Thursday, March 31, 2016

Trump, Abortion, and the Law

The furor from both sides of the aisle concerning Donald Trump's call yesterday that "some form of punishment" be instituted for women who seek an abortion is a rare window onto one of the most distorted dynamics in American political discourse. This flap may do more damage to Trump among Republicans than all of his prior intemperate statements combined, stretching back to his first attack upon John McCain as a "loser" who let himself be captured by the Vietnamese. The reasons for this outrage are illuminating, both about the nature of Trump's candidacy and the politics of the larger discourse concerning abortion and reproductive rights.

On the surface, Republican anger is centered on the degree of ignorance and phony pandering revealed by Trump's words. Trump, a public figure who until very recently supported reproductive freedom, has obviously not done the least bit of study or reflection upon the principles and theory of the "pro-life" activism he now claims to espouse. His words betray a total ignorance of the current consensus among mainstream GOP politicians.

But if ignorance and pandering were enough to spark outrage, Donald Trump should have been in much worse shape long before now. Trump's evasions and vague ramblings have repeatedly revealed how little he knows about issues of foreign and domestic policy on which the GOP has been campaigning rigorously for decades. This case is unique because, speaking as the GOP frontrunner, Trump has done material damage to a rhetorical position that the Republican party had long taken for granted as safely established.

In calling for women to be punished, Trump has done what no "pro-life" advocate is ever supposed to do, and left the GOP once again exposed to accusations of waging a "war on women." But if Trump's discomfiture is on some level deserved, his crime is also arguably one of undue candor.  The move to criminalize abortion inevitably raises the issue of enforcement, and the idea that enforcement could avoid punishing women, directly or indirectly, is absurd.

This is made plain by the strained retraction issued by Trump's campaign short hours after his comments broke. Women seeking abortion would not be punished in a Trump administration, we were told, only their doctors, because a woman in such an instance is a "victim." This is in line with the current position of "pro-life" activism, but is incongruous from a campaign that has repeatedly decried "political correctness."

What but political correctness (and latent sexism) could consign half of the population to "victimhood" if they are complicit in an act deemed the moral equivalent of murder? This is to deny the agency and autonomy of women, to insist that they need special protection, not only from their doctors, but from themselves. It is especially clear in the case of a woman who, as in the dark days of caustic chemicals and wire hangers, attempted to administer an abortion to herself. Trump (and "pro-life" activists in general) would presumably also deem such a woman a victim. But this makes the "pro-life" position strangely identical to that of the defenders of reproductive freedom. Moreover, if she is a victim, then by driving her to self-mutilation instead of the care of a doctor the "pro-life" legal regime would punish her as surely as if it had clapped her in jail.

These types of logical and rhetorical problems are rarely brought to the surface by our national discourse on reproductive rights, because partisans on both sides of the issue are content to cleave closely to scripted talking points and avoid all discussion of the principles underpinning the issue. Democrats and Republicans assume that the degree of support for either position is "baked in" to the political demography, thus there is never any need to educate or persuade. In this respect, Donald Trump has done us a favor by inducing a moment of rare probity into a routinely rote and anemic discourse. It would be wonderful if the debate of these issues could remain as robust through the fall, but as Trump's opponents in both parties exhaust the political points that can be scored from this gaffe, the conversation will most likely revert to being as insipid as usual.








Thursday, March 17, 2016

Vladimir Putin Can See Sarah Palin From His House

The recent surprise announcement by Vladimir Putin that Russia will be withdrawing the bulk of its forces from Syria is reminiscent of Sarah Palin's decision to leave the governorship of Alaska before her term was done. In the same way that Palin justified her decision by characterizing it as a courageous refusal to "go with the flow," Putin has declared victory as if his current withdrawal had been his aim all along. The main difference between these two cases is that in the latter instance, many people are buying it. The strange cult of Putin as some kind of strongman/strategic genius seems to have inexhaustible legs in American political discourse, thus it is easy to find examples of pundits praising this most recent development as a bold gambit.

This is not to indulge in "he's turning tail and running" machismo. I have very little interest in whether Mr. Putin deserves his "strongman" reputation or not. But the suggestion that this policy on Moscow's part has produced any significant achievements to justify or redeem it is strained at best. Russia has bought some breathing room for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. Though this is an undeniable real-world effect, why it is in anyone's interests, including those of Russia, is as yet an imponderable.

When historians many decades from now sift through the evidence of the Syrian civil war there will no doubt be long debates about Russia's role, and one of the key interpretive questions will be whether Mr. Putin ever had a coherent policy, or whether he has been improvising from the outset. I will not play Karnak and predict who will have the better side of that debate. But, barring some miraculous result in the peace negotiations between warring factions in the Syrian civil war, the "he was just winging it" judgment may ultimately be the kindest reading that can be made of Putin's actions.

None of the coherent goals one might posit for Russia's policy meet any basic test of value. Assert Russia's relevance in the Middle East? If that was the object, it was achieved at a steep cost of increased misery to the Syrian people and decreased capacity in the fight against ISIS. Deflect attention from meddling in the Ukraine? The hordes of desperate refugees driven to the sea in part by Russia's machinations cannot produce fond thoughts in Europe.

The most cogent reason for Russia's intervention in Syria is the one that Putin himself gave to the UN, that the fight against jihadi terrorists such as ISIS must depend on the continued persistence of forces like the Assad regime. This, however, is a policy rooted in a view of the Syrian people (and Arabs more generally) so cynically pessimistic and paternalistic as to rival the xenophobic ramblings of Donald Trump. Now that Putin is set to (at least notionally) demobilize his forces with the civil war still raging and ISIS as strong or stronger than when he began, the best that can be said of him is that he has perhaps recognized the limits of Russian military power better than George W. Bush did in the case of America's involvement in Iraq. To anyone who would cite this as an example of Putin's strategic wisdom, however, it would have to be noted (as was true in the case of George W. Bush) that the one thing Putin could have done better than withdrawing "at the right time" would have been to refrain from deploying his forces in the first place.

The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and Putin's deployment of Russian forces to Latakia both stemmed from the same fundamental mistrust of the people of the Middle East, a refusal to acknowledge that they might effect social and political change on their own initiative. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has been hampered by the same dysfunctional mindset, in kind if not degree. Putin's decision to withdraw forces now gives the lie to comparisons portraying him as more "tough" or "dynamic" than President Obama. In the end both leaders were willing to apply comparable levels of force to the Syrian theater. Indeed, President Obama proves the more durable "warrior," as our air campaign against ISIS will continue as Russia draws down.

The relevant comparison between Russia and the US is not over which nation was willing to drop more bombs- that is an effective draw. The real contrast concerns which nation was willing to back its principles with military force. President Obama correctly recognized early on that "Assad must go," that Damascus's use of military force against its own people made regime change (achieved militarily or politically) necessary for stability and peace in Syria. The US has erred in failing to construct a robust policy on that basis, because we did not trust the Syrian people to replace the Assad regime with a government to our liking. Thus we allowed the civil war to drag on and to create a power vacuum conducive to the rise of ISIS. If the US had been as willing to use its strategic power to oppose the Assad regime as Russia has been to support it, the Syrian civil war might already be over, and ISIS might never have existed (or at least might be on its way to defeat).

Those who continue to laud Vladimir Putin are drawing the wrong lessons from history. The consequences of American passivity may be a cautionary tale, but its moral is complemented by that to be drawn from the story of Russia's "dynamism." Though America's failure in Syria demonstrates that correct principles will not be of help if a nation lacks the courage of its convictions, in Putin's decision to withdraw we see that no amount of military power will prevail if the political principles underpinning its use are misguided.




Monday, March 14, 2016

Letter to Senator Bernie Sanders

To the Honorable Senator Bernie Sanders:

      Like many Americans I am deeply distressed by the incidents of violence that have transpired at rallies for the front-runner in the Republican nominating contest, Mr. Donald Trump. Though you have rightly condemned Mr. Trump for irresponsibly encouraging his followers in these incidents, and have stated that no candidate should welcome or incite violence, you have yet to issue a direct plea to your own supporters to refrain from violence of any kind.

        Some admittedly very dishonest pundits on the right are broadcasting a false narrative that asserts a moral equivalency between yourself and Donald Trump, claiming that your supporters are equally to blame for incidents such as what transpired recently in Chicago. Though this is absurd given the context of Mr. Trump's inflammatory behavior, even so, at such a fraught moment in our civic life all political leaders come under an onus to enjoin their own supporters to reject violence.

        You have shown great integrity and sterling leadership, both in Congress and on the campaign trail. Please use that moral authority accrued through long service to intervene positively in the current crisis. A clear plea from you asking your supporters to abjure violence in all forms would work powerfully and urgently to mend our civil discourse and elevate our political life from the depths into which it has fallen. 

         Donald Trump seeks to expose our "politically correct" civic culture as morally bankrupt and materially impotent. Only strong moral leadership on the part of his opponents can defeat his gambit. I hope that you will show Donald Trump, his supporters, and the rest of America that our inclusive democratic politics still claims the allegiance of people motivated by integrity and self-restraint. In any case, I hope this message finds you well and I thank you for your attention on this matter.

                                                             Sincerely,

                                                              Andrew Meyer

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Trumpocalypse and Rule #1

As a long-time Douglas Adams fan, I found inspiration for basic parenting technique in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Always impressed by the salience and cogency of the motto ("Don't Panic") inscribed on the cover of the book that gives the novel its title,  I presented this to my infant daughter as "Rule #1 of Life, the Universe, and Everything." Over the years it has proven a handy mechanism during temper tantrums, bouts of disappointment, and various and sundry emotional rough-spots.

Viewing the current political scene, it becomes plain to me that the efficacy of "Rule #1" extends far beyond the personal or domestic realm. Like many other observers I am deeply dismayed by the rise of Donald Trump in the ranks of the GOP, and view the prospect of his nomination as a singular political disaster the likes of which our nation has rarely witnessed in my lifetime. But viewing the scenes of violence in Chicago last night and reports of the Secret Service "swarming" to protect Mr. Trump in Ohio today, I cannot help but feel that the larger political response to the threat he poses is being detrimentally impacted by flagrant and tragic inattention to Rule #1.

As I have written in past posts, a Trump presidency would be cataclysmic for our nation and a defeated Trump GOP candidacy only slightly less harmful. As bad as both of these outcomes are, however, there is one that would be worse: if he or his supporters are violently injured in the course of the current campaign. Trump has, deliberately or not, turned his candidacy into an indictment of the legitimacy of our system of government. Nothing will make that challenge more persuasive, lasting, and effective than a violent attack upon him or his supporters. Such acts would "prove" to his supporters (and to neutral observers) that Trump's opponents, those of any party who claim to defend the inclusive, constitutional, democratic order that Trump derides, are moral cowards and intellectual hypocrites. Nothing would do more to undermine faith in our system of government and impede the working of its institutions.

None of this is meant to defend Trump or to minimize the threat he embodies. Whatever demurrals he or his campaign might make, Trump has deliberately fostered a climate of tension and violence at his rallies. The resulting scenes of chaos ostensibly argue for the kind of "strong" authoritarian leadership he claims to offer, thus further enhancing his appeal among the types of voters that have powered his ascent. Though these tactics are reprehensible, responding to them with fear and anger will only add gasoline to the fire.

Expressions of protest against Trump are all well and good, but expressions of rage serve no useful end. Donald Trump's greatest ally is, to borrow FDR's phrase, fear itself, followed closely by anger. To deprive him of that power, anyone dedicated to opposing him must embrace Rule #1- Don't Panic.   Anger only enhances his appeal, and violence used against Trump or his supporters is not only morally wrong, it is the height of strategic folly. The only way that the challenge Trump poses can be defeated is at the ballot box. If Trump is physically attacked he (or his movement, if he is killed) wins, in which case everyone loses.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Kasich Pledge

As my distress mounts in the face of a likely Trump GOP candidacy, I have begun to cast about for ways that Democrats like myself might meaningfully influence the outcome of the Republican nominating process. I am an unapologetic left-wing partisan. I have voted for every Democratic presidential candidate since Michael Dukakis, and until now there have been no circumstances under which I would have imagined voting Republican. Moreover, I greatly admire the two potential Democratic nominees in this race. I have had an "I'm with Hillary" sticker on my car for many months now; I think she would make an excellent president. Though I prefer Hillary to Bernie Sanders, if he prevailed I would, under normal circumstances, swiftly jump aboard his bandwagon in the general election, as I deem his policies far superior to that of any of his potential Republican rivals.

The stakes in this election, however, have risen catastrophically high. A Trump candidacy, even if he should lose, will do so much damage to the fabric of our Republic, that all conscientious citizens are called upon to do what they can to prevent it. Why is this the case? The first and most obvious reason is that if Trump is nominated, there is a chance he will become president. Democrats who are thrilled at the prospects of an "easy win" should take a moment to reflect that anything can happen between now and November. I personally think that a Trump nomination is most likely to result in a Democratic win (for either Sanders or Clinton), perhaps even a landslide that radically redistributes power to the detriment of the GOP more generally. The prospects of such a partisan windfall should not be enough to make anyone welcome a Trump candidacy, however. Because Trump himself is so unqualified, because he has demonstrated so little respect for the political process, and because he has built an electoral coalition on a foundation of racism and xenophobia, a Trump presidency would be disastrous in a way that no prior presidency in the history of this country could rival (even those of James Buchanan, Richard Nixon, or George W. Bush).

But this is only the worst case scenario. In point of fact, the best case scenario, in which Trump runs as the GOP nominee but loses, is still catastrophically detrimental to our nation. As David Brooks notes in a recent column, for many decades we have been living through an era of increasing disaffection with the political system and disenchantment with our fundamental institutions. The various organs of the government have progressively lost dignity and legitimacy in the eyes of both the citizenry and the elected officials who inhabit them. We do not have to guess where the end of that process leads, it is foretold in the fate of other systems where similar forces were at work: the early Chinese Republic, Weimar Germany, and Spain on the eve of that nation's civil war.

The United States is of course a very robust and resilient Republic, and the self-correcting mechanisms built into our Constitution have seen us through many crises in the past. But there is a limit to the regenerative elasticity of any system. Donald Trump is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. His candidacy could so profane our politics and debase our national discourse as to irreparably drain our institutions of the capacity to govern. This, moreover, discounts the horrific damage he will do (has already done) to the reputation of the United States abroad. In an age when the struggle against Al Qaeda and ISIS requires intense and strategic political acumen, our national security can not afford a presidential candidate who casts us as the caricature demonized in jihadi propaganda.

As much as I cherish the prospect of a Clinton (or a Sanders) presidency, and as much as I fear the potential fallout of GOP control of the White House (new attacks on Obamacare, a return to policies that favor the super rich, a neglect of the environment, etc.), I am forced to admit that it would be better in the long-run interests of the country for the Democrats to lose against John Kasich than for them to win against Donald Trump. In an effort to sway my Republican compatriots, I thus make this pledge: if you nominate John Kasich, I will vote for him in the November election, no matter who is the Democratic nominee. Needless to say, this pledge entails a resolve to use not only my vote but also my time, effort, and money, to oppose Donald Trump should he be the nominee.

I can envision many objections on the part of both Republicans and Democrats, but I will refrain from laying out my arguments against them here. This may well be deemed an empty gesture, but I would urge my fellow Democrats to follow me in making this pledge.  If nothing else, it would signal a willingness to rise above partisanship and forge a new electoral coalition for the greater good of the nation. I hope that my dire forebodings are wrong, and that we will either not be saddled with a Trump candidacy or that its occurrence will not be as damaging as I foresee. In any case, I do not want to feel later on that I sat idly by while the storm gathered.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Donald Trump Can Not Be President

It is being said in many different ways in many different venues, but it is important enough to bear reiterating: Donald Trump can not be president. Like most public utterances, this one has several different subtexts and connotations, all of which are being vetted in various precincts of the blogosphere and punditocracy. I would like to speak to a very narrow range of this principle's meaning. I do not mean that Donald Trump can not be president in a moral sense, or a geostrategic sense, or by reference to the basic tenets of our system of government, though the assertion is true in all these ways (and others).

I mean that in the most practical, workaday sense of the phrase, Donald Trump can not be president. After his pronouncements in support of a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., there is no way that Trump could possibly perform the most basic functions of the office of president. No leader of a Muslim country (and few leaders of any other country that has a substantial Muslim minority, like France or the U.K.) could possibly engage in diplomacy with a Trump administration without suffering incalculable political damage at home. None of our alliances with nations like Turkey, Iraq, or Afghanistan could be maintained. U.S. military facilities in places like Turkmenistan might have to be closed. Trade pacts with Muslim nations would dissolve. The flow of commodities like oil might well stop. At the very least, the cost of doing business in the Muslim world would become subject to a "Trump surtax." All of these consequences flow immediately and spontaneously from Trump's pronouncements on a Muslim ban. It is a bell that can not be unrung. If he repudiates his comments tomorrow he will be no less hobbled in his potential for office.

This presents a conundrum to the Republican Party. If it nominates Trump, it is putting forward a candidate for president that is fundamentally unfit for office. Any candidate that upholds his or her pledge to support Trump if he is the nominee is either lying to the American people or is failing in a fundamental duty of citizenship. This is not partisan hysteria or liberal snark, it is a raw fact. Donald Trump can not be president of the United States. Anyone who denies this reality contributes to the political dysfunction that he embodies.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Postcard from the Right Side of History

In his address to the nation tonight President Obama conveyed much of significance to the American people. His reminder that ISIS does not represent the larger faith of Islam and his call for Americans to continue to treat one another with fairness and respect irrespective of creed were vitally important. His declaration that the United States will prevail because we are on the right side of history was reassuring.

I have long been a supporter of the President, and I trust that his efforts in our defense are earnest and reflect what he perceives to be the highest strategic wisdom. However, even with the positive steps that he took tonight, I fear that the President has mishandled both the politics and the strategy of the conflict with ISIS in ways that could profoundly tarnish his legacy if not redressed.  

In political terms the President has seemingly underestimated the severity of unease stirred by ISIS's barbarity and resilience. Whatever the view may be like from the White House situation room, from the perspective of Anytown USA the threat from ISIS seems to be intensifying in ways that would justify a much higher degree of urgency than has been projected in the President's public pronouncements. As a continuing stream of grotesque images fills the nightly news, the perception grows that some radical change in strategy is warranted to confront this threat. In that climate the President's measured assessments and calls for incremental tactical change appear out of touch with the severity of the crisis.

The problem is compounded by the fact that there are indeed changes in strategy that might be effective. The most salient of these is our posture with regard to the Syrian civil war. The President is no doubt right that we should refrain from entering another major land war in the Middle East with US ground forces. Since that is so, however, we must find a way of uniting local forces within Syria and Iraq for the fight against ISIS, a task that can never be achieved as long as the Assad regime remains in power.

In his speech tonight President Obama listed resolving the Syrian civil war as priority number four in his plan to defeat ISIS, a stance that is consonant with what has been our policy since the Syrian civil war first began. If President Obama wanted to broadcast the adoption of a new strategy (and he should), he should have made it clear that the removal of the Assad regime is now America's first priority in the struggle against ISIS, a goal for which we expect the compliance of all powers operating within the region, including Moscow. The removal of Assad will no doubt prove difficult in the face of Russian opposition, but if it is to be achieved at all it first must be articulated as a non-negotiable security concern by President Obama. At the very least, risking political capital in this way on a shift in strategic priorities would reassure citizens back here in the United States that our leaders understand the urgency of the crisis and are undertaking bold action to redress it.

The President is no doubt right that in the struggle with ISIS, America sits on the right side of history. But he would be foolish to assume that we will remain there if we allow the political climate in our nation to deteriorate. As Franklin Roosevelt warned, fear is a corrosive force that can eat away at the foundations of civil society and the rule of law. If, partly from a belief that our leaders are asleep at the wheel, fear metastisizes throughout the body politic, it will lead to spasms of sectarian violence and institutionalized discrimination against Muslim-Americans that undermine our democratic system. At that point, the right side of history might look like a distant and hazily remembered place. Like the President I have faith in the resilience of our nation, and I do not doubt that any dark times ISIS inspired would be temporary. We are best advised, however, to send ISIS swiftly to its scrapheap, so that we may continue to enjoy the view from history's right side uninterrupted.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Terrorism in San Bernadino

Wednesday's shooting in San Bernadino is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Heartbreaking because of the devastating loss and pain it has inflicted on the victims and their families. Infuriating because it is an act of malice so destructive, so conducive of strife and division, and at the same time so utterly pointless, that one can not but reflect on it with anger.

The misery of the event itself is compounded by the inevitable absurdity of the political discourse that has followed in its wake. In this instance we do not have to puzzle over the murderers' associations or thought process to determine whether what they did is an act of terrorism. Their actions can be read at face value. If this were purely some sort of personal workplace vendetta, why would the murderers leave explosives to kill (or even to frighten, if in fact the devices were deliberately nonfunctional) first responders arriving at the scene? What could they have been aiming at, other than the targeting of random civilians to incite fear? Whatever motivated their depraved acts, the acts themselves constitute the very definition of terrorism.

 The questions that pundits are asking in the wake of this crime are indicative of how little we have come to understand the world more than fourteen years after 9/11. Why would the murderer's target co-workers? Why, given the armaments they had accumulated, would they not seek a venue where they could cause more loss?  What did they hope to achieve?

These murderers targeted their co-workers because they were terrorists, and that was precisely the means by which to create the most terror. Not merely terror, but sustained and destructive paranoia. By giving no overt signs of their "radicalization" and by leaving no explicit indication of their "beliefs," these criminals sowed the seeds of suspicion and fear. Does the potential for this kind of violence lurk in my Muslim co-worker or neighbor? Do I need to worry about the mosque in my community?  The effectiveness of this strategy is immediately apparent: the mosque of which the San Bernadino attackers were members has already begun to receive death threats. This is the diabolical logic of Wednesday's terrorist attack. Whether it was the idea of the murderers themselves or of some distant member of ISIS or Al Qaeda with whom they were in contact is of little consequence.

Given that this was an act of terror, how should we as Americans respond? The first step we must take is to clearly understand the strategy of the enemy, our failure in which regard is manifest in our anguished search for a motive or a larger plan. Monstrous as it is, the attack in San Bernadino boils down to one more step in a long con that groups like ISIS have been running on the US and its allies for decades. We are perpetually inclined to believe that violence on this scale must be in service to some larger "constructive" goal: the establishment of a new order or the creation of some new institution.

But none of the groups we have been fighting have anything approaching a long-term blueprint for change. Even ISIS with its jumped-up "caliphate" are basically glorified oil thieves and gangsters. There is no "there" there. The terror that these groups sow is not done in service of anything remotely resembling a "People's Soviet" or new "Reich." The terror is an end unto itself. Because ISIS and Al Qaeda have no achievable ultimate goals, the best they can hope to do is to perpetuate themselves, and because there is no enduring benefit that these groups can offer anyone as an inducement to join, they must enlist their enemies to drive members into their ranks. This is the essence of the long con: create terror so as to create oppression; so as to create oppressed Muslims willing to sow more terror; and so on. None of the strategists behind this program have any concrete idea of where this cycle will lead (one imagines that in occasional reflective moments they console themselves that such a problem can be left with God), they are only resolved to keep the wheel spinning.

If this is the nature of the threat, how can or should we respond? Since the ultimate goal of these attacks is terror, the most effective response is simply to refuse to be afraid. If we treat one-another with fear and suspicion, if we deprive one-another of basic rights and dignity, or if we stoop to acts of sectarian violence, the terrorists achieve the only victory of which they are capable. If, however, we simply remain determined to live with one-another, work together, communicate, and treat one-another with fairness and respect, the terrorists lose.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Party Like It Is 1932

Godwin's Law famously (and wisely) warns against all comparisons to Adolph Hitler upon the internet.  Such counsel is difficult to follow, however, when an American political candidate does everything short of painting on a toothbrush mustache and goose-stepping with arm extended in a stiff salute. Donald Trump's recent assent to the idea that Muslim Americans be given special identifications is so grotesquely reminiscent of the yellow "Star of David" badges issued by the Nazi regime as to boggle the mind.

The situation might be tragically laughable if Trump himself were not still gaining in the polls. In the wake of the Paris attacks, a climate of fear has understandably settled over Europe and America, and it is creating a wind to fill the sails of Mr. Trump's political ambition. The crude words about immigrants and border security with which he launched his campaign seemed comic until it became clear how deeply he had struck a nerve in a portion of the American electorate. Now, even beyond those precincts in which Trump's message was initially welcomed, events have conspired to make him appear a prophet to many voters.

"Appear" is the urgently operative word here. A large portion of the American electorate has been conned, and Donald Trump is not the perpetrator of this deceit. Trump himself is among the victims over whose eyes the proverbial wool has been pulled. ISIS has convinced everyone that their Muslim identity is the most salient and significant fact about them, when in fact our obsession over their religious claims plays perfectly into their malignant agenda.

This is not to rehearse tired arguments about how ISIS are "not real Muslims." Of course the members of ISIS are real Muslims. But that is no more significant than the fact that Yigdal Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin of Israel in 1995, was a real Jew. In a world of 1.6 billion Muslim inhabitants, "watch all the Muslims" is about as effective a strategy for fostering security as "watch all the Jews" would have been for Rabin's bodyguards before his tragic death.

This myopia is not confined to the political right, moreover. Liberals who preach that combating ISIS would best be done by lecturing Muslims on values of secularism, feminism, and pluralism have likewise been sucked in by the ISIS grift. We should no doubt all champion secularism, feminism, and pluralism in any context and to the degree that we can, but to imagine that this will have any impact on the strategic conflict with ISIS is a fantasy. Right now any list of the greatest champions of secularism, feminism, and pluralism in the Middle East would have to include the Ba'athist regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, and it is the hatred of that government's lethally cruel autocracy, not any particular love of ISIS's religious ideals, that has kept ISIS afloat in Syria for so long.

However misguided Mr. Trump's view may be, the fear that is fueling its ascent is real, and its effects are not only visible here in the U.S. France has its own Donald Trump in the form of Marine Le Pen, and Germany in the person of Frauke Petry. If the problem of ISIS lingers and the terror they inspire intensifies, the fortunes of all these politicians will continue to rise. Anyone who at this point dismisses the possibility of "President Trump" is sorely deluded, and such a judgment is even more true of anyone who doubts that such an outcome would be a disaster comparable to the elections that transpired in Germany in 1932.

The emergency confronting our leaders is dire, and the responsibility weighty. As hyperbolic as it seems to say, the future of the free world literally hangs in the balance. If an effective strategy against ISIS is not swiftly adopted and applied, future generations will look back on this as the watershed moment that undid much of the hard won progress of the late twentieth century.


Monday, November 16, 2015

What to Do About ISIS Now

The heartbreaking attacks in Paris, taken in combination with those in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey, as well as the stream of oppressed refugees set to flight by ISIS's barbarity, give new and heightened urgency to the problem of ISIS. It has never been more necessary to resolve the problem of ISIS once and for all. Unfortunately, it also has never been more difficult.

The key to confronting ISIS has always been the Syrian civil war. ISIS draws active and tacit support from its opposition to the Assad regime in Damascus, a posture that is persuasive to Sunni minorities in Iraq. Those who look for the causes and the undoing of ISIS in ISIS itself are looking in the wrong place. ISIS is sustained by a context of regional instability and institutional breakdown. Until that problem is redressed, ISIS will endure.

In this respect, the strategy of the Obama administration and its allies has been woefully anemic. The idea that ISIS could be confronted by the application of air power and a search for "partners" in the region absent any resolute policy regarding the larger Syrian civil war was a phantasm. President Obama's claims that ISIS is "contained" or that progress may be measured in the size of the territory ISIS controls are not credible. The political solvency of the ISIS regime will remain intact as long as the outcome of the Syrian civil war remains in question.

Though the Obama administration has been at fault, its critics have offered little in the way of practical advice. Air power will not resolve the crisis, but the deployment of ground troops will likewise be ineffectual absent some clear plan to resolve the Syrian civil war. If American ground troops overran the ISIS "caliphate" they would then be faced with the choice of handing that territory back to the Assad regime or embarking on a long, bloody occupation of hostile territory, both of which would be disastrous in the long run.

The proof of this is in the short career of the vaunted "man of action" Vladimir Putin since he engaged Russian forces in support of Bashar al-Assad. His "muscular" approach should, according to Obama's critics, have produced significantly different outcomes against ISIS. Instead, his government appears as impotent as any other in the face of the horrific attack on a Russian airliner.

What then, are the tactical and strategic options moving forward? Air power is in place to contend against ISIS, but ground forces are needed to destroy its base area. The Kurdish militias and peshmerga have made admirable gains, but they do not have the personnel or the firepower sufficient to the whole task. The necessary force must come from within Syrian society itself, which means that a settlement of the Syrian civil war must be arrived at now. 

President Obama should take the lead in broadcasting the urgency of this imperative to the international community. The greatest impediment to this goal is Russia. Vladimir Putin has committed his forces to the the support of the Assad regime, making the key goal of any strategic path to victory against ISIS unattainable. Russia must be moved from its obstructing position and enlisted into the effort to both end the Syrian civil war and destroy ISIS. The destruction of Kolavia Flight 7K9268 gives Russia a new interest in seeing this threat overcome. If President Obama mobilizes all of the economic and diplomatic resources of the US and its allies, it should be possible to enlist the Russians into a plan to end hostilities between the Assad regime and its opponents ex-ISIS, and refocus military energies in Syria on the destruction of the ISIS caliphate.

What might the terms of that kind of political settlement look like? President Bashar al-Assad must step down and an interim government established incorporating members of the political opposition. A new integrated military force consisting of the remnants of the Syrian army and all forces not aligned with ISIS (including, if they will join, even "Al Qaeda" affiliates like the Nusra front) should be formed. The promise of free, fair, and open elections in the wake of ISIS's defeat should be vouchsafed by the interim government and its international supporters, backed by a UN resolution, guaranteeing proportional representation to all sectarian and ethnic groups. A campaign to destroy ISIS should then be launched coordinating the reconstituted Syrian army, the Iraqi military, the Kurdish peshmerga, along with the air power of the US, its coalition partners, and Russia. All of this should be done swiftly, allowing for details to be sorted out after the dust of combat settles, so that the threat of ISIS can be squelched before it further destabilizes the region and the world.

ISIS has proven itself very adept at manipulating postmodern technology and international media in furthering its phantasmal, barbaric agenda. The worst thing that the international community can do in the face of this threat is nothing: inaction in the face of terror and imposed suffering will drive more desperate, aggrieved, and tormented people into the arms of this nihilistic monster.  The world must act, and it must act now. We can only hope that our leaders have the wisdom, the ability, and the political will to do what must be done.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Free College: A Not-so Modest Proposal

The rising cost of college has become a hot issue in this campaign season, a trend that I welcome as a professional college educator. President Obama has challenged us to make community college free for all. Bernie Sanders has done him one better by proposing that all public colleges should be tuition-free. Hilary Clinton has put forward her own "college-affordability plan" which proposes to address the problem through a combination of grants and low-interest loans, at a cost of $350 billion over ten years.

Sustaining and increasing access to education is obviously a key agenda if we are to reverse the malignant trend of widening wealth inequality and preserve the benefits of broadly shared prosperity that have been the hallmark of American society since World War II. There is, however, room to disagree as to the means by which this should be accomplished. Matt Bruenig, writing in the New Republic (hat tip to my dear friend Kathy Phillips Nanney), argues against the concept of free college. His argument rests on two pillars. The first is an assertion about social dynamics and economics: free college would represent a regressive wealth transfer from the working class, that does not send its children to college but whose taxes would support such a program, to the middle class. I am not impressed by this line of reasoning. Bruenig has underestimated the advantage that working class families might take of such a program to access otherwise unattainable opportunities. He is also not accounting for the degree to which the middle class is likely to shrink over time if something is not done to ensure access to higher education moving forward.

The second foundation of Bruenig's reasoning concerns the moral dimensions of a free college policy:

Due to the toxic American mix of aversion to welfare benefits, love of individual rights, and faith in meritocracy, the typical line you hear about free college is that it should be a right of students because they have worked hard and done everything right. The implicit suggestion of such rhetoric is that students are really owed free college as the reward for not being like those less virtuous high school graduates who refuse to do what it takes to better themselves through education.

 Bruenig warns that this type of rhetoric, if it prevailed as policy, would harden attitudes that underwrite inequality. Rather, we should stress that public assistance for college tuition is "indistinguishable from benefits for the disabled, the poor, the elderly, and so on." In this way, Bruenig argues, "it may be possible to encourage wealthier students to support the welfare state and to undermine students’ future claims of entitlement to the high incomes that college graduates so often receive."

 I am sympathetic to Bruenig's egalitarian impulses, but here again I think he is underestimating deeply entrenched attitudes about meritocratic achievement and reward. All Americans can go to high school on the public tab, but the fact that their diploma was paid for out of tax coffers does not translate into a general acknowledgement that public high school graduates owe the increased earning power of their degrees to the community at large. Whoever pays for college (and right now a majority of middle class graduates already receive some form of tuition assistance), Americans will feel that graduates have done work that others were unwilling or unable to do (despite having the same opportunities), and will thus have earned higher salaries, without incurring a deeper debt of gratitude to the welfare state.

Though Bruenig's moral argument against the rhetoric of free college is thus flawed, his point about the dangers of deepening inequality is substantial. Creating a new entitlement on the understanding that it was "earned" simply by doing what young people had been expected to do all along will drive a deeper wedge between those who receive its benefits and those who do not. The end result could be that a program designed to foster social mobility ironically impeded it.

Is the answer, then, that free college must be abandoned as a policy goal? I would argue not. There is a rather easy answer to the objections raised by Bruenig, and it involves moving in the opposite direction he proposes. If one wants to fight against the deleterious effects of calling tuition assistance earned, the simplest way to do so is to make students earn it.

If one took the amount that Hilary Clinton proposes ($35 billion/year) and set it aside as a general fund for which students could compete on a voluntary basis by taking a nationally administered exam, the effects could be extraordinarily positive. This would accomplish several goals at once. It would counter objections to the creation of a new entitlement, in that it would represent a public investment in individual improvement, ensuring that students could not only go to college, but that they were well-prepared to take full advantage of the opportunity once they got there.  Moreover, it would create incentives to intellectual achievement that might beneficially change the larger culture of the nation.

I am not proposing to replace the current privately administered college entrance exams. This new test would not be a test of "scholarly aptitude," but a raw quantitative test of scholarly achievement. Several hundred questions would be asked in an array of subject areas (history, civics, literature, science, mathematics, current events) over several hours. Stress would be placed on empirical factual information, to minimize the impact of class, gender, ethnic, and other forms of bias. A reading list could be published and updated of 500-1000 books, journals, and newspapers out of which the questions for each year's exam would be drawn. Questions ranging in difficulty from the very easy to the very abstruse would all be included. After the test had been administered the scores would be ranked and cash assistance dispersed on a sliding scale keyed to the results.

The effect of such a system would be to create a national individual "race to the top." With so much money at stake, families, schools and communities would mobilize to assist students in acquiring the knowledge needed to compete. This would go a long way toward redressing persistent problems that plague our educational system and society at large. As an educator I find that a vast majority of students enter my classroom, having graduated high school, but lacking the basic knowledge required to embark upon a college education. I have occasionally done a "diagnostic" quiz at the beginning of a semester course on world history, with questions of the difficulty of: "What war began in 1914?" Among approximately 70 students, the average correct response rate has typically been between 1 and 2 in twenty.

As Rick Shenkman has outlined, my classroom is far from unique. Study after study demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans, including college graduates, lack the most basic knowledge about politics, history, our system of government, and other fundamental dimensions of civic life. Many concerned observers have proposed means to redress this problem, but the social and cultural forces that perpetuate ignorance are too powerful to combat through the institution of curricular changes or new government programs. However, if we make the acquisition of knowledge pay off immediately and materially, that could potentially change behavior in dramatic ways. Consumption of books and newspapers might rise.  Communities might mobilize to insure that public school do a better job of inculcating lasting knowledge.  The producers of movies, television, and internet content might come under market pressure to provide more programming and services that are not only engaging and entertaining but that convey factual information in a way that is memorable and thought-provoking.

Such a system would obviously not be without flaws. No test could be completely free of bias, and wealthier families would obviously have greater resources to spend on test preparation, dampening the system's potential to increase social mobility. But such reasoning is to set the perfect in opposition to the good. The advantage enjoyed by the affluent would require lower income families and communities to organize socially and politically to leverage their chances to compete. But even given that onus, the system I propose would still provide more broadly shared opportunity than the status quo. Moreover, the organizing efforts of lower-income communities (for example, the creation of new shared lending libraries or joint tutoring programs) could have ancillary benefits, not only for the communities in question but for society and the nation as a whole.

Free college for all is a noble and worthwhile goal. Even better, however, would be to increase the value of college itself for everyone. If at the same time that we increase access to a college education we give people the incentive to better prepare themselves for college study, the benefits would be dramatic, wide-ranging, and enduring, extending far beyond the walls of academia itself.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Dr. Ben Carson and America's Chronic Case of Islamophobia

On last Sunday's "Meet the Press," Dr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, when asked if he thought Islam was "consistent with the Constitution," answered, "No, no I do not." This declaration has inspired outrage and applause in various precincts of the electorate and the commentariat. Carson's defenders protest that this was a "gotcha" question and that his answer is being taken out of context. His subsequent clarifications, however, belie such protests:

"We don't put people at the head of our country whose faith might interfere with them carrying out the duties of the Constitution," the retired neurosurgeon told Fox News' Sean Hannity. "If you're a Christian and you're running for president and you want to make this [country] into a theocracy, I'm not going to support you. I'm not going to advocate you being the president."

"Now, if someone has a Muslim background, and they’re willing to reject those tenets and to accept the way of life that we have, and clearly will swear to place our Constitution above their religion, then of course they will be considered infidels and heretics, but at least I would then be quite willing to support them," Carson added.

Carson no doubt thought he was being very fair in granting that even a Christian who desires theocracy should be opposed. But his following comments make clear that this is, from his perspective, a purely abstract hypothetical: Christianity does not compel its followers to desire theocracy, so any Christian candidate that held such a view would be a rare anomaly. By contrast, Carson is confident that professing faith in Islam inevitably places a person in opposition to the U.S. Constitution. To be a Muslim is, in Carson's view, to necessarily desire the imposition of Islamic religious law on all. Thus the only way a Muslim could legitimately become president is if they commit apostasy. They would then be damned and outcast by their community of faith, but could console themselves with having earned Carson's support.

Carson is of course wrong, about both Islam and Christianity. While the U.S. is constrained by the First Amendment against any "establishment of religion," many nations with Christian majorities are not. Thus the Queen of England could not remain so if she renounced her Anglican faith (or refused to swear to preserve the Presbyterian Church of Scotland). Conversely, tens of millions of Muslims live in nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and India constitutionally committed to ideals of secular pluralism and tolerance. Thus if being a faithful Muslim precludes anyone from leading a non-theocratic government someone should get on the phone to President Joko Widodo of Indonesia right away.

 What is most distressing is not that Carson would air such erroneous views, but that they have so much traction in the larger electorate. In a recent Pew Research Group poll, 40% of respondents reported that they would never vote for a Muslim candidate for president. The fact that this falls so short of a majority might seem reassuring, until one thinks of this ratio from the perspective of the three million Muslim-American citizens here in the US. What should they feel, knowing that as many as one-hundred and twenty million of their compatriots think that their faith disqualifies them from the highest office in the land?

Ben Carson's remarks and the media resonance they have achieved is a measure of the ignorance and complacency that still hamper our national discourse. The election of President Obama in 2008 briefly created the impression of the dawn of a "post-racial, post-ethnic" age, but subsequent events have demonstrated that antiquated notions of "us" versus "them" still shape the self-image of much of the public. Thus Carson's defenders protest that he has only stated the bald truth that "they" hate "us," ignoring the fact that when terrorists target Americans, "they" are often white Christian males such as Wade Michael Page or Dylann Roof, and "we" are the worshipers at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Michigan or the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The same obtuseness that applies to questions of American identity is embodied in popular attitudes about Islam, where the adage "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" finds profound confirmation. When fellow GOP contender Carly Fiorina had the temerity to suggest that Carson was wrong, she was castigated on social media. A meme circulated of Fiorina's picture, with the caption "If a Muslim was President, You Couldn't Drive a Car." While it is true that Saudi Arabia bans women from driving cars, this is the only Islamic nation (indeed, the only nation on earth) that does so. Moreover, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the three largest Muslim nations in the world, have all elected female heads of state, as have Turkey, Senegal, Mali, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, and Mauritius. As this is a feat yet to be achieved here in the U.S., the inverse relationship between Islamic culture and female empowerment is not nearly as obvious as Fiorina's detractors assume.

 Ben Carson's ride near the top of the polls may prove short-lived. But the appeal of his message nonetheless speaks to a chronic problem in American society. The US will only be able to exert the kind of international leadership to which we feel entitled, and achieve the degree of domestic coherence to which we aspire, when we have outgrown the influence of such demagoguery.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Putin in Damascus

Though there is scant recognition of this fact in Washington, the recent deployment of Russian marines and combat aircraft to Syria is one of the greatest foreign policy setbacks for the Obama administration, one that could tarnish the President's legacy more than Benghazi, the Crimean crisis, or the failure of his peace initiative in Israel/Palestine. As tens of thousands of refugees pour into Europe, driven in large part by the crisis in Syria, the magnitude of the international failure to contain that conflict has become increasingly evident. Persistent chaos in Syria portends strife for the entire Middle East and North Africa and an exacerbation of the factors that have strengthened groups such as Boko Haram, ISIS, and Al Qaeda throughout the Muslim world. The insertion of Russian military forces into this maelstrom does not herald a cure, but rather an intensification of the ailment.

Russia's motives are murky, but its actions circumvent any need for parsing through Moscow's intent. By stationing its planes, helicopters and troops in terrain held by the Assad regime, Russia has ordained that its military assets will operate to the tactical benefit of Damascus. All talk of Moscow's willingness to see a negotiated end to the Assad regime is thus meaningless, as negotiations will ever and always be driven by facts on the ground, and the security of Russian forces will be dependent on the integrity of the Damascus government and its strategic position.

This means that the last, slight chance for the U.S. and its allies to intervene meaningfully in the Syrian civil war is now lost. The only way to enlist significant Syrian forces in the struggle against ISIS was to take sides against the Assad regime, as ISIS's fund of human capital flowed from its opposition to Damascus. As long as ISIS constituted the strongest opposition to Assad, the U.S. stood no chance of enlisting local allies to fight that threat. If the U.S. had weighed in against Assad, not with ground troops, but with an air campaign to ground Damascus's air force, there was a chance that other opposition groups and defecting government units would turn on ISIS once the Damascus regime had stepped down or fallen. This would obviously have been a risky strategy, but it was the best hope of eliminating ISIS and restoring a semblance of order and security to the region.

Now that hope is gone. Declaring a no-fly zone for Assad's aircraft would now have to apply to the Russian jets and helicopters deployed to Latakia. If the Russians defied such an order, it could result in violence, destruction, and world war. By deploying its forces Moscow has thus raised the stakes on any tactical opposition to the Damascus regime ultimately high, ensuring that Assad is here to stay for as long as the Russian position holds.

I will not pretend to guess what this means for the long-term strategic "balance of power," and I am not overly concerned how this will affect American or Russian prestige. The new Russian firepower may actually advance the tactical fight against ISIS, though if it does so it would almost certainly be at a shockingly high human cost, given how entrenched the political opposition to the Assad regime has been. On the other hand, as the Syrian civil war churns on the Russians may encounter nothing but lost blood and treasure for their pains. However the situation plays out, one thing seems certain: this move by Russia does not bode well for the Syrian people, or the world. Moreover, for whatever does come to pass the U.S. will, because of its inaction, share in the blame.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Remembering 9/11

As a resident of Middletown, New Jersey, September 11th is always an emotionally fraught day. My family and I moved back here in 2005, but before then I lived here in Middletown, and was here when 37 of my neighbors were murdered, the most of any single township in the U.S. to fall victim that day. A short walk from my house is a memorial garden for the fallen where ceremonies are held every year. Today my daughter and her classmates were asked to wear red, white and blue to school as a show of patriotism to commemorate this sad anniversary.

Such displays are of course appropriate. Along with sorrow, 9/11 does and should inspire us with pride. Pride for the courage of those who responded to the events of that day, many of whom are numbered among the fallen. Pride for the resilience and endurance shown by so many in the face of tragedy. While it is true that the moment occasioned fear, and that fear naturally inspired some ugliness, our values and institutions have proven remarkably strong in the wake of a trauma that would have destroyed or irreparably damaged a less robust society.

Still, the passage of 9/11 also always brings, for me, regret. The events that day were a call to action, and though there has been action, it is difficult to believe that there has been much in the way of progress toward a resolution of the problems that 9/11 cast into stark relief. If you had told me fourteen years ago about ISIS and Boko Haram I might not have been surprised. There have always been and there will always be political fanatics, and imagining that we can live free of such challenges is unrealistic. But if you told me that we would have made so little progress on the issues that are exploited by the purveyors of jihadist terror, I would have been sorely dejected.

The fact that we still consume so much fossil fuel is distressing. Every petrodollar we spend puts money into the pockets of jihadists. Every exacerbation of climate change creates economic and social strife that generates new recruits for extremist groups. Every year that passes without a resolution of the conflict in Israel/Palestine intensifies the rancor that jihadists exploit for political gain. The fact that we have made tactical blunders in the fight against jihadists is no surprise, as the tactical problem was bound to be very difficult. But the fact that we never woke up to or made headway on what should have been clear and pressing strategic goals is deeply disheartening.

Our country is resilient, and our resilience fills me with optimism. It is fitting today that we remember the past, but it is also proper to think of the future. The relative equanimity that the U.S. has shown in coping with the trauma of 9/11 gives me hope that we will eventually summon the political will and energy to overcome the dangers that manifested themselves so violently on that day, and with which we are still faced. We honor those we lost best by resolving to confront the challenges that took them from us.