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.



Michele Bachmann and Christian Taqiyya

Much has been made in recent years of the Islamic doctrine of Taqiyya, which permits and even promotes, according to some, religious concealment and dissimulation in certain contexts and in confronting non-Muslims.

What is it that Michele Bachmann did on Meet the Press this Sunday but engage in her own form of Taqiyya on behalf of her Christian beliefs? We are so inured to the dishonesty of political campaigns that we tend these days to accept and dismiss it with jaded shrugs. Beyond the now common run, every extremist seeking office in a moderate, but often ignorant and impressionable society will inevitably attempt the necessary dissimulation. Whenever the carrot of national power looms surprisingly large, he begins in interviews to conceal his real beliefs,  and the more honest expressions of the extremist’s past, coming back potentially to haunt, he now evades and dissembles.

The entire Republican Party dissimulates, pretending that it seeks to “reform” Medicare and Medicaid and to “improve” Social Security, when the truth, of course, is that the GOP seeks to eliminate them, by so transforming and minimizing what the programs have been that they are no longer what was intended. The GOP pretends, too, that it believes reducing federal revenues and cutting the budget will – against the judgment of even many conservative economists and financiers – revive business and grow the economy: the politically sophisticated and knowledgeble (like those who believe they’ve got Islam’s number on Taqiyya) know that the true intent is to shrink government, however possible, at whatever cost, even three decades of exploding national debt.

Without diminishing the nature of this dissimulation, Bachmann’s needs to be recognized in a harsher light, as does that of Rick Perry when it soon enough comes, when he thinks he can actually taste the White House, but his army of god becomes a problem. This is not ordinary human deceit, the kind that everyday masks personal ambition; it is programmatic and socially intolerant.

Here is Bachmann lying about the meaning of “submissive” and what she as a Christian fundamentalist really believes about a wife’s submission to her husband.

MR. GREGORY: From the economy, I want to move on to another topic that’s deeply meaningful and important to you, and that’s your faith in God. This is something that not only motivates you as a person, inspires you as you try to live a virtuous life, but it’s also been very important to your political identity as well. And I want to ask you about, not only the role God plays in, in your life but to what extent he’s a motivator for decisions that you make. One example that’s gotten some attention is some remarks you made back in 2006 about your career path, which you’ve talked about here, and I want to play a brief clip of those remarks.

REP. BACHMANN: My husband said, “Now you need to go and get a post-doctorate degree in tax law.” Tax law! I hate taxes. Why should I go and do something like that? But the Lord says, “Be submissive, wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.”

(End audiotape)

MR. GREGORY: Is that your view for women in America? Is that your vision for them?

REP. BACHMANN: Well, I–during the debate I was asked a question about this, and my response was is that submission, that word, means respect. It means that I respect my husband and he respects me.

MR. GREGORY: Right. Congresswoman, I didn’t even have to check with my wife and I know those two things aren’t, aren’t equal.

REP. BACHMANN: What’s that?

MR. GREGORY: Submission and respect.

REP. BACHMANN: Well, in our house it is.


REP. BACHMANN: We’ve been married almost 33 years and I have a great deal of respect for my husband. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man and a great father to our children. And he’s also filled with good advice. He…

MR. GREGORY: But so his word goes?

REP. BACHMANN: …he leads–pardon?

MR. GREGORY: His word goes?

REP. BACHMANN: Well, both of our words go. We respect each other. We have a mutual partnership in our marriage, and that’s the only way that we could accomplish what we’ve done in life is to be a good team. We’re a good team together.

In Michele Bachmann’s house, they get to alter the meanings of words, and “submission” and “respect” are synonyms. And are submission to the Christian faith and democracy and freedom synonyms, too, “in our house”? Why not? The principle of redefinition would be the same.

And here, now, below, is Bachmann lying about her attitudes toward homosexuality – because you know that ascribing “honor and dignity” to homosexuals and not judging them, even though their lives are “part of Satan,” she will not pursue policies that limit their rights.


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The Political Animal

Tony Blair on Muslim Integration

Many British seem determined to make of Tony Blair what the Russians have of Mikhail Gorbachev – a greatly significant leader better appreciated outside his country than within it. Below, published on his official website, Blair demonstrates the frank and clear-sighted vision missing from so many who are blinded either by baseness or dull orthodoxy.

The danger, certainly in Europe, is very clear. Especially in tough economic times, this issue can inject division, sectarianism and even racism into societies based on equality. Traditional political parties get trapped. Either they pander, but of course they can never pander enough; or they seem in a state of denial and condemn themselves to the position of out-of-touch elites. The backlash grows. The center ground becomes diminished.

We have to nail down the definition of the problem. There is no general failure to integrate. In the U.K., for example, we are not talking about Chinese or Indians. We are not talking about blacks and Asians. This is a particular problem. It is about the failure of one part of the Muslim community to resolve and create an identity that is both British and Muslim. And I stress part of it. Most Muslims are as much at ease with their citizenship in the U.K. as I am. I dare say that is true in other European nations too.

However, some don’t integrate. But when we talk about this in general terms, without precision, for fear of “stigmatizing” Muslims, we alienate public opinion and isolate the majority of Muslims who are integrating and want to be as much part of our society as any other group. Then, because we won’t identify the problem as it is, a subterranean debate takes the place of an open one, and that debate lumps all Muslims together. So in the interest of “defending” the Muslim community, we actually segregate it by refusing to have an honest debate about what is happening.

Most people instinctively understand the right approach to integration. We just have to articulate and enforce it. This approach is to distinguish clearly and carefully between the common space, shared by all citizens, and the space where we can be different. We have different faiths. We practice them differently. We have different histories, different cultures and different views. Some citizens will genuinely and properly not like some of the more liberal tendencies of Western life. We can differ over this.

But there has to be a shared acceptance that some things we believe in and we do together: obedience to certain values like democracy, rule of law, equality between men and women; respect for national institutions; and speaking the national language. This common space cannot be left to chance or individual decision. It has to be accepted as mandatory. Doing so establishes a clear barrier between those citizens of the host community who are concerned for understandable reasons and those who are bigoted.

Concerns about illegal immigration have a lot to do with the notion that the system can be gamed, played, or swindled by some who are hostile to the host community they seek to penetrate. Ensuring that there are rules, strictly enforced—and in Europe’s case, these could be pan-European as well as national—is not anti-immigrant. It is, in fact, the only way to protect the idea that immigration, properly controlled, is of enormous benefit.

We will not defeat extremism (and the fear it then produces in our societies) until we defeat its narrative. This narrative is Islam as a victim of the West, locked in an inevitable cultural conflict with it.

via Making Muslim Integration Work | Latest News | The Office of Tony Blair.

Shiraz Maher at Standpoint offers this one improvement:

Personally, I would go further here, and that is Blair only identifies one side of the equation. More Muslims also need to mobilise themselves to be part of this debate. It is not just the failure of the political class — though a great deal of blame must be levelled against them — but also of ordinary Muslims not to have confronted sooner, and with more vigour, the extremist threat within our communities.

But Blair is right to note the counter-intuitive point here. That is, those who preach pieties about ‘vilifying Muslims’ whenever genuine (and accurate) concerns are raised about some preachers, play into the hands of political extremists. Their refusal to engage in honest debate about what is happening drives it underground. Those on the political periphery are then empowered because they appear brave and willing to challenge an unfair status quo defended by an unsympathetic orthodoxy.

As has been so often the case, Blair gets the balance pretty much right.

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The Political Animal

Veiled Threats

I have written several times before on the subject of wearing the burqa or niqab in public. I have argued that

  1. A general ban on the veil in public is not defensible in a liberal, democratic society, so I think the recently passed French ban is a mistake. I defend a general right to wear the veil not on grounds of religious freedom, but on general liberty and privacy rights, in general public settings, to obscure oneself from the view of others. There is, generally speaking, no right any of us has to look on the faces of others if they choose not be viewed.

  2. The already existing French ban against the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in institutionally public settings, e.g. government buildings and schools, as reflecting a separation between the secular state and religious profession, is a reasonable alternative to the principle of unqualified liberty in religious display under all circumstances.

  3. Where security and public safety are concerned, restrictions on wearing the veil or any face covering (I make no distinction in these arguments) are both defensible and obligatory.

  4. Individuals, if they assert it, have a right of personal integrity to look upon the faces of people who wish to communicate with them. They have this right – with some possible, unique exceptions – even when performing in a public role, for instance, that of teacher.

Or elected representative.

British MP Philip Hollobone has sought to introduce in England a like bill to that of the law passed in France. I hope the legislation fails. At the same, in the midst of debate on the subject of the veil, Hollobone called it, “the religious equivalent of going around with a paper bag over your head with two holes for the eyes.” In response, the Northamptonshire Race Equality Council reported Hollobone to the police.

Hollobone said the tax-funded group wanted to see him prosecuted for inciting religious hatred but the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take action.

The MP for Kettering said: “I refused to be silenced by threats of prosecution and I am going to speak out on what is a perfectly legitimate topic for debate.

“There will be those who agree and those who disagree, and that is fine. What we cannot have in this country are MPs being threatened when they speak out on contentious issues.

In the meantime, Hollobone declared his intention to refuse to meet with constituents who refused to remove their veil for the meeting.

Mr. Hollobone sparked a row earlier this month when he argued that he needed to be face-to-face with voters who wanted his help.

He said he would “invite” anyone who did not wish to remove their veil to communicate with him in a “different way”, such as by letter.

In turn, the UK Lawyers for Liberty has threatened legal action against Hollobone on the basis that

UK’s Equality Act and the European convention on human rights (ECHR) oblige him to avoid discrimination.

I am not familiar with either document, but it would be both surprising and dismaying if they contained provisions that might be interpreted as compelling an individual into communications he might reasonably find objectionable.

Mr. Hollobone said he would think about checking into the legal situation Liberty made reference to, though he said he “strongly suspected” the organisation was incorrect.

He also reported that

he had written back to Liberty and asked what would they do if he refused to speak to a white male wearing a balaclava [ski mask] who came to him, and they said they would not be interested in that. [Emphasis added]

It seems clear that increasing numbers of people are both confused and misguided in how they consider this issue. I continue to maintain that the best basis of consideration is not religious, which makes the lack of interest by Lawyers for Liberty in alternative cases pointedly wrongheaded.

As an interesting sidelight, in doing research for this post I came across a public letter to Hollobone challenging him to a debate on the topic of his proposed ban of the burqa. The letter is by Dr Nazreen Nawaz, who is the Women’s Media Representative of the organization Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. Nawaz’s letter is a remarkably succinct intellectualization of the Muslim indictment of decadent Western society, nimbly incorporating into the religious position the critique that it is “Western capitalist liberal values that are a major cause of the oppression of women globally.”

In contrast to this, Islam views the woman’s dignity as sacrosanct and has prohibited exploitation of her looks and her objectification within society. The Islamic dress code is one means by which to ensure that society values women according to their thinking, abilities, and behaviour rather than their physical appearance.

Nawaz further states,

This call for a niqaab ban exposes the intolerance in Western secular societies, leaving talk of freedom, tolerance and pluralism with the appearance of being little more than a smokescreen behind which lie racism, intolerance and bigotry.

This summation, one should recognize, is made by the representative of an apparently anti-Semitic worldwide organization the goal of which is the institution of a caliphate in all Muslim lands. Established in 1953, it claims to seek its goals nonviolently and through reasoned argument, as Nawan asserts at the end of her letter. It also claims not to seek to extend the caliphate into non-Muslim lands, though these commitments and claims have been questioned. One recent study of the organization is Monitoring Islamic Militancy: Hizb-ut-Tahrir: “The Party of Liberation.” In 2005, Foreign Affairs published Zeyno Baran’s “Fighting the War of Ideas,” which is summarized:

While radical Islamist terrorist groups such as al Qaeda grab the headlines, their nonviolent ideological cousins remain little known. But groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir play a crucial role in indoctrinating Muslims with radical ideology. Because they occupy a gray zone of militancy, regulating them is a diffcult challenge for liberal democracies — but ignoring them is no longer an option.

Baran further tells us,

HT is not itself a terrorist organization, but it can usefully be thought of as a conveyor belt for terrorists. It indoctrinates individuals with radical ideology, priming them for recruitment by more extreme organizations where they can take part in actual operations. By combining fascist rhetoric, Leninist strategy, and Western sloganeering with Wahhabi theology, HT has made itself into a very real and potent threat that is extremely difficult for liberal societies to counter.



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Culture Clash The Political Animal

Unveiling a Full Ban on Full Veils

The New York Times reports on French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to introduce

a bill in May to ban the wearing of the full veil in public places in France


from streets, markets and shops, according to his spokesman, Luc Chatel.

Sarkozy intends the bill, a follow up to the 2004 ban on conspicuous signs of religious affiliation in public schools, to supersede

An earlier proposal from a panel of the National Assembly [that] suggested a bill banning the full veil in public places belonging to the state, like schools and public buildings, and in areas where facial recognition is vital for security reasons: airports, banks and even public transport.

As I have suggested, here, here and here, I think the National Assembly has offered a reasoned, sensible approach. Sarkozy overreaches, beyond what can be justified in a liberal society, and the error could have long-term negative consequences. Sarkozy has already been warned by France’s Council of State, the chief administrative authority in France, that such a total ban would have no legal basis.

The Times also reports that Belgium too is planning to vote on a bill that mandates a fine and brief jail term for anyone wearing the full veil without police permission.

The danger is this. Many European nations are facing the threat of a significant and growing immigrant population not only resistant to assimilation, but hostile to the values of the cultures they have entered. On one hand are politically correct, even sometimes themselves illiberal social elements ideologically committed to denying the nature of the problem. On the other are predictable xenophobic and racialist forces driven to excessive reaction. The best and surest way to meet the challenge is by upholding liberal values, clearly understood, that in themselves properly contain the illiberal values and practices of unsympathetic immigrant Muslim populations. The National Assembly’s proposal does this. If Sarkozy’s overreach is struck down by French courts, the product of his effort, rather than a discrete effective measure in a broader, successful policy, may be the impression of France’s own illiberalism and an intellectually floundering response.

In opposing illiberalism, liberalism needs to perceive clearly what it, itself, is.