Presidents routinely close their public pronouncements with the words, "may God bless America." It always bothers me. It's not only that this formalistic invocation has the character of the thoughtless "have an nice day" wish, but that I'm uncomfortable with politician as pastor. It's been more than 35 years since I left the active rabbinate, but these days with so many people proclaiming a direct line to the Almighty, I increasingly find myself thinking about the God question. In the post Cold War era, it isn't differing political ideology that's raising the most global unrest but who possesses the "true" faith. Early on George Bush used the Crusade word evoking substantial concern in the Muslim community. He took it back but, deep down I suspect he probably meant exactly what he said.
Have you noticed how many professed Monotheists are claiming to be carrying out God's will in the pursuit of clearly incompatible goals. George Bush is following God as he sends our troops out to do battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. Osama Bin Laden is doing God's will as he dispatches young men out to destroy. Ultra Orthodox Jews are following God's instructions as they settle the West Bank while Palestinian terrorists act as God's agents in blowing themselves and others up opposing it. All these divergent acts done with absolute certainty not merely in their individual faith, but in God's complicity. How can that be? You don't have to be a theologian to see the problem. Either there is, or is not, one God. If so, a singular God can't possibly hold such diametrically contradictory views.
I don't think it an overstatement to say that we are currently engaged in what extremists on all sides see as a religious war. So Crusade is not that far off in what is increasingly looking like Medieval conflict with 21st Century weaponry. We are all threatened by it, millions are dying or suffering. But in some sense, if you are a believer, God is paying the highest price. God is being torn asunder, blatantly used by professed devotees for their own purposes. I continue to be a believer. I have no crisis in faith, but am having a substantial crisis with the faithful. If a belief in God transforms itself into hatred of anyone who is different, of killing not healing then I think we're backing down the steepest of all hills at the very moment when we should be climbing to new heights of understanding. I believe in God, but only in one who doesn't chose sides in this way, and certainly doesn't permit mere mortals to speak for, rather than of, the Divine.
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
On whose side is God?
Monday, April 21, 2003
The Howard Baker Question
The Bush Administration took America to war first and foremost to eliminate what was described as the immanent threat of weapons of mass destruction. General Powell pleaded that case at the Security Council. Yes Saddam was a brutal dictator, but regime change was predicated not on the character of his administration but on its threat to the world. So now the active war appears to be over. No WMD's were ever used as the Administration said they might be, and up to now none have been found. Mr. Rumsfeld says he's not surprised despite the fact that his colleague at State had categorically told the world community that they were most certainly present. The UN inspectors were less sure, perhaps more right.
So my question now echoes that of Howard Baker at the Watergate hearings, "what did they really know, and when did they know it?" Before the war, skeptics around the world, not to mention around the country, suggested that this war had more to do with oil than WMD's, possibly also with an overdue face save for Poppy Bush. Well we certainly had enough troops in place to successfully secure the oil fields, but we couldn't spare the scant forces necessary to protect the Iraq's and civilization's irreplaceable ancient treasures. Perhaps oil was not what this was all about but, as they say, actions speak louder than words.
Either the CIA is competent or it's not. If so, and I certainly hope that is the case, then someone knew that there was more smoke than WMD's between the Tigris and Euphrates or, at the very least, that we couldn't be absolutely certain of the immediate threat, much less their existence. What exactly did George Bush and his merry band know? And when did they know it? Thousands of people, many of them innocent citizens, died in Iraq in the name of ridding the world of this terrible threat. We have a right to know if our President took us to a war of still undetermined consequences based on half truths if not outright deception. There can be little doubt that WMD's pose a major threat, much as they have since we dropped the first, and still only, atom bombs on Japan in 1945. The introduction of terrorists into the mix, not to mention continued proliferation across the globe certainly is certainly of real concern. Saddam is a bad guy, but was he really a WMD threat, or was that simply a pretence. What did they know and when did they know it?
Tuesday, April 15, 2003
I was standing in one of those lines today, where someone important is always calling out "next." It got me thinking, isn't that exactly where we are today? I know "it's not over till it's over," but the active war in Iraq appears to be winding down. The fierce resistance wasn't that fierce. which means only a few (still uncounted) thousand humans lost their lives and we have yet to uncover the great cache of weapons of mass destruction. They are saying the world has been rid of imminent threat, at least from this sorry Regime, though we will never know how large or immediate that threat was.
Our leaders are trying hard not to gloat on their rapid victory, trying hard not to place too many American flags up on foreign soil — let them sit on our lapels, they seem to say. We're seeing some happy Iraqi's in the street, some not so happy. We're seeing pathetic medical services, suffering patients and much of a country without power or water. But again, that's not unique — that's war. But what really seems hanging in the air is that call of someone up front saying "next."
All of us are looking for what's next in terms of building this utopian Iraq, a democracy in the heart of the Fertile Crescent. It will be like Turkey they say, a Muslim democracy. They are eager to tell us the two, Muslim and democracy, are not inconsistent, but who ever thought they were? How successful this all will be is yet to be determined in a Balkanized country that heretofore needed a strong dictator to hold it together. How Iraqi it will be, not in name but in reality, is still, despite the rhetoric, an unanswered question. Think about America how many corporate boards that have long been portrayed as independent comprise handpicked buddies of Chief Executives. The only time they really take hold is when their pal screws up badly, really badly. So what will this democratic Iraqi government be? Time will tell.
But the most alarming "next," the one that has worried some of us from the start is how we are talking about Syria. Sure General Powell says we have no intentions, and Tony Blair probably wouldn't invade, but look at the words. Remember, I think words are very important. Chemical Weapons, that's what they are saying about Syria. Remember those guys, those WMDs that got our kids onto ships and planes. Chemical Weapons, the big ones, the immediate threat to neighbors. Those weapons about which we've never heard a word before in connection with Syria.
No one in her right mind would hold a brief for Saddam, wherever he is. No one doubts that he tortured and oppressed his people. We are all well rid of him, but no one with any sense of the world thinks he is alone in that regard. And there is the rub. George Bush's poll numbers move up and the doting press which has given him a pass from day one says he has become a real leader. All true. The question is not whether he is more popular or that he is more of a leader, which he certainly seems to be. The question is where is he leading us. I don't particularly admire George Bush, but that also isn't the point. What I question is a foreign policy with imperial tones by a country that was born of rejecting imperial rule. It troubles me that we're pointing our metaphorical and real missiles at countries with whom we disagree and at the same time dismissing countries who essentially share our values and our democratic practices. We are the United States and we're disuniting everyone.
Next. We really don't know. My level of concern has not diminished and with good reason.
Tuesday, April 8, 2003
For those of us in opposition, the after has always been a critical issue. It has also been a central part of the Bush promise – creating this new beacon of democracy in the Middle East. This is the really tough time, time to take a look at what this conflict has wrought. If part of what bothers me is the dogmatic assuredness of those who feel they possess the absolute truth, then I can't be sucked into the same arrogance of rightness. At this point, I haven't changed my mind about this war, but I will be watching the results and hoping for the best, not the worst.
After. It's hard not to be moved by the bodies — individuals who died for a cause in which they believed, the many, far too many, caught in the crossfire. But none of that is unique to Iraq. It is the horrific nature of war, and part of why some of us try so hard to avoid it, see it as a last resort in an absolute not relative sense. Bodies of people who, assuming they are survived, will be missed by parents, by wives and husbands, by children and by the community of which they were a part. They are brought home to Any-Town USA and we cry. We strain to hear their individual tale, the only way we can prevent their becoming a statistic. But none of them are statistics, they are people and there are Any-Towns in Iraq as well. The high cost of war.
After. Then there are the photos of smiling faces, cheering crowds, finally emerging from the shadow, ostensibly welcoming liberation, their dream and ours come true. Is it real? We all hope so. They show us where they were tortured. It too can't help but move, make us think that perhaps it was worth it. Again, we hope for the best. But that isn't all we feel. It's sobering to know that these halls of horror are mirrored in other places, in the back corridors of so-called friends and allies and in places that we don't think about, much less care about. Selective war, selective relief. It's hard to overlook that, and worrisome to think that there are some in Washington who would take us further into conflict, make other selections — selections because the reality is that we couldn't possibly address them all without imploding ourselves under the strain.
After. These are complex issues in what appears to be an increasingly complex world. But of course that's an illusion. It's no more complex that it ever was, it is only that with our technological reach we're seeing it, often for the first time. When Tommy Franks was challenged very early on as a planning bungler and Donald Rumsfeld as an interferer, both pleaded for patience. Ah patience, the one thing Americans don't have whether waiting to pay a toll, judging a company's quarterly performance or getting our food, fast (and unhealthy). Not being a military expert, and not wanting to be one, I can't comment on patience in the battle field. But what of after? There I know we need patience. We must take the time to see if this worked. The instigators need to prove, without doubt, that they were right. The doubters, like myself, need time to be convinced that we were wrong. Oh do I hope they were right and I was wrong. We won't know for a while and we shouldn't "jump the missile" and move on to other things or back to our insular comfort until we do.
After. It must ultimately be in their hands — those on whose precious land we intruded, sooner not later. They require not imposition, but support. They need it to come from the many not from few, from the community of nations not from a single superpower. They need it and if we look at in a historical context, so do we, perhaps even more urgently.
After. We're all waiting, we're hoping and many of us are also praying.
Monday, April 7, 2003
If you've found the polls showing a 70% approval rate for the War a disconnect with your own anecdotal experience you're not alone. But in the realm of "we tend to talk to ourselves," they may nonetheless be accurate. They also may not be of long term significance, something the Bush people should take to heart. There seems little doubt that many Americans buy into Hail to the Chief in times of war, regardless of party. That, and a visceral impulse not to endanger the troops, can influence poll responses. But, perhaps as much as anything else, high approval numbers reflect successful and consistent marketing.
From its first days, the Bush team has tried to stay on message and, in doing so, control the conversation. Marketing, pejoratively called propaganda in times like these, is routinely used as a wartime weapon, regardless of the players. It was used heavily in both World Wars and in all succeeding conflicts. Any dispassionate observer would have to say that those in charge this time have executed particularly well since the bombs began to drop in Iraq. Language is a key component of any marketing message and the words employed are never accidental. Notice the two critical terms: the Regime and the Coalition. Notice also the virtual disappearance of WMD, weapons of mass destruction from the core rhetoric.
Before the war, the Administration went through an extended period of fluid language. The argument changed daily and the marketing effort was disjointed to say the least. You'll remember, in addition to WMD, arguments like Iraq is thwarting the UN and international community, is threatening their neighbors and is harboring terrorists. Regime Change was a recurring theme but, particularly when there were hopes of obtaining UN approval, it was soft peddled, portrayed as a secondary objective or necessary result, sometimes hardly mentioned. This isn't to say it wasn't heard or that the ideas about a new Iraq as some kind of democratic beacon in the region were not put forth. It simply wasn't central.
Fast forward and Regime Change has become the War's singular objective. So referring to the enemy, whether Saddam himself or his most straggly paramilitary, one always hears the briefers talk of the Regime. And who are we? We are the Coalition even though everyone knows that it's a coalition of 1 to .00005. I don't mean to sell the valiant British troops who are dying in the desert short, but the numbers make this largely a US venture with a US command. Coalition is a marketing device to suggest that, even absent the support of the vast majority of the world, we aren't going it alone.
So current polls no longer evidence concern for our having moved without UN sanction as they did pre-war and, significantly, respondents no longer feel that ridding the world of the WMD threat is central. They feel Regime Change does the trick. From a practical standpoint, this terminology, it would appear, immunizes our leaders from blame should we not uncover those heralded cashes of biochemical-terrible. And you say marketing doesn't matter. When it comes to winning the hearts and minds of our own people, marketing is everything.
It's also carries a huge risk. Branding — using terms in this way is a form of branding — is ultimately only successful when it can be backed up by substance. If all goes well as a result of this single focused Regime Change, the branders may be sitting pretty. If our short term willingness to constrict the coalition hasn't destroyed our ability to interact effectively with the global community, the bet will have paid off. These are big ifs. If, on the other hand, the aftermath of this conflict brings the unintended consequences that many of us fear and that has played such an important role in our difficult decision to oppose War before and during, then all bets are off. As a partisan, I'm with John Kerry and would like to see a Regime Change at home in 2004, but not for that reason. The cost to the world will be far too high.
Friday, April 4, 2003
Silence of the Donkeys
So it's not such a good movie title, but it describes where we are these days. In this time of stress and challenge the Democratic Party has virtually gone silent. Give it to him, George Bush has bet his entire beloved Crawford on this war and its underlying geopolitical policy. Democrats haven't even put their Outer Banks Timeshare's at risk. I know, it's supposedly a long honored tradition not to criticize the President when our troops are in battle, but that's a convenient excuse. The voice of dissent, was virtually inaudible — out to lunch — long before our planes and ground forces hit the road toward Baghdad. Protect the kids in harm's way. What happened to protecting them from harm's way? Every night Jim Lehrer ends his News Hour with photographs and names of the fallen, mostly 19-22 year olds. It makes me cry.
Democracies are great when the debate is hot, when those who hold strong views of any stripe are challenged. Checks and Balances is not merely an organizational principal, it is a metaphor for the essential need of countervailing views. The Founding Fathers wanted discussion and they want to prevent the rule of extremes. I don't agree with all those young Conservative talking heads in their ubiquitous little bow ties. People like Bill Kristol and Richard Pearle put a chill down my spine, get my dander up, but I respect their conviction and relentless commitment to their cause. My civil libertarian body shivers when George Bush says "you're either with us or against us," in a not so veiled threat at a time of intrusion and tribunals. Apparently, Democrats have taken his words to heart, and that really scares the hell out of me.
It seems today that Democratic Politicians are either totally sidelined or, worse, espouse a kind of pabulum acquiesce in the name of supporting Commander and troops. And it isn't just now. Since 9/11 everyone has been, or allowed themselves to be, forced into this unquestioning lockstep as if only the Administration had all the answers endowed by an absolute Divine Right to mandate unquestioned adherence. Let's remember that George Bush wasn't elected in the traditional way, which is not a statement of sour grapes but of the fact that this country (at least the few of us who vote) was split right down the center. In other democracies that might require a coalition government. It certainly should engender more humility. And despite the hype and the punditry about unprecedented gains by a President mid-term, that election resulted in only a razor thin GOP majority in the Senate and far short of mandate-supremacy in the House. We remain a divided nation.
As such, one would expect a far more vocal, albeit loyal, opposition. I know it's not easy. When Tom Daschle criticizes, he is branded unpatriotic. How dare him? So with John Kerry who suggested this week that we too need a regime change. Of course Kerry, a Viet Nam vet, stood his ground against the non-patriotic nonsense. But there haven't been many more and the critiques have been more elliptical than direct. I don't really buy this "in time of war" rule. The troops have nothing to do with it. Regardless of where we stand, we all desperately want them to come home safely. This is not the first time loyal Americans have questioned a war. Perhaps it's happened somewhat earlier this time, but everything (including the battle) has been foreshortened in the nanosecond world that James Gleick describes in his book Faster. But why is this debate so urgent, and why must it be led by Democrats?
We have gone to war in the past, but this conflict has unique characteristics. Korea and Viet Nam were fought in the context of the Cold War. Bosnia responded to a genocide that echoed memories of the Holocaust (even though similar horrors in Africa evoked no such response). Afghanistan was a direct response to 9/11, a hit on the people who claimed credit for terrorism. But this represents the first (and the very use of that word is chilling) war under a new and, for many of us, alarming doctrine of pro-active interventionism. It isn't simply a war to prevent the potential use of weaponry, but part of an envisioned mosaic that will refashion the democratically unwashed across the globe. So it's not simply why we should or should not be at war in Iraq, why our kids should or should not be exposed to injury and death, but whether we are signing on to this new Bush team doctrine for the 21st Century? Do I take it that Joe Lieberman, perhaps the happiest among Democratic co-warriors, agrees with the underlying concept of forcefully reformatting allegedly rouge nations in our own image? I hope not, but his vociferous support would suggest his concurrence.
Simply put, the stakes in this conflict transcend the actual battle and the question is not whether it's appropriate to challenge in the time of War, but whether we are not compelled to challenge its underlying assumptions and direction, and do so with some urgency? Why is there no Democrat including my two Senators (one who has never met a microphone he doesn't like and the other with possible Presidential ambitions), substantively challenging this fundamental shift in policy? Wayne Morse and Bill Fulbright challenged the underlying Domino Theory that brought us to Viet Nam at the height of war. Both refused to be silenced by meaningless and artificial restrictions. Why doesn't Tom Daschle speak out regularly and more substantively and why, aside for Governor Dean and Reverend Sharptan, haven't the Presidential hopefuls? Are Robert Byrd, who is largely, if respectfully, ignored and perhaps Ted Kennedy, who has politically nothing to lose, all that we have left? Even their criticism has been ad hoc.
Perhaps there have been times in which it wasn't dangerous to have two parties whose differences were only at the margin, mostly stylistic. This isn't one of them, which is what prompted Ralph Nader to interject himself into the last Presidential race with, in my view, disastrous results for the country. If this were a game, I could smile and say the Democrats and Al Gore deserved the loss. But it's not a game and fudging differences, not articulating a cohesive counterpoint, has been extremely costly in every respect. I hope we as a Nation can recover from it. How many wakeup calls does my party need before it finds its voice? In the words of the Pink Floyd's Wall lyric, "is there anyone out there?"
Tuesday, April 1, 2003
What if it had been Al Gore?
Among the unanswerable questions of my generation was, what might have happened in Viet Nam had JFK's Presidency run its course? We'll never know. Now we could ask, where would we be if the decision had gone 5-4 in the other direction and Al Gore was sitting in the White House? We'll probably never know that either.
His late intervention in Bosnia symbolized Bill Clinton's wariness about going to war. His own lack of military service probably impacted upon it. Gore has no such problem. He served in Viet Nam and was among a handful of Democrats in the Senate to vote for the first Gulf War. So, post 9/11, he too may ultimately have taken the military path like George Bush — like, but not the same. We don't know what military plan of action would have been implemented but, the present conversation notwithstanding, that isn't the critical issue.
I think the real difference is more likely to have revolved around the coalition which would have been broad and committed rather than narrow and willing. George Bush's early bravado and concrete actions in pulling away from important global treaties set in motion an antagonistic, not partnering, relationship with the world community including a grudging acceptance only of a UN that would function on our terms. Gore, like Clinton, is an Internationalist. The man who "invented the Information Super Highway" is a connector and its hard to visualize him hanging up on the world. I can't see Gore making provocative American go-it-alone pronouncements or using phrases like "you're either with us or against us." A hard core environmentalist, he certainly would not have pulled out of Kyoto. Richard Holbrook, likely to have been his Secretary of Stated, tilts hawkish on issues like Iraq, but he is a negotiator and coalition builder much as was another former UN Ambassador, George, the father. It's unlikely Evil Axes or Old Europe would have come into the vocabulary with a Gore team in place. This doesn't mean there would be no disagreements with France and others, but that bridges would have been crossed rather than being burnt.
There are numerous reasons why some of us (probably many more than the polls in a time of war reflect) have opposed this conflict. They relate to the war itself — to a lack of demonstrable proof of any near term threat or of any link to the terrorists who attacked our country and my city. But in the long run, the most profound concerns America's intrinsic philosophy and identity and what follows from it. George Bush's America it turns out is not what he pictured during his campaign, humility and respect of sovereign individuality, but a self possessed kind of Isolationist-Imperialism. It's one thing to be proud of our democracy and capitalistic system – both have been good for us. It is another, to see them as the only right way, one that should be adopted by, or imposed upon, others. Among the most disturbing realities of our time is the rise of fundamentalism which, whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish, essentially operates under a notion of absolute rightness and self possessed truth. It's an essential part of what we say we're fighting in our war against terrorism. But democratic fundamentalism as George Bush seems to espouse can have the same characteristics. I believe in our way of life absolutely, for me, but I don't assume it is the only truth, for you.
I don't know if Al Gore would have taken us to war. Perhaps, I'd be writing critical things about him. But I am confident that he is not a fundamentalist, that he never would have gone it alone and that the growing expressions across the world of hatred and disdain for my country would not be moving from rhetoric to the heart. Words are out in the open to be refuted, but the heart is deep inside and changing it is a much greater, perhaps insurmountable, task. How did we get to this place Al Gore, and why aren't you talking about it?