Let’s get the heavy artillery (philosophy of history) out of the way quickly: The eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, asserts “that the sun will not rise tomorrow is just as intelligible, and no more contradictory, than the proposition that the sun will rise tomorrow.”
Along similar lines, Nassem Talib postulates Black Swan events that lie outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past convincingly points to their possibility (The Black Swan, 2007, XVII).
In other words, in theory, anything can happen, even the most improbable change, and sometimes does, but we don’t know where or when, let alone why.
While it was impossible to predict the exact date when slaves became free (December 6, 1865) or when women received the right to vote (August 18, 1920), one could see these things coming, in retrospect if not in the heat of battle. The legalization of gay marriage (June 26, 2015) presents a different scenario entirely.
The end of slavery built on historical antecedents long in the making, such as abolitionism. The road to freedom led from the ratification of the Constitution (1789) through to the end of the Civil War (1865). The focus on expanding and protecting civil and voting rights ran from the end of Reconstruction (1876) until the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights laws of 1964-1965. The struggle continues, but the path from its origins to its goals is clear.
Women’s suffrage owed much to “The Declaration of Sentiments” coming out of the Seneca Falls Convention (1848) which called for women to enjoy equal rights with men, including the right to vote. The beginning of married women’s struggle to wrest ownership of their property and their bodies from their husbands dates from Abigail Adams’ plea to her husband, John, “to remember the ladies” in the forthcoming fight for independence from Great Britain in 1776. Eventually, women pursued getting the right to vote, which was seen as the broadest tool for eliminating other gender inequities. The 1960s gave rise to the women’s liberation movement and consciousness-raising to end sexploitation and open up equal job opportunities with equal pay. In this case, too, the battle is not over, but there has been a discernible march forward.
Both movements gave rise to iconic figures along the way: William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem, to name a few. The recapturing of run-away slaves, church bombings, police beatings, murders of civil rights activists, and imprisonment and forced feedings of suffragettes were among the jarring events that helped bring about change.
While the initial phase of seeking to end discrimination based on sexual orientation resembled the movements against racial and gender bias, the arrival at marriage equality was a Black Swan event.
High points of the drive to end anti-gay discrimination include the founding of the Mattachine Society (1951), Illinois allowing homosexual sex between consenting adults (1962), the Stonewall Riots (1969), the American Psychiatric Association removing homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders (1973),Wisconsin becoming the first state to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation (1982), more than 800,000 gays marching in Washington for equal rights and the army passing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (both 1993).
The Stonewall Riots led to a burst of gay activism that focused not on pushing for legal gay unions but on decriminalizing sex between same sex couples, ending discrimination in public accommodations and employment, and curbing police brutality against homosexuals.The 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California, did not lead to widespread changes in public attitudes toward homosexuals. (Milk was killed by a disgruntled office seeker, and not because of his sexual orientation.) The 1980s AIDS epidemic that killed thousands raised questions about the legal situation of homosexuals: hospital visits, surrogate medical decisions, property inheritance, etc., and funding of medical research. Yet laws on so-called deviant sexual behavior remained on the books and public hostility to AIDS-infected homosexuals remained high.
Furthermore, in 1986, the Supreme Court sustained a Georgia law that criminalized both public and private acts of sodomy by consenting partners. Throughout the 1990s, most Americans continued to deem homosexuality immoral and dangerous. In 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act prohibiting federal recognition of same sex marriage. In 2008, California voters banned gay marriages. By 2012, thirty-five states had enacted statutes whose provisions defended traditional marriage and banned gay unions, while President Obama defined marriage solely as a union between a male and female.
How is it then that by the time of the 2015 Supreme Court decision only three years later, thirty-six states and the District of Columbia were already issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples, and the majority of Americans (57%) supported the right of members of the LGBT community to marry whomever they wanted?
I don’t know of any other significant social change in all of modern American history that took place with such lightning speed.
We can talk about the rise in the number of Americans personally knowing a gay person from 24% to 74% between 1985 and 2004. And the greater exposure via the mass media – TV shows with likeable gay hosts and guests, among them Ellen DeGeneres and “Will and Grace.” We can point to the coming out of celebrity homosexuals in the worlds of business, the arts, politics and athletics.
Exposure alone, however, is an insufficient explanation for the sudden change in attitude – personal and legal — that occurred as the climate of opinion radically moved from hostility to support, and did so despite the absence of iconic gay figures to symbolize the goal. Jim Obergefell, who brought the case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act before the Supreme Court (Obergefell v. Hodges) is still hardly a household name. The June 26th court decision appears to be one of those Black Swan events.
Could sensible gun laws be the next?
On the surface, this appears most unlikely. A significant spike in NRA membership followed the murders of twenty first graders at the Sandy Hook school. Moreover, in 2008, the Supreme Court rescinded the Firearms Control Regulation Act (1975) that required all firearms be kept unloaded and disassembled. Two years later in Columbia v. Heller by a 5-4 vote the court confirmed at the federal level the right of individuals to own and bear arms (of all kinds).
And yet those decisions left open the question of whether Second Amendment protections applied at the state and local levels where laws allow the carrying of firearms concealed or openly displayed in public spaces – airports, schools, libraries, playgrounds, etc. All it takes is one swing vote in the makeup of the Supreme Court, not unlikely given that several members are in their eighties, to usher in a more restrictive, some would say original intent interpretation of Second Amendment rights.
Keep in mind that until 1977, the NRA’s agenda featured teaching firearm safety and advocating restrictions on the types of guns sold to the public. Of today’s more than 70 million gun owners in America, only 3.5 to 5 million belong to the organization, and many of those who do are not gun libertarians.
Then there are the many gun control organizations like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America that have had some successes at the state level in strengthening gun regulation. Their prodding contributed to thirty-seven states passing laws to strengthen gun restrictions and criminal background checks on all firearm sales and transfers, including gun shows and Internet transactions.
The cards are not yet good enough to bet the family farm on, for sure, but consider the hand that same sex marriage advocates held on the eve of the June 26 ruling. That group’s win against stupendous odds offers hope that other surprises may await us.
Provided, of course, that the sun does rise tomorrow.
While there may be no such thing as a stupid question, there is such a thing as a question that begets irrelevant answers. I have in mind the American media recently asking confirmed and potential presidential candidates, “Knowing what you now know, would you have ordered or supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq?”
What we now know is that at the time Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, was not allied with the Taliban or Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and had not sought significant amounts of uranium from Africa.
Predictably all respondents to date have answered in the negative, though Jeb! (who has apparently traded his family’s name for an exclamation point) took four days to “just say no,” probably out of filial loyalty, and Marco Rubio momentarily got tongue-tied. Predictably we ended up with the candidates agreeing they wouldn’t have tried to topple Saddam Hussein if there was no evidence his behavior posed a serious threat to American national security.
I don’t know about you, but I’m overjoyed to learn that if any of these folks becomes president, he or she won’t order a large scale invasion absent a compelling reason or conclusive evidence of imminent danger.
Why did the media ask this question, one that allowed respondents to give a simplistic answer – yes or no – to a complicated situation, instead of posing more nuanced queries that would have compelled them to elaborate on their views of the complete Bush rationale?
The answer to that question is the media didn’t want to reopen the whole can of worms, thereby allowing to wriggle out its own wide-spread support – from Fox neocons to New York Times columnists – that downplayed the bullying tactics, historical ignorance, and ethnocentric mindset exhibited by the Bush war hawk brain trust.
Easier to keep the focus on the decision to attack, thereby providing mass media patrons with the kind of brief, uncomplicated answer they prefer and at the same time reassuring them that this sort of blunder will not happen again.
Restricting the line of inquiry to a single aspect of a subject, and a hypothetical one at that, also provided the media with immunity against accusations of anti-Bush partisanship.
That is why more meaningful, open-ended questions compelling more detailed information about each of the candidates’ grasp of foreign policy were not put forward. At the risk of sounding like a history professor (which I am) preparing a final exam (which I’m not), I offer two examples. Neither is a true/false or multiple choice question. Essays are required.
- Given ethnic divisiveness among Shia, Sunni, and Kurd and artificial boundaries inherited by Iraqi territories drawn up by the WWI victors, why didn’t these crucial limitations – Iraq was not and is not a country — play a major role in the President’s deliberations?
- Given that Saddam Hussein was an enemy of the Afghani Taliban and al-Queda, both responsible for 9/11, why was his enmity papered over or denied in the decision to punish Iraq for the Trade Center attacks?
Failure to ask the right questions led to the worst American foreign policy decisions of the 21st century, perhaps the twentieth as well. The assumption that we could change Iraq into a democracy to serve as a model for the region’s collection of failing states proved to be wrong-headed and arrogant. An ill-conceived, undefined “war on terrorism” led to a series of continuing and expanding religious and ethnic conflicts still raging and without an end in sight.
So what do our current candidates have to say about that?
Not all questions elicit the answers we need to understand a situation fully and to act wisely. Too often, members of the media – and politicians themselves – use the wrong kind to hide or blur the truth. Question the questions.
What do Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Lindsay Graham, George Pataki and Rand Paul share in common besides seeking the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination? No chance of winning the presidency.
These would-be nominees carry heavy baggage. Cruz, Santorum, Huckabee and Carson are perceived as ideologues on religious, sexual and women’s issues, and are on record making hurtful, nasty, and controversial statements on these hot button social topics. Walker’s resume is limited to busting public and private unions in Wisconsin. Even with new glasses, Perry remains an intellectual bantam weight. Fiorina and Rubio are ineffective, if not incompetent, money managers at the corporate and personal levels; the latter also faces challenges from his shifting views on immigration reform. Christie can’t escape linkage to “Traffic-gate,” the bridge closings ordered by his associates as political retaliation. Graham is perceived as a hawk all too willing to expand American military involvement precipitously. Bush remains too connected to his brother’s disastrous presidency despite his efforts to align his star with his father’s administration. And like Pataki, he lacks appeal to the party’s most conservative wing. Rand Paul’s quirky and contradictory libertarian positions are too off-putting.
Moreover, they can win only by carrying an overwhelming percentage of white voters, who would need to turn out in extraordinarily high numbers, and simultaneously reducing significantly the wide margins Democrats have among women and minorities, many of whom live below the poverty line and are unhappy with perceived Republican hostility and indifference to their plight. Though unlike Mitt Romney in 2012, they have not written off half the population as spongers and urged illegals to self-deport, all will experience some degree of guilt-by-association for sharing general Republican emphasis on trickle-down economics.
Hillary Clinton, the for-certain Democratic nominee, brings her own share of weighty baggage as well as some of her husband’s to the contest. It includes Benghazi, using her own computers for sending state department memos, receiving six-figure fees for lectures delivered after leaving office, and association with the funding of the Clinton Foundation. But there is no reason to think that given the lack of smoking guns in her public service record she will not at least hold her own in the baggage wars. If Jeb Bush becomes her opponent, she has a very good chance of winning the Bush-Clinton family feud.
Nor will the cuddle factor be a decisive impediment. To be sure, for many Democrats, the problem is less Clinton’s agenda and more her failure to exude great warmth on the national stage; many see her as cold, abrasive and secretive. But her intelligence, political savvy, speaking skills and experiences as first lady, Senator, and Secretary of State will be sufficient to overcome this liability.
Being a grandmother offers opportunities for her to soften her image and she has already put this card into play. In her recently published memoirs she tells how frazzled she was before the birth of her granddaughter and of being “unabashedly giddy” after the birth. And on occasion she has choked up in public, as when at a community forum in her 2008 run against Obama her voiced quivered and her eyes welled up with tears in her response to a question by an audience member asking how hard it was for her to get out the door every day.
At the same time, her supporters do not want her to become a female version of House Speaker John Boehner who sheds tears too frequently. As a woman politician, she needs to demonstrate the same toughness and strength assumed of male candidates. There is no reason to think she cannot balance these contrasting images.
More significantly, she maintains a reputation as a liberal, albeit not the old-fashioned progressive kind embodied by Elizabeth Warren or the social-democratic version offered by Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. Even more than their agenda, which is not that different from Clinton’s (reducing income inequality, reviving a disappearing middle-class, and protecting the environment), their popularity comes from speaking from the heart for a cause, and doing so frankly, directly, spontaneously, and passionately. This appealingly authentic discourse is quite different and more arousing than that employed by establishment politicians who understand the need to win over all components of the broader constituency and to avoid unnecessarily alienating stalwarts less supportive of a more radical agenda. Hence Clinton’s need to employ – rightly — a less exciting, lowest common denominator campaign style.
While none of the current Republican crew can best Clinton running as the sole Democratic candidate, she does face the danger of Sanders siphoning off enough Democratic votes to impact the final results. It was not that long ago that another impassioned independent candidate – Ralph Nader – got six percent of the vote, primarily among those who put anger and principle before victory. It proved to be enough of a shift to give George W. Bush a narrow Electoral College margin over Al Gore who took the popular vote.
Clinton has already begun to define her message as a populist by promising to reverse the growing gap between the rich and the poor and to push for universal prekindergarten education, paid family leave, equal pay for women, and equal rights for gays. The more success Sanders experiences, the more likely Clinton will veer slightly more to the left, but she will stop short of the transformative ideas surrounding Obama’s 2008 campaign, and now Sanders’ campaign. Her efforts and tinkering should be modern enough to hold onto their supporters come crunch time. But, if not, a party divided against itself may not stand.
Republican candidates and transformative ideas don’t go together unless one labels returning to the past and shrinking the size of the federal government as such. For various reasons, they have put themselves into the position of “the party of no,” bent primarily on undoing most of Obama’s legislation. It’s hard to see how this position can be overcome in the short time remaining between now and the 2016 election. A mediocre Republican hopeful running against derailing the Obama legacy will not be enough to garner the presidency.
Moreover the anti-Obama dividend that energized Republicans in his bids for office is less intense. Even with Donald Trump in the race, rumors of Clinton’s Kenyan birth will not play, not even in Peoria.
To those who look forward to the uncertainty and suspense of the presidential contest, I apologize for turning the keys to the White House over to Hillary Clinton so far in advance of the election. No doubt the race will have its inevitable gotcha moments: speaking goofs, off camera revelations that go public, newly discovered quotes to explain or take back, but we will not see the high passions associated with Obama’s “yes, we can” emotional pitch. Maybe that’s not a bad thing; less political passion cushions us against inevitable disappointments. Democrats may think they want the next Obama in a Warren or a Sanders, but note Obama’s fall from grace among his own party members. Idealism inevitably runs up against the reality and pragmatism that make up the world of politics.
Hillary Clinton is nothing if not pragmatic. No, she’s not going to be as much fun, but she’ll be fine.
The Republican shift to the right paid huge dividends in the 2014 midterms and demonstrated a mastery of lobbying, filibustering, gerrymandering, litigation, and voter suppression tactics. At first glance, it appears the triumph indicates a transformational shift whereby the new politics of extremism has permanently damaged the constitutional system. (Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, 2012.)
But let’s look beyond the first glance.
It’s often the case that when a movement has already peaked, analyses of the subject tend to mushroom. That is likely happening right now. The new, more conservative, but still mainstream Republicans had already succeeded in getting moderate Mitt Romney to head the 2012 ticket over Tea Party preferences Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Perry. In the 2014 mid-term elections, the same leadership avoided choosing extremist candidates whose public gaffes had embarrassed the party and cost it support. Most tellingly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now encourages fellow Republicans to become the “party of yes.”
Republican intransigence during the first six years of the Obama administration turns out to be just another example, albeit a particularly unpleasant one, of politics as usual. The tactics and strategies closely resemble those introduced by Representative Newt Gingrich in the late 1970s to unite Republicans in refusing to cooperate with Democrats in committee and on the floor while at the same time attacking them as a majority presiding over and benefiting from a thoroughly corrupt institution — the United States Congress. Gingrich believed a minority party did better when Congress accomplished less. According to this thinking, the dividends of cooperation and the passage of bipartisan bills, while getting Republicans 20 to 30 percent of what they wanted, were insufficient for the American people to change leadership. Better to get less or nothing at all, pile blame on Democrats, and win elections. (Alex Seitz Wald, “How Newt Gingrich Crippled Congress,” The Nation, January 30, 2014.)
In 1995 and 1996 when the Republicans had a majority in both houses of Congress, Speaker Gingrich pushed for a balanced budget requirement and a three-fifths vote for any tax increase. After President Clinton refused to agree to cuts in welfare, Medicare, and Medicaid expenditures, Gingrich twice shut down the government.
His tactics also conflated the personal and the political. He told reporters the shutdown in part came because the president made him exit Air Force One by the back door after they returned from a funeral service for slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. (Brian Naylor, “Not-So-Fond Memories from the Last Government Shutdown,” NPR, September 20, 2013.) His own adulteries notwithstanding, Gingrich also led the drive to impeach President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Taking a page from the Gingrich playbook, following Obama’s 2008 win, minority Senate leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed the Republican opposition’s main goal was to prevent the president’s reelection. Driven by Tea Party pressure, he played a critical role in transforming Republicans into “the party of no,” dismissive of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional evidence, and scornful of the legitimacy of the political opposition. In 2013, House Speaker John Boehner caved in to extremist pressures by shutting down the government when President Obama refused to dismantle the Affordable Health Care Act.
Almost extinct in the party’s makeup as it veered sharply to the right were old line traditional Republicans who would occasionally cosponsor an environmental bill or at least engage in intelligent debate, and did not consider compromise a dirty word. The loss of this small contingent of moderates and the civil discourse they practiced added nastiness and incivility to the usual gamesmanship at the heart of “politics as usual.”
The boundaries between the political and the personal likewise narrowed. When Arnold Schwarzenegger considered running for president in 2003, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch proposed a constitutional amendment eliminating the American birth requirement. But during Obama’s first presidential campaign five years later, “birthers” insisted he was born in Kenya and ineligible to run, adding a subtle or not so subtle racial aspect to their opposition. However, Obama’s victory indicated that in 21st century America, the race card alone was insufficient to do in an African-American candidate who possessed charisma, intelligence, and effective campaigning skills.
Despite the tremendous gains in 2014, the presidency still eludes Republican grasp, in part because of choosing uncharismatic, off-putting nominees who might carry the conservative white vote but would not win over sufficient numbers of women and minorities, many of whom live below the poverty line and are unhappy with Republican insensitivity or hostility toward their concerns. Mitt Romney certainly did not help his cause when he proposed self-deportation as the solution to the illegal immigrant problem, and wrote off half the country’s population as spongers.
And, as Republicans know all too well, presidents can accomplish a lot even when lacking majorities in both Houses. By 1996, President Clinton’s popularity recovered, the economy boomed, and he left office with a budget surplus. This last mid-term drubbing did not make Obama a lame duck president; no longer worried about reelection, a “tougher” President Obama bypassed Congress by issuing executive orders offering deportation deferrals for up to five million illegal immigrants, and allowing diplomatic openings to Cuba.
In 2016, Republicans can once more assure their defeat by nominating the likes of ideologues Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. The Democrats run the same risk if they choose an old-fashioned progressive like Elizabeth Warren. While Republican politics moved to the extreme right, the broader public has yet to reach that stage, which doesn’t mean it is ready to embrace a traditional progressive either. If Jeb Bush gets the call as Hillary Clinton’s opponent, the contest will be a tossup, and the winner will govern from either center-right or center-left.
Has there been a shift to the right in both parties? Yes. Will the pendulum swing back toward the center? Yes, probably as early as 2016, when more Republican than Democratic seats are up for reelection, and the Republican Party will be judged on what it has accomplished while in power beyond just blaming Democrats for the nation’s problems. In the longer term, changing demographics, with whites a minority by 2050, will likely mean a pendulum swing to center left.
In the meantime, we have an improving economy, an Affordable Health Care Act, and progress on the immigration front. We have an American political system that once again has weathered a nasty cycle of politics as usual, and that is no mean accomplishment.
(For more on politics as usual, see my 12/1/11 post “Politics: The Art of the Possible.”)
While the maelstrom of hyperbolic analyses about the meaning of the mid-term Congressional election results swirls on, I invite you to join me on shore for an appropriately ho-hum perspective on why Republicans achieved smashing victories in both the Senate and the House, and what their triumphs mean long term.
The main reason for their success was widespread public disenchantment with the direction – or lack of direction – of our country’s affairs, for which a majority of Americans held President Obama accountable. Going into the elections, the president’s approval ratings hovered at 40%. Republicans ran against Obama’s unpopularity successfully; Democrats tried to run away from it unsuccessfully. Neither party’s candidates offered an uplifting agenda.
The president’s perceived negatives, in no particular order: the disastrous roll-out of the Affordable Health Care Act, scandals and incompetence in the VA, a domestic surveillance expose involving government agencies, and his handling of Middle East crises from the civil war in Syria to the rise of ISIL terrorists. He was also held responsible for the gridlock in government now in its sixth year — not surprisingly, though maybe unfairly. Add to his liabilities claims that he comes across as aloof, indecisive, weak, and inconsistent.
That said, a broader perspective on mid-term elections indicates that the party in power almost always loses seats in Congress. The vast majority of Republican gains this time round, especially in the Senate, in some unexpectedly close races, came in “red states” that had gone for Mitt Romney in 2012. The GOP’s hard work behind the scenes to avoid placing extremist Tea Party candidates on the ballot, those prone to making incendiary statements on pregnancy and rape, for instance, also paid dividends.
So what now? Not the end of the world or even of our democracy, certainly. Over the next two years we can expect the Republicans to push their usual pro-business agenda: fewer banking, consumer protection, and environmental regulations, as well as reductions in government social programs. But they will stop short of a full assault against Obamacare. Gridlock will remain the norm; however, given the propensity of Democrats to compromise and the necessity for Republicans to shift their image beyond the “party of no,” we will likely see modest reforms of corporate taxes and infra-structure and trade policies.
In foreign policy, there will be more bluster about using American power, but no significant changes in practice.
Gay marriage expansion, abortion restrictions, raises in minimum wages, and the legal use of marijuana will continue to be fought out on the state level.
The presidential election of 2016 will not be significantly influenced by what happened in Tuesday’s mid-terms. They were less important than what happened in 2010 when Republicans took back the House by adding 63 seats, added six in the Senate, and soon after began the tactics that ushered in gridlock.
Lots of unanticipated stuff will happen in the next two years that can help or hinder either party’s chances for winning the presidency. Republicans will be judged more closely by what they do with their new majority status, while Democrats can count on much higher voter turnout.
Most importantly, the 2016 contest will depend on the party’s respective candidates at election time. The choice of a Ted Cruz or Joe Biden will assure defeat for their respective parties. Might they run against one another? I imagine that inspiring a total no-voter turnout.
Not all elections can bring the excitement and engagement of a race involving the first woman and the first African-American to run for president, but we do go on. And our media pundits have to fill their time and space in any case, so they do rave on. Personally, I’d rather watch the charismatic new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell host a TV show: “Saturday Night Dead.”
A scant six months ago, in a post called “Feckless or Reckless?” I defended President Obama’s foreign policy against critics who described it as clueless, weak, and vacillating. His timidity in dealing with Benghazi, Iran, and Syria, they argued, made it easier for Putin to lunge for parts of Ukraine. They took Obama to task for entering into negotiations with Iran over halting its production of weapons-grade uranium, and complained about his refusal to send military aid to Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime. They excoriated Obama for lacking a coherent overarching foreign policy, some kind of blueprint that would outline a general response to international turmoil.
Reality has not interfered with the critical onslaught. It continues despite the lack of a single shred of evidence that Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has anything at all to do with American policies in the Middle East; likewise, that arming Syrian rebels (whose best fighters are extremists) would have toppled Assad’s forces. It continues to ignore our incredibly poor record in those places where we did intervene militarily– for decades–Iraq and Afghanistan.
The usual suspects, the likes of Senators McCain and Graham and Charles Krauthammer, have now been joined by liberal critics, among them Senator Diane Feinstein. A recent USA TODAY/Pew poll found “Americans increasingly open to a larger U.S. role to solve problems around the world.” (Susan Page, “More Want U.S. to Flex Muscle,” USA Today, August 29-September 1, 2014). Furthermore, according to this poll, 54% of Americans think Obama is not tough enough. His foreign policy approval ratings (37%) are now below those for his domestic policy (39%).
It’s getting lonely out here, defending the President’s decisions, or lack of same, but I still believe they deserve defending.
Since I last wrote on the subject, there have been hostilities between Hamas and Israel, a massive expansion of the extremist ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), also known as IS and ISIL, and more aggression and likely annexations by Russia of those parts of eastern Ukraine considered the future Novorossiya (New Russia). The failure of peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis, horrendous pictures of ISIS cold-bloodedly exterminating enemy soldiers and minority populations and beheading an American journalist, and Russia’s overt lies about what it is doing to Ukraine give a sense of a world spinning out of control.
The hope is that somehow the chaos will be arrested if the United States toughens up its foreign policy. At the same time, paradoxically, those urging stronger, immediate intervention do not want the U.S. to resume its role as the world’s police force. Indeed, they agree with Obama that there should not be large numbers of our troops on the ground and no military action should be taken against Russia.
Given these mutually agreed upon limits, what do critics suggest the president do to arrest the deteriorating situations?
In the battle with ISIS, they want to extend the air attacks from Iraq into Syria, while acknowledging that air power alone won’t be decisive. They want, as does Obama, to build a military coalition among countries and regions most threatened by ISIS. For what it’s worth, unlike al-Qaeda, for ISIS the main enemy is not the United States and Europe but other infidel Islamic states such as Syria. Yet politicians are joining Congressman Peter King in bringing back the Vietnam War mantra: If we don’t stop them there, we will have to fight them here.
Who are the choices as troop providers? The best one is moderate Syrian rebels followed by Kurds in Iraq. But there’s no way to assure arms sent to moderates won’t fall into the hands of extremists, and going after ISIS in Syria will certainly strengthen the butcher Assad who has offered to ally with us in this fight against extremists. There are insufficient numbers of Kurdish forces (pesh merga) to win the fight even with exponentially increased American air support. Some Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militia are willing to fight, the very same groups that killed many Americans during the occupation of Iraq. The regular Iraqi army fled in disarray when ISIS attacked in western Iraq, despite numerical and weapons superiority. In their wake, the Iraqis left behind millions of dollars of American equipment, which we are now trying to destroy.
What about Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran? There are lots of problems inherent in turning these countries into a united military coalition. Saudi Arabia and Qatar funded the rebel groups they are now asked to fight; Turkey has served as a transit route for ISIS recruits. The ongoing quarrels these states have with one another argue against their coming together as a united force on the battlefield.
In the conflict with Russia, the proposal is to give more arms to Ukrainians (knowing they will not be able to defeat the Russians). Also, to expand the economic sanctions now in force, a goal which requires us to overcome our European allies’ resistance to accepting a complete cut-off of natural gas by the Russians and their reluctance to renege on already signed, profitable military contracts with Russia.
What kind of more cohesive and visionary foreign policy do critics suggest the president pursue? The fact is they are better at saying what he shouldn’t do than what he should. Don’t draw lines in the sand and then not carry out your threat when a line is crossed. Don’t publicly announce that “We don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with ISIS. Don’t make baseball analogies about how we can win the game without hitting home runs. Don’t come across as dispassionate or detached when addressing emotion-inducing foreign events.
Obama would be wise to pay some attention to these criticisms. Perception matters. On the other hand, we should not expect Obama to “feel our pain” or become the instant Decider.
Obama bashers do not want to create a new doctrine that would respond to aggression everywhere as if they were Truman confronting “world communism” in the the late 1940s. Nor do they seem keen on a Marshall Plan or the preemptive wars of Bush II for establishing democracy throughout the Middle East. The only general foreign policy proposal emanating from the group that I have found suggests that Obama “speak loudly and carry a big stick.”
Prediction usually turns out to be a historian’s worst nightmare, but here it comes anyway. During the course of the next two or three weeks, after attending a NATO summit in Wales; meeting with leaders in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and convening a Security Council meeting in New York to discuss ISIS threats, the president will announce that the following measures have been or will be undertaken – partly to deflect conservative critics, partly to appease Democrats worried about mid-term Senate elections, partly to regain public support, and partly because none of these steps will get us into another endless war. He will come out for
1.additional military aid and strongly worded commitments to our East European and Baltic NATO allies for protection against Russian aggression there (which is not going to happen);
2.an increase in military equipment shipments to Ukraine;
3.more economic sanctions against Russia (that won’t work short term);
4.the bombing of ISIS targets inside of Syria (that can contain but not defeat ISIS aggression).
The response of critics at best will be that this is a good start followed by the “buts:” but this is too little, too late; but we need to do more of items 1-4; but this does not address the overall problem of an insufficiently muscular and tough foreign policy.
Everyone likes a dramatic, instantaneous win – a two-out, two-strike home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the World Series. That’s not the way foreign policy works. It deals with multiple leagues all playing by different rules. We need to understand that the final outcome is not ours to control, at least not completely, and remember the internal forces at work in ISIS and Russia that over time can play out to their disadvantage.
There can be no hitting one out of the ballpark for us in these situations. BUT: Obama’s foreign policy, faults notwithstanding, has kept us in the game with a chance to win.
As I write this, the latest fight between Hamas and Israel enters its 16th day. This time, the conflict began shortly after the killing of three Israeli teenagers by unidentified Palestinian terrorists and the reciprocal murder of a Palestinian youth by Israeli extremists. Next time, it will begin with something else.
And there will be a next time, and a time after that, until leaders arise on both sides courageous enough to deal with the real issues that stand between their countries and lasting peace. Leaders on the level of Israel’s Menachim Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. Leaders willing to risk political repercussions from within and without and even their own lives to make a real difference. Stopgap measures may be encouraged by the United States and others, but an enduring solution and the leadership that can make it happen must come from within. Only a peace accord with significant concessions on each side – an end to the West Bank settlements and an acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist as a state – can end the cycle of violence.
Like its predecessors in 2007 and 2008, this Gaza war and those that will follow reflect a long history of conflict dating from the seizure of Gaza (then a part of Egypt) and the West Bank in the aftermath of the 1967 war. Since then the enmity between Palestinians and Israelis has been exacerbated by disputed land claims, oppressive occupation policies, controversial settlement expansion, acts of terrorism, and wars.
Israel voluntarily withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Two years later elections put Hamas in charge of the Strip’s government. In 2007, Hamas initiated missile attacks on Israel which led the Jewish state to send troops there. Egypt brokered a six month cease fire in June, 2008. After the time out expired in December, 2008, rocket fire resumed and Israel again attacked. That incursion, like the earlier one, ended in under a month. We can expect the same of the current conflict.
Bear in mind that Hamas began these latest attacks to regain its lost popularity. Its disastrous economic, political, and diplomatic record had led it in the last year to surrender its domestic powers to Fatah, the other political entity in Gaza. If Hamas can claim some sort of a “win” in the present conflict – while garnering increased sympathy from non-Hamas Palestinians in response to Israeli attacks – its goal of regaining the population’s support will have been met. All the more so if it get concessions from Israel and Egypt to loosen or end their blockades of Gaza.
In addition to stopping the missile attacks, Israelis are using this conflict as an opportunity to destroy the labyrinth of tunnels and access points from Gaza into its territory that provide a conduit for smuggled weapons and routes for terrorists to kidnap or kill Israelis.
Neither side’s objectives can be met entirely. There are limits to how many tunnels Israel can destroy and how many rockets Hamas can fire. At that point both sides will agree to stop the fighting under a deal likely brokered by Egypt and the United States and endorsed by the UN.
International blame for the episode will fall more heavily on Israel because she is by far the stronger power and will have “disproportionately” inflicted more human casualties and physical damage. But what constitutes a “proportionate” response to thousands of falling missiles? Shooting them down, when possible, or hoping they land harmlessly? Would those countries in the international community who accuse Israel of overreacting not do everything they could to halt a similar bombardment? Of course they would.
While we await the leaders in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps who can rise above the wounds of the past and the politics of the moment to change the future of the region, we can expect more of the same, with the same outcomes. In this area of the world, unfortunately, history can, does, and will continue to repeat itself.