Sunday, September 30, 2007

On a Visit to New York

I’m just back from a week in New York.  The city is as vibrant as ever, as hectic as ever – both exciting and a bit exhausting.  It will always remain something of home for me.  There was particular excitement this time around with the goings on at the United Nations (visible from the lovely apartment on the East River where I stay).  I remember this period of street closings and motorcades well from the years when my office was nearby on 49th Street. New Yorkers are always relieved when it’s all over much as the year round residents of a resort town are happy to see vacationers go back to where they belong.  Of course, unlike the off-season hibernation in those places, this city will only be a tad quieter, if that.

There is a sameness about the opening session of the UN, marked each year by a perceptible of-the-moment atmosphere.  At its center, is some star player enjoying a transient spotlight reminiscent of Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. One would think the whole world revolved around him (it’s always a him) and his particular cause, though much of the hoopla is driven by American perceptions and hype.  All eyes are transfixed on the current anti-hero, if not nemesis, whose importance is often overstated.  There was the year that a young and brash Fidel came to town hanging his hat symbolically in a Harlem hotel, or the time Arafat appeared on the podium “packing”.  This year’s headliner of course was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who devoted half his assembly speech to belligerent defiance and the other to what can only be described as a religious sermon.  In their time each of these stars put on quite a show.  One wonders what next year’s attraction will be?  In all of this the “great powers” are generally eclipsed, most notably this year was George Bush.  The President, who both we and the world seem to have written off at this point, came “speakin” (the letter “g” apparently was neither in the Yale or Harvard curriculum), but no one seemed to be “listenin”.  For sure, he too had his moment but, despite the retained enormous power of his office, it has passed.

We helped found the UN so that people could talk to each other instead of shooting at each other; a commendable but unrequited dream.  Perhaps more important than the talking, is that it is a forum designed for listening.  In that, it’s been a total failure.  None of us, it turns out, are very good listeners.  More to the point, we’ll do everything possible to evade hearing anything but our own truth.  In that spirit, the US delegation childishly (assumably in the name of making a statement) absented itself during both Ahmadinejad’s talk and, even more comically, that of the Cuban Foreign Minister.  I guess they never heard the adage, “sticks and…but words will never hurt you”.  Such walkouts are sadly not uncommon at the UN, but they are especially disturbing when done by a country that prides itself on free speech.  The walkout presented yet another metaphor for an administration that hasn’t confronted a potential negotiation that it likes and has fashioned a foreign policy more appropriate to Dodge than for our complex world.  We’re all paying the price and probably will be for years, if not decades, to come.

Speaking of free speech, the big story in New York was the Iranian President’s appearance at Columbia University.  Opinions pro and con ran red hot with opponents protesting giving a platform to a rabid dictator and unabashed anti-Semite.  Much as I disdain this despicable character, free discourse is central to the spirit of the academy and, as such, Columbia made the right decision.   Interestingly, it turned into another example of our need to talk rather than to listen.  President Lee Bollinger’s lengthy and gratuitous “introduction” reminded me of a Congressional hearing where elected officials are more eager to hear themselves pontificate than to illicit information from witnesses.  Bollinger, of course was covering his rear end, probably thinking more about contributors than free speech.  Since he gets credit for going ahead with the controversial program (which no other institution did), I guess we should cut him some slack. In the end, Ahmadinejad’s talk was predictable and, we should all be relieved that the student body survived it unscathed.  Did his appearances in New York strengthen him at home?  Perhaps so, but so did we gain by reminding the world, not to mention ourselves, that this is a free country where even bad speech reflects on the speaker and a willingness to listen on the self confidence of the listener.  In the era of Abu Ghraib and threats of invasion on privacy, we seem to have forgotten this and, in doing so, to have lost our moral footing.    

If you really want to get a glimpse of what’s going on in American these days, descend into the bowls of the New York Subway system.  The American heartland reflected down under where trains are called 1, 4, A or R?  Yes it is, even if seemingly an unlikely spot.  Now there are differences of course.  What’s striking about people in the Big Apple is that they all seem to be moving ahead with an earnestness that you don’t see in all other places, and often with their heads down rather than straight ahead.  Averting one’s eyes seems more appropriate in the Subway than meeting those of others, as if that may give some unwanted signal.  But don’t be fooled by this surface-deep difference between city and country folk.

Down under, things are moving along as usual (in this case somewhat noisily).  With people of every imaginable color and background (an encapsulated America) headed intently toward their chosen or mandated destination, the theatrics above ground are not part of their reality.  Passengers stand or sit (if so fortunate) caught up in their own private worlds, many tethered to iPods, some reading the paper or a book and others silently waiting for the train to reach their destination.  To be sure, the headlines in the papers some hold shout the news of the day, and some, perhaps many, have even strong opinions about the events at the UN and other places.  But the main picture was of people whose routines were undeterred by anything that was happening on the “street” above.  Perhaps they were disturbed by the day’s news, the war, or the state of the nation, but more in an abstract context than by how it practically touched their lives.  Without question, some on that subway may have lost their jobs because of a faltering economy and perhaps there were those who had lost someone in Iraq (though the likelihood of that was even smaller), but by and large whatever was happening upstairs was absent as the train rattled through the endless tunnels of Manhattan and into the Boroughs.

Americans, myself included, remain untouched by the events of the day.  That’s true for New Yorkers and its true for people on the back roads of Indiana, Main or Arizona.  Perhaps we’re mounting up debt that one day will have to be repaid, but isn’t that just the normal American way?  New York is bigger than life, but scratch the surface and it’s anywhere, anyone.  That’s what struck me on this visit and it was a startling reality check.  It doesn’t bode well for any of our futures.  Keeping us on track with our own lives and seemingly untouched by the real world is exactly where our leaders want us to be, and even today’s aspirants for the Presidency don’t seem ready to change that.  When people become engaged, who knows what will happen?  My take is that engagement better happen soon or we’ll be cooked.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Endless and Outmoded

Do you sometimes hear people talk and think to yourself, right topic wrong conversation.  That’s how I’ve been feeling in hearing various states assert their right to move primary dates up, threatening in fact to have them begin before this pre-election year ends.  No, it’s not that I come in defense of Iowa or New Hampshire, but rather against the current primary calendar altogether.  And no, it’s not a matter of who comes first and why, but that I think all the primaries are far too early.  Even if the current calendar stands, we will already have been suffering the presidential campaign too long.  I don’t use the world “suffering” lightly.  Some people say that no one really pays attention until after Labor Day (the year before the vote).  Perhaps they don’t, but even that is ridiculously early.  More than a year before the election, we have had two fields of candidates out on the hustings telling all who might listen why they would be the best choice for our next leader.  Does that make any sense?  I think not.

Let’s start with something practical.   There are nineteen candidates in the race today of which ten (more than half) hold public office.  Six senators, three House members and one governor are working only part time at their taxpayer paid job.  On the Democratic side, two of the three alleged leading candidates sit in the Senate, representing very large states.  Isn’t it fair to ask, if the constituencies represented by them and all the other public employees are getting a fair return on their dollar, not to mention adequate representation?  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think only private citizens should run for President.  The fact is that those holding public office, especially high public office are often the most qualified.  But it is undeniable that their run impacts on their regular job and also that everything they do or say when “at work” is colored by their candidacy.  That was evident when Presidential candidates sat on the committees hearing testimony from General Petraeus.  Not only did they ask few questions, giving their limited time to making statements, but every word said was measured, utterances I’d call “candidate-speak” not officeholder-speak.  It both put a burden on them and robbed us of what these highly experienced and smart people might have gotten out of the general and his ambassador sidekick.

But here is something even more troubling.  It is now suggested that we may know the nominees of both parties as early as February.  In that context, it is conceivable that from then until the fall elections – eight months – we will see two Presidential candidates on the Senate floor, though don’t count on much attendance.  How much do you think will get done with that dynamic?  But that isn’t really the problem.  We are living in fast moving times in which the dynamic of governance can change from one moment to the next.  At present, encumbered by a system of government established by the founders in the eighteenth century, we have no way of replacing our leadership even in times when it has totally lost the confidence of a large majority of voters.  We could impeach them, but that is a purposefully cumbersome process that works only when the President is a crook, not when he is the author of wrongheaded, even disastrous, policy.  Think about this.  Not only can’t we replace the President when times call for different leadership, we will be locked into Presidential candidates in much the same way.  That puts us at a double disadvantage.

The wrong conversation?  Yes, and here is what I think we should be talking about.  First, primaries should take place in June, about four months before the election.  Second, no candidate should be allowed to announce or begin campaigning before January 1st of the same year, six months before the first primary.  That may sound radical, but I think it would potentially increase both voter interest and participation.  Election fatigue is less likely to set in.  To be sure, the idea of drawn out campaigns (and they were never this long then) was to afford candidates the opportunity of introducing themselves to the electorate.  John McCain’s symbolic bus tour notwithstanding, we have long passed the day of the whistle stop and, one could argue even the now seemingly primitive reach of network TV.  The Internet puts it all out before us and the candidates themselves can have unlimited time to speak their minds whether with written word or video – in real time if they wish.  If Americans who never heard of her can become acquainted with Paris Hilton in a matter of days, they should be able to get a handle on Presidential candidates in six to nine months.

The system I am proposing would give potential candidates more time to think about whether they really want to run and us a longer time to see them (especially those in office) perform their present duties less encumbered by needing to stay on campagin message.  It would also be an important financial reform because campaign costs (especially for staff and travel) would be greatly reduced.  That in itself has the potential of putting all the candidates on a more level playing field.  Financial reform needs to go a lot further, but it’s a start.  Moreover, when you make a dramatic change like restricting a campaign’s duration, you begin to look at the whole process.

One final thing.  I’m a little tired (an understatement) of voting for the lesser of two evils or for some decent person who doesn’t really excite me.  I’m definitely not alone in that.  I have nightmares about us virtually nominating her or him in February only to discover that another her or him would have been a better more compelling choice for where we are rather than where we might be nine months later.  We’ve had the wrong him in place for way too long now and can ill afford another mistake like that, a mistake for which, in one way or another, we are all responsible.  The current system did its part and its damage in that as well.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Staying on Course

The Decider has spoken; the dynamic David and Ryan duo have completed their support roles and are exiting stage right on their way back to Baghdad.  The nation should be pleased.  “…conditions in Iraq are improving…we are seizing the initiative from the enemy…the troop surge is working.”  Victory is both essential and, as exemplified by Anbar province, close at hand.   How could that not be the case given the involvement of 36 nation’s troops on the ground?  Now there is some news.  Silly me, I thought out daughters and sons (with a little help from the fast withdrawing British) were duking it out with “al Qaeda Iraq” (ostensibly the only combatant foe we face) all by themselves.  The mission will, after all, be accomplished, albeit by another administration.  Perhaps that was the most important message George Bush had for us on Thursday evening.  This boiling hot potato will be handed over to his successor, handed over, let’s be clear, in a condition and at a troop level of his choosing.  Sure the Congressional defeatists can debate, sure the public can say it wants out, but the Decider will decide.  The pundits are saying Bush won this round and in some profound sense they are absolutely right.  Bush wins because he is the Decider and, whatever we may think of him, history, he believes, is on his side.

The biggest losers in all this are his beloved fellow Republicans, left hanging out to dry.  If the Democrats find themselves unable to muster enough votes to abort the “new strategy” or impede the “way forward”, the Republicans are stuck with Bush’s war.  He has made it difficult for them to take off on their own in any meaningful way, even if that is where they want to go, which is by no means apparent.  All of the GOP Presidential hopefuls, to one degree or another, support that way forward.  Even when they admit to missteps, none of them have strayed far from the reservation.  They were for the war at the start and remain so.  To be sure, John McCain is out front betting the ranch on his support, but his position is a distinction without a fundamental difference.  Rudy 911, Mitt of the sacrificing sons and Big Fred are all right there.  John Warner, who seemingly liberated himself by announcing his retirement, will ultimately remain among the good sheep.  After all, he asked for a token 5,000-troop reduction by Christmas and he got it.  Finding themselves in the most excruciating place are the “moderates” who are up for re-election, the real ones like Susan Collins and the opportunistic (read that desperate) like Norm Coleman.  They are at the President’s mercy and most importantly at the mercy of the Sheik’s in Anbar.

If John McCain has bet the ranch on the War, the Administration and its supporters are putting all their eggs on the basket of Anbar.  That in itself is a bit of (perhaps transparent) irony.  Bush had us invade Iraq to topple a minority Sunni dictatorship that had suppressed the Shiite majority for years.  The Iraqis that we were asking to stand up so that we could stand down were largely that oppressed minority.  Democracy was the answer and sure enough Shiites “kicked ass” (the President’s expression, not mine) at the polls.  But wait a minute.  Aren’t the Iranians Shiites?  Oh, that’s a problem.  So here we are pouring money, weaponry and our hopes into the Sunnis of Anbar.  It’s all so confusing, better get Condi and Henry in to straighten things out.  No need, we have David, I mean David Petraeus, to tell us what to do.  Whatever happens, if Anbar turns sour, we’re screwed, though I’m sure there will be a way of calling that progress as well.

In the end the Democrats will probably emerge victorious from this process, but it won’t be pretty.  They too are in a difficult place.  Harry and Nancy can talk tough but their options are very limited.  With the Republicans locked into a policy they may not like but can’t oppose, the (slim) majority has but one untenable option.  It can cut off funds, but it really can’t.  Some think that it may be possible to attach strings to funding, but absent Republican support, even that is likely to be but a short term gesture.  So far they have also been unable to present a coherent plan of their own, though Barak Obama and John Edwards are taking a stab at it.  The fact is that an alternative plan and the need for one is something of a red herring.  Plans, even longer-term plans, have to be based on what is when they are put into place and no one knows what will be on January 20, 2009.  So it comes down to positioning and that’s a delicate challenge.  Interestingly, Hilary Clinton, who has been so effective at portraying herself as a tough leader, may be the most disadvantaged in this game.  Her early support for the War was heartfelt and her calls for its end are labored.  The fact that she won’t admit having been wrong (though that’s truly Presidential) will continue to haunt her.  John Edwards, on the other hand, seems best positioned.  He has recanted his support and can now freely oppose with the luxury of not having to vote on a funding cut off, a distinct advantage.  What will really be interesting is what Barack Obama does.  The debate is the easy part, but will he be willing to take the risk of saying no to funding?  In a world where straight talk has even been eliminated from John McCain’s bus, I don’t envy his political choice. 

George Bush, knowing his time is running out, is relying on history.  For the moment he revels in being the Decider, perhaps even more than being right.  I don’t think history will be kind.  It really doesn’t matter because, at the moment we’re stuck, and stuck in a very bad place.  We may be “mad as hell” but we will have to continue taking it.  Our real world won’t stop and we can’t get off.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Saigon and Baghdad

“…We await the report of General Westmorland – oops I meant General Petraeus.”  That’s the way I ended my last post.  With an unmistakable sense of déjà vu, I simply couldn’t help myself.  Indeed, Westmorland’s name came up several times during the questioning on the Hill.  Even George Bush, who assiduously avoided linking the two wars for five years, broke that resolve in August citing the "unmistakable legacy of Vietnam” in warning against withdrawal from Iraq.  And of course the opposite of what he suggested is exactly the point, and his logic is exactly what binds these two wars together.

In both those Cold War days and now a central argument for “staying the course” hinged on the domino theory first promulgated in the 1950’s by President Dwight Eisenhower.  It was a time when Communism was seen as cancerous ideology, a threat to our way of life with almost mystical powers.  Our opposition to it became often obsessive in almost the same way as we today look at militant Islamism.  In the earlier period, which proponents of our current policies hope we will forget, the “Red menace”, and the threat it posed, reached a crescendo during which individual privacy and rights were threatened.  People in those days were tarred simply by their association with assumed “lefties” and “Commies”.  So today potentially are associations or interactions with Moslems (many of them US citizens), seen by some as cavorting with our “Islamofacists” enemies.  Indeed, while paying lip service to the difference between facing a sovereign foe and a stateless one, both the descriptive language and purported threat is virtually identical.  Communism was seen as a mortal danger to our culture and lives as we knew them, and so too are today’s radical Islamists.

The fact remains, that despite the President’s analogy, our departure from Viet Nam did not lead to the fall of Asia (China was already in place) to Communism and indeed one could argue that it led to the beginning of a global decline culminating in the implosion of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a Free Market China, now our principal creditor.  Was there a period of continued turmoil after the fall of Saigon?  Of course there was but, from a historic perspective, a short one.  Will there be substantial turmoil if we leave Baghdad and Iraq?  Absolutely, but despite dire predictions to the contrary, there is no reason to believe it will be any worse or any more long lasting than what we witnessed in the aftermath of our exit from Saigon and Viet Nam. 

Interestingly enough one of the key elements of “success” reported by General Petraeus was that local tribesmen in Anbar rejected Al Qaeda whose extreme ways did not sit well with Iraqis who have long lived under secular rule.  What makes anyone think that Iraqis in other places won’t come to the same conclusion?  So, too, is the argument that when we leave Iran will step in anything but self evident.  Even Ambassador Crocker, a long term Mid-East expert, pointed out that Iraqis have no special love for Iran with whom they had a bitter war and whose culture they don’t share, Shiite or not.  If our leaving is perceived as a defeat, we have only a misguided policy to thank.  Even so, let’s remember that in the aftermath of a terrible (some would say much worse) “defeat” in Viet Nam, we ultimately emerged as the world’s preeminent and sole Super Power.  If that status has been threatened, going into Iraq will undoubtedly be judged as the cause not leaving it.

There is of course one very significant difference between Saigon and Baghdad.  The draft.  We had it then and we don’t today.  With a theoretically limitless pool of fighting personnel the numbers of troops committed in Viet Nam reached more than half a million; they have generally been sustained at 130,000 (higher during the so-called “surge”) constrained by an all volunteer military.  That difference explains why the protests against the Viet Nam War consistently drew thousands and were so bitter and why today’s have been so poorly attended and lackluster in contrast.  Not a single American was untouched by Viet Nam.  Whether faced with their own draft or that of a family member or that everyone knew a combatant and many experienced a loss,that war was personal in the most direct sense.  As has been pointed out by many thoughtful people, we are (aside from seeing things play out on TV from which we can opt out with our remotes) largely untouched.  We continue shopping, playing and staying our own personal courses.  National sacrifices in these two wars just don’t match up.

In the end what makes Iraq different from Viet Nam may be exactly what hastens our exit.  Without a draft (which seems highly unlikely), supply and demand will simply take over, perhaps sooner rather than later.  We have already been told that the surge can’t be sustained beyond the Spring, and that is probably only the beginning.  The hearings which we have listened to in the last two days take me back to General Westmorland and the endless “progress” reports that came out of Washington during the Johnson and Nixon years.  What Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma (who still clings to a 9/11 connection) characterized as the “great successes” during his turn at the Senate hearing is in fact demonstrably spotty and selective, at best wishful thinking.  The dissembling continues (we still have to hear from the Decider), but the end seems inevitable.  Saigon and Baghdad will ultimately merge into a single experience.  Chances are, global warming will do us in earlier than the fall out from our assured exit from this quagmire.

Friday, September 7, 2007

We the Greatest

Muhammad Ali, as agile with words as with his fists, loved to proclaim, “I am the greatest”.  He saw himself the preeminent boxer of his day, which he was.  Even so, you always felt “the greatest” claim was made with a modicum of tongue in cheek, something that made his bragging all the more appealing.  There is little doubt that we live in a pretty extraordinary country from which most of us benefit both individually and collectively.  So why is it when I hear people, most especially our leaders, proclaim, “We are the greatest”, that I cringe?  Perhaps it’s because, unlike the Champ, they do so with unequivocal seriousness, not as a metaphor but an unquestionable truth.  Perhaps, these self-claims bother me because they bespeak not so much pride in country as a lack of national humility, which by implication suggests other nations are inferior. 

Ali’s claim of being the greatest was credible because it was backed up by performance, but perhaps even more so because it was widely recognized by others including his own peers.  But who is to really say which of anything, much less a country or a group is the greatest?  At the very least one would want some outside confirmation.  It’s not merely how we perceive ourselves, but also how others see us.  At one time, an America “the greatest” claim probably resonated across the globe, albeit at times grudgingly.  Today, in the aftermath of the Bush era’s disastrous unilateral (with the acquiescence of “the willing”) foreign policy, much of that acknowledgment and good will has dissipated.  That’s exactly what came to mind as I watched four young international journalists weigh in on America’s standing at a C-Span recorded “Hearts and Minds” symposium.  They came from Egypt, Bangladesh, Kenya and Brazil and each had spent six months here working as a Friendly Fellows at different newspapers across the country.  Their home country’s relations with ours varied, but their message was uniform, expressed best by the Egyptian “we don’t hate you but we hate you”.  That is to say that they admire much about our culture and our people, but are totally alienated by the current administration and policies.  The Moslems among them feel we paint their faith with a single simplistic and negative brush.   The Brazilian blames us for supporting her country’s former dictator and treating Brazil as some kind of geographic appendage. 

The greatest is implies an America-centric view of the world.  The downside of such thinking was expressed most tellingly by an anecdote told by Kenyan journalist Mugomo Munene.  When terrorists bombed the US embassy in Nairobi, a few blocks from where he sat in a cafe, all Kenyans were horrified and in our corner.  Then came the CNN et al news coverage reporting that “15 Americans and 225 other people died”.   We are so used to such an American media bias that we take no notice, but the Kenyans did and it instantaneously reversed their attitude toward both the event and us.  Why didn’t that report, they asked themselves, say 240 people died, among them 15 Americans?  It seems like a nuanced difference, but it’s huge.  The message it conveyed was that 15 American lives counted more than those 225 of their own citizens.  When you’re the greatest, you come first, everyone else is an afterthought.  Collateral damage.  Multiply that story and that attitude thousands of times and you’ll understand what’s happened to our standing in the world; in fairness, a process that didn't just begin in the Bush years.  Incorporate it into our foreign policy and presto, our current state.  The greatest is transformed from credible claim to a hollow brag.

To me the claim of being the greatest is emblematic of an attitude that now pervades not only the United States but also the entire world.  In one way or another we all either say or think that our way is the only right way, it’s the greatest.  The Islamists make that claim but so do Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists and everyone else, even if they don’t admit to it, or do it unconsciously.  Collectively, we have taken on a kind of self-assured arrogance of self-proclaimed greatness that at best diminishes or eliminates any kind of legitimate dialogue and at worst is killing us.  The idea that we are the greatest ultimately undermines us morally and threatens our security.  Until we change our mindset, we seem destined to leave our children a world of such hot violence that global warming will seem like an irrelevant afterthought.

With regard to America’s claim of being the greatest, there is at least a sliver of hope.  Those young correspondents reflected what many of us have heard from other quarters.  We don’t hate America; we hate its policies and especially those currently in power.  That leaves a huge burden on the desk of the next President, whoever she or he may be.  There is the possibility of turning things around, which will take not merely words (thought they too are important) but also deeds.  The world will be watching and so should each of us.  If we blow this opportunity, people around the world my start hating Americans and not only their government.  That will be our fault.

In the meantime, we the greatest await the report of General Westmorland – oops I meant General Petraeus.