24 February 2016

A constructive rant, continued

Civic realism:  an inspiring alternative

In place of an unbalanced interventionism that I have just criticized, I suggest the United States pursue a restrained yet morally rigorous course of "civic realism."  This realism is best exemplified, I think, by two presidents in our history - one of whom is still living and a continuing source of moral inspiration to me and many other Americans.

The first presidential model for civic realism is John Quincy Adams.  Introduced to international diplomacy at an early age by his father, he eventually became Secretary of State under President Monroe.  It was during this period, in a July 4, 1821 address, that he cautioned that the USA does not "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy."  Freedom and democratic values were best fought for with the persuasive power of a high moral example, he said.  As president from 1825 to 1829, he signed a treaty of reciprocity with Mexico - an important step forward in bringing the American republic into the community of Western Hemisphere nations - and tried to uphold the property rights of the Cherokee nation against white settler demands and the state of Georgia.  (Adams' advocacy for the Cherokee is usually not considered part of his foreign policy, but I think it should be; they were a people with their own government and written language living in mountainous areas of the country who were not, most of them, accorded the rights of US citizens.)

After his presidency, Adams campaigned hard to enforce the existing ban - enacted in 1807 - on the Atlantic slave trade.  He opposed the US declaration of war on Mexico in 1846, warning presciently that it would only result in the increase of slave territory and undermine his nation's reputation for honest dealing and non-aggression in the world.

In a more recent period, President Carter also pursued a foreign policy very much in line with my concept of civic realism.  In a much-criticized decision, in 1977, he negotiated a return of the US-held Canal Zone to Panama (it was something like the Guantanamo Bay of its day, a constant reminder of US arrogance and neocolonial privilege in the heart of Latin America).  The fact that the handover treaties were signed with a military government, under General Torrijos, did not disqualify it from being a moral imperative, in Carter's view.  As he said in his remarks at the signing ceremony, the treaties "mark[ed] the commitment of the United States to the belief that fairness, and not force, should lie at the heart of our dealings with the nations of the world."

Carter waged the Cold War with moral suasion and not the further buildup of arms (as Reagan did) or too-clever-by-half Realpolitik schemes that left whole regions of the world reeling from military violence (as Nixon did).   Aided by his Poland-born national security adviser, he made a point of bringing up the rights of dissidents in the Soviet Union and Soviet-dominated Europe.  In a courageous decision, he ordered a US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; this is something that should be remembered and perhaps revisited in the runup to the 2018 World Cup, scheduled to be held in Russia.

The civic realism I propose is not, therefore, a cynical abdication of the United States' role as a leading democracy, nor is it an invitation for more warfare in the name of "preserving the balance of power."  It is a moral way forward:  we can accept the continued persistence of governments that we find unjust holding sway over millions, indeed hundreds of millions, while remembering our best traditions of free speech and pluralism and re-enacting them whenever it is appropriate.  "Diplomatic gestures" have taken a heavy beating in recent months, but they are not ineffectual.  Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa are not wrong when they speak of the strength and assurance that these gestures bring to people denied freedom and self-determination.

17 February 2016

My discontent with 13th-century foreign policy: a constructive rant


In these times we are constantly told that it is the United States' particular mission to impose a just peace on Syria, North Africa, and Southwest Asia.  Usually, foreign policy experts and presidential advisors couch this mission in secular terms:  we are "the indispensable nation," or only we can save religious minorities under repressive Muslim regimes (the Yazidis, for example) from extinction.

It's my contention that, far from reflecting a mature 'internationalist' worldview, this sort of talk is just a retread of medieval Christian obsessions with crusading.  Beginning around the year 1100, Christian kings and potentates of Europe eagerly embraced invasions of Muslim-majority lands as a way of proving their fitness and religious virtue.  Reading the Christian chronicles of these crusades, it becomes clear how little difference there is between the self-flattering ideology of, say, a Richard Lionheart and the "moral seriousness" that US foreign policy mandarins espouse.  Both have little to no concern with the practical issues of building functioning states under foreign occupation, or ensuring basic law and order after a glorious lightning descent on Saracen / Arab territory.

'Liberal Internationalism':  not a new ideology

Recently I read Jean de Joinville's Life of Saint Louis.  Written by a crusading knight and servant in King Louis IX's (r. 1226-1270) household, the Life brims with religious fervor and tries valiantly to find the hand of God in everything that happened to the author and the army he followed.  Joinville is careful to tell us that not all Saracens (Arabs) are evil.  Indeed, in what is surely a very early example of the "good Westernized leader" trope which has brought us such luminaries as Ahmed Chalabi, he singles out a prince named 'Scecedin,' knighted by the German emperor Frederick II, for praise as a chivalrous and trustworthy negotiating partner.  (For John McCain, finding a Scecedin among the Syrian rebels is the clear solution that our president is too feckless to seek.)

What actually happened in these campaigns was, more or less, as follows:  Louis IX's invasion of Egypt ended disastrously, with the majority of his invading army eliminated by dysentery, starvation, or desperate conversions to IslamAfter being expelled from Egypt, he held out in the walled Lebanese port of Acre for four years.  He died in 1270 on another hapless crusade in Tunisia.  Help from the Mongol khanate in Persia, which the Christian world grew increasingly convinced would save their cause, never materialized to an effective degree.

Despite these misadventures, Louis was lauded by Joinville as the holiest king ever to walk the earth and was canonized by the papacy in 1297.  I cannot avoid thinking of Dick Cheney and the unchallenged deference he still appears to enjoy among neoconservatives today.  However, it's not just neocons on the right that get this treatment.

In the last twenty-five years or so, a school of diplomacy and foreign policy has emerged, often lazily called "liberal internationalism," that advocates for military intervention frequently and passionately.  Their arguments are generally much the same as those Joinville and his ilk proclaimed, but for "God" and "the cause of Christ," they substitute "justice" and "the cause of human rights."  The ends still justify the means in this new school of thought:  it matters little to its exponents how many civilians are killed and made homeless, how much vital state infrastructure is obliterated in the showers of holy bombs they call for, so long as evildoers (sorry, "bad actors") are removed from power in the countries they most care about.

That these wished-for interventions almost always involve military action against majority-Muslim states is in no way related to some religious bias, the internationalists argue - oh no!  It just so happens that humanity is most abjectly suffering in Libya, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen, and "morality" demands that we do something there first.  Maybe in a few decades, when this noble humanitarian project can be declared finished, something should be done about Burma, or Congo, or endemic gang violence in Honduras.  (Latin America has always been a curious blind spot for this crowd.)

Samantha Power, President Obama's onetime foreign policy advisor, is certainly a major figure in this school, and the accolades heaped upon her are eye-catching.  New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier  called Power “one of the keepers of idealism in America,” who “remains almost giddily unreconstructed in her imagination of justice.”  Today's Grail-seekers, it turns out, are just ordinary Americans with colorful pasts and Harvard degrees who have seen the light of global justice and will forego sleep and homely comforts on the pilgrim way to end genocide forever.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was none too impressed by these fervent internationalists when they proposed US military punishment and reconstruction of Libya in 2011.  Recalling the debates within the Obama administration, he said:
It was several White House staffers. They were Ben Rhodes and Samantha and, I might add, Susan Rice—particularly strong advocates of getting involved in a U.S. military engagement. And I don’t know whether these folks have a guilt complex over the Clinton Administration’s having botched Rwanda, where the U.S. did nothing, or what, but they are very much driven ... It becomes detached from U.S. national interests. So I was totally opposed.

"Liberal internationalists" play a rhetorical game that they always lose, or more accurately, that the Ted Cruzes of the world always win.  Their hardline neoconservative colleagues will inevitably press for their wishy-washy interventions to be made "tougher."  No-fly zones and three-times-weekly surgical strikes give way, under the pressure of the neocon propaganda machine and the greed of the military-industrial complex, to daily carpet bombing and finally ground troops.  And why not?  If the ends really do justify the means, there is no good reason to stop at whatever level of military force most New York Times readers find palatable.

Stay tuned for the continuation...

12 February 2016

For one of the best articles on the Bernie phenomenon, and why those children are so crazy about him, turn to Jim Newell's recent piece.  (It's 3 internet pages long!)

The last paragraph is worth quoting in full:

Sanders’ proposed solution is a long shot, and it is not without its arguable premises. But the fact that he’s the one who’s most up-front about its difficulty is what gives his supporters the impression that his campaign is one worth joining. What Sanders knows, though, is that his own election or defeat in this primary cycle is a minor part in the movement he’s trying to create that needs to last for years and not just to spike during election seasons. That means insisting that people continue to think of big changes in their politics, not small ones—even if they’ve been burned before.
One criticism:  that 2.7% unemployment rate in North Dakota you highlighted is not going to stay so amazing for long

Still, I'm glad there's one journalist out there listening to the actual words that come out of Bernie's mouth and not describing his campaign from vague memories of anarcho-syndicalist tracts read in college.

03 February 2016

In his Iowa caucus night speech, Bernie Sanders ironically saluted the Washington Post as one of his chief media critics.

Today on washingtonpost.com, we have learned that:

1.  The Zika virus "could inject fear back into sex." 

2.  A random black dude from the SEAHAWKS is a "Broncos safety sent home after prostitution sting near Super Bowl site."

3.  John Kerry is a pussy because he won't immediately send American soldiers into Syria to "force compliance" from the Assad regime on being good to its people.

4.  And of course, Sanders is "authentically wrong" and basically a lefty Ted Cruz because he talks about corporate corruption.