Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Listening to Iran

Before discussing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's interview with Brian Williams yesterday, I have to make clear that although I think that Israel has serious problems that are to a good degree their own making, and although I think that both the US and Israel itself would both actually be better off if they were not so closely identified with each other, I think that the anti-Israeli statements by President Ahmadinejad over the past several years are perhaps the most irresponsible and disturbing language coming from any quarter of the contemporary Middle East, and one can only assume that he understands perfectly well that everyone will make the connection between these frankly apocalyptic remarks ("Israel will cease to exist," etc.) and Iran's Uranium-enrichment program, to what end I simply cannot comprehend. I hope for a change to a more liberal, more secular set of political institutions in Iran, as an advocate of religious freedom and human rights.
The Iranian president (OK, Ahmadinejad)is of course playing domestic politics, in both bomb-thrower and conciliator poses. Playing the Great Satan routine has always been a meal ticket for fundamentalist Shia politicians. Now in the March 14th parliamentary elections there were real gains for the "pragmatic conservatives" and the "reformers," and Mahammed Qalibaf, a likely challenger in next year's presidential elections, argues that a "Third Wave" of pragmatic secularism is asserting itself. Ahmadinejad may be back-pedaling to create a less confrontational atmosphere to forestall the rise of more liberal political forces. The Iranians are also no doubt fascinated by their own history of influencing the outcome of US elections. I doubt, though, that they have as good a fix on what sort of outcome they might prefer, and how exactly they might go about influencing American voters, than we might imagine they do.
The reason I'm posting about this today is one really important segment of the interview to which every American really ought to listen. Williams asked Ahmadinejad if Iran might not enjoy more access to "the wider world" if it cooperated with international pressure to suspend or otherwise modify its uranium-enrichment activities. (The link at the top of the post is to the NBC transcript.) Iran, Ahmadinejad said, was "A great country, a great nation with a great economy, a rich culture, thousands of years of history and civilization. And we have very good economic and cultural relations with countries around the world. It would be very good for you to walk our streets and gain a better appreciation of life in this part of the world." Iran, he suggested, did not necessarily need "the services" of any countries in particular.
President Ahmadinejad may or may not survive next year's election and he may or may not be a skilled statesman (points off for blandly asserting that there are no gays in Iran). But his statement is a good example of the way that the ground is shifting under our feet. Eras, like empires, come and go, and they do so in political time, not geologic time. And like fashions, you can tell that something is in decline the moment most people know about it. An American Era, such as it is, was at a high point during the first half of the 1950s, with millions of American forces garrisoned around the world, an American military governor in Japan, American troops dying by the tens of thousands in Korea, and the US the preeminent economic engine and financier of the world, not to mention the biggest petroleum exporter. And the mindset of many Americans, both in government and in ordinary life, is that that era continues to this day and will continue indefinitely into the future (as John McCain, who cannot imagine that we may someday not be stationing military forces in Iraq, let alone Germany and Japan).
Two unexpected things to wake up to someday, and that someday is today: a) we're not the unipolar "hyperpower." We're not even necessarily the most impressive, or even the scariest, hegemonic pole on a stage that includes several (more than two). When did that happen? And 2) the age of American hegemony was a construction of the FDR Democrats. They were the ones who took the US into an international role and integrated the US and world economies. But today it's the Republicans who are still intent on tending the locomotive of empire. The Bush/McCain crowd just isn't getting it. Mahmoud Amadinejad, a political machine back-bencher who doesn't know what planet he's on, looks like Werner Von Braun compared to them. And maybe the biggest domestic story is this: however much the conservative/Republican alliance may be holding up in other areas, on the foreign policy front the split looks to be complete: Republican imperialists like Bush and McCain are literally the opposites of Libertarians and traditional Republican isolationists. On the spectrum of attitudes, the Democrats are located between them.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Split Authoritarian Personality

Reading an NYT story about police departments' complaints about being forced to spend too much time and money on "anti-terror" activities by Homeland Security, I was struck by some inconsistencies in the Administration's frankly authoritarian style. "Frankly" because it is an article of faith in the Bush-Cheney crowd that the executive lost too much power in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam mid-70s. There is a political agenda behind this mythology as it serves to justify the actions of the Nixon/Ford Republican administrations as well as the current one.
Anyway, here's the inconsistency: we are constantly hearing that the administration believes that military policy ought to be set by "officers on the ground," that is by the professional military. (Another problem with this line is that it shields to some extent the civilian politicians in the White House from being accountable for what is after all their war policy.) But this hands-off approach to administering security apparently doesn't extend to the police. That's too bad, since the approach of countries such as Germany, that have approached anti-terror measures more from a police perspective than a military one, has had significant success in rolling up terror networks. But we have a split-authoritarian personality here.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Clintonesque Obama

It's hard to miss how closely Barack Obama has studied the electoral strategy and tactics of Bill Clinton in the 90s. He has moved rapidly in the last two weeks to reposition himself in the center, signaling that he is not an abolitionist on the death penalty, that he will not immediately withdraw from Iraq, and that he supports government support for "faith-based initiatives," among other things. Long-time Clinton supporter that I am, I should be heartened by this. The argument at this point is about winning the election, after all, and what we learned from the centrist Southerners of the Democratic Leadership Conference is that a Democratic politician can't be shy about running to the right when it is expedient, especially at the national level. Win first, then you can govern. Today quickly becomes another yesterday that can be conveniently forgotten.
So I'm sure I'll cause a lot of hair-pulling frustration on the team of young Ivy-leaguers assigned to closely monitor my statements on this blog and summarize them daily for the chief's breakfast when I say this morning that I'm not totally sold on this rebranding of Obama. In the 90s, the goal was just to win one for the Democrats. This election is different. Clinton just wanted to steer the battleship, but there exists now an opportunity to turn the battleship around. What is needed is for the liberal Democrats to beat the conservative Republicans. It is not enough just that there is a Democratic president (a significant achievement in the 90s). The ideological pendulum can swing, inaugurating a period of progressive America. But in order for this election to have that symbolic resonance, the candidate must present himself as clearly liberal. This will take courage. For example, it may be that the math indicates that being a death penalty abolitionist is a loser, but that doesn't mean that the Democrat has to affirm the death penalty to get elected. Obama needs to approach this with a subtle touch.
I wouldn't necessarily include the "faith" stuff in this criticism, though. I can think of at least five reasons why it might pay off for Obama to try to carve out an identity as a Christian candidate, roughly from less important to more so:
1) He needs a productive way of repeating the fact that he is a Christian, as double-digit numbers of poll respondents still identify him as a Muslim.
2) It does indeed help with the Clintonian strategy of portraying Obama as more moderate, and more recognizably American, which he does after all need to do (to be precise, he needs to raise the comfort level with white voters).
3) He might be able to make some lemonade out of the lemon of Jeremiah Wright, since that gentleman's intemperate statements at least made clear that Obama has indeed been in a long-term relationship with a Christian church.
4) John McCain has a weak spot on his right flank, and the Christian right is part of that. Obama has shown a heartening ability to wade in and go on the offensive wherever possible, something we missed in our last two national candidates.
5) Long-term, it's never been obvious that Republican policies were the most in tune with a genuine Christian spiritual practice. There has always been an impressive Christian left in this country, but the smaller size of the left in general as left them for a century in the wilderness (admittedly a place the Christian left obviously feels comfortable being). If we move into a more liberal American era, a renaissance of progessive Christian politics could be a part of that. Don't leave religion to the troglodytes!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What Sort of President?

Today two points about how we should pick a president, and who we should pick:
1) I was surprised over the past couple of days of a revival of speculation in the media that Hillary Clinton would after all be chosen as Barack Obama's running mate. Even Chris Matthews seemed to be into the idea (remember the guy who snubbed you all senior year and then decided to be friends at the graduation party?). I was surprised by the level of enthusiasm, of course it requires too much kremlinology to figure out (what are their conversations like?), but it is an unexpected occasion for me to reiterate my own thinking on why Obama should choose Clinton as his running mate.
She got half of the primary vote. Not only that, but the Democratic rules of proportional allocation and a mix of primaries and caucuses, the product of the populist Dean faction at the DNC, did exactly what it was designed to do: it forced the party into more of a consensus-based process. To me, small-"d" democracy requires more than just asserting opinions: we also need to understand compromise. When Bush I got 25 percent in the Republican primaries in 1980, Reagan didn't hesitate. He was old-school: Bush came in a strong second, Bush was on the ticket. And the math is still there: Clinton took the big electoral-count states, Obama has an uphill struggle cracking 25 percent of the white vote. So yes, my position continues to be, as always, put Clinton on the ticket.
2) There is discussion of Obama's resolve to pull US forces out of Iraq. Reality check: no president is going to just pull everything out if that would result in some sort of humanitarian catastrophe. Maybe that will be difficult, maybe not; nobody really knows that. So the question is not, what will Obama or what will McCain do in Iraq in the first three months, say, of taking office. The question for voters is, who do you think should be in charge of this: McCain, who is not only comfortable with the idea of garrisoning US soldiers all around the world for the indefinite future, but appears to assume that some such scenario will go on, or would you prefer Obama, who understands that the "lone superpower" routine is bad for the US and unhelpful to out relations with the world? My view is that this is precisely the wrong time to have a military man. We badly need to step back and try to have a more subdued international profile, like Canada or Australia. We need to make real cuts in military spending, not just cuts in the rate of increase in military spending.