Saturday, November 29, 2008

Was it Al-Qaeda?

Wrong question. So what if it was or wasn't? The world can hardly heave a sigh of relief if the terrorist attacks in Mumbai were not Al-Qaeda related, though it is likely that the reason why these attacks on foreign soil has caught the American media's attention is the distinct (and delicious) possibility that there is such a link. But we should not be in such a hurry to find connections when sometimes they are tenuous.

It seems likely that what happened in Mumbai was at least as domestically instigated as it was analgous to 9/11. But some journalists are already listing the parallels. Sure, the terrorists hit the Leopold Café, a favorite haunt of tourists, a train terminal, a Jewish cultural center in Nariman House, the Oberoi-Trident hotel, and the Taj Mahal hotel. These locations may give credence to the hypothesis that the terrorists were going after Westerners, but it is also possible that they were going after cosmopolitan locals embracing modernity.

I have nothing against a unified field theory of terrorism. There may well be one. For example, resentment may be a common denominator for all those who feel marginalized in the societies in which they live. Terrorism is a tragic story of society failing to accommodate its misfits; it is a bloody story of how the perceived losers of the game push back against the winners.

But, we should not miss the trees in the thicket of the forest. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai may also be a proxy for a conventional war between two nuclear rivals, Indian and Pakistan, and if this is so its causes are as much contextual as they are universal. Indian officials have already made public their suspicion of Pakistani or Kashmiri groups. In an effort to diffuse such suspicions, Pakistan is sending a top official of its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, to help investigate the attacks. If Pakistan is in some way implicated, then the US response would be even trickier than it already must be because we used to be ex-President Musharraf's best friend.

Because the trees always complicate the view of the forest, the last thing America should do is to ignore context in favor of a slogan. But President Bush couldn't help himself in his first public statement about the attacks. "The killers who struck this week are brutal and violent, but terror will not have the final word," said Bush. The forces of good and evil are at it again, he would have us believe.

Islamic terrorism is not a global ideology but a franchise of organizations and cells addressing precise local concerns by leasing the name, methods, and ideology of Al-Qaeda in such places as Iraq, Somalia, the Phillipines, and now India. It is a confederation of franchises of the disenfranchised. Once we realize that we are fighting a Medusa with many heads, we will understand that Evil doesn't wear Osama Bin Laden's head; it is a condition wrought by imperfect institutions all around the world and men and women who rebel - with indiscriminate methods - against their systematic failures. There is no swift single method of decapitating this Medusa. We must address these heinous acts and the problems out of which they arose country by country, strugggle by struggle.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Delivering the Change that We Believed in

Short of revolution in which blood is spilt and heads roll, change is a rare thing in the evolution of civilization. American presidents have tried to mimic change rhetorically - the New Freedom, the New Deal, the New Frontier, the New World Order - but the truth is the whole point of a democratic system of election is to allow for peaceful change, which is to say that elections are designed to preserve continuity amidst change, which is to say that in the end we value continuity more than we do change. And so President-elect Barack Obama has correctly intoned that the nation has only one president at a time, indicating his resistance to taking responsibility when he has no authority, while also making a subtler point that while the torch passes and the persons change, it is the torch that matters.

We are allowed to dream dreams of change in a campaign, but when government starts, the flights of rhetorical fancy and fantasy must end. So we really shouldn't be surprised that President-Elect Obama's first crop of nominations are all veterans from the last Democratic administration. Whereas the Republicans have built up a cadre of accomplished officials and advisors having won 7 out of the last 11 presidential elections, Obama has no such luxury. He needs knowledgeable people as well as experienced politicos to get any job done. His ends may be different, but Obama's means will likely be strikingly similar to the men who have come before him. In every action since he was elected, Obama has proved Hillary Clinton right that you need experience to bring about change.

Campaigns may all be run on the message of change, but government is about continuity and Obama should not allow the symbolism of his campaign to interfere with the staffing of his administration. Nothing - short of revolution and a constitutional convention - starts on a clean slate. Washington is what it is, and he who presumes to be able to sweep in and replace the reality of sticky institutions and entrenched interests without the pradoxical aid of these institutions or interests has allowed the victory of an election to get to his head.

Having sounded the clarion call for change all year, the president-elects appears to be bracing for the trench-warfare ahead by surrounding himself with a team of capable rivals. Ours is a stubborn political system rigged against change - from hortizontal to vertical decentralization - that even united party control of government may not surmont. Individual by individual, interest by interest, institution by institution, nation by nation, President-elect Barack Obama will have to bring about change that we believed in.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why We Must Overhaul "Support Our Troops"

This past week in America we celebrated Veterans Day. It is useful to recall what we were celebrating. Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, which commemorated the ending of World War I, which took place on the 11th month, the 11th day and the 11th hour in 1918. This armistice marked the end of war, the day "the troops" became veterans. Unlike “Support the Troops,” Armistice Day celebrates demilitarization and peace.

In 1954, the Eisenhower administration renamed Armistice Day to Veterans Day, to commemorate the veterans of all wars who have served our nation. The day became a reminder to the rest of the nation that even as our veterans' service has ended, our turn is up. Veterans Day is not Memorial Day, which is set aside to honor the dead, and there is much more work involved in honoring living veterans than in honoring the dead. Somewhere along the way we have confused the two.

Sadly, the living and the dead share one predicament: our nation honors their service with empty words. It is easy to chant “Support Our Troops,” as it is to sing praises of our fallen heroes; it is much harder to provide medical care for veterans. Praise and slogans are devices by which we can dispense with the obligation to look after those who have sacrificed so much for us. When we praise heroism, we celebrate a hero's sacrifice as a free gift to society that exacts no obligation on the part of the State to return the favor. It is not enough that we call our veterans’ service a sacrifice. Instead, we should reconceptualize their service as a contract by which our young men and women have offered to look out for us, and we in return have a correlative duty to take care of them when they return. Let us not just "Support our Troops," but instead Honor Our Veterans.

In our highly polarized politics, words that bring us together are rare to find. But sometimes in our search for unifying language, we end up only with propaganda, as is the case with “Support our Troops.” The slogan allows us to forget that before the troops were assembled, they were first civilians, and after the troops come home, they are veterans. We make rhetorical choices, and these choices have very real implications.

It has become commonplace in progressive punditry to highlight the difference between supporting the troops and supporting the war, but this distinction cannot be as sharply made as progressives would like. The reason is that "Support Our Troops” fixates our attention on our servicemen and women’s agency at the theater of war. After all, we can only "Support Our Troops" if they remain as troops. Keep them at war, because we can only support troops, not veterans; or so the slogans slyly insinuates. “Support Our Troops” focuses our attention on the here and now, not the fallout, the injuries, the adjustment that must happen later. To focus on "Supporting Our Troops" is to prioritize the needs of those who are fighting over those who have fought, focusing our attention on the war mission by personifying it in the men and women who fight it.

The call to "Support Our Troops" also implies a troop leader to whom our troops are subordinated, whose mission they must accomplish. A troop is a military unit (originally a small force of cavalry) subordinate to a squadron and headed by the troop leader, and cavalry soldiers of private rank are called troopers. So to "Support Our Troops" is to remember their position as soldiers at the bottom of the chain of command, not citizens of a democracy who happen also to hold the awesome power of electing their Commander-in-Chief. Why are we so quick to designate our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers as the Commander-in-Chief would designate them – as troops – and not as our fellow citizens to whom the State owes an obligation? No wonder when individual members of a phalange drop out of war because of injury, the “Support our Troops” slogan doesn’t seem to apply to them. Well, the slogan tells us exactly why: rhetorically and actually, our concern is to "Support Our Troops," not honor our veterans. Saying so has made it so.

We are not a medieval principality and our troops are not serfs to the king. Those who fight for us are citizens who made a compact to serve their country and not their king, they are not just troops committed to a mission determined by someone higher up the chain of command. We the People are at the top of the chain of command. The Commander-in-Chief owes his commission to the very people he commands – this is the paradox and majesty of our democracy. “Support Our Troops” elides this subtle fact by focusing our attention on troopers and their subordination to the troop leader. The slogan coagulates the multitude of servicemen and women into a single monolithic unit, a phalange of warriors ready to do the president’s bidding. “Support Our Troops” does not serve the country; it is propaganda that serves the Commander-in-Chief.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Needed: Soul-Searching in the GOP

Politics doesn't stop at the end of elections. Even before Senator Obama has been inaugurated, Republican politicians are regrouping on the ashes of the McCain campaign, hoping to rise pheonix-like for 2012. In particular, Governor Sarah Palin is getting more media attention than the president-elect - and that is an achievement. For a vice-presidential candidate carefully kept within closed doors, Sarah Palin sure is making the interview rounds this week. Her ambition is startling to behold; as palpable as her newfound respect for Hillary Clinton is strategic. "I would be happy to get to do whatever is asked of me to help progress this nation," said Palin at the Republican Governors Association conference in Miami on Wednesday. She left little doubt that she would like to be asked to head the GOP ticket in 2012, and if asked she would gladly oblige.

Sarah Palin is here to stay, but Republicans will do well to replace her with a Bobby Jindal or a Tim Pawlenty. Not that she is too - and we have heard this charge used before against Hillary Clinton - polarizing, but that she represents a repudiated ticket. The American people have delivered a stinging rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket, and this post-election Palinmania is nothing more than the last grumblings of a nostalgic conservative base wishfully thinking that an authentic conservative such as Palin could have won this year. This is stubborn and out-dated thinking, an unproductive "what-if" counterfactual that will only hinder the Republican party's ability to move on.

The GOP must do a soul-searching post-mortem of the elections, and then exorcize all that contributed to their losing streak in the last two years. Looking to the past will be no help to the party's future. Instead GOP leaders should look to Obamcans for clues for how to navigate our new political era: moderate Republicans such as Chuck Hagel, Ken Duberstein, Paul O'Neill, William Weld, Susan Eisenhower, and Colin Powell can help massage the Party back to the middle when Sarah Palin will only drag the party back to the deep end. When once liberals had to fight to win back the Reagan Democrats, now conservatives must fight to win back the Obamacans. Over is the Age of Reagan; this is the Age of Obama.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Good Morning and Good Night in America

Now that the elections are over, journalists are trying to drum up interest in the transition, the court intrigue of impending appointments, the personalities of the new DC aristocracy. But most citizens would have none of it. While the punditry will keep up its obsession, the American people, Rip Van Winkle will go back to sleep. And that is not a bad thing. This is our democracy, where citizens are free to go back to their business once they have picked their new president, who should now be free for the next four years to exercise his own judgment on their behalf. We will reassemble again soon enough to judge him, but until then, we wish him good luck and godspeed.

Throughout the late 90s, it became fashionable to decry the disengagement of citizens, the solipsism of citizens living politics vicariously via television and bowling alone. This year we saw that the American people can be awoken and roused to action. When in crisis and dire need, we have demonstrated our ability to rise to the occasion to care, to engage, and to vote. Most times our message is divided and diluted, but once every generation We the People speak with a stikingly clear voice, commanding and responding to a new leader's call for change. This is America, where a revolution can happen every generation, where our covenant with each other is reaffirmed and its meaning redefined.

If we are ever to end the permanent campaign - the pox on American politics - we should embrace and endorse this aspect of representative democracy that permits citizens to go back to their own private affairs and allows our officials to conduct the nation's business. Ours is not a direct democracy in which citizens are asked to approve and to bless every governmental decision to be made; ours is a representative democacy in which the people choose to defer their opinions to the judgment of their elected representatives. This is the paradoxical luxury enjoyed by a democratic people who remain sovereign even as they are governed.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What President-elect Obama should read

From Inside Higher Ed

The president-elect should read Preparing to be President: The Memos of Richard E. Neustadt (AEI Press, 2000), edited by Charles O. Jones. Richard Neustadt was a scholar-practitioner who advised Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton, and, until his passing in 2003, also the dean of presidential studies. Most of the memos in this volume were written for president-elect John Kennedy, when the country was, as it is now, ready for change.

At the end of every election, “everywhere there is a sense of a page turning ... and with it, irresistibly, there comes the sense, ‘they’ couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t, but ‘we’ will,” Neustadt wrote years ago, reminding presidents-elect that it is difficult but imperative that they put the brake on a campaign while also starting the engine of a new administration. Campaigning and governing are two different things.

Buoyed by their recent victory, first-term presidents have often over-reached and under-performed, quickly turning hope into despair. If there is one common thread to Neustadt’s memos, it is the reminder that there is no time for hubris or celebration. The entire superstructure of the executive branch — the political appointees who direct the permanent civil service — is about to lopped off, and the first and most critical task of the president-elect is to surround himself with competent men and women he can work with and learn from.

In less than three months, the president-elect will no longer have the luxury of merely making promises on the campaign trail. Now he must get to work.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Arc of a Pendulum

Not all elections were created equal.

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson took his newly formed Jeffersonian-Republican party to victory on an anti-Federalist platform, arguing convincingly that George Washington and John Adams (with the Alien and Sedition Acts) had over-centralized power in the federal government.

In 1828, Andrew Jackson stood against the National Bank and federal funds for internal improvements in his contest with John Quincy Adams. The election inaugurated Jacksonian democracy and an anti-Jacksonian Whig/Republican party that would, together, create the oldest surviving two-party system in the history of the world.

The central question at the ballot box in 1860 was not slavery, but the states' rights to secede in order to preserve the peculiar institution. This election was the purest expression of the Federalist and anti-Federalist debate of the Founding generation and it would establish the Republican party as the dominant party in American politics for decades to come.

In 1896, Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan told his fellow democrats as well as members of the Populist party that he would not allow the industrial north and the coasts to force the gold standard on silver supporters, mostly farmers in the agricultural south and midwest. McKinley relied heavily on finance, railroads, and industry for his support and cemented the Republicans as the party of business.

The era of hands-off goverment came to an end in 1932, when FDR would offer a new deal for the American people, promising the helping hand of government when before the people waited for the invisible hand of the economy.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan declared that government was not the solution to our problems but the problem itslf. The era of big government and of the welfare queen was over, as was the New Deal coalition.

Each of these elections heralded the first ("Revolution of 1800"), second (Jacksonian Democracy), third (Civil War), fourth ("System of 1896"), fifth ("New Deal"), and sixth (Reagan Revolution) party systems in American history. They were characterized by relatively high voter participation or turnout and an enduring switch in partisan loyalties. The issues may have changed, but the central axis of debate has always been the same in each of these critical elections: what is the proper and constitutional role of the federal government? The is a question as old as our constitution, and one that triggers an electoral revolution every 3 decades or so. In the grand sweep of history, there are no winners and no losers, just the arc of a pendulum.

This year, John McCain has campaigned on a message of cleaning up the corruption and pork-barrel spending in Washington and Barack Obama has campaigned on the promise of what citizens can do for their country and what government can do in return for them. Obama has chastized McCain for saying that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" while McCain has condemned Obama for trying to "spread the wealth." More than any election since 1980, this is, once again, an election about whether government is the solution to our problems or the problem itself. "Yes, we can" implies "No, we haven't yet." If Barack Obama wins on Tuesday, the Democratic majority in all branches of government will likely chant, "now, we will."