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.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Letter to Senator Corey Booker (D, NJ)

Dear Senator Booker,

            I write as your constituent to urge you to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated between the P5+1 nations and Iran. The threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is one of the greatest challenges to the peace and security of our nation and the world at large, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan effectively forecloses that possibility for the foreseeable future. With so much hanging in the balance, it is imperative that the accord be implemented.
            Your senior colleague, Senator Menendez, has declared his opposition to the plan, as has Senator Schumer of New York. You have come under intense pressure from civic groups here in New Jersey to join them. Please do not capitulate to such pressure. In terms of policy, the accord clearly serves the public good. From the perspective of politics, your adoption of an independent stance would affirm what initially motivated so many of us to support your election to the Senate.
            The arguments in support of the plan are clear, and may be summed up in the simple formula of “if not this, what else?” Opponents of the plan can not offer an alternative that will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons within three months of the accord’s failure. In light of that fact, all objections to the plan become moot. As a Jew, a Zionist, and someone deeply concerned with the security of Israel, I understand that preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is the first priority in defending those interests, and that the Joint Comprehensive Plan offers the best and only hope in that regard. Moreover, as an American I know that this accord is not only vital to our national security, but that the prestige of our nation and the future effectiveness of our diplomacy hinges upon its implementation. All things considered, the failure of the Joint Comprehensive Plan would be a policy disaster of the highest order.
            You have shown great courage and integrity, both as Mayor of Newark and U.S. Senator from New Jersey. Please continue that legacy, and lend your voice to one of the most consequential policy debates of our lifetime thus far. Though such boldness may stir up some discontent in the short term, in the long run true leadership will galvanize your support, both here at home and nationally. In any case I thank you for your attention on this matter, and hope that this letter finds you well.


                                                                        Andrew Meyer

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Letter to Senator Robert Menendez (D, NJ)

Dear Senator Menendez,

       I write as your constituent to urge you to give your support to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated between the P5+1 nations and Iran. You have been admirably diligent in querying our diplomats and military personnel on this matter, and have expressed reservations about the plan’s implementation. It would be a misuse of your office, however, to allow those reservations to mature into outright opposition to the plan.
       In assessing the merits of the plan, it must not be weighed against some hypothetical ideal, but against the actual conditions of the current situation. Thus though the plan’s critics complain that the inspection regime it establishes does not provide the U.S. and its allies with enough access or information, one can not deny that it will provide us with vastly more access and information than we have right now. If we have managed to monitor and mobilize against Iran’s nuclear program under current conditions, it stands to reason that we will be that much more empowered to do so under the framework the plan would establish.
      In like manner, though the plan’s critics complain that it does not create sufficient restrictions on Iran’s refinement of nuclear material, it in fact creates greater restrictions than have ever been imposed up to this point. It is thus not true that, as you said to the press, “in time…they will have the option if they choose to ultimately move toward a nuclear weapon, and our choices then will be even more limited than they are today.” If the Iranians choose to ramp up their refinement of uranium after the restrictions imposed by the Joint Plan expire, the U.S. will be in a better position to detect such action because of the inspection regime established by the accord. Moreover, because the accord mandates the surrender of stockpiled uranium and the dismantling of centrifuges, if Iran moves toward a nuclear weapon after implementation of the Joint Plan it will require a full year to do so rather than three months as is currently the case. At that point the U.S. will thus have more information, more time, and the support of the same allies that joined in the negotiation of the Joint Plan. How then can you argue that the accord leaves the U.S with fewer options rather than more?
        In point of fact, the only way that the U.S. can limit our options is to scuttle the Joint Plan before it has been given an opportunity to work. This accord required the building and maintenance of a broad and diverse coalition of allies. If it is abandoned now the U.S. will never be able to reconstruct those ties, and will find all of our future efforts at diplomatic leadership hampered by well-deserved skepticism and disenchantment on the part of the international community.
            The Joint Plan is the best hope to foreclose the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran through diplomatic means. It is thus imperative that it be implemented, for the sake of the peace and security of the U.S., of our allies, and of the world at large. I urge you to mobilize the full power of your office in support of this initiative. In any case I hope that this letter finds you well, and I thank you for your attention on this matter.


                                                            Andrew Meyer

Friday, August 07, 2015

Letter to The Honorable Chris Smith (R, NJ) on the Iran Nuclear Program

                                                                                                                                      August 6, 2015

Dear Mr. Smith,

            I write as your constituent to protest your opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated with the government of Iran by the Obama administration and the other P5+1 nations. This plan represents the best hope of peace in the Middle East; it is one of the most significant diplomatic efforts of our lifetime. It deserves the full support of the U.S. government, thus your call to obstruct it is neither prudent nor statesmanlike.
            Your arguments against the plan are not sound. The inspection regime it establishes is among the most intrusive ever instituted by a non-proliferation agreement. Even with the concessions made to Iranian security concerns, there is no possibility that the Iranians could secretly develop a nuclear weapon given the monitoring network the plan would put in place. Moreover, the proposed inspection regime would provide the U.S. and its allies with vastly more information than we currently have, so the idea that “gaps” in the plan pose a greater threat than the status quo is a patent fallacy.
            Likewise, since the provisions of the inspection regime never expire, it is simply not true, as you claim; that once “restrictions [on the refinement of nuclear material] expire, Iran could enrich on an industrial scale and the U.S. and its allies will be left with no effective measures to prevent Iran from initiating an accelerated nuclear program.” If Iran were to do as you envision, inspectors would immediately be aware of this activity, and the U.S. and its allies would possess all of the means currently at their disposal (both military and non-military) to put a halt to such ambitions. Moreover, because the Joint Comprehensive Plan, by mandating the immediate surrender of enriched uranium and the destruction of the majority of Iran’s centrifuges, increases the “breakout time” for a nuclear weapon from three months to a full year, even once the most severe restrictions of the plan expire, it provides the U.S. with greater resources and more time to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon than it currently possesses. Thus, again, the provisions of the plan are vastly superior to the status quo.
            Even if one accepts that, despite its profound improvements on the status quo, the Joint Comprehensive Plan is not ideal, this would not redeem your obstruction. In order to justify setting the perfect in opposition to the good, one would need to demonstrate that there are practical means to improve upon the current plan. Anyone who has paid attention to world affairs for the past decade knows that this is not so. The Joint Comprehensive Plan was only achieved through the painstaking cultivation and maintenance of a broad coalition of allies that imposed punishing sanctions on Iran at great cost to their own people. This deal represents the outer limit of what that coalition was willing to sacrifice in the cause of diplomacy. If the U.S. walks away from this plan we will never marshal that degree of support again, and on our own we will never be able to apply the level of economic and political pressure that has forced this set of concessions from Iran. In that case the only means left to achieve a more comprehensive solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear program will be military. Since those military means are destructive and unpredictable, and since the plan does not forfeit any of them in any case, it would be utterly foolish to refrain from giving this plan a chance to work before rushing into another foreign war.
            As an American citizen, a Jew, and a Zionist, I am deeply concerned with the security of both the United States and Israel. A nuclear-armed Iran would pose the greatest threat to those interests since the end of the Cold War. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action effectively forecloses the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon and thus neutralizes that threat. It is the duty of all U.S. officials to lend the authority of their offices to its implementation. I urge you to do what is right for America and the world. In any case I hope that this letter finds you well, and I thank you for your attention on this matter.


                                                            Andrew Meyer

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Real World: Iran Nuclear Program Edition

In online discussions in which I have participated since the first announcement of the P5+1 agreement concerning Iran's nuclear program, the most incisive analysis I have encountered was from my friend, colleague, and mentor, John Major. He summed up the situation by asking, "what real-world outcome would be preferable to this agreement?" Answer: "There isn't one."

Since then, much of the criticism I have read of the agreement, especially coming from GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates, has reminded me of the fabled quote by a Bush administration aid dismissive of the "reality-based community" that "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." The same kind of magical thinking that led us into the invasion of Iraq seems to be at work in the jeremiads being hurled against the P5+1 deal. We are told that we should have achieved a deal that eliminated Iran's nuclear program altogether, or that disabled Iran's ability to wage war by proxy. What we are not told is how those goals might have been achieved diplomatically, because there is no way that might have been accomplished.

The punishing level of sanctions that brought Iran to the bargaining table required the full and compliant participation of China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and other countries aligned with the P5+1. The maintenance of such a broad and diverse coalition in an era of so much geopolitical strife was a near miracle, and the idea that the goal of foreclosing Iran's development of nuclear arms could have been expanded to include its support of Hezbollah or its use of peaceful nuclear power is a total fantasy. In this respect President Obama's foremost rejoinder to the deal's critics is unimpeachable: this deal represents the outer limits of what was achievable through diplomacy.  Anyone who insists that this deal is inadequate is arguing that the problem of Iran's nuclear program could only be redressed militarily.

This brings us to the point on which the "reality-based community" has not been vocal enough: there is no military solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear program. This is demonstrable on a number of levels. One is by appeal to prima facie common sense: if there were a military solution to the problem, it would have been exercised already. Similar threats in Syria and Iraq were dealt with by the Israeli military and intelligence community. These operations were done in the face of strong international objections, thus the notion that the Israelis have been restrained in the case of Iran is not credible. Iran is larger, has more resources, and is better equipped than either Iraq or Syria, and it has the examples of those two countries to serve as warning. Despite cyber attacks and the assassination of Iranian physicists their nuclear program has proven resilient. Given the level of international opposition demonstrated by the P5+1 to an Iranian nuclear weapon, it strains belief to assert that a swift covert solution to the problem would not have been undertaken by some party if such means existed.

With respect to a more conventional assault upon Iran, that is a solution forfeited more than a decade ago by the Bush administration. After the invasion and occupation of Iraq, American foreign policy interests became much too tied to the stability of Baghdad to ever allow the risk of war against Tehran. The US has built the largest and most expensive embassy compound in the world in Baghdad, staffed by more than five thousand American personnel. A war against Iran would most likely enrage the Shi'ite Iraqis who currently control the government in Baghdad, potentially setting off a crisis to make the 1979 hostage affair in Tehran pale by comparison. Even if this worst case scenario did not come to pass, war between Washington and Tehran would so destabilize the US position in Iraq as to make none of our policy goals in that country at all tenable, a contingency that American leaders simply can not risk. 

For the last decade the world has lived under the threat of Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon, a prospect that portended even greater instability and strife than is already being experienced in the Middle East. Today, thanks to the P5+1 negotiations, it has become virtually impossible for Iran to become nuclear-armed, and that will remain true as long as this deal is in effect. Anyone who does not acknowledge and welcome that outcome is not living in the real world. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Just How Bigoted Are We?

Between September 1980 and August 1988 Iraq fought the longest conventional war in twentieth century history. The struggle was against Iran, a nation with almost three times Iraq's population and a military that had been trained and supplied for decades by the United States. Despite the fact that the Iranians were animated by religious revolutionary fervor and that a majority of Iraq's population shared the Shi'ite faith of their Iranian enemies, the Iraqi military fought resolutely. The war ended in stalemate.

Given this history, the tenor of American discourse concerning current military affairs in Iraq is infuriating. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter declares that the Iraqis have "no will to fight." Major editorial pages such as that of the New York Times concur with this assessment. Late night wits like Bill Maher wonder why the Iraqis need "Uncle Sugar" to do their fighting for them. What is wrong with all of these people? To believe that Iraq, having fought Iran to a standstill, would need assistance under normal circumstances to redress the threat of ISIS is utterly fantastic.

We are confronted with a stark disparity. In 1980 the Iraqi military fought tenaciously against an army of hundreds of thousands armed with US-made M60 and M47 battle tanks and F-4 and F-5 fighter jets. In 2014 it folded against a force of twenty thousand militants armed with humvees and grenade launchers. Faced with this anomaly, one would expect an educated person to investigate its causes vigorously.

No such inquiry has been forthcoming anywhere in the American commentariat. Everywhere pundits and leaders have defaulted to a common explanation: the Iraqis do not want to fight. They need more training. Their soldiers are unreliable, compelling dependence on sectarian and ethnic militias.

The absurdity of this view is difficult to exaggerate. To demonstrate this one need only transpose the Iran-Iraq war to the current day. If the Iran-Iraq war had begun in 2014 instead of 1980 it would not have lasted eight days, much less eight years. The Iraqi army of 1980 had 950 combat aircraft, including more than 300 fighter jets. Today it has 12 Soviet-era Su-25 fighters and 13 Russian-made attack helicopters. During the Hussein era Iraq had more than six thousand battle tanks. Today it has 237 tanks, about half of them first- and second- generation Soviet models that are at least 50 years out of date.

Iraq today does not have the military of a sovereign nation. The United States is refusing to allow Iraq to become fully armed, keeping it in a state of quasi-colonial dependence. That is the reason that the Iraqi military can not maintain the peace throughout its territorial domain, and any other explanation is ludicrous.

America has various reasons for constraining the Iraqi military, and though none of them are justifiable in abstract principle, some of them do have a pragmatic rationale. What exactly will transpire in the aftermath of the restoration of full Iraqi sovereignty is impossible to predict. Allowing the Iraqi military to fully arm, for example, might (in the short term) invite a civil war even more destructive than the conflict already raging. Thus the US muddles along with a deplorable and morally indefensible status quo rather than risk an unknown and uncontrollable future.

While the state of US policy might have complex causes, the state of American discourse can be explained much more simply.  The universal acceptance of a narrative of Iraqi cowardice and incompetence; the ubiquitous refusal to acknowledge the material reality of American colonialism: these phenomena can have no other explanation but bigotry. Listening to commentator after commentator swallow the story about Iraqi lack of "combat readiness" without pausing to ask how a nation that once had the fifth largest military in the world could fall into such a state of ineptitude, one can only conclude that a pervasive prejudice is at work.

As long as Americans remain so blinkered, we will never be able to make sense of our own foreign policy. Until Iraq is sovereign, it will lurch from crisis to crisis, producing ever more violent and destructive threats. We may fool ourselves that continued paternalism is the most prudent course,  but if we allow our policy to be guided by our bigotry, we will learn that the trouble colonialism invites ultimately vastly surpasses any it might forestall.