Thursday, November 29, 2007

Middle East Linkage

"Linkage" was a favorite concept of Henry Kissinger's during his "shuttle diplomacy" days in the 1970s. It conveyed both the idea that Middle Eastern regional affairs were (are) in fact intricately interconnected, and the idea that if somebody wanted something from the US they needed to make progress on their relations with Israel. True to form, the US has in the years since failed utterly to live by this diplomatic maxim. As long as the Palestinian problem remains an open wound for the Arab world, prospects for progress on other regional problems will remain gloomy. But linkage works both ways. Equally obtuse are the Iranians, who routinely pledge that they are committed to the destruction of Israel and then express outrage that the West opposes their nuclear program, almost as if they were daring anyone to draw the all-too-obvious connection. In fact the parallels between the US and Iran at this point are striking. Both countries claim (with some justification) that their hard-line regimes are products of the other's past meddling. Both countries' hard-line regimes use the other to demagogue their people and stay in power. But it is also true of both the US and Iran that they are big, heterogenous, multifaceted nations, with many more political possibilities than the troglodyte leaderships that they currently have, and that people around the world are quick to say that they despise the governments, not the people, of these nations. Here's to coevolution.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

How is the Court Political?

"How is the Supreme Court political?' is a different question than "How political is the Supreme Court?" Throughout the history of the Court it has been a quintessentially political institution, contrary to popular mythology (if anything Supreme Court politics was even rougher and more partisan during the nineteenth century than during the twentieth). There is a dark side to this (Court appointments shamelessly subordinated to political considerations of the executive), but also a more positive side, as Court rulings do measurably shift with popular sentiment (again, contrary to popular perceptions). So, how political is it? Very.
But how is it political? Politics in a constitutional democracy has to do with the tension between abstract ideology and personal prejudice. The same voter who will affirm his commitment to universal civil rights may not be comfortable with an African-American or a woman in a position of authority. It also has to do with the tension between ideology and practicalities. Those of us who don't have to make the tough votes can indulge ourselves in scorn for the routinely compromised elected officials who do. And so on. It's important to understand that the individual citizens who happen to sit on the Supreme Court are in the same position as everybody else. It's just not true that judges follow some sort of formula to produce dispassionate, impersonal rulings, nor would it be a good thing if that were true (mandatory sentencing guidelines, for example, bureaucratize and dehumanize the justice system).
In an earlier post on this blog I speculated that our heavily Catholic Supreme Court, with a Chief Justice whose wife has headed anti-abortion organizations, just might outlaw the death penalty; a surprising expression of the varieties of "conservatism." Right-to-life conservatism is not consistent with support for the death penalty, a point that the Catholic Church has been pressing for years, mostly on deaf ears in American Republican circles. Yesterday we learned that the Court will consider whether the Constitution upholds the right of an individual to have guns in his house. This puts the Court in an interesting position. According to the conservative tradition of "strict constructivism," the Constitution does not uphold some open-ended set of "rights" (such as the right to privacy). On this view, judges should not create "rights" that are not explicitly stated in the Constitution. There is no doubt that Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito and the gang would deny a right to contraceptives, say, or the right to drink alcohol.
So here is the interesting tension: the Second Amendment refers to "well-regulated militias." Constructionists affirm the right of legislatures to make public policy, and oppose "judicial activism," as in courts interfering with state and local legislative warrant. In this case, the District of Columbia is appealing a Federal Court ruling that the right to keep handguns at home is an individual right: the Roberts Court has chosen to review that pro-gun decision. Will the Roberts Court take a course that will inflame pro-gun conservatives? And what an irony if it does.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Cold War Hangover in Pakistan

The "Cold War" standoff between the West and the Soviet Union effectively ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but the foreign policy establishment and military infrastructure that grew up over a half-century are proving to be slow to change. This means that we still have the same dangers to our own government and economy that General Eisenhower warned us about in his farewell address (the "military-industrial complex") and a new set of dangers as our atrophied system continues to apply Cold War formulas to new and different challenges. This is strikingly apparent today with the political crisis in Pakistan.
During the Cold War period, foreign policy seemed to be easy, a by-the-numbers affair. The greatest threat was Soviet communism, so every other foreign policy or security problem, large or small, could be subjected to the same reductionist program: who's on our side, who's on their side? The roughest sort of dictators were not only tolerated but supported, installed, fought for by US troops. Anti-Americanism today in South Korea and the rest of the Pacific Rim, in Iran and the Middle East, in Chile and many other South American countries, in South Africa and beyond is a dividend from this dark, Machiavellian period, the high point of the American "empire" (empire is a bad thing, and a self-consciously imperial power is a power in decline). A post-Cold War world, with a multipolar geostrategic framework replacing the bipolar Cold War world, requires a far-reaching adaptation and transformation of the way the US conducts diplomacy and security. Among other things it represents an opportunity for the US to stand down from the dangerous and undesirable position of world policeman.
But old habits are hard to break, particularly when large sectors of the economy and the bureaucracy are dependent creatures of the old way of doing things. The Bush administration has avoided the hard work of transformation by simply finding a new bugaboo to plug in to the old Soviet role: Islamic nationalism. Dictators can still be coddled, the US can stay at the center of the global arms trade (which is worse for a community, being economically dependent on a vast prison system or on being the arms merchant to the world's violence?). The alternative is doom at the hands of the "terrorists" ("communists"). The political temptation to abuse this is too strong to resist. Any populist, any independent nationalist, any moderate socialist was a "communist." Today they are "Islamofascists."
And so we see our troglodyte, Cold War-mentality administration (the Secretary of State a Sovietologist by training) failing to smell the coffee on Pakistan. I wonder how many Americans are aware that Mrs. Bhutto is the daughter of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hung in 1979 by General Zia-ul-Haq, another pro-US general who seized power in a military coup in 1977? Or that her mother, Nusrat Bhutto, was the head of the Pakistani People's Party? All-important historical context is lost under the weight of a too programmatic foreign policy. Pakistan is unlikely to slide into fundamentalist revolution under the more or less Westernized Bhutto faction (just as secular, just as Westernized as Musharraf). But say there was a major Islamic opening in Pakistan (or Turkey, where this is actually happening right now). It's just as likely that this movement would be a vehicle for much-needed reform as it is that it could result in an Iranian-style menace. If you want another Iran, keep on trampling the democratic process in Pakistan. Even Iran would start evolving away from Islamic dictatorship more easily without the reactionary pressures of conflict with the US (the same dynamic holds today in Cuba). People won't embrace retro religious fundamentalism for long, if they are just given their liberty. Algeria might have even worked through this if the democratic process was respected when that country elected an Islamic government, only to have the will of the people thwarted. We cannot be motivated by fear forever. The positive path is faith in human nature.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Paddycake with Rudy and Pat

On the occasion of Pat Robertson's endorsement of Rudy Giuliani for president, we have a window of opportunity here of about 24 hours when we can reasonably ask Rudy what he has to say about, for instance, Robertson's suggestion that the United States should assassinate Hugo Chavez? Robertson later apologized, as he has done for a long series of equally outrageous suggestions over the years, but it's fair to say that this is connected to why Rudy likes Pat and is surely why Pat likes Rudy. Rudy sells national security hawkishness. For someone like Robertson this policy satisfies all of his apocalyptic sensibilities as well as gives the government something to do other than domestic policy. Under a liberal government, Rudy is telling him, Christian conservatives shouldn't want a government that was activist on social policy. To weather the liberal storm, get the government out of social policy, and concentrate on national security. What he really is, Rudy goes on to say, is a guy who's running one of the most important security consulting firms in the world, with contracts with governments all over Asia (whether this is accurate, and if so whether that is good or bad, is a topic for another discussion). Probably Robertson made an impetuous mistake to throw over the Right's domestic agenda with this endorsement. Or perhaps this is part of some larger struggle between Robertson and James Dobson and the rest of the Council for National Policy, the Christian conservative leaders who made their "over our dead bodies" resolution about Giuliani a couple of weeks ago. In any event this schism on Rudy, along with the (to me, surprising) antagonism towards Mormons on the Christian right, makes it look like that movement is degenerating into sectarian conflict. Certainly both Robertson and Giuliani are using the prospect of external enemies as a unifying idea. One can only hope that all of this will be a dead end in the general election.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Giving Hillary the Treatment

I was struck by the prominence in the NYT today of a quotation from Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a major-party ticket as Walter Mondale's choice for VP in 1984. The larger discussion is about the spectacle of all those men beating up on Clinton in the debate the other night, and the question of how women are treated in the upper echelons of politics. "It's OK in this country to be sexist," she said. "It's certainly not OK to be racist...I don't think Barack Obama would have been attacked for two hours." Like all places in the world, so far as I know, there is an age-old problem with sexism here that a modern secular society, at least, ought to be able to address. As to that, let me salute Hillary Clinton for her achievement in getting to the point where all the men (simply by virtue of the fact that every other player is a man) feel called upon to gang up on her. It's called winning, and it comes with its own burdens, as politicians, boxers and beauty queens will attest. As to the accepted standards of comportment of the males, formally speaking that's unclear, since Hillary Clinton is now sailing through uncharted waters where no woman has gone before. Historically speaking if they had rocks they'd stone her.
As to Ferraro's remarks, they were made in the immediate aftermath of the debate and so I'm sympathetic that some of that is the anger talking. Also remember the generous slice of bitter truth. Of course she's way the hell off about how black people are better off in politics than women. With those caveats, I would point out to her (you know, I was going to call her "Geraldine," because back in the day that's what we called her, there was that fight song, remember? But then I was worried that that would be patronizing so I went with "Ferraro." Just an observation, I don't know what that means) two things: First, the beauty of it is that they're all ganging up on her because she's ahead with maybe 45-50 points of the total, leaving the rest of them in the dust. If they don't kill her she surely kills them. It's called winning and it's sweet and you should rejoice. The second rejoinder is that, notwithstanding the fact of women leaders in many other countries now and in the past, the USA is arguably the most feminist country on Earth, the birthplace and locomotive of global secular feminism. Rejoice and a la lucha.
All sorts of old issues bubble up with the renaissance of liberal politics. This tension between the politically active women, who tend to be richer, more educated, white, higher social status, and the black activists goes back to the days when English women were radicalized through their anti-slavery activities, for example. As to this issue of Hillary's treatment: To say that she should be treated as "one of the guys" misses the point that one of the benefits of women in politics ought to be some deeper transformation of political practice. On the other hand I'm of the opinion that wisdom is seeing the sameness among people. We also will be forced to confront some of these deeply internalized assumptions about men, women and sex roles in a new light throughout the campaign. All of this seems a bit awkward and fraught, maybe, but all to the good.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Theravadan Buddhism of Burma

In the classical Buddhist tradition that has its roots in the Vedic traditions of India, there are two principal streams. The Theravadan school is the older one, the "Way of the Elders" that claims the most direct lineage from the original Buddha Dharma and emphasizes the need for a lifetime of study (indeed for eons of lifetimes) for enlightenment, and also, therefore, the spiritual authority of the monks. Later the Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") movement, revolting against some of the social consequences of this essentially Hindu doctrine of the immortality of the soul, stresses the idea that the Boddhi path is open to ordinary people and that spiritual progress can be made during an ordinary lifetime. The Tantric Buddhism of the Tibetan Renaissance and (for somewhat independent reasons) the Zen Buddhism of the east are basically Mahayanic in their attitude towards spiritual authority (and this no doubt helps to explain the popularity of these doctrines in North America). But a rich Theravadic tradition lives on as well, in Southeast Asia. Around 250AD King Tissa of Sri Lanka was converted to Buddhism. (The Tamil nationalists are Hindus originally from Tamil Nadu in India.) From Sri Lanka this older, more conservative school of Buddhism colonized what are now Burma and Thailand. The monks are a very important part of the cultural infrastructure among the Buddhist people there. It may be that the pressures of global culture have made the monastaries vulnerable to attack from secular forces. It may be that like great rainforests, great repositories of culture and language are doomed to be wiped off the map. Or perhaps the monks and the people will together draw the strength to assert themselves once more.