Yet he has.

The speech Obama gave yesterday on counter-terror policy pleased many for the specific answers it provided. There are some who will never be satisfied for the reasons above. But for anyone who has understood what this president has been about internationally, who, for instance, paid attention to his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, there was barely a revelation.

From the Oslo lecture:

I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

I raise this point, I begin with this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.

But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions – not just treaties and declarations – that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest – because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another – that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths – that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. “Let us focus,” he said, “on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.” A gradual evolution of human institutions.

From the speech at the  National Defense University:

 So America is at a crossroads.  We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.  We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”  Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror.  We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.  But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.  And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.  That begins with understanding the current threat that we face.


America’s actions are legal.  We were attacked on 9/11.  Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force.  Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.  We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first.  So this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.

And yet, as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion.  To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.  For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.

But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.  To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties — not just in our cities at home and our facilities abroad, but also in the very places like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu where terrorists seek a foothold.  Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.  So doing nothing is not an option.

Where foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism in their territory, the primary alternative to targeted lethal action would be the use of conventional military options.  As I’ve already said, even small special operations carry enormous risks.  Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage.  And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies, unleash a torrent of unintended consequences, are difficult to contain, result in large numbers of civilian casualties and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict.

So it is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths or less likely to create enemies in the Muslim world.  The results would be more U.S. deaths, more Black Hawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.

Yes, the conflict with al Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy.  But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.

Our efforts must be measured against the history of putting American troops in distant lands among hostile populations.  In Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of civilians died in a war where the boundaries of battle were blurred.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the extraordinary courage and discipline of our troops, thousands of civilians have been killed.  So neither conventional military action nor waiting for attacks to occur offers moral safe harbor, and neither does a sole reliance on law enforcement in territories that have no functioning police or security services — and indeed, have no functioning law.


I believe, however, that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy — because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe.  We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.

So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism — from North Africa to South Asia.  As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking.  We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep-rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred.  Moreover, no two countries are alike, and some will undergo chaotic change before things get better.  But our security and our values demand that we make the effort.


Our victory against terrorism won’t be measured in a surrender ceremony at a battleship, or a statue being pulled to the ground.  Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shores; fans taking in a ballgame; a veteran starting a business; a bustling city street; a citizen shouting her concerns at a President.

This is not a simple doctrine, but read with care, it is a strong and coherent one. More, it is an actual vision, while most of Obama’s critics, on the right and the left, are wearing 3-D glasses.


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The Political Animal

Faking Foreign Policy


From David Sanger in yesterday’s New York Times:

But beyond his critique of Mr. Obama as failing to project American strength abroad, Mr. Romney has yet to fill in many of the details of how he would conduct policy toward the rest of the world, or to resolve deep ideological rifts within the Republican Party and his own foreign policy team. It is a disparate and politely fractious team of advisers that includes warring tribes of neoconservatives, traditional strong-defense conservatives and a band of self-described “realists” who believe there are limits to the degree the United States can impose its will.

Each group is vying to shape Mr. Romney’s views, usually through policy papers that many of the advisers wonder if he is reading. Indeed, in a campaign that has been so intensely focused on economic issues, some of these advisers, in interviews over the past two weeks in which most insisted on anonymity, say they have engaged with him so little on issues of national security that they are uncertain what camp he would fall into, and are uncertain themselves about how he would govern.

In this article and an accompanying analysis co-authored by Trip Gabriel, the report of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute is ever the same on every issue, and has it every way, as Romney mendaciously does in all things: he criticizes President Obama’s policies, but offers no detail of any substantively different approach, even as Romney endlessly contradicts past pronouncements. Did Romney clearly state at his 47% fundraiser that he would ignore Israel-Palestine and hope the future would bring its own developments? No matter. Now, “hope is not a strategy” and he “will recommit America” to pursuing a two-state solution. Said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “Full of platitude and free of substance.” She was speaking of the speech, though, of course, she might have been describing the man.

Romney is actually a kind of stalking horse for the foreign policy visions of those contending advisors of whom Sanger writes, and whichever among them might win the mind of a President Romney. In many practical respects, these policies would not be much different from Obama’s. It has been the bitter swallowed pill of America’s farther left that Barack Obama delivered the rebirth of pre-Vietnam War military toughness from a long-laboring Democratic party. From Romney, the only room for criticism has been at the edges of policy, like claiming the Syrian rebels should be greater armed, while declining to state, in true Romney fashion, that a Romney presidency would do the arming. There are the McCains and neocons, for whom any American military engagement is one too few for the glory of advancing “freedom” and American “interests.” And then there are the dime-a-dozen GOP opportunists who pounce on any inevitable – which is not to say defensible – screw up, such as the absent security at the consulate in Benghazi.

It is easy, too – nothing easier – to criticize the response to great and unmanageable historical developments like the Arab uprisings (high time to drop the Arab “Spring” projection) and the prosecution of a war in Afghanistan that had already been mismanaged for six years too long by the time Obama had to adopt it. No one on the right has offered at any time any alternative other than the usual military maximalism that for the past fifty years has produced the same record of strategic failure to the American nation as conservative economics. Not maximal enough is the only insightful response from the right to failure.

None of these partisan, automatic, and opportunistic criticisms, however, demonstrate any strategic analysis of world developments since the end of the Cold War and the rise of violent Islamic extremism. Emblematic of this failure is the absence of Asia – to which the Obama administration has notably begun a strategic “pivot” – from Romney’s speech. But the currents of partisan political contention will always run counter to the wisdom of strategic thinking. Here are some of those strategic issues.

The Arab uprisings are a perfect representation of developments that may be called historic not just as an honorific nod to their magnitude, but because of the complex confluence of historic forces and consequential events obscured by time that have led to them. It is the ultimate pretense to claim that the U.S. can pursue policies that will manage these events to foreseeable ends in behalf of American interests. There is no such world history. Even the period of greatest American international success, in the post Second World War era, is littered with the failures of policies that pursued short-sighted, immediate advantage – from the currents of resentment that will run at least underground in Latin American long after we are all gone to the 1953 U.S. supported Iranian coup that is a root cause of the conflicts the U.S. faces in Iran now nearly sixty years later and far counting.

The right has offered only two alternatives to the wisely cautious and literally non-committal approach of the Obama administration. One has been actively to support – not simply, realistically do business with – existing tyrannies, as in Egypt, against popular uprisings. Aside from this being an effectively misguided course of action, it is impossible to conceive a more truly un-American policy. To pursue it would mean to shred every last thread of the cloth of American democratic virtue. The other alternative has been actively to “lead” in every trouble spot and every instance of insurgency. But to have refrained from the active role the U.S. did play in Libya under the circumstances that developed, and permitted a Qaddafi victory, would have been a black mark on just that American cloth. There is, conversely, no evidence at all that a more leading American role would have produced any better outcome than we have.

On the contrary, in Syria, with circumstances having developed differently, even more complexly than in Libya, it is even more impossible to know the outcome of any kind of insurgent victory. Just the consequences of Kurdish autonomy alone, across Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, may be as far reaching as the present conditions are from the European decision after the demise of the Ottoman Empire not to give the Kurds their own state. Those on the right who facilely even just vocalize about more significantly arming the insurgents, as Romney does, and as President Obama has declined to do, forget in just twenty years the consequences of arming the opposition in Afghanistan. In a careful dissent, the conservative Washington Times does not fail to see how such choices develop.

The imperial monovision of the right cannot perceive, into a horizonless future, a leading role for the United States that is not insistent and pointed. In true imperial fashion, it takes any negative response to this insistent leadership as an uprising against virtuous prerogative rather than crap out. President Obama, in contrast, has a more complex vision of the American future in a changed world, of power without empire. This contrast offers the most profound international consideration of the election, holding out for the U.S. incalculably, which is not to say unimaginably, different futures.

There is another, related consideration. Standard conservative expressions of U.S. policy in the face of opposition and conflict are assertive and often bellicose. The speech, it is always believed, must match the assertive action. There are not many other areas of life in which people will not sometimes recognize the greater wisdom of speaking more softly. That is what Obama has done in his post 9/11 presidency, while swinging a deadly stick. But again, the war against violent Islamic extremism is a long one, and its success will not be definitively marked in an administration or two any more than was success in the Cold War. That leaves open opportunities for a candidate like Romney to take quick shots that glide along the surface. That surface is iced by Obama’s long view and soft speech. The long view can never be a mistake. The soft speech can be, and it is a focus of much conservative criticism.

The wisdom of speaking softly is found in the unique circumstances and particular parties to any situation. As the right will tell us, through the only analogy it knows, bullies do not respond to soft speech. (Though, of course, they can be lulled into inattention while you come up behind them and crack them in the head.) The evidence is mounting that the President’s softer articulations, intended as an antidote to Iraq-War belligerence, have achieved nothing in altering the U.S.’s relationship to the Arab and Islamic Worlds. Clearly, neither did a converse voice under the Bush administration, though it is not to be forgotten that George W. Bush was always reassuring, too, about its respect for Islam. Nonetheless, the longer the President lowers his voice, the more the right will grasp the opportunity to cast this as meekness before the enemy we face. If a tactic does not achieve its end and offers rivals the chance to harass from the flanks, there is not much wisdom in maintaining it. There is always, too, the virtue, without long term drawback, of stating clearly, without concession, what a nation stands for and what it opposes, which the President did not adequately do at the U.N. recently. And there is reason to believe that the Arab and extremist Islamic cultures with which we contend respect nothing other.

Still, for a broad view of the empty suit that is Romney foreign policy, from nonsensical defense budget growth to obvious vacuity in conversation with a photo op of retired generals, watch this:

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The Political Animal

Obama and the Vision Thing


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The big news of the weekend – bigger than the rise of Pizza Pie Guy in the John Birch Society’s GOP’s hot-air-balloon derby – is the growing rebellion against Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street may have been organized by the vanguard of diffuse, unfocused anarchy-romancing antiestablishmentarians railing against “the system,” but they have been much more disciplined and less destructive than historically (there’s a story in that – what reporter will tell it?) and, most importantly, they have captured a spirit in the land. In addition, less noticeably, the largest state by far in the Union, California, via its attorney general, Kamala Harris, has joined some other important states – New York, Massachusetts, and several others – in withdrawing from the federally-sponsored 50-state effort to negotiate a settlement with banks over foreclosure fraud. The withdrawing states do not want to give the banks a pass on future criminal liability.

In the bank fraud matter, as in some other very large areas, President Obama’s fundamentally moderate nature, his basic establishmentarianism, leads him to fail at some visionary realizations – or makes him, at least, too timid to articulate and pursue them.

Liberal critics of Obama need to remind themselves – passionately – over the next year of just how much is different now from what would have been had Obama not gained the presidency. The Tea Party GOP makes plain how different the country will be if he loses it. He will, in one or two terms, have accomplished genuine and historic liberal aims. But for all his soaring and sometimes billowy rhetoric, he has not, as needs to be done, re-imagined the nation in the post Cold War world.

Obama will have extricated the country from Iraq, and he will have done it responsibly. He has set the stage for, and aggressively pursued, the transition in Afghanistan from counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism. But the right’s blustery advocacy of continued action in those nations is expressive of the greater imperial culture that emerged from the Cold War around the U.S. military presence around the world. No responsible liberal leader (that means, for instance, not Dennis Kucinich) has articulated how the U.S. can maintain a strong military stance against the world’s malevolent forces, yet nonetheless reconfigure and reduce the martial presence in the world that is both a financial drain and inevitably provocative of resentment. Obama has not done it either. In fact, representing the establishment, he has specifically chosen not to pursue a policy of accountability toward those who designed and executed the Bush administration torture regime, which had it been active in any other nation independent of our interests, the U.S. would have condemned.

Obama has similarly chosen not to use the Wall Street-and-government crony-capitalism crisis of 2008 as the event upon which to envision the correction of the three-decade conservative-GOP drive toward American plutocracy. He sought instead, in his more moderate fashion, to save Wall Street in order to save Main Street so that their relationship, rather than collapse, could be maintained in almost precisely the manner it existed before.

The American imperial presence in the world and American plutocracy are what ail the nation. The great leader so many hoped Obama would be – like FDR – would have had this vision and acted it on it. So far, instead, he has been one president among many, liberal, yes, thanks for that, but not transformative, not even in line of sight of the transformation.

If Occupy Wall Street can inspire a liberal, middle-class, and working class uprising – just the uprising, without even a new organization, which the people behind the demonstrations cannot effectively themselves constitute – then Obama may have the chance: he may have a chance to overcome the 2009 summer town hall and Tea Party demonization of him from which he has never recovered. He would have a chance to shape a popular movement into a substantive vision of the future for the nation beyond the rousing speeches. His last opportunity for greatness – and not just, at best, modest policy-wonkish successes – lies in the next year and half, even the next couple of months. After that his time will be past, even really past.


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The Political Animal

Two and a Half Centuries before 9/11


(9/11/11: the first in a series)

Long ago loosed from popular memory, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was not only a natural catastrophe but a crisis of the enlightenment mind as well. The quake is estimated to have lasted ten minutes, with three distinct jolts. Modern seismological estimates, based on recorded observations of the temblor’s effects, are that the quake was a 9.0 on the Richter scale, the same as the 2004 Indian Ocean quake off Sumatra. It was felt in North Africa and Central Europe and was quickly followed by the three tsunamis, with waves of perhaps fifty feet, sweeping out to sea not only thousands from shaky ground, but many who had sought refuge from the disaster in boats. Then came the fires. Much of Lisbonwas destroyed. Varied estimates are that up to sixty thousand people lost their lives. And it happened the morning of All Soul’s Day.

A common sentiment at the time, among those both more and less Christian, was that the disaster was God’s punishment on a sinful world. Even among those of less apocalyptic bent, there was a crisis of faith. Why would God unleash such punishment so indiscriminately upon even the innocent? Voltaire, among other thinkers and artists across Europe, was profoundly influenced by the historic calamity, and he went to intellectual war, in Candide and elsewhere, with Leibniz’s optimism that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Artists depicted the event well into the next century. Yet the Lisbon earthquake was also a turning point in the development of natural science and the rationalist response to life on earth. Vast efforts were made to understand the quake as a natural phenomenon. Modern seismology may be said to have been born from the event. The prime minister of Portugal, Sebastião de Melo, amid much political infighting and contestation, organized probably the first modern governmental disaster relief and reconstruction program. Lisbon was rebuilt.

There is a comparison to be drawn between the Lisbon earthquake, over two hundred and fifty years ago, and the 9/11 attack on the United States. Though an obvious dissimilarity is that the quake was a natural disaster, and 9/11 decidedly not, that distinction was not so clear to mid-eighteenth century Europeans, and there were far too many, those who are religious (including, obviously, the perpetrators of the attack) and even those who are not, who considered 9/11 to be, if not God’s, at least some form of ideologically righteous judgment upon the United States. Another argument against the comparison is the number of monstrous and very inhuman human catastrophes that came between. What is 9/11 compared to the Holocaust, to choose an easy example? Yet for many, 9/11 still seems hugely significant, its dramatically visual and its symbolic character not to be overlooked.

A crucial consideration in the making of analogies, however, is whether one intends them to elucidate or in actuality delimit. In the former instance, the analogist seeks to understand the unavoidably new and different in the light of the old and suggestively prototypical. In the latter instance, the thing compared is captured in the net of what it is compared to, the analogist’s purpose to deny the thing the freedom to be more and other than its predecessor, even though everything in this world, for all the haunting similarities, is irreversibly other than everything else. The analogies of political argumentation are usually of the latter kind. To use a popular set of political terms, while they pretend to liberate the imagination, their intent is to occupy the reason. For that reason, metaphor, like a lepidopterist releasing his catch from the net, will always be superior to analogy. Of course, with the literary it is never necessary to decide; one may remain delightedly undecided – in no place exactly at all – inhaling the ambiguous breeze. In politics there is a different reason not to make decisions – one may comfortably believe what one is determined to believe, analogies be dammed, or used.

One reason, then, that I invoke the Lisbon earthquake is that it so profoundly influenced even those who did not directly experience it. Those who were neither in New York City nor Virginia nor Pennsylvania were terrified, distraught, grief-stricken, sleepless, angry, confused, disillusioned. People all have their own stories, including me – a New Yorker living in Los Angeles – thousands of miles away at the time, in Prague. And if the historical is not personal in the end, it is purposeless. If the personal is not situated somewhere in time, in history, then it is aimlessly, absurdly adrift – which may well be….

But history will make its claim on us nonetheless, most unexpectedly, like a 350,000 pound jet flying at over 500 miles per hour into a 110 story building containing 87,000 tons of steel, even if you are merely some tourist in from Japan hoping for an early start to the day and a chance at the unparalleled view.

Now it is ten years since 9/11 and the Afghan war that followed, and it has become a commonplace, in the period since the lead up to the Iraq war that followed later still, to say that America squandered the goodwill directed toward it in the aftermath of 9/11. This facile commentary is both demonstrably true and false. It is true that large numbers of ordinary people around the world felt sympathy for Americans in the manner that most people are touched by the vividly knowable ill fortune of others. The implicit proposition in references to these squandered sympathies, though, is that such feelings had significant political implications, specifically regarding people’s understanding of, and relation to, America’s role and power in the world. I think such a proposition arguable at best. The “squandered goodwill” truism is demonstrably false because of the extensive public record documenting a widespread lack of goodwill at the time of 9/11, from various quarters, both predictable and unexpected. In fact, outright hostility emanated not just from Islamic extremists and confusedly aggrieved segments of the Arab populace, but, very prominently, from the political left, including the American left – that very quarter (which would widely oppose action in Afghanistan too) from which, after Iraq, the squandered goodwill truism later emerged like a carefully cultivated hothouse flower, humid and flushed with forgetfulness.

In truth, whatever goodwill we find absent among many, it was not squandered but already long withheld, before George W. Bush, the easy and obvious scapegoat, became President. September 11, 2011 revealed – should really have only reminded – that despite the fall of the Soviet bloc and the death throes of state communism, the ideology, the historical analysis, and the political sentiments that bore, supported, and rationalized them live on in all the usual quarters. The labels are different – scholarly and theoretical – or the same Marxian as before, but sewn on an inseam instead of a breast pocket. New developments in cultural and political contest have been clarified – Islamism and a new reactionary Republicanism – to skew perceptions and fundamental judgments about where to stand between them. But the contention is the same: the plutocratic and militaristic only confirm the Marxist-inspired, postcolonial challenge; the latter only justifies the imperialistic reaction. Liberals, not uncommonly, remain toothless, and often nominally in charge, until they are not.

And now we are two-hundred and fifty-six years since the Lisbon Earthquake, already ten from 9/11.



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The Political Animal

What Gingrich Meant When He Called Obama an Anti-colonialist

Certainly you recall it. We had some discussion of it here, and here, and here, and here. The curious question at the root of the whole discussion was what it means at this p0int in history and the evolution of world culture to call someone an “anti-colonialist” and mean it as a pejorative? What does it tell us of the world view of the person so using the term? We might call it a kind of ideological revanchism, and as much as the GOP is driven in its policies to reverse a century of progressive social policy, so too is it motivated to reaffirm Western imperialism. Witness:

One of the first acts of the new Republican-controlled House is to take away the floor voting rights of six delegates representing areas such as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa.

Five of those delegates are Democrats, while one, from the Northern Marianas Islands, is an independent.

The GOP decision to rescind the ability of delegates to vote on amendments on the House floor was the predictable outcome of a longtime party divide. Democrats extended the voting rights in 1993 when they controlled the House, Republicans disenfranchised the delegates when they became the majority in 1995 and Democrats restored delegate rights when they regained control of the House in 2007.

I won’t focus on the apparent trench political maneuver of denying six probable opposition votes in the new congress, because that is not really a meaningful consideration.

The partisan battle has always been as much about political symbolism as the actual ability of delegates to influence national policy. Under the Democrats, delegates could vote on the floor on amendments – in what is known as the Committee of the Whole – but not on final passage. And their votes came with the stipulation that they could not change the outcome of a vote.

Well, just what is that symbolism?

Republicans have long argued that the Constitution, which says the House should be made up of representatives chosen by the “several states,” rules out voting by non-state delegates. The office of new House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday said Boehner “continues to believe . that delegates should not vote in the Committee of the Whole because they constitutionally cannot vote on the House floor.”

“It’s very apparent to me that we need to focus on the Constitution and (under the Constitution) states are to be represented in the House of Representatives,” said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif.

Ah, it’s the Constitution – that’s the thing. But the GOP respects the role of the courts in our democracy, does it not?

Democrats counter that, when Republicans sued to reverse the 1993 extension of voting rights, two federal courts ruled that Congress had acted within constitutional bounds. They also point out that the delegates represent U.S. citizens who serve in the military and are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not only citizens serving in the military overseas, but the residents of Washington D.C. are long disenfranchised citizens too. But D.C. is a constitutional anomaly, a mess in our own house long overdue for clean up. Foreign territories, though, governed by the United States and populated by people who are not citizens of the nation – should these not give “the greatest democracy in the world” pause? Yes, they all have complex histories. Puerto Ricans have been long conflicted and divided about how they wish to resolve their history with the U.S., and as a first principle we should be guided by what they want.  In the meantime, does it not behoove us not to rule, but to govern in partnership and respect – not to make a point from the very start of taking what is, to begin, so little away? If the Constitution still rated the descendants of African slaves as three fifths of a person, would Boehner and the GOP argue for day-to-day adherence to that constitutionalism while we sought to overturn it?

There are reasons the Republican Party isn’t called the Democratic party.

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Culture Clash

How We Lived on It (31) – Wealth and Health

“In this spectacular section of ‘The Joy of Stats’ Hans Rosling tells the story of the world in 200 countries over 200 years using 120,000 numbers – in just four minutes. Plotting life expectancy against income for every country since 1810, Hans shows how the world we live in is radically different from the world most of us imagine.” (H/T Shrinkwrapped)


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The Political Animal

This Is the End (of History, War, the Enlightenment, and Western Civilization) Or Not

Andrew Becevich is appropriately critical of the American impetus to hegemonic empire that grew out of its post World War Two ascendency and the commitment to communist containment. That was the subject of his 2008 The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Essential to any continuing practicability of this American role, he argues in yesterday’s HuffPo was a belief in the possibility of definitive victory in war. His post is entitled “The End of (Military) History? The United States, Israel, and the Failure of the Western Way of War.” The ostensible reasoning behind the connection of Israel to the this regard is the shared belief, still, in the possibility of military victories. The differences – American hegemony versus Israeli existential concern – make the connection more problematic, but the meaning of the making of connections, real and imagined, between the U.S. and Israel, while a continuing interest of this blog, is not the subject today.

Becevich begins,

“In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history.”  This sentiment, introducing the essay that made Francis Fukuyama a household name, commands renewed attention today, albeit from a different perspective.

Developments during the 1980s, above all the winding down of the Cold War, had convinced Fukuyama that the “end of history” was at hand.  “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea,” he wrote in 1989, “is evident… in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Today the West no longer looks quite so triumphant.  Yet events during the first decade of the present century have delivered history to another endpoint of sorts.  Although Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal, the Western way of war has run its course.

Now, we want a critique that has correctly identified its problem to successfully analyze it, but the introduction is a curiously self-refuting start. Although the communist era ended, socialist critiques of Western capital domination continue in various forms, Islam has reemerged as a starkly countervailing force to the Western idea, and the liberal idea, in relation to the first two forces, is strikingly challenged by among some of its own product. Notice that Becevich himself felt reason to write “Western liberalism may retain considerable appeal.” Fukuyama was clearly wrong. It is on this parallel foundation then that Becevich wishes to rhetorically support the claim that the curiously attributed “Western way of war has run its course”?

Certainly, the Second World War left many with the idea that military conflicts, even grandly scaled wars, can be fought to definitive and just conclusions. I think Becevich is right to attribute to this consequent overconfidence the American military misadventures in the post war period, but he seems, in his critique, similarly shortsighted as well as selective in his vision. There were in this period American military actions, however relatively small in scale, that achieved their clear aims: Panama, the Dominican Republic, the Gulf War – and one rightly hesitates to add Granada. And however emblematic of indeterminacy Korea has been for nearly sixty years, it did achieve its original aim.

More significantly, though, if one excludes World War Two, from what historical evidence does Becevich draw his claim of a particular way of war and the running of its course, upon which to predicate an accurate vision of the future? He confines himself to the twentieth century.

All of this furious activity, whether undertaken by France or Great Britain, Russia or Germany, Japan or the United States, derived from a common belief in the plausibility of victory.

Victory may have been the common belief, but what was ever the historical justification for it? And how was and is victory defined? In total conquest? That surrenders were offered? An armistice signed? An immediate pressure released? An international tension long or forever resolved? Becevich isn’t clear beyond suggesting the Second World War model.

Campaigns of terror – e.g. nineteenth century anarchist movements – are not new, though possible now on a scale that requires strategic consideration and developed doctrine, not dismissal in simplistic oppositions of war and peace. History is replete with successful guerilla wars, depending, of course, on how success is defined and the duration of the achieved goal – wars in which great powers were perpetually harassed by smaller or insurgent armies. Wars badly fought or that ended in apparent victories only to set up over decades or even centuries the conditions of future war – the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian war, almost the whole history of European warfare – are not a new development in war, only a departure from the dominant U.S. expectation. There is, too, if the subject is going to be explored meaningfully, no reason to limit the historical and developmental review to the West.

If the U.S. had withdrawn from Afghanistan after routing the Taliban, and if, rather than embarking on nation-building, it had pursued the kind of counter-terror strategy it will probably pursue after a now likely withdrawal without a nation built, could the U.S. have rightly claimed victory – not the end of all Islamic terror, but the thwarting of Al-Qaeda’s access to a national base? Had Saddam Hussein actually possessed WMD, they would have been found and destroyed, his regime toppled, as it was, and with a relatively quick withdrawal after, the purported goal of the war – a Victory – achieved. These are complex and to some degree hypothetical considerations, but my point is that there does not seem anything structural in the historical development of war that precludes the possibility of victory, as long as one does not define victory so far up that one makes it almost by definition unachievable.

Alter these factors, and the narrative of a stumbling, crumbling U.S. giant is not as easily written. Writes Becevich,

Politically motivated violence will persist and may in specific instances even retain marginal utility.  Yet the prospect of Big Wars solving Big Problems is probably gone for good

This qualifier is significant. Is Afghanistan a big war? By what measure? Are Israel’s wars big wars? Is it accurate to say that Israel these days perceives itself as fighting to solve big problems, or does it fight to maintain a safe power balance in a developmental holding action?

Becevich observes,

Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?

It’s a neat antithesis, but weakly and unnecessarily argued. American leaders and commanders do not have the luxury to argumentatively pretend that the Taliban-supported Al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan could have been left to function. Israeli leaders lack a similar luxury to ignore the ideological and military threats of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. That the expansive hegemonic reach of the U.S., an outgrowth of the Cold War, is now destructive of U.S. interests can be well argued. The claim does not require an overreaching corollary that is actually a bit suspect in its formation and application. It isn’t that humans have developmentally overcome their inclinations toward war – war has ceased, essentially, to work, and it has ceased to do so, when, according to Becevich, only the United States and Israel, as he defines it, still engage in it.




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The Political Animal

A Tale of Modern Day Injustice

Through the interconnectedness, via Twitter, of people who do not in the least know each other comes to me this dreadful story of the horrible oppressiveness, in the service of their greater interests, of even the greatest modern democracies.

If you have ever heard of Diego Garcia, it was likely during some period of U.S. military activity, when news reports would inform of the military base there, on an Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Strategically desirable during the Cold War, the base has served as launching and refueling point during dramatic air missions.

Diego Garcia is, in fact, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago “a chain of 65 small coral islands… about halfway between Africa and Indonesia, seven degrees south of the Equator…. Diego Garcia covers only 17 square miles – the others are much smaller.”

Originally uninhabited, the islands were settled, in 1776, by French colonists (and lepers), who brought in African slaves to work the coconut plantations. Ultimately, the islands having come under British possession,the slaves were freed, and they took control of the plantations. Over perhaps one hundred and fifty years a Creole population developed among the descendants of the freed slaves.

Then, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. decided it needed that strategic Indian Ocean base, and ally Britain determined to provide it.

In 1966 Britain secretly leased Diego Garcia to the US for 50 years, with the option of an extension. This was done in exchange for a discount of millions of dollars on Polaris nuclear submarines – a way of concealing the payment. The US pays rent of one dollar per year. The deal was not disclosed to the US Congress, the British Parliament, or the United Nations.

A difficulty was that people lived on the island, and the U.S. did not want them there.

In 1967 the British government bought out the plantation owners, shut down the plantations and stopped the regular supply ship. With no warning or consultation, the islanders, numbering about 2000 at this time, were told that they were all being evicted. Those who tried to flee to the outer islands were rounded up. The islanders were isolated, intimidated, and tricked into believing that they would be settled into a similar environment with their own land and houses.

Armed men put the islanders in groups of 300 or more on to a ship designed to carry 50 and shipped them off to Mauritius or the Seychelles. They were forced to abandon their homes and all their possessions except one small bag each. These men slaughtered their livestock and destroyed their homes. Many of the exiles witnessed all of this.

Those who were on trips away at the time were simply not allowed back, left stranded in foreign lands with nothing but what they had with them. In 1971, Britain made it official with an Immigration Ordinance denying the Chagossians the right to ever return home.

The residents not being self-sufficient on the island, there is, perhaps, a kind of eminent domain argument that might be made for their removal, but not in the manner and under the conditions in which it all was actually accomplished.  And if you read the full account, you will see that the record of the islanders seeking legal recourse and restitution – they are now headed for the European Court of Human Rights – is long and always, once more, disappointing. Many of the removed islanders live today, still, in awful conditions, and the British government continues to treat them in a strikingly different manner than the Falkland islanders.

Any thoughts on what the reason might be?


The Political Animal

Obama in Oslo: Power without Empire

I go and use a presidential juggling analogy in Obama Abroad: Liberal, Moderate, Careful, and my psychoanalytical interlocutor ShrinkWrapped decides to employ a fungo hit to test my own coordination. I’m still developing my response to Principia Liberalis Interruptus, and he takes a whack at the Obama post, putting a second ball in the air. I suppose he imagines it a matter of course that liberals have two left feet. And, no doubt, he’s quietly taking notes. But I’ll try to keep my eye on both balls.

Shrink claims in response to my praise of Obama’s international temperament that Obama is guilty of what Richard Landes at the Augean Stables has termed Cognitive Egocentrism, and then, further. Liberal Cognitive Egocentrism. I admire Landes, and I believe that with these terms and others he has accurately described a nexus of attitudes on the political left that are deeply wrongheaded and disabling. However, conservatives in general, Landes, and my jousting partner SW are mistaken in applying these concepts to Obama. The idea of this error was implicit in Obama Abroad. The conservative reaction to Obama – the projection upon him of every conservative, nativist, and chauvinist fear of the late twentieth century, and every generalization about liberalism – will provide material for years of study.  Much as many of ShrinkWrapped’s commenters have, over several rounds of debate so far, proven themselves unable to respond to me and my ideas, but instead acted out their own conservative disability to perceive a liberal outside their calcified, stereotypical conceptions of liberalism, so too, far more significantly, of course, are conservatives unable to see Barack Obama for what he is, individually, as a liberal.

British Empire

The essence of Liberal Cognitive Egocentrism is “The projection of good faith and fair-mindedness onto others, the assumption that ‘other’ shares the same human values….[and which] holds that all people are good, and if only we treat them right, they will respond well.”

This is, in truth, a very soft spot on the left. Just the other night I was passing by (I swear I was just passing) Larry King on CNN. Among his guests discussing Obama’s Afghan decision were everyone’s favorite financial expert who saw the crash coming like a speeding car from behind, Ben Stein, and, I swear again, magician Penn Jillette. Jillette was the nightmare of liberalism, fearing that the Afghan escalation would only produce more terrorists, the way the war in the Pacific only provoked the Japanese to anger and we lost – or was it that we made nice and they went away? I forget.

Conservatives think Obama is an eloquent Penn Jillette.

This misapplication of LCE to Obama is not only a categorical error; it is a distortion of his actions. He pursues a preliminary policy of diplomatic outreach to Iran (for reasons I limned in Obama Abroad) and he makes expansive, conciliatory speeches, say, in Cairo, and conservatives think this is the same thing, the same audience approached in the same manner with the same message. It is not. Obama’s acknowledgments of U.S. error, for instance, are not directed at the Iranian or North Korean regimes, at Russia or at China, nations that may be, by our lights, irrationally directed, or directed by natural historical interests that will not bend in our direction because we project ourselves in a warmer, more self-critical light. But with the waxing and waning of circumstance, other nations and people – what was once the Third World between the Western first and Communist second – have for decades often been alienated from what should be a natural sympathy, toward the U.S., because of errors the U.S. has, in fact, made, and in the way it has projected itself. The George W. Bush years were the apex of the crude political belief that genuine strength and readiness to both assert and defend national interest need be communicated in blunt, imperious declarations of unwavering disregard for the perspectives of other nations. A nation need win hearts and minds in times of peace, not only in war.


In contrast, here is Barack Obama from yesterday’s Nobel acceptance speech:

I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

I raise this point, I begin with this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.

But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

Obama can speak profoundly, truthfully like this, and be well-received, because he has already acknowledged that a great America has been, of course, as is any nation, a flawed and fallible America. Such expressions, of readiness for war, of America’s distinction, can be accepted by others because they are not just one more arrogant assertion of prerogative and self-regard.

Roman Empire 395 CE

The Nobel speech has been praised by some conservatives, who have recognized a genuine statement of American seriousness of purpose for what it is. Others will remain unwavering in their determination to perceive Obama through a distorted lens that will invert the meaning of his language or separate the meaning from a true intent. How else compare the decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and to continue an aggressive, irregular war against Al-Qaeda in Pakistan to Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler, as has been done?

I am not hopeful about Iran, in any respect. But common approaches to problems that conceive only predictable outcomes are enemies of the rare result. Had an Obama-like figure gone to China in the 1970s, Republicans then, like ex-Vice Presidents now, would have accused him of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And for all Iran’s dark terrors, and its projections on the world scene, it bears no historical mention beside the like of Mao’s mass murderous China. Yet Nixon went, and as Obama remarked in Oslo, the results, far better than might have been, are there to be seen over more than three decades.

ShrinkWrapped says that “the perceptions of America under Barack Obama are of a nation trying to retreat into a more limited engagement with the world.” This perception, and that of some new American weakness, are perceptions mainly of American and some Anglo conservatives. In contrast again, here is Obama in Oslo:

More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.


within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists — a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world.

I reject these choices…. No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests — nor the world’s — are served by the denial of human aspirations.

This is not the president of a nation retreating “into more limited engagement with the world.” However, it is a president conceiving the engagement differently, no less forcefully, but more completely. Brute Cheneyesque bullying as the expression of an engaged America brings to mind number 23 of my Principia Liberalis:

A breadth of interests entails a breadth of power to protect them. A breadth of power generates its own interests. Even a benign power will be caught in this cycle of mutual reinforcement. Imperial behavior, conceived only as protection of interests, can expand innocently and then be justified, in the maintenance of an imperial nature, as a necessary protection of interests.


Because the U.S. is the sole superpower in the world, it acts to extend the reach of its power to maintain itself (power not being static) and to protect the interests that naturally attach to that power’s reach. As the interests expand, the superpower must engage more nations with the purpose of pursuing and maintaining those interests. Ironically, this makes the superpower a supplicant, always needing to negotiate with other nations over those nations’ natural interests and spheres of power, and far from the natural sphere of the superpower’s interests, because now the world has become its sphere. World security concerns become the superpower’s security concerns, and multiple nations, pursuing their own interests to some degree of variance with the interests of the superpower now become problematic concerns.

The current conservative formula is that any reconsideration of this cycle is a disengagement bespeaking weakness. In order to avoid this appearance – indeed, reality – of (relative) weakness, the cycle must be maintained perpetually. The United States, now that it is the sole superpower, must ensure that it remains the sole superpower. If it is not the conquering, occupying power of imperial epochs past, it must now be and remain the imperial power of enforceable influence wherever its interests and security are perceived to reside, and increasingly they reside everywhere.

Such, however, is part of the historic pattern in the decline of empires. Yet this is the imperative that serves as the basis for misconceiving and rejecting the Obama international vision. It offers a choice not between a weak America and a strong America willing and able to meet genuine security threats. It presents a choice between an imperial America, however internally democratic, attuned to the brute expression and imposition of its will across all reaches, and a strong America integrated, reasonably and with proper regard to its interests, within a slow-developing international order.