Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The New Obama Paradox

Monday, October 26th, 2009

I’d like to endorse this Anna Quindlen column in Newsweek, subheaded:

Barack Obama campaigned as a populist firebrand but governs like a cerebral consensus builder. The founding fathers wouldn’t have it any other way.

Quindlen captures something one of the essential paradoxes of America with this well-constructed line:

This is a country that often has transformational ambitions but is saddled with an incremental system, a nation built on revolution, then engineered so the revolutionary can rarely take hold.

Aside from indulging in a bit of that rather annoying habit of re-writing of the “Yes, We Can” slogan that every pundit seems to try (“Yes, we can, but it will take a while.”), Quindlen does a good job of giving the larger historical perspective on Obama’s rather young presidency. She points out that even the grand gestures we remember today as changing history were in fact incremental and the result of compromises derided at the time – from Emancipation Proclamation which was designed to have no practical effect to the gradual accretion of rights by African Americans as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. She could have also mentioned that Social Security legislation when originally passed excluded half of the population, including all women and virtually all minority groups from its benefits.

Quindlen points to a single factor though unifying all these great presidents and their historic accomplishments:

[T]he presidents who have made real change have always done so in the same way: “Each of them had the country pushing the Congress to act, the people and the press both. The pressure has to come from outside.” So if the American people want the president to be more like the Barack Obama they elected, maybe they should start acting more like the voters who elected him, who forcibly and undeniably moved the political establishment to where it didn’t want to go.

I’ve believed that – and been writing that – since Obama took office, quoting FDR who told a number of audiences who came to ask him to pay attention to their issue (and here I paraphrase):

I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.

In the past year, I’ve been disappointed with the way in which the excitement of the campaign has fallen away, replaced most often by cynicism. The fact is, cynicism breeds results which create reason for more cynicism. The election of Barack Obama proved that hope that things could get better could motivate as many people as fear that they would be killed by terrorists or that we would look weak; and the cynicism and inertia that seemed a permanent part of America under Clinton and Bush could be overcome. It proved that a grassroots organization for a moderate, liberal agenda was possible and that it had the support of a majority of Americans. Now, Obama needs such an organization to push him, to push Congress, and to push the country. The question now is the same one that faced Obama back in the early days of the primary, the one which I called “the Obama paradox”  as he attempted to “conjure the movement, the politics, and the consensus we need to tackle the long-term problems and strategic challenges we face as a nation.” The paradox was that in order for people to buy into the movement, it needed to be successful; and that in order for it to be successful, people needed to buy into it. He faces a similar issue now, though different in a number of significant ways.

I don’t know what the next step is to getting this movement back – but without it, Obama cannot tackle many of the serious, long-term issues facing our nation: from the failure of the War on Drugs to creating a sustainable framework for addressing the threat of terrorism from our long-term fiscal outlook to the deterioration of liberties in America; from health care reform to climate change; from tax and entitlement reform to education reform; from financial regulation to job creation. Failing to address any of these issues undermines America’s position in the world; and in many cases, without American leadership on them (or federal leadership on domestic issues), they cannot be solved. Without a movement pushing Obama, pushing Congress, pushing the press, pushing every community, Obama simply does not have the political capital to take these issues on – which is why there needs to be a movement.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Reevaluating George W. Bush’s Legacy

Monday, September 21st, 2009

I think Ross Douthat gets something rather right in his column today – though I can’t quite endorse his thesis wholeheartedly. One glaring omission from Douthat’s analysis of the Bush presidency is the overall War on Terror – and especially the extraordinary legal measures Bush took in the aftermath of September 11, from instituting a policy of torture to various executive power grabs to the twin wars in the Middle East.

But what Douthat gets right is that Bush’s presidency was truly radical and ideological in the first term and caused significant damage to America’s power, both its base at home and in its influence abroad. And then, Bush spent most of his last term moderating these excesses and trying to undo the damage he had caused. In Douthat’s words:

America has had its share of disastrous chief executives. But few have gone as far as Bush did in trying to repair their worst mistakes. Those mistakes were the Iraq war — both the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation — and the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble. The repairs were the surge, undertaken at a time when the political class was ready to abandon Iraq to the furies, and last fall’s unprecedented economic bailout.

Both fixes remain controversial. But for the moment, both look like the sort of disaster-averting interventions for which presidents get canonized. It’s just that in Bush’s case, the disasters he averted were created on his watch.

This capacity to turn around and change (always while avoiding manning up and taking the blame) is one of the core components of Bush’s presidency. But one must also look to the damage Bush did to our civil institutions in the name of the War on Terror; one must look to the effects of avoiding taking any serious action on climate change; one must look at the fiscal shape he left America in heading into a time when we needed greater government spending.

I once wrote a post defending George W. Bush’s legacy – arguing that he had been just bad enough to exacerbate our longstanding problems without escalating them beyond the point of no return – and that he had created a unique moment where the next president who I believed would be Obama would be able to take advantage of the situation. But given the the financial crisis and the continuing domestic polarization over War on Terror policies, I’m not sure how true this still is.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Dana Perino’s Misleading Spin Regarding Matt Latimer

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

That’s how the media world works, unfortunately. But since I was there, I will try to do my part to stamp out myths before they gain traction.

Yesterday, I came across (from multiple sources) a piece in the new edition of GQ by a former Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer – a kind of tell-all purporting to reveal what Bush really thought at the end of his term. (Beware: GQ has designed this piece to maximize page views, so it’s a pain to read, though overall worth it.)

The piece was interesting enough, though one could feel the editing of someone intent of keeping the material fresh and with the intent of enhancing the reputation of the author, so I wouldn’t classify it as inherently trustworthy. Latimer portrayed Bush as an almost comic figure – one who believed he had remade conservatism, who derided the “conservative movement,” who had excellent political instincts, who was willing to buck the crowd, and who governed and authorized statutes he had not quite understood. Overall, Latimer’s portrait represents a positive reappraisal of George W. Bush as a flawed but complex figure.

Dana Perino though will have none of it – and responds to the post with an extremely misleading post at NRO’s The Corner. For example, she makes a big deal of this as undermining Latimer’s account:

And I don’t think [Bush has] ever even said the word ‘keister.’ C’mon.

Yet the passage she’s referring is this one:

‘Wait till her fat keister is sitting at this desk,’ he once said (except he didn’t say ‘keister’).

She also writes:

For example, [Latimer] writes that President Bush didn’t know who Sarah Palin was.”

But in Latimer’s tale, he doesn’t claim this. Rather, he quotes President Bush as joking around after the announcement:

“I’m trying to remember if I’ve met her before. I’m sure I must have.” His eyes twinkled, then he asked, “What is she, the governor of Guam?”

I’m no defender of Matt Latimer – but also not a fan of dishonest spin.

Edit: I’ve emailed Ms. Perino as the obviousness of her misleading statements seems a bit too much to see if she is considering retracting them or has any other response.

Updated: Peter Robinson, also at The Corner also points out the two specific inaccuracies I mentioned. Perino them responded with a quasi-apology and seems to admit that she hadn’t actually read the piece. Her lack of knowledge though that did not stop her from smearing Latimer. But no surprise, she somehow ends up blaming the media coverage, though I would hope any old flack – let alone someone with her soapbox – would take the time to read something before attacking it in print.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Must-Reads of the Week: Krugman v. Ferguson, Ted Kennedy again, Hank Paulson, Sedaris, and Phreaking

Friday, September 4th, 2009

This week there are quite a few good pieces to take a look at over the long weekend – in between games of beer pong, or BBQs…

Krugman v. Ferguson. Matthew Lynn in the Times of London wrote a feature on the “war” over the response to the economic crisis going on between the American Princeton Professor, New York Times columnist, Nobel-prize winner, and noted liberal Paul Krugman and British Harvard Professor, Financial Times columnist, and noted conservative Niall Ferguson. I had been following it closely already, but this article had a number of more details and conveyed the story arc well. Meanwhile, Krugman released another attack on Ferguson – indirectly though – in which he laid out his vision (as a kind of short intellectual history of economics in the 20th and 21st centuries) of what happened in the most recent crisis, why so many economists got it wrong, and why we’re taking the right steps now:

As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth. Until the Great Depression, most economists clung to a vision of capitalism as a perfect or nearly perfect system. That vision wasn’t sustainable in the face of mass unemployment, but as memories of the Depression faded, economists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations. The renewed romance with the idealized market was, to be sure, partly a response to shifting political winds, partly a response to financial incentives. But while sabbaticals at the Hoover Institution and job opportunities on Wall Street are nothing to sneeze at, the central cause of the profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.

The article is missing Krugman’s usual zingers and partisan swipes – and is really quite good. It also reminds you that Ferguson is an historian – not an economist.

Ted Kennedy, leaky vessel. Sam Tanenhaus writes about Senator Ted Kennedy as a kind of magnificent character, capturing him and the movement he led better than most others:

But if the art of governance did not redeem Mr. Kennedy, it irradiated him, and the liberalism he personified. At a time when government itself had fallen into disrepute Mr. Kennedy applied himself diligently to its exacting discipline, and wrested whatever small victories he could from the machinery he had learned to operate so well. Whether or not his compass was finally true, he endured as the battered, leaky vessel through which the legislative arts recovered some of their lost glory.

Hank Paulson. Todd Purdhum of Vanity Fair finally writes his piece about his many conversations with Hank Paulson before and during the financial crisis – a piece notable for the fact that Paulson seemed exceptionally forthcoming as he knew the piece wouldn’t come out until well after he had left public office.

The Wisdom of David Sedaris. A nice story from last week’s New Yorker:

[S]he invited us to picture a four-burner stove.

“Gas or electric?” Hugh asked, and she said that it didn’t matter.

This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

Pat has her own business, a good one that’s allowing her to retire at fifty-five. She owns three houses, and two cars, but, even without the stuff, she seems like a genuinely happy person. And that alone constitutes success.

I asked which two burners she had cut off, and she said that the first to go had been family. After that, she switched off her health. “How about you?”

I thought for a moment, and said that I’d cut off my friends. “It’s nothing to be proud of, but after meeting Hugh I quit making an effort.”

“And what else?” she asked.

“Health, I guess.”

Hugh’s answer was work.

“And?”

“Just work,” he said.

Phone Phreak. David Kushner in Rolling Stone features the story of a poor, fat, lonely, blind boy who finds a way to be happy as a phone phreaker (a kind of hacker on telephone lines.) The boy – Matthew Weigman – submerges himself in the culture, and due to his unique skillset is able to become an almost cartoon villain, without the manic desire to take over the world. Instead, he unleashes SWAT teams on girls who refuse to have phone sex with him, as he fakes calls from inside their house pretending he is holding them hostage; or ferrets out all the names and biographies of the team tracking him down, which he jovially explains to an FBI agent who comes to recruit him.

Defending the Use of Reconciliation on Health Care

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

A meme among left wing bloggers in recent days (spawned no doubt on JournoList) has been variations on a particular defense of the use of the reconciliation process to achieve health care reform. Here’s Ezra Klein for example (though Matt Yglesias made an almost identical point):

Reconciliation began as a limited way to expedite passage of the budget bill that came at the end of each year. It did this by limiting debate and short-circuiting the filibuster. But year by year, administration by administration, it’s becoming more significant. It was used to pass much of Reagan’s economic agenda. Clinton expanded it to balance the budget, reform welfare and change the tax code. George W. Bush used it for tax cuts, trade authority and drilling in ANWR.

I wasn’t aware of this history when I wrote this earlier post suggesting it wasn’t the best option. But I think the political analysis still stands. Unless there is some hook that makes a certain set of facts stick, it will do nothing to derail the impression that most Americans barely attention get that health care reform was only able to get through a Cognress with a strong Democratic majority by trickery. This is a bad thing – though not worse than no bill at all in my opinion. I suggested:

A show of force whereby Obama pushes the Democrats to forthrightly endorse a bill would be – and play – much better in my opinion. Shenanigans – while legal – can be forgotten in time if the legislation proves popular; but a show of force would be more effective on almost every other level.

Of course, Obama would need to find some leverage to push people like Senator Ben Nelson – and it’s unclear at the moment what that would be. The best rationale though for pushing the reconciliation process is that it will make such a process unnecessary – as Ezra Klein explains:

If Republicans can kill the bill, that’s their first-best outcome. But if they can’t kill the bill, the second-best outcome, at least for some of them, may be to deal on it. If there’s going to be legislation, Snowe and Collins and Voinovich and a few others might want to see their priorities included rather than simply content themselves with a protest vote against the legislation. Reconciliation might actually get you to 60, because it ensures the endgame includes a bill rather than a failure.

[Image by Greg from Cobb Mountain licensed under Creative Commons.]

Ted Kennedy: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die…”

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Last night, Senator Ted Kennedy died.

His brothers had come to symbolize the height of the liberal era of the 1960s – the hope and promise of a forward-looking America, the almost-mythical consensus and unity that existed in the early 1960s and the most promising side of the radicalism that came later in that decade. Both were gunned down – promise unfulfilled.

But Ted Kennedy lived on – and came into his own – as a stalwart liberal voice against a growing right wing tide. He was seen as uncompromising, but he was already ready to deal with the opposition; he was a master of the Senate, its second longest serving member; he was passionate in his causes; but most importantly, he was a liberal. He remained a proud liberal all of his life, a public liberal; he continued to speak about the poor and the oppressed even after it was no longer fashionable; he preached about a moral society.

His most prominent years were as a voice of opposition – but last year, he seemed to finally inaugurate the coming progressive era, the swinging of the pendulum back that has long been a characteristic of American history. His pivotal endorsement of Barack Obama was one of the campaign’s turning points – and his conveyance of the mantle of the Kennedys onto Obama fraught with symbolic meaning. It was said by many older liberals that Barack Obama’s 2008 run was in a sense the completion of Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign – as Obama finally inaugurated a pragmatically progressive era that Bobby Kennedy had been working towards, that Ted Kennedy had been working towards – and that finally, Obama had the courage and the vision and the luck to call forth.

When Teddy Kennedy ran for the presidency against the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, he ran as an unabashed liberal in a long, drawn-out campaign. He finally conceded and endorsed Carter with this tribute to the American people and to liberalism itself, which could as easily serve as his own eulogy:

And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:

“I am a part of all that I have met….
Tho much is taken, much abides….
That which we are, we are–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
…strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

[First image by jonathanpberger licensed under Creative Commons; second image not subject to copyright.]

McNamara, Cuomo, Bearing Witness, Iran’s Bomb, Sri Lanken Victories, and Historical Dignity

Friday, July 10th, 2009

It’s that glorious time of the week – Friday. So, here’s my recommendations of some interesting reads for this weekend that came up this past week…

  1. There were a number of excellent obituaries of Robert McNamara published upon his death. But what I would recommend would be reading this speech given in 1966 at the height of his power.
  2. Another speech worth reading is Mario Cuomo’s “Our Lady of the Law” speech from November 2007 which was published for the first time on this blog earlier in the week.
  3. Roger Cohen in the New York Times tries to express the insufficiency of online reporting aggregating news and media – as Andrew Sullivan and Nico Pitney did so usefully did during the Iranian protests. As these two journalists amassed tweets, photos, videos, news stories and every other bit of information about what was going on in Iran, Roger Cohen himself was in Tehran having evaded the Iranian censors. He went to the protests, interviewed the protesters, ran from basij with them. What I could see then was that while what Sullivan and Pitney were doing was new and unique – and extremely useful for understanding what was happening, it was missing a certain urgency that Cohen was able to provide with his bylines from Tehran. So he writes here about the “actual responsibility” of the journalist – to “bear witness:

    “Not everyone realizes,” Weber told students, “that to write a really good piece of journalism is at least as demanding intellectually as the achievement of any scholar. This is particularly true when we recollect that it has to be written on the spot, to order, and that it must create an immediate effect, even though it is produced under completely different conditions from that of scholarly research. It is generally overlooked that a journalist’s actual responsibility is far greater than the scholar’s.”

    Yes, journalism is a matter of gravity. It’s more fashionable to denigrate than praise the media these days. In the 24/7 howl of partisan pontification, and the scarcely less-constant death knell din surrounding the press, a basic truth gets lost: that to be a journalist is to bear witness.

    The rest is no more than ornamentation.

    To bear witness means being there — and that’s not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.
    No news aggregator tells of the ravaged city exhaling in the dusk, nor summons the defiant cries that rise into the night. No miracle of technology renders the lip-drying taste of fear. No algorithm captures the hush of dignity, nor evokes the adrenalin rush of courage coalescing, nor traces the fresh raw line of a welt.

  4. Robert Patterson in Foreign Policy brings some measured historical analysis to what would happen if Iran got the bomb.
  5. Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic explains how the Sri Lankan government was able to achieve a monumental victory over a terrorist group – and also why America should not imitate its methods in any way. He concludes bleakly:

    So is there any lesson here? Only a chilling one. The ruthlessness and brutality to which the Sri Lankan government was reduced in order to defeat the Tigers points up just how nasty and intractable the problem of insurgency is. The Sri Lankan government made no progress against the insurgents for nearly a quarter century, until they turned to extreme and unsavory methods.

  6. David Brooks wrote about dignity:

    In so doing, [George Washington] turned himself into a new kind of hero. He wasn’t primarily a military hero or a political hero. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”

Henry Kissinger on Obama

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

The German weekly Der Spiegel ran an interesting interview with Henry Kissinger about the Treaty of Versailles and Barack Obama’s foreign policy. There are those who simply condemn Kissinger as a war criminal and choose to ignore his opinions – but by most accounts, his tenure as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under Presidents Nixon and Ford were a virtuouso performance as he exercised American power at a time when many saw it being diminished. I do not seek to defend Kissinger’s green-lighting of the Chilean coup or his sabatoging of the Paris peace talks with Vietnam to ensure Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. This last act was certainly treason – and his role in Chile led to the reign of the convicted war criminal, Augosto Pinochet and the removal of the elected leader of that country.

But existing alongside these amoral acts – and underlying these acts – are an understanding of power – as it is, rather than as it should be. Kissinger saw – with Nixon – that by persuading China to seperate itself from the Soviet Union’s world order, he would strengthen America’s hand significantly – and help end the stalemate that the Cold War had become. With Richard Nixon succumbing to alcoholism late in his term, it was Kissinger who single-handedly ran America’s foreign policy – managing crises and coups d’etat throughout the world.

Unsurprisingly to some (Stephen Walt had already described Obama’s foreign policy as “Kissingerian“), Kissinger seemed to have a more substantial understanding of Obama’s foreign policy approach:

Obama is like a chess player who is playing simultaneous chess and has opened his game with an unusual opening. Now he’s got to play his hand as he plays his various counterparts. We haven’t gotten beyond the opening game move yet. I have no quarrel with the opening move.

Unlike Ahmadinejad’s useful idiots from McCain to “Smart” Girls to Ajami, Kissinger credits Obama for having a strategy, while witholding judgment about its effectiveness.

Kissinger offers a revealing criticism of Wilson’s Fourteen Points and America’s role in the Treaty of Versailles – which also rather neatly contradicts the Bush doctrine:

The American view was that peace is the normal condition among states. To ensure lasting peace, an international system must be organized on the basis of domestic institutions everywhere, which reflect the will of the people, and that will of the people is considered always to be against war. Unfortunately, there is no historic evidence that this is true.

And of course Kissinger also came out with this quotable line:

I believe more suffering has been caused by prophets than by statesmen.

[Image by DarthDowney licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Obama Doctrine

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

America has – since its inception – been a major influence on the world order, from the explosive idea of American democracy that reverbrated through Europe in the 18th century – to Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points and FDR’s dismantling of the colonial empires and George W. Bush’s calls for elections to drain the swamps of tyranny. Since the 20th century, American presidents have been judged in a large part by how they affected the world order. Which is why today it is worth speculating what impact Barack Obama’s young presidency will have – and what vision of a world order Obama has already sought to articulate. I predict – and propose – that Obama’s vision will be of a world order grounded in the proposal that each nation must obtain the free consent of it’s people to govern. This idea is an interesting variation on the themes of American presidents since Woodrow Wilson, and indeed since America’s founding.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, American presidents have had an outsize role on the world stage, especially in shaping the world order by laying out standards for the moral legitimacy of nations. The world order at the turn of the 19th century would be turned on it’s head by American interventions. At that point, colonialism was accepted; the right of a people to govern themselves was not; and most rules related to international warfare – from standards for treating prisoners to a respect for the sovreignty of nations (or at least European ones). But this system broke down and conflagration that followed was only ended with timely American intervention. Woodrow Wilson used this intervention as leverage to explain how the world order should change – and his vision of a world at peace captured a weary Europe. At the core of Wilson’s Fourteen Points was an amendment to the world order, as Wilson saw peace as contingent on granting peoples’ their right of self-determination:

We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve.

Wilson believed this goal – of democracy and therefore, peace – was best accomplished and maintained through treaties and a League of Nations. Of course, we all know that Wilson’s vision collapsed as he lay debilitated by a stroke and the Senate refused to ratify the treaty he had fought for. The next three presidents had a less expansive view of the American role in the world – and mainly ignored foreign policy matters.

Franklin Roosevelt focused on domestic matters as well as he sought to end the Great Depression at home. But as he positioned the country to enter World War II he framed the conflict as one of democracy against tyranny. And FDR saw the colonialism of Europe as another form of tyranny. Thus, as he, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin decided on the outline of a post-war world, FDR was able to secure the independence of many countries throughout the world from their colonial masters in Europe. At the same time, he bargained away Eastern Europe to the tyranny of Communism, convinced that the Soviet Union would take it anyway. FDR thus set in motion a new world order in which colonialism was no longer tolerated, but Communism was.1

This set up the Cold War as a battle of two competing attempts at changing the world order. Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK were less concerned about shaping the order of things than they were in securing advantages against the Soviet Union. What mattered more than how a regime acted or how it was legitmized was whose side it was on.  So, while all spoke highly of democracy – they were willing to accept all allies in their struggle against the Soviet Union – democratic or not. And they were willing to overthrow democratically elected governments if it fit their interests. Later, Richard Nixon, as a proponent of real politik, did not believe in the attempts to shape the world order with moral commandments, and thus he did not attempt to do so. But his significant contribution was to recruit China into the American-led world order (or at least ensure that it was not opposed to it) – thus paving the way for its gradual acclimation to the American-led order over the next decades.

When Jimmy Carter came into the White House, he attempted to redefine again what the world order saw as a legitimate government. Rather than focusing on the struggle against the Soviet Union, he attempted to set universal standards by which to judge both the American-led order and the Soviet order. He described this universal standard as “human rights”:

Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clearcut preference for these societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights. We do not seek to intimidate, but it is clear that a world which others can dominate with impunity would be inhospitable to decency and a threat to the well-being of all people.

With his  focus on human rights, Carter and more hawkish liberals such as Scoop Jackson attempted to point out the grave flaws of the Soviet system. This focus also explains why Carter championed the rights of Palestinians and pushed the Shah of Iran to allow greater freedoms to his citizens to protest his regime, leading in 1979 to his downfall.

Ronald Reagan used this foundation to call the Soviet Union the “evil empire” – though he abandoned the self-criticism that came with setting a universal standard. However, Reagan soon began to see the Soviet Union and the leaders he met with as more than the caricatures of evil he had railed against – and he sought to negotiate, to the consternation of many of his staff. Reagan believed that Communism was contrary to human nature – and that traditional forces – greed, laziness, religion – would be its downfall. Reagan’s genius was to combine in clear, forceful terms the human rights approach of Carter with the anti-tyranny framework of FDR – and to push the world to reject the Soviet world order as “evil.” Perhaps more importantly, he benefited from America’s dynamic economy and the Soviet Union’s dependence on oil revenues which, in sinking, sank the USSR.

George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton – despite all the talk of a “New World Order” as the Soviet Union fell – only sought to enforce through diplomacy, sanctions, and when necessary military action, the previous conceptions of the world order. Bush condemned the crackdown at Tianamen on Carter-like human rights grounds and pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait as he violated the primary rule of the world order for the past century: do not invade another country. Bush and Clinton did begin to expand free trade as a component of the world order – and Clinton sought to create a consensus around amending the world order – creating delegitimizing exceptions beyond invading sovereign nations and the maltreatment of prisoners for terrorism, genocide, the development of weapons of mass destruction, and drug trafficking.

With September 11, though, George W. Bush felt compelled to shake up the world order – and instead of seeking mere amendments, he sought to change the basic ground upon which a regime was legitimized, recalling Woodrow Wilson’s demand and justification for self-determination.  As Bush declared in his second inaugural:

We have seen our vulnerability and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder, violence will gather and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.

But while Wilson had sought to use the leverage America had in the aftermath of the War to End All Wars, and FDR sought to use the leverage America in the aftermath of World War II, Bush seemed to believe the sheer rhetorical power of his words were enough. As Gregory Scoblete described it:

President Bush did speak out boldly against North Korea and Iran. And both made considerable gains in their nuclear capabilities. From Egypt to Georgia, President Bush … wrote rhetorical checks he had no intention (or ability) to cash.

George W. Bush had radically declared that no nation was legitimate if it was not a democracy – and he declared that it was a vital national security interest for America to ensure that other nations were in fact democracies. This – if applied – would overturn the entire world order. Under this Bush Doctrine, America would become a revolutionary state exporting our values via force, invading for ideology, and fomenting revolution. It would mean that many of our allies were illegitimate governments. But these powerful words were undercut by apparent hypocrisy – as Bush, after insisting on elections, rejected those whose results came out contrary to his wishes – from Hamas in Palestine to Chavez in Venezuala At the same time, Bush was open to charges of hypocrisy as he had supported a coup against the democratically-elected Hugo Chavez – and as he rejected the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories. This freedom he sought to export to the world was also threatening to many – as majority-Muslim nations and their sharia law were seen to conflict with the Western model of freedom.

But the opportunity Bush left Obama was a significant one – by not being Bush, and by being a black man who had captured the imagination of America and much of the world, and most importantly, by coming into office after America’s radical actions had severely undermined the world order, Obama begins his presidency with a greater opportunity to re-shape the world order than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It remains to be seen what Obama will do with this opportunity – and if he will pursue the agenda that some in his campaign, including Samantha Power, believe is necessary – reinventing the international institutions maintaining the world order. So far, what Barack Obama has seemed to suggest is an amendment to Bush’s radical notion of democratic revolutions in his Cairo speech, as he referred not to “democracy” but to “consent”:

So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere…

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

America has re-defined its moral goals for the world over the past century: from self-determination, to freedom from tyranny, to freedom from Communism, to human rights, to the free market, to democracy, and now, with Obama, the consent of the governed.

  1. Mainly because he had no choice but to accept the powerful Soviet Union’s right to exist and have a sphere of influence. []

A Generational Bargain (in which we are getting screwed)

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

Back when California’s looming bankruptcy was in the news, George Will wrote:

California’s perennial boast — that it is the incubator of America’s future — now has an increasingly dark urgency…California has become liberalism’s laboratory, in which the case for fiscal conservatism is being confirmed.

Will may be right about fiscal conservatism – but he’s wrong in laying the blame for California’s problems on liberalism. The fault in California, like the fault in America, is deeper – a refusal by the Baby Boom generation to make tough choices to create a sustainable world, economy, or government. Bill Maher summarized California’s trap best:

We govern by ballot initiative – and we only write two kinds of those: spend money on things I like and don’t raise my taxes.

California’s initiative system aggravated a tendency that has been dominant in American politics for some time now. The problem with California – and America – is a combination of two factors:

  1. a kind of accidental unholy alliance between liberals who push for more government spending to alleviate poverty and better the nation and conservatives who want to cut taxes – with neither group having the power or political will to be fiscally responsible at the same time as they push for their pet projects1
  2. the deliberate plan of the right-wingers who want to “starve the beast” – by which they mean encouraging the irresponsible system above of  increasing spending while cutting taxes (and these right-wingers do this knowing that the system is unsustainable and will crash, which is the only way they see to get rid of popular programs.)

This is a story of the cowardice of politicians and the idiocy of people.

This idiocy – in almost all of its forms – can be traced to the ascent of the Baby Boom generation as they took power with the Reagan administration. By increasing spending exponentially while cutting taxes – creating enormous deficits – Reagan supercharged (stimulated) the economy out of the stagflation of the 1970s. At the same time, he began the American government’s practice of becoming dependent on East Asia – relying on Japan to lend vast amounts of its money as our trade deficit with them grew. Reagan also began the trend of deregulation of industries – allowing them to take greater risks and reap greater profits if they succeeded – which also allowed companies to kick off a merger boom, leading more and more companies becoming too big to fail while they were regulated less and less. All of these steps led to an economy focused more on finance than industry – leading, along with factors due to globalization, to America’s industrial decline. The dominance of the financial sector in the economy, which is well known for its boom and bust cycle, led to a series of economic bubbles – and in fact, an economy in which growth was maintained through bubbles rather than real worth.

Beginning with Reagan, president after president stimulated the economy constantly – to avoid having to take the fall. But this system was unsustainable. As the Baby Boomers “surfed on a growing wave of debt” – both public and private – they sought to use debt to meet their rising expectations in the absence of creating real value. This was the generational bargain at the heart of the Reagan presidency – a bargain that allowed America to spend the Soviet Union into the ground and jumpstart the economy from the stagflation of the 1970s – but that, unchecked, thirty years later, now threatens our future.

The Baby Boomers pissed away the prosperity their parents bequeathed them and squandered the opportunities presented to them – and now are busy using their children’s future earnings (our future earnings) to buy their way out of the mess they have created. They avoided the challenges of their times and found people to blame. They focused on OJ Simpson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Monica Lewinsky – on abortion, Vietnam, gays, and religion – and not on global warming, on campaign finance, on the corruption of our political process, on an overleveraged economy.

After decades of avoiding systematic problems – as the solutions became embroiled in the ongoing culture war – we now must face them. With two wars in the Mid-East, a failing world economy, a growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, and whatever else may come our way, procrastination is impossible. Now it’s time for us to try to salvage this wreck. It remains to be seen if we’re up to it.

David Brooks explained this grave situation facing Obama and the difficult tasks ahead (focusing especially on the growing deficit). Brooks concludes with reasons for hope and despair:

The members of the Obama administration fully understand this and are brimming with good ideas about how to move from a bubble economy to an investment economy. Finding a political strategy to accomplish this, however, is proving to be very difficult. And getting Congress to move in this direction might be impossible.

Your cards do not improve if you complain about the hand you have been dealt. But it is essential to understand how we got here. We also must not be complacent now that a leader who we admire has been given power. Individuals are empowered to a greater extent than ever before in history – for good or ill. Which is why it is never enough to get the right man or woman into public office – even if this is a useful initial step. What we must do – as individuals – is to see the world around us clearly and take steps to effect what changes we can, to live the values we hold in our hearts, to reach out to those affected by our actions.

[Image by orangejack licensed under Creative Commons.]

  1. This is a bit unfair on the national level – as George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton – with opposition Congresses checking them – proved to be exceedingly responsible, putting America on a sustainable course after the tax-cutting, free-spending Ronald Reagan and before the tax-cutting, free-spending George W. Bush. []