When an Empire Falls in the World, Does it Make a Sound?

We must address the colonies of dispossessed Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck and stop thinking about colonizing cheap labor pools of distant nations.

empire fallsMargaret MacMillan’s latest book on World War I, The War That Ended The Peace, opens with the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900. Countries from around the globe gathered in Paris to reveal inventions and works of art and to generally boast about nationhood. The event was underscored by political tensions but fueled by a collective optimism that technological advancements, many of which were on display at the exposition, would bring the world closer together and usher in lasting peace on Earth.

Fourteen years later, the world order collapsed. The Great War engulfed the very nations who proclaimed the 20th century as a new and peaceful era. Within five bloody years, vast empires had crumbled, maps were redrawn and a generation of men was decimated.

Great Britain entered World War I as one of the most impressive imperial empires the world had ever known; incredible given its size. Much of their greatness was attributed to being the greatest naval power in history. After the war, it was never the same. There are obvious parallels to be drawn between the position of the United States today and Great Britain’s a century ago. There are lessons to be heeded from their story.

Our disastrous wars in the Middle East at the beginning of the 21st century are akin to the Boer War fiasco Britain was embroiled in at the turn of the 20th century. The Boer War engendered near-universal antipathy toward the aging lion. Most notably, it drew strident criticism from the German people and Kaiser Wilhelm, which contributed to the burgeoning schism between the two nations.

One of the most striking similarities between the two eras is the manner in which Britain and the United States approached empire-building at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, respectively. Britain was suffering from growing pains related to over-colonization as its empire stretched around the globe. The U.S. is experiencing similar aches in its attempt to recover from naked imperialism under the guise of spreading democracy for the past 60 years.

Both nations display a paternalistic attitude toward “lesser” nations and believe a western style of governance was easily adopted through what Franklin Henry Giddings termed, “consent without consent.” In doing so both empires wore out their welcomes abroad and maintained relations strictly through fear of violent reprisal or loss of economic trade.
The British government was increasingly pouring resources into maintaining the largest navy in the world while ignoring the domestic cost of an aging population. Instead of cutting back on imperial pursuits and bolstering spending at home to stabilize its economy, it engaged in an arms race with Germany and sought new economic alliances in the event the two nations proceeded down the path to war.

Sound familiar?

The problem with military power is that it creates a desire among world leaders to employ it. Just as Capitalism requires constant growth, the suppression of labor and consumption of natural resources, the Military Industrial Complex requires conflict in order to sustain and justify its very existence. Despite famously being credited with the phrase, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick,” President Theodore Roosevelt sent America’s Great White Fleet around the globe to impress the world and privately lamented the fact that he did not preside over a war while serving in the Oval Office. His successors would put America’s new-found might to use, however, as the United States embarked on a century of unprecedented warfare and imperial harassment.

The dawn of the 20th century was rife with warmongering characters such as Roosevelt, who shared his attitude toward war. This idea is perfectly encapsulated in the words of Count Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf of Austria-Hungary: “The army is not a fire extinguisher, one cannot let it rust until the flames are coming out of the house. Instead it is an instrument to be used by goal-conscious, clever politicians as the ultimate defence of their interests.”

Naturally, the madness of these nations is somewhat clear. In hindsight, though, these are not the exclusive circumstances that led to the Great War. Nevertheless, one can’t help but experience déjà vu when examining the behavior of the Bush administration and the continuum that is the Obama administration. President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” is eerily similar to Britain’s thirst to tap into the faltering Chinese and Ottoman Empires of its age. Moreover, its effort to marginalize its perceived enemies through new and aggressive trade alliances is comparable to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently being negotiated in secret between the U.S. and many of its so-called “client nations,” such as Canada, Japan, Mexico and South Korea.

The TPP is essentially an attempt by the U.S. to constrict China’s growth in the coming years by allowing TPP-participating nations access to labor forces in poverty-stricken parts of the world. It would function much like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in that the subordinate nations would be subject to the economic and human rights abuses of the more dominant nations.
Those familiar with the neo-liberal treatise called the Project for a New American Century will rightly view the TPP as the next logical evolutionary step in the process toward maintaining U.S. hegemony in the world by any means necessary. Where military interventions have failed us, a new form of economic warfare is stepping up to take their place.

the-war-that-ended-the-peaceFor its part, China is responding as one might imagine—with a show of force and steady shift toward economic policies that bear a closer resemblance to Capitalism, though this may never be fully recognized. President Xi Jinping’s 10-year plan is called “The Chinese Dream,” which obviously borrows from the American Dream in its scale and ambition. Implicit in the Chinese Dream, as in the American Dream, is economic growth and continued technological progress. Inevitably, this will lead China down a familiar path.

Growth is addictive and when it is no longer possible to grow through economic policies and market forces, empires do what empires do best: expand and acquire. Evidence of this strategy already exists, as China was more than happy to procure oil and gas contracts from nations, such as Iraq, that U.S. corporations walked away from after a decade-long struggle to obtain by forcible means.

Yet despite provocations between China and the U.S., there is a presumption that war is impossible given the interconnectedness of the world economies.

In an op-ed titled “The Great War’s Ominous Echoes” in The New York Times, Margaret MacMillan ruminates on this very theme, saying, “It is tempting—and sobering—to compare today’s relationship between China and America to that between Germany and England a century ago. Lulling ourselves into a false sense of safety, we say that countries that have a McDonald’s will never fight each other.”

MacMillan is right. Recently, China quietly joined the military fray in a significant way by revealing its first naval aircraft carrier and announcing plans to launch its first domestically built, nuclear-powered carrier by 2020. This announcement, in addition to China establishing a no-fly zone in the East China Sea and issuing several warnings to the Japanese government about its plans to increase its military presence, follows directly on the heels of President Obama’s decision to send American vessels into the region in 2012.

The United States would be wise to tread lightly in the coming years and begin to look inward to cure what ails it instead of continuing on this ceaseless path of imperial madness. We must address the colonies of dispossessed Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck and stop thinking about colonizing cheap labor pools of distant nations. We need a better plan to take care of our aging population and must provide greater educational resources to equip our young people with the skills they will need to get by in this world. This is the role of government. No nation can be truly secure until its people are.

When spending on our massive surveillance state and “homeland security” is taken into account along with Pentagon spending, fully 30 percent of our nation’s budget is allocated toward the military. And yet we wrangle over subsidies for programs that assist at-risk populations and cut pensions of those returning from our ignominious missions abroad.

One hundred years ago this year, 65 million men were mobilized in the Great War. By 1919 more than half were casualties of the war, with 8.5 million killed. Few in the world saw conflict on this scale coming. It was considered almost impossible due to the economic relationships between world power, technological advancements and fear that empires might collapse as a result. For those who believe that our financial arrangement renders war impossible, or impractical at the least, I leave you with MacMillan’s admonition:

“Globalization can heighten rivalries and fears between countries that one might otherwise expect to be friends. On the eve of World War I, Britain, the world’s greatest naval power, and Germany, the world’s greatest land power, were each other’s largest trading partners.”

Conspiracy: It’s What’s for Dinner.

Through it all, Barack Obama has held tightly to his cool, unflappable persona, leading me to believe that there’s more to it than meets the eye.

I think it’s fair to say that in the wake of the government shutdown and the laughable antics of the Tea Party, the GOP had their asses effectively handed to them in this latest election. Tea partier Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia was summarily defeated. So too Dean Young of Alabama. New York City elected its first democratic mayor since the early nineties. Democracy reigned across the land, despite voter ID laws designed to keep minorities and Democrats from voting.

All of it: the shutdown, Ted Cruz’s filibuster, the obstruction led by Tea Party wing-nuts has badly shaken the President. Except – it hasn’t. Through it all, Barack Obama has held tightly to his cool, unflappable persona, leading me to believe that there’s more to it than meets the eye. As it stands, this fringe element of the GOP shouldn’t have nearly the voice or the power to sabotage the US government. Yet, thanks to redistricting and gerrymandering, they have infiltrated congress to wield their strange and horrible revenge.

obama-coolBut something about it doesn’t sit right in my stomach. I suspect the story goes deeper than we’ve all been led to believe and that maybe Obama’s calm exterior is the clue we need to put it all together. Remember Syria? That country somewhere across the water from us, in the middle of a whole bunch of other countries that I can’t pronounce/know who they are? Remember how they were going to throw us into a third foreign conflict that had conservatives beating the drum wars (have the ever stopped?) and liberals picketing, recycling our fathers’ protest-wear of the 1960s?

In short, it was a chess game, the likes of which none of us saw clearly until the hand was dealt in John Kerry’s “slip” that if Syria was willing to give up their chemical weaponry, we were going to launch the missiles that were aimed at Syrian targets. It sounded to the world like an offhand comment, an impossibility, and an excuse to pacify the itchy fingers at the helm. But Syria, with Russia’s support, surprised us. They agreed. And most of us let out a sigh of relief.

And it was only after the smoke cleared that the public was able to see why Obama was able to keep his cool in the face of another bloody war: he knew what he was doing. He saw three steps ahead of any of us and played it out. Nothing to get all nervous about folks. I got this.

And so when I see that coolness in the face of domestic conflict in Congress that has organized opposition to every single thing he has ever proposed, I wonder how he doesn’t snap. Just once. Just a bit. An eye-roll. A bitten lip. A shouted obscenity.

But no.

So let’s look deeper at the actual result of the Tea Party’s invasion of the GOP. They have hijacked a powerful political party and taken away their credo of fiscal responsibility and small government and replaced it with a religious dogma that would stump Jesus. Conspiracy theorists have only grown more staunch in their assertions that Obama is really a Muslim socialist intent on waging war against the very country he purports to love. They’re waiting for the axe to drop. They think it might have something to do with his healthcare reform, that there has to be a sinister element to his attempt to revamp a disastrous and corrupt system and put affordable provisions in for the less fortunate among us.

Ted Cruz and Michelle Bachman haven’t stopped to take a breath in their campaigns to enlighten the people to his evil doings. Fox News, in their fair and balanced efforts, pauses naught in their anti-Obama “news,” and Mitch McConnell has vowed to never stop his wave of obstruction. It’s enough to make a leader flip the eff out.

But not this guy.

Consider for a moment how his calm exterior has been a Teflon cover to which none of their vitriol sticks. Consider how the Tea Party-led GOP has succeeded in defeating food stamps for the very poor in hard economic times while clinging to tax breaks for the very wealthy, how redistricting has made their racist motives apparent to the masses, and how they shut down the entire government just to stage a temper tantrum that served only to illustrate how contemptible their positions have grown. Finally, consider how the Tea Party has succeeded where no Democrat ever could: in dividing a once-powerful club whose power was unmatched by anything the world had ever seen. Consider Obama’s ability to play a long game. Consider his chess-playing acumen.

Then tell me that Obama isn’t the biggest sponsor of the Tea Party “patriots.”

(Slow clap, Mr. President. And don’t worry – I’ll keep this between you and me.)

Ted Cruz’s Elusive “Moment”

The old pathways of the Joe Bidens and Robert Byrds are outdated, cast-away like the crooners of yesteryear in favor of digitally remastered voice recordings.

My son is at that age where popularity and coolness have entered his consciousness. As much as I try to instill what’s important, it’s almost impossible to insulate yourself from the desire to be liked by as many of your peers as possible in the third grade. And so I see him trying: his hair is gelled into a perfectly coiffed faux-hawk. He can’t resist jumping on every opportunity to be the funny kid in class. And when a joke lands, he can’t keep from repeating it, until that dead horse is laying on his Air Jordan high-tops. He doesn’t have the life experience or maturity to know that cool happens when you stop trying (so they tell me) and that the more you try to contrive a funny moment, the less it is. To quote the movie Mean Girls, “Stop trying to make [it] happen.”

Our political superstars have risen up through the ranks in reality show-type peaks of popularity, in moments that have caught the public’s attention in just the right way, at the exact moment we were ready for it. Barack Obama’s poignant speech at the DNC in 2004 was a welcome break from the blandness of the candidates who had been presented in front of us, making them look old, boring and unintelligent by comparison. It was the platform from which he would later rise to the highest office in the country. Sarah Palin had her moment at the RNC four years later when she was thrust onto the world’s stage as John McCain’s running mate. Despite the fact that it would later be proven that she had a casual relationship with honesty and intelligence, she was a welcome diversion from the uptight white men who dominated the right. It was so powerful that she still commands huge audiences on speaking tours and on Fox News.

You’ve likely only heard of Wendy Davis of Texas since she famously filibustered the Senate in order to stave off crippling anti-choice laws in Texas. She drew ire from Governor Rick Perry and failed in her effort to stem the tide of anti-abortion legislation in her state, but that doesn’t matter. Because her stand against the vaginal-probe wielding Texas legislature captured the voice of the zeitgeist at the moment women’s rights abuses all over the country, but especially in Texas, were coming to a head. Davis’s filibuster, in her Mizuno Wave rider pink sneakers, was the moment a political star was born. She will likely use this momentum to run for higher office, and will be afforded newspaper column inches and prime time news show minutes for the foreseeable future. The political world is hers to lose.

So it makes sense why ambitious young politicians would attempt to skip the whole put-your-time-in-and-see-how-this-government-thing-works in favor of creating their own political superstar moments and rising to fame. This is a political culture brought to you by American Idol and other reality-show based fame contests. The old pathways of the Joe Bidens and  Robert Byrds are outdated, cast-away like the crooners of yesteryear in favor of digitally remastered voice recordings.

Ted CruzThese freshman politicians keep trying to find shortcuts by having their “moments.” You could see how badly Marco Rubio wants it. You could smell it on Rand Paul.

Case in point: Ted Cruz. Yesterday, Texas Senator Cruz threw his hat into the ring for super-stardom by staging a filibuster to defund the Affordable Care Act. Hey! If it worked for Wendy Davis, why wouldn’t it work for Cruz? Unfortunately for him, he sought to answer this question on the Senate floor, and not in his own head. And not by staying on topic and waging a legitimate filibuster, but by reading Dr. Seuss and his twitter feed in what wasn’t even a real filibuster. He was actually talking to hear himself speak, and to see himself on television screens and in column inches. But he’s become not the newly discovered darling of the Republican party that he’d hoped, but largely a joke who proved that he doesn’t understand how the government works or what a filibuster actually is. Even though he spoke for twenty-one hours, there was no way his “filibuster” could impact the Senate vote on the government funding bill. And so it was an empty grab for attention.

And that’s what I have tried to get across to my kid. You can’t force a moment to happen. You can’t contrive it. You can’t chase it. You have to put your head down and do your work. Because the harder you try, the more desperate you’ll seem.

And desperate never won a popularity contest.

 

 

 

Gun Nuts and Chilled Speech

When Daniel Ellsberg, Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky, along with a handful of the world’s most prominent political activists, join together to bring suit against you in U.S. federal court it’s fair to say you have a problem.

Okay, so now we’re all armed. Present company included. Great job, America. Now what?

The debate over gun control would be uproarious if it wasn’t so pitiful. In typical American fashion we have taken to the streets and airwaves in the aftermath of Sandy Hook to engage in an irrational debate that, once again, places misguided ideology over common sense and humanity. If we’re going to have this conversation, let us at least place the discussion within its proper historical context so we may raise a more troubling question:

Why bother taking the guns when you can indefinitely detain their owners? 

Lost in the emotion surrounding the debate over the Second Amendment is a far more insidious assault on the First Amendment. In no way am I diminishing the consternation over our right to bear arms as citizens; rather, I’m making a pragmatic case for a far more clear and present danger than the idea that federal agents will show up at our doorstep to commandeer our weapons. Before we get to this larger and more important point, let us dispense with the ridiculous.

Of course, we shouldn’t sell guns to crazy people, just like we don’t give a driver’s licenses to  blind people. Of course, citizens shouldn’t own military-style weapons with enough ammunition to wipe out a village. Newsflash: the government has neither the authority nor the desire to seize our guns. We hold the dual distinction of being the planet’s most armed nation and its biggest dealer of arms. What does this mean? The gun culture is here to stay because it’s profitable as hell.

And another thing: Stop yelling sanctimoniously about what the Founding Fathers would say. Find out what they did say. Media pundits insult our intelligence by twisting the meaning of the Constitution and the rationale behind it. So instead of arming yourself with high-capacity weapons, arm yourself with knowledge and learn about the Second Amendment from those who wrote it.

Founding Father Knows Best

During the two short years between the ratification of the Constitution and the introduction of the Bill of Rights, three of the greatest minds in America publicly explored the rationale behind the country’s founding document. A trio of intellectual giants writing interchangeably under the name Publius—Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison—produced a collection of essays now known as The Federalist Papers. They are essentially crib notes to the Constitution left behind by the Founding Fathers.

These are treasured breadcrumbs of reasoning that lead us to understand that the great military concerns of the day were whether or not to allow a standing army and how to prevent one state from acquiring military dominance over another. (The nascent nation could ill-afford Virginia to sack Rhode Island.) This dilemma was at the heart of the federalist argument for a centralized authority. At the same time, the Founding Fathers knew that the great balancing act of the day was in maintaining enough military force to defend against external foes while simultaneously preventing armed insurrections from within.

Publius reasoned that neither citizens nor tyrants should have the ability to circumvent our legal system, therefore arms and force should be evenly rationed but employed by a central government when necessary. (For the politically impaired, this is the part about a well-regulated militia.) The framers of the Constitution were dubious when it came to having full-time, professional soldiers. After all, these men were revolutionaries themselves who intimately understood the danger of uprisings. Moreover, America was also flat broke and could never have paid for a standing army. They did, however, believe Congress should have the ability to organize a militia when necessary.

It was Hamilton (as Publius) who offered the most succinct viewpoint on the military. “To render an army unnecessary will be a more certain method of preventing its existence than a thousand prohibitions on paper.”

To have an army or not? If so, how best to regulate it? This was the debate. The easiest way to raise a militia was to call upon the armed citizenry should the need arise. (This is the right to bear arms part.) More importantly, it was cheap. The ability to compensate servicemen would become one of Hamilton’s central arguments in favor of a national bank—a far more delicate subject at the time than the right to bear arms would ever be. 

It’s fair to say even the Founding Fathers could never have imagined modern warfare and the rise of the military industrial complex. Nor could they have imagined the destructive capability of assault weapons in the hands of citizens. This much is clear from their writings: the Founding Fathers would have punished any idiot who attempted to stockpile enough weapons to take on the government long before they tolerated government prohibition of speech.

On several occasions our founders saw fit to violently quell popular uprisings in order to preserve the central authority of the union. In this there was great philosophical unity among them. They argued more about banking than guns and cared more about protecting speech than organizing militias. It was John Adams who created a divide among them when, as president, he passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, jarring both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison out of retirement; not because they were fearful of his demagoguery with respect to force, but because these acts took away a more sacred right: free speech.

This brings us to the larger issue at hand.

Just as Jefferson and Madison recoiled at the behavior of Adams once in office, the great intellectual giants of our day have come together to challenge President Barack Obama’s authority. 

The man who released “The Pentagon Papers” and forever changed the way in which we view our involvement in Vietnam. The award-winning multilingual journalist who quit the New York Times because it was too tepid and conservative. America’s foremost dissident who has influenced generations of thinkers and helped shape liberal intellectualism. When Daniel Ellsberg, Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky, along with some of the world’s foremost political activists such as Jennifer “Tangerine” Bolen – the organizing force of the plaintiff’s team – join together to bring suit against you in U.S. federal court it’s fair to say you have a problem.

Such is the predicament Obama finds himself in today. The above group has brought suit against the government for infringing upon free speech as defined by the Constitution. Thus far, and thankfully, they are winning. Their lawsuit (which I refer to herein as the Hedges suit) not only challenges the government’s unconstitutional behavior, it casts a light on a dangerous trend in America and exposes a surprising secret weakness in the White House and the Justice Department.

Incarceration Nation

“There are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.” —Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, 2012.

The woeful mash-up of Conservatives, Libertarians, Tea Party loyalists and Democrats who wouldn’t know a liberal idea if the ghost of Gore Vidal whispered it to them, are so busy deconstructing America’s gun culture they have ignored a more alarming cultural trend: the culture of incarceration.

In addition to being the most armed nation in the world, America also has the greatest percentage of its population behind bars. While this trend has steadily risen over the past few decades, it has gained a level of acceptability in the post-9/11 era. Perhaps, this is why so few bristled at the passage of the provision the Hedges suit aims at. 

The plaintiffs in this suit have made the case in federal court that the Obama administration and Congress violated the First Amendment with the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012. The Act is a routine bill that organizes defense spending for the year and typically garners little attention from citizens and the media. But the 2012 Act contained a new provision authored in secret by Sen. John McCain—known as Section 1021—that was so alarming it prompted the above suit.

Essentially, Sec. 1021 expands the scope of existing law that allows the government to hunt terrorists in connection with 9/11 to include anyone seen as providing “substantial support” of terrorism. Ever. Anywhere. The provision offers vague language that attempts to couch it within existing statutes but its very existence is evidence that the government is seeking more expansive authority.

In September of 2001 the White House put forward several provisions that gave the government the power to prosecute those responsible for the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The joint resolution—the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)—passed Congress quickly and included nearly everything the Bush Administration requested. Everything, that is, except a provision that could have been interpreted as granting the government the ability to militarily detain U.S. citizens. This denial was subsequently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Hedges suit argues that the broadness of Sec. 1021 and vagueness of the “substantial support” language endanger journalists and activists and theoretically expose U.S. citizens to indefinite military detention.

Katherine B. Forrest, district judge in the U.S. District Court Southern District of New York, presided over the opening salvo of the Hedges suit and delivered a resounding victory to the plaintiffs, and an injunction against enforcement of Sec. 1021, excoriating the government and its case in the process. In her decision she states, “The Government was unable to provide this Court with any assurance that plaintiffs’ activities…would not in fact subject plaintiffs to military detention.”

For its part, the government’s sole defense seemed to be inaction: If no one has yet been detained, then obviously there is no cause for alarm. Basically, their defense is that even though Sec. 1021 says that the government can punch you in the face if it doesn’t like your shirt, it hasn’t done it yet; therefore we must assume it won’t. Judge Forrest wasn’t buying it. Her decision examines various laws pertaining to what the government defines as criminal statutes related to terrorist activities of behavior in “material support” of such activities. In each case, laws are clearly designed to honor due process. She further argues that the plaintiffs are rightly concerned that Sec. 1021 falls outside the scope of constitutionality with respect to habeas corpus and is therefore not consistent with any legal precedent.

This is where it gets really, really interesting.

 Judge Forrest: “Section 1021 appears to be a legislative attempt at an ex post facto ‘fix’: to provide the President (in 2012) with broader detention authority than was provided in the AUMF in 2001 and to try to ratify past detentions which may have occurred under an overly broad interpretation of the AUMF.”

Whoa.

President Obama doesn’t have a journalism problem. He’s not afraid of liberal scholars, protests, or homegrown terrorism on the rise because of access to Jihadist websites. Barack Obama has a Guantanamo problem.

Ah, Guantanamo. Hundreds of suspected terrorists or their affiliates have been brought here for questioning. Scores have been indefinitely detained. Recall then-candidate Obama’s assurance that Gitmo would be closed. Upon becoming president, it didn’t take long for the political reality to set in that the remaining prisoners weren’t coming ashore to stand trial anytime soon.

On the one hand, the government makes the case that Sec. 1021 is no different than existing authority granted under the AUMF. On the other hand, the government stands by the need for this provision to continue its mission to find and prosecute suspected terrorists, as though AUMF isn’t sufficient enough. Judge Forrest barely shields her disdain for this conflicting stance and rightfully concludes that “Section 1021 is, therefore, significantly different in scope and language from the AUMF.” She goes on to wag her finger at the attorneys for the government, saying, “Shifting positions are intolerable when indefinite military detention is the price that a person could have to pay for his/her, or law enforcement’s, erroneous judgment as to what may be covered.”

Back to Hedges et al. for a moment. Stymieing the government’s continued attempt to cover up potential war crimes at Guantanamo may have been an incredible, yet unintended consequence of the Hedges suit. Remember, the plaintiffs in the Hedges suit aren’t suing over Guantanamo. That’s a different fight. Rather, they take issue with the inherent danger of the language to citizens, activists and journalists. Nevertheless, Sec. 1021 is still on the books as the suit is pending appeal. And regardless of whether or not any U.S. citizen has been specifically detained as a result of its passage (and how would we know?) it must disappear.

For his part, President Obama issued a signing statement distancing his presidency from Sec. 1021. But actions speak louder than words and in many ways he has been far more active in assaulting civil liberties than President George W. Bush ever was. Whether through the wide use of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia or numerous examples of prosecutorial overreach—most recently the tragic case of “hacktivist” Aaron Swartz—or the failure to speak out against the alphabet soup of dwindling liberties (SOPA, PIPA, FISA) Obama has given the public little evidence that he cares about this issue. Perhaps even more troubling is that his tenure as a constitutional law professor has been touted so often that one can only assume he understands the complexity of the issue but has chosen to ignore it, or worse take advantage of it. Bush was able to play the no-nonsense (you’re either with us or against us) cowboy card. Obama has chosen to play the steely intellectual card, and in doing so has created legitimate cause for alarm.

All of which brings us back to the gun debate. As much as I am sympathetic to the right to bear arms, I refuse to capitulate to the cheap argument that it includes the right to possess combat-style weaponry. Furthermore, I’ve grown weary of the ignorant protestations from right-wing figures who poison the words of the Founding Fathers and miss the bigger picture altogether.

The more we divorce ourselves from the notion of liberty, the more abstract it becomes; the more divisive our discourse, the more perilous our future. The vociferous gun debate obscures the very real, current and existing assault on our civil liberties. And know this: Were they alive today, not only would Hamilton, Jay and Madison have joined Ellsberg, Hedges and Chomsky as plaintiffs in this lawsuit, they would challenge every right-wing blogger, talk radio host and television pundit who twisted their words to a duel.

With a pistol, not an assault rifle.

 

Illustration: Jon Moreno

 This version has been updated from the original that appears in the February edition of the Long Island Press.

 

Grand Old Pogrom

The rationale behind their approach is simple and time-tested. Over time repetitious lies begin to have the resonance of truth, no matter how far fetched.

The Republican Convention was going rather poorly. The crowd was homogenous, the speakers were flat and the enthusiasm in the room was manufactured at best. And Clint Eastwood hadn’t even begun a rambling conversation with a chair. The Republican Party’s best hope for the convention was for its candidate to appear “human.”

Although “Eastwooding” would eventually enter the American lexicon and Willard Romney would do his best to connect with his fellow Homo sapiens, it was a quiet delegate from New York who captured the essence of the modern GOP.

Wading in among his fellow delegates, billionaire industrialist David Koch smugly took in the proceedings. Though the convention offered little in the way of celebration, he told a group of supporters at a nearby reception later that he and his brother, Charles, were “in this for the long haul.” Indeed they are. The Koch brothers are part of a well-established movement designed to vilify liberalism and many of the core tenets of democracy.

They are hardly original. But they are unique in that they have elevated their insidious brand of propaganda to a high art form. Groups such as the nativist Know Nothings of the 1850s or the John Birch Society of the 1950s espoused similar hate-filled political messages as today’s GOP but they flamed out as quickly as their stars rose. In terms of longevity, the Kochs and their inspired think tanks such as Americans for Prosperity—busy these days attempting to deny Hurricane Sandy relief funds to our region—have succeeded where their predecessors have failed. For the first time in American history, a small band of angry white men has galvanized a vast number of Americans and irrevocably turned public policy on its ear. The modern American conservative movement has finally arrived. 

Much of this has been accomplished through the elaborate and coordinated messaging emanating from the right-wing propaganda machine. Theirs is a two-part strategy. The first is to consistently contend that the media have a liberal bias when the opposite is true. Talk radio is virtually owned by the right wing. Fox News has become an insanely biased juggernaut and the print media, with few exceptions, has essentially fallen in line with the conservative agenda. Even the majority of the New York newspapers—The Daily News, Wall Street Journal, Newsday and New York Post—endorsed Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. But to hear conservative pundits talk about media bias, one would think the New York Times is the only newspaper on the planet.

The second part of the strategy is to plant false information from seemingly credible sources with patriotic names such as the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and the American Enterprise Institute. Representatives from these organizations, which are funded by billionaires such as the Koch brothers, routinely appear on right wing talk shows spouting bogus statistics. These sources are then quoted in newspaper articles that are again mentioned in on-air reports. This is what is known as “the echo chamber.”

The rationale behind their approach is simple and time-tested. Over time repetitious lies begin to have the resonance of truth, no matter how far fetched. Selling an idea as its exact opposite, a mirrored reality, via the continual amplification of such lies has been an effective strategy employed by tyrannical regimes since time immemorial. For example, Adolf Hitler extolled the virtues of physicality, and gushed over the domineering blond-haired, fair-skinned Aryan, who was tall, reasoned and even-tempered. But Hitler himself possessed none of these traits. He was short, pudgy, greasy, and ill tempered.

Likewise, the right-wing echo chamber has been successful in instilling a backward self-loathing belief system among its followers who blithely campaign on behalf of billionaires.

Witness the retired worker receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits carrying a sign bashing entitlements at a Tea Party rally. Or the middle-income wage earner resisting tax increases on the wealthiest Americans because they’ve been told it smacks of socialism. Or perhaps the enraged grandmother who believes “Obamacare” is a Communist plot, even though the concept was hatched in a conservative think tank and first passed into law by a Republican governor.

Brilliantly, there is no single face of modern conservatism, only a secret cabal of dangerous men such as Charles and David Koch, who work behind the scenes to pull the last remaining threads from our democracy. In another stroke of genius, the GOP has joined forces with Christian Fundamentalists to misappropriate scripture while wrapped in the flag to sell the American people on perverted interpretations of the teachings of Christ.

The GOP has wed itself to fundamentalist leaders such as Douglas Coe who, since 1969, as the head of a secret society known as “The Family,” has presided over several Washington “prayer cells” that have been linked to some of the most deadly despots in modern times such as Indonesia’s General Suharto, Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Not only have Coe’s associates been linked to some of the most heinous genocidal acts in history, they were all at one time members of Family-sponsored prayer cells. Genocide, it seems, is easily overlooked in Coe’s movement so long as lip service is paid to Christ and oil and other natural resources are provided to well-heeled Family members. 

Beyond warping the Bible to suit the Republican ideology, there are secular issues that have been upended by its truth-twisting dogma. The vilification of labor in this country, for one, is sickening and self-defeating. To wit, only 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized, but conservative pundits would have the public believe that unions are wholly responsible for our employment woes and lack of competitiveness. They would also have us believe that Social Security is collapsing under its own weight even though it is, by design, self sustaining and fully funded.

Equally as disturbing is the malicious stance toward immigrants in the United States. The extent of Republican soul-searching post election was to examine strategies going forward that would deal with the problem of changing demographics: how to woo more Latinos into the fold instead of actually adopting more progressive policies.

In fact, Republicans were anything but contrite in the wake of electoral defeat. Forgotten were the insults to women, equating nearly half of America with system-sucking leeches, and the notion of self deportation. The GOP has built a platform based upon misogyny, fervent nationalism, elaborate propaganda, and suppression of intellectualism—each one a hallmark of fascism. Others include high levels of incarceration, secrecy, militarism, and anti-union rhetoric.

These are the enduring legacies of a party gone horribly wrong. The problem we face is that the men behind the curtain believe this past election was a momentary setback, a bump in the road. But this stands to reason. They are, after all, in this for the “long haul.” 

 

Illustration: Jon Moreno
Book Cover: The Family by Jeff Sharlet. The Family offers an in-depth and never-before seen look at the Christian Fundamentalist movement in America.

Drone Strikes and the Definition of War

The legality of an unmanned drone strike is subordinate to the morality of it. Further, it challenges our ability to define war; somehow the connection between direct human action and murder codifies the nature of true conflict.

Marines are trained to fire in unison at the enemy. It erases individual culpability by establishing a psychological barrier between the shooter and the target. Sharing the responsibility for a “kill” assuages personal guilt and allows soldiers to better compartmentalize traumatic events, or so the theory goes.

 This type of rationalization is made even more powerful (or palatable) by the remoteness that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” provide. For most of the past decade UAVs have hammered away at al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents hiding in the mountainous terrain of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. And though there was little, if any, talk of controversial drone strikes during the presidential election, the use of UAVs has reached a tipping point in global politics.

The legality of an unmanned drone strike is subordinate to the morality of it. Further, it challenges our ability to define war; somehow the connection between direct human action and murder codifies the nature of true conflict. The struggle to define this type of faceless modern warfare suggests that we are moving away from a discussion of immorality and toward amorality; exactly the point our democratic ideals of “purposeful” and defensive war devolves into outright nihilism.

The anonymity and precision of drone strikes uses our military resources efficiently while wreaking havoc on our enemies abroad. They also enable the United States to carry out an offensive in a country like Pakistan when we are technically not at war with its government. In fact, we are operating with its tacit approval. For now. But if every strike was carried out directly by human hands, there would be little doubt we are indeed at war as it is conventionally defined. Now, in its second term, the Obama administration is wrestling with whether to declassify the drone program that everyone already knows about because it would put us firmly at odds with international law.

Unmanned drones were conceived and perfected by the George W. Bush administration but they were used far more sparingly compared to the Obama administration. Terrorism, or the threat of it, continues to be the raison d’etat that justifies our aggression and the use of drones. In this, the administrations are aligned. A terrorist killed with little collateral damage and zero American bloodshed is enticing but illusory because the technology is portable and easily replicable. It will undoubtedly be developed and deployed by other nations free to define targets by their own standards.

The tacit approval of drones by the Pakistani government does not erase the fact that we are threatening our national security in the long run; we are establishing an international precedent that we will someday be forced to confront.

To begin, many of the militants we target abroad have sought refuge in other nations such as Yemen and Somalia. And our drones have followed. Yet if the government of Yemen, were it capable and so inclined, bombed a US-based manufacturing plant that produced parts for UAVs, they would technically be justified in doing so by our own standards. If China decided to send drones into Tibet, or if Russia targeted Georgia, the same logic would hold true.


The New York Times reporter Scott Shane revealed in an article Sunday concerns within the Obama administration over what they call an “amorphous” policy; this worry increased prior to the election for fear of leaving an open-ended policy to an incoming Romney administration. According to Shane, victory has allowed the White House to take its foot off of the accelerator for the moment, but it remains an important part of the president’s agenda.

But this kind of sudden realization that current policy might become permanent and out-of-control has become a troubling hallmark of the Obama presidency. Clear evidence of this is found in Obama’s refusal to fight the “indefinite detention” provision in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. Critics fear that the language of this provision was so murky that it theoretically gives the government license to detain American citizens without due process. Instead of eliminating this verbiage and the conflict that surrounds it, Obama attached a signing statement to the bill that directly addresses the detention provision and essentially says that while he is aware of the fear it engenders, he would never use it to detain a US citizen. The very existence of the signing statement, however, is an admission that it is indeed open to interpretation; future presidents are not bound to Obama’s statement, but the law itself.

Understanding the psychology of the Obama administration or establishing a clear policy regarding drone strikes ultimately does nothing to more clearly delineate the nature of modern, human-less aggression. Carl von Clausewitz, who contributed as much to the understanding of our relationship with war as any writer on the subject, suggests in his defining work, On War, published in 1832, that: “The act of War can only be of two kinds; either the conquest of some small or moderate portion of the enemy’s country, or the defence (sic) of our own until better times.”

This was a practical analysis befitting the times that endured to the end of the last millennium. It defined conflict between nations but not necessarily between enemies as they are presently constituted. Post-9/11 warfare has pitted America, which relies on borders and nationalism, against roving mercenaries whose only allegiance is to a higher authority we cannot overcome. Clausewitz allows for wiggle room in his conventional theory, however.

“The third case, which is probably the most common, is when neither party has anything definite to look for from the future when therefore it furnishes no motive for decision. In this case the offensive War is plainly imperative upon him who is politically the aggressor.”

President Obama appears to be hedging his bet by placing a chip on each of the cases above. Furthermore, his reliance upon UAVs is loosely justified by its purported success thus far. But it also presents a persistent and impossible conundrum that assails our conventional understanding of war.

Somehow in this mess, this fog of invisible war, we must extricate ourselves from establishing precedent before it hardens into accepted global policy. If not, this dangerous game of cat and mouse will haunt us as it disperses our enemies while strengthening their resolve. Only by bolstering ties and intelligence in this region through financial support and diplomatic incentives will we assemble a righteous strategy for the future. Moreover, a retreat from this policy preserves our right to punish our enemies authoritatively with the support of our allies, while regaining the moral high ground. 

To walk softly and carry a big stick implies restraint, and restraint implies strength and confidence. These are characteristics closer to what the president exudes, which begs the question as to why he has tethered himself to policies that are so cowardly.

Energy and the Environment

If Democrat Barack Obama was Republican Brian O’Malley, his actions and record thus far would place him among the greatest Republican presidents of the modern era; a socially moderate, fiscal conservative with an itchy trigger finger.

The Earth has enjoyed moments as the cause célèbre in America but nothing trumps our good mother like a great recession. To the best of my recollection she even failed to make an appearance during the presidential debates. This lack of information makes deciding which candidate would be better for the environment over the next four years difficult.

We do have the benefit of some information, however. For example, the Republican platform has been virulently anti-environment. Each candidate during primary season took turns trying to out-pollute the other in the name of progress, calling for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, the loosening of drilling restrictions and the construction of a pipeline from Canada to Texas. Green energy was mocked and global warming ridiculed. Republicans eagerly portrayed every Democrat as Jimmy Carter in a cardigan and an eco-zealot.

If only that were true.

The fact of the matter is that the Democrats have little to point to in the way of environmentalism themselves. Sure the pipeline was stalled and fuel efficiency standards were increased, but that’s about it.

Our understanding of the environment and our relationship to it through food, water, air and energy is far more sophisticated than our politics and policies. But no matter how broad the consensus on climate change is in the scientific community or how widespread the anecdotal evidence of our decaying Earth and corrupt food supply is, we are all guilty of willful blindness with respect to the urgency required to face our challenges.

President Obama talks a good game, which indicates he is aware of both the seriousness of our environmental peccadillo and the political reality that prevents meaningful change. And, in fairness, when presented with a clear opportunity to affect change he did so by sending billions of dollars flowing into the clean energy research field when the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, aka “Obama stimulus,” was passed. Of course, the only thing people now associate with this act is the failure of Solyndra despite the fact that the funding mechanism for this particular company was established during the Bush administration. The stimulus simply added liquidity to an existing plan.

But it was Obama’s calculated risk against overtly touting this investment into clean energy that blew back on him in two ways. The first is that the American public, particularly those who consider themselves champions of the environment, have little idea these investments were made and therefore believe he failed them. Compounding this sentiment is that these investments have little short-term payoff and are therefore less tangible. The second is that the opposition was able to make Solyndra synonymous with the stimulus, thereby presenting it as the rule instead of the exception.

This risky decision of quiet messaging does, however, make political sense. After all, any attempt on the part of the White House to put the environment in the spotlight before the economy would have had terrible repercussions to Obama’s polling figures. He is already derided by paranoid right-wing conspiracy theorists (with national talk shows) as being a closet Muslim and a socialist who sympathizes with terrorists and apologizes for America every chance he gets. Oh, and was born in Africa.

But as I have often contended, if Democrat Barack Obama was Republican Brian O’Malley, his actions and record thus far would place him among the greatest Republican presidents of the modern era; a socially moderate, fiscal conservative with an itchy trigger finger. But, he’s a black Democrat whose re-election is for many in this nation a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

So, politically, I get it. Below-the-radar environmental work is better than installing solar panels on the White House roof again. There’s proof that this is a bad reelection strategy. Morally, however, I was hoping for what everyone else who voted for Obama was hoping for: that he would enthusiastically champion a progressive social and environmental agenda—one that took aggressive action against oil companies and Wall Street speculators and fought evil agra-giants like Monsanto and ConAgra.

Unfortunately, any hope we had of Obama challenging the Koch brothers to a duel on Pennsylvania Avenue or executing a hostile takeover of ExxonMobil were dashed when moderate policy Vulcan Barack Obama took the Oath of Office instead of liberal cigarette smoking Chi-Town radical Barry Obama.

To really confuse matters, no one pressed either guy into stating plans to protect the environment. Moreover, they have both adopted this mantra of “all of the above” with respect to energy policy. Nothing bold, sensible or sustainable. Just “yes” to everything and deal with the consequences later.

So what makes this week’s topic so hard to dissect is that no one seems to care much about it. Perhaps more than any other topic I’ve covered thus far in this election series, the fight over Mother Earth has been reduced to choosing between the lesser of two evils. I know it’s a hackneyed phrase, but it’s appropriate, nonetheless. Essentially it boils down to this: Mitt Romney’s “all of the above” plan includes eliminating the EPA and letting oil companies drill in Central Park if they want to; whereas, Obama’s “all of the above plan” stops just short of that.

Sorry, Mother Earth. When unemployment dips below 5 percent and the Dow reaches 15,000, we’ll be sure to call and check in. Until then it’s the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon.

Slight edge to Obama.

Obamacare

On myriad levels, Obamacare is a good plan, and ultimately I am in favor of seeing it fully implemented. But if we eliminate emotion and politics, it’s fair to say Obamacare is only half of what is required.

Affordable? Maybe not. Necessary? Likely so.
Part 6 (of 8) of the Off The Reservation special election series in the Long Island Press

It has been said that death and taxes are the two irrefutable realities of our existence. By declaring the act that seeks to prolong death for every American to be a tax, the U.S. Supreme Court has neatly fused them together, making the debate surrounding Obamacare an inescapable reality unto itself.

My election series of columns has thus far made clear arguments in favor of re-electing Barack Obama with respect to the stimulus, deregulation, foreign policy and appointing justices to the Court, with Obama winning three of the four topics convincingly and a split decision on Wall Street regulation. When it comes to healthcare, I must admit that I am struggling a bit. Perhaps you can help.

Intellectually, I am a fan of a single-payer healthcare system. In America, this would essentially mean Medicare for all, with no option for private health insurance. The administrative cost and paperwork associated with patient care would be a fraction of what they are today and with the advent of electronic medical records an argument can be made that there are significant efficiencies to come. Practically, however, this is essentially the Canadian system and it is far from perfect.

My family is originally from Canada and most of my relatives still live there. While there is no question that general care is indeed more affordable, available and efficient, critical care is a problem. My aunt died prematurely due to the ridiculous lengths she had to go through to receive a proper and thorough diagnosis. But this painful anecdote belies statistics that suggest the mortality rate from disease in the US and Canada is nearly identical.

Doctors in the United States are compensated much higher than doctors in Canada; but this applies mostly to specialists and not general practitioners. Therefore, in Canada there are far more general practitioners per capita than in the United States. Perhaps this implies that although critical care is less available, greater access to preventive care mitigates the severity and incidence of diseases that require critical care. Frankly, I don’t know. But I do know, just looking at Long Island for example, that we have universal healthcare because the emergency room at Nassau University Medical Center is just about the busiest place on the Island. This is why I am in favor of an attempt to cover every individual in the United States and, for the most part, a proponent of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.”


When I began working for my father 18 years ago, we covered 100 percent of healthcare costs for our employees. Now, we can only afford to cover half. Moreover, this “half” is far more expensive than the entire amount was almost two decades ago even on an adjusted basis. It’s why I find it insulting when people suggest that Obamacare is crushing small businesses already. The fact is, Obamacare hasn’t been fully implemented yet, but this is the first year that two very significant things happened to our business:

  1. We were reimbursed several thousand dollars by our insurance company because they had failed to meet the minimum standards under Obamacare for the amount of money that must be allocated to actual care, and not administrative costs.
  2. This is the first year the insurance company didn’t attempt to raise our premiums by double-digits.

So, as a small business owner, I have already benefitted from a plan that hasn’t even been fully implemented. Moreover, it puts my business on a level playing field with other small businesses I know that skirt the rules by paying their people as independent contractors simply to avoid offering them health insurance.

There are other great parts of this legislation such as extending dependent care, outlawing the practice of declining coverage for anyone with a pre-existing condition, closing the Medicare “donut” hole for seniors, mandating electronic records, and identifying best practices across the nation. But I have heard time and again that Obamacare will ultimately result in a massive decrease in reimbursements for physicians— forcing them to see more patients to sustain current income levels—thus jeopardizing the quality of care.

This is a practical sentiment that I can sympathize with, but many of my friends who are physicians have been complaining about this for years. This isn’t an “Obamacare” phenomenon; this is a “healthcare-as-it-currently-is” phenomenon. And while I agree that adding millions of additional people to the insurance pool is beneficial for insurance companies and detrimental to the earning potential of physicians, access to preventive care and wellness visits is undoubtedly a positive step for America. I’m hoping my physician friends weigh in on this to express their viewpoints because I know many of them are tired of being businesspeople and accountants and simply want to get back to caring for patients and growing as doctors.

The politics surrounding Obamacare have drowned out any and all reasonable debate surrounding this issue. The mere fact that the GOP vehemently opposes this plan that was originally crafted by a conservative think tank, touted by Republican legislators and actually adopted fully by a Republican governor now running for president should indicate how toxic our politics are. On myriad levels, Obamacare is a good plan, and ultimately I am in favor of seeing it fully implemented. But if we eliminate emotion and politics, it’s fair to say Obamacare is only half of what is required. The real drivers of cost in the system are the high-cost liability insurance, rampant pharmaceutical dependence encouraged by advertising that is unnecessary and unethical, an overly-litigious culture that forces physicians to order unnecessary tests simply to thwart potential claims, paying doctors and hospitals per procedure instead of paying for the care the patient requires, and the extraordinary cost of end-of-life care. If over the next decade, Obamacare is married with serious attempts to tackle these issues, then it has a shot at not just succeeding but being a model system. If not, it will likely lumber along as a quasi-failure but no worse than had we done nothing at all.

WEEK 6 goes once again to the POTUS.

PHOTO: Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law, March 23rd, 2010. The act is the most sweeping healthcare reform since Medicare and based largely on initiatives created by conservative think tanks. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Justice

Sorry to be morbid but there’s a strong statistical possibility that one of the current justices will move on—whether retiring or expiring—in the next four years and that the next president will once again be called upon to nominate someone for the highest Court in the land.

Preamble
We’re a few weeks away from the presidential election and at the halfway point in this series of columns. Therefore, before we tackle this week’s issue, it’s appropriate to pause and assess the current situation.

In the first election column I referred to this series as a summit quest; a challenge to leave more nonsensical items of the campaign silly season behind and equip ourselves only with the truth as we tackle important issues. In it I also laid out a few irrefutable facts and circumstances that would serve as underlying assumptions, or “base camp,” for our climb and warned that the closer one gets to the summit, the thinner the air would become. Little did I know how prescient this analogy was; even former Vice President Al Gore blamed President Obama’s horrific debate performance in Colorado on altitude sickness.

Whether it was his fumbling answers or Mitt Romney’s Cosa Nostra-like threats to public television—kissing Big Bird on one cheek while plunging a knife beneath his wing—our ascent must take into consideration current events and the candidates’ performance. As far as the first debate is concerned, Romney took command of the evening and ran the proceedings as though he was giving a Power Point presentation. He was concise, efficient and direct, never once allowing the facts to stand in his way. Obama was riddled like Sonny at the Causeway as jubilant Romney fans took to the airwaves and social media to pounce on bewildered liberals.

Great fun.

As stunned as I was by this turn of events, it changes nothing with respect to my analysis of the election because both President Obama and Gov. Romney have substantial records and demonstrated beliefs that are far more illuminating than the debates. Moreover, our country’s challenges remain the same, as do the circumstances in which we live. It’s why policies and issues are more important than one’s ability to annunciate them in less than two minutes. I’m not questioning the importance of the debates as far as campaigning is concerned, but nothing said between the two men can alter what they have done in the past or where we are today.

But the home stretch of a campaign puts everything under a microscope, and no one can predict what might become a turning point. The tragic event that occurred at our embassy in Libya on Sept. 11th was immediately and inappropriately politicized by the Romney camp. The White House followed up with its own (ongoing) gaffe by not forthrightly acknowledging the strong possibility that this was an organized terrorist attack and not an impromptu protest that spun out of control. But, here again, as maddening as Obama’s reticence in this matter is, his patience demonstrates why his approach is more preferable to the blustering rhetoric coming from the right.

Here’s why: As the evidence mounts from that night, it seems increasingly clear that this was indeed an organized terrorist attack. Therefore, it should be dealt with in the same covert manner that we have been conducting our affairs for the past four years. Overreacting in this part of the world, particularly in a state as fragile as Libya, can have devastating repercussions. If we had responded with immediate force like the George W. Bush “shoot first, look for WMD’s later” approach when the images first appeared of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ body being carried by unknown Libyans, then we would have missed that they were actually Libyan civilians who had found the ambassador alive and were calling for help. When none were found, they put Stevens into a car and took him to a hospital.

The world around us is so fragile. What some regard as callousness on the part of the president should be viewed as his understanding of this reality.
With that consideration, let us soldier on to this week’s chosen issue. The first few columns in this series took a detailed and practical look at the economy, deregulation, foreign policy and the stimulus. This week is more personal and I will keep it brief.

Justice
One of the most important aspects of the presidency is the opportunity to nominate justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. For some presidents, it has been their most enduring legacies. Four of the justices are currently in their 70s, and the average American lifespan according to the Centers for Disease Control is 78. Sorry to be morbid but there’s a strong statistical possibility that one of the current justices will move on—whether retiring or expiring—in the next four years and that the next president will once again be called upon to nominate someone for the highest Court in the land.

While we believe the collective American conscience has evolved beyond horrifying decisions such as Dred Scott, even the current Court is capable of alarming incompetence. Consider the Citizen United decision or simply read the following remarks made recently by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia at the American Enterprise Institute:

“The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state.”

This type of spiteful and irresponsible attitude must be quelled by stacking the Court with thinking and feeling individuals.

Hopefully, Citizen United will someday be repealed. Ironically, perhaps an Obama Court will someday reverse one of his most dangerous acts thus far, which was to sign into law the indefinite detention provision of the NDAA 2012 bill last year, one of the greatest encroachments on our civil liberties in decades. Lastly, as the father of two daughters, I have no choice but to take the Republican Party at its word with respect to its desire to take away a woman’s right to choose. Sticking our heads in the sand and saying, “Oh, that will never happen,” ignores the Republican platform, their campaign promises and actual bills Republicans have put forward in Congress.

Because Obama has already demonstrated his tendencies with respect to the Court through his appointments of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, we know where he stands. During his political career, Mitt Romney has stood on all sides of virtually every issue and therefore offers little insight into the type of nominee he would proffer. But his acquiescence to the most radical conservative wing of the Republican Party is troubling enough to inform my decision in this case.

This court once again sides with the incumbent.

 

Leader of the “Free” World

Romney’s platform is devoid of nuance. For instance, his plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan asserts, “The United States enjoys significant leverage over both of these nations. We should not be shy about using it.” Only on Planet Romney does America have leverage over a nuclear Pakistan and Hamid Karzai.

 

LEADERSHIP

Part 3 of the Special “Off The Reservation” Election Series in the Long Island Press.

Vice President-elect Joseph Biden traveled to Afghanistan during the transition to the Obama presidency to gauge the war effort on the ground. After meeting with Afghan leaders, American field generals and soldiers who had served multiple deployments, he returned home to report his findings to the incoming president. His synopsis confirmed what most suspected about America’s forgotten war; there was no good news. We were losing the war.

More troubling, according to Biden, was that nearly everyone he spoke with had a different impression of what our mission was. Intelligence confirmed that al-Qaeda hadn’t operated in Afghanistan in more than two years, perhaps longer. The Taliban was prepared to return at a moment’s notice, having found safe harbor in neighboring Pakistan. The Afghan economy was devastated and any efforts to train Afghani-led forces were futile due to the overwhelming rate of illiteracy among the population and the underwhelming amount of resources being given to our troops on the ground.

The provisional government under Hamid Karzai’s tepid and erratic leadership had not yet been affirmed by a national election and his administration was becoming increasingly corrupt. A combination of protracted war and drought had shattered the local economy and secular tensions and age-old blood feuds among various ethnic groups made the politics impossible to navigate, particularly with no clear objective as to why and whom we were still fighting. These factors, along with an impossible terrain, made an Iraq-style surge improbable and unnecessary in the eyes of many advisors. Nevertheless, in 2009 Obama was now Commander in Chief and it was time to make good on some campaign promises.

For months, Obama frustrated generals, media outlets, Democrats and Republicans—anyone with a stake in the outcome of the war. Even his most ardent supporters derided his Vulcan-like demeanor and refusal to commit to a plan of action. Not only had Obama received full cooperation from the Bush administration during the transition, he possessed a surfeit of intelligence information, an experienced team of advisors, and the support of the American public. And yet, days turned to weeks, which turned to months.

None of the options before him were good. All carried risk. But in order to place the risk in its proper context, there was one piece of critical information that the president was missing—something that no briefing could possibly clarify.
Shortly before midnight on Oct. 28, 2009, President Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base. As midnight passed and the calendar turned a page, he stood in the darkness flanked by military personnel as the bodies of 18 dead soldiers whose calendars ceased turning somewhere on the desert battlefield were carried from a military cargo plane. In his book, Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward describes how after saluting the fallen and meeting privately with the families for the next four hours, the president of the United States “slipped back in the helicopter, switched off the overhead light. No one said a word during the 45-minute flight to the White House.”

No fanfare. No flight suit. Just a solemn acknowledgement that this mission was far from accomplished and that there were human beings beneath those fatigues.

Shortly after this trip, Obama would reveal the strategy for the war in Afghanistan under his presidency. One by one, he delivered his orders to his senior officials, including Gen. David Petraeus. According to Woodward, “When [Petraeus] later learned the president had personally dictated the orders, he couldn’t believe it. ‘There’s not a president in history that’s dictated five single-spaced pages in his life.’”

THE “FREE WORLD”

The world is a big place and Afghanistan occupies only a tiny sliver of it. What I appreciate about the president’s thought process is the scope of it, which stands in stark contrast to the single-mindedness of the Bush administration. We are still losing the war in Afghanistan, but our troops are withdrawing. Our operation in Iraq is finally coming to a close. And despite the most recent wave of anti-American sentiment fueled by an inflammatory film about the Muslim prophet Muhammad, we are balancing foreign affairs. While Obama’s nuanced approach has been marked by miscalculations, it takes into account the whole field of battle, which may not always include armed conflict.

The ground is shifting beneath us. African nations are beginning to subdivide like cancer cells and we may even witness the reconciliation of North and South Korea in our lifetime. In surveying Afghanistan, Obama understood that the real war was with Pakistan. Moreover, our relationship with Pakistan has always been built on half-truths and double-dealing. The Pakistani secret police, the ISI, serves up lies to our operatives half of the time; the trick is to figure out which half. Obama also knows that our presence is virtually meaningless to Pakistan compared to its long-standing feud with India. Deftly managing this dynamic results in better intelligence on al-Qaeda members who move between Pakistan and Afghanistan and as far as Yemen and Somalia with impunity; just as breaking the back of the Assad regime in Syria is more devastating to Iran than drawing artificial lines in the sand.

This is only a fragment of the backdrop against which we are being asked to elect our next Commander in Chief. From dangerous encroachments to our civil liberties at home to the casual over-reliance upon drone strikes abroad, there is plenty of criticism to be hurled Obama’s way. But like so many issues this campaign season, foreign policy is yet another area where Mitt Romney falters.

Romney’s platform is devoid of nuance. For instance, his plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan asserts, “The United States enjoys significant leverage over both of these nations. We should not be shy about using it.” Only on Planet Romney does America have leverage over a nuclear Pakistan and Hamid Karzai, a man whom the CIA admits is a chemically imbalanced, erratic manic-depressive. He lambastes Obama for allegedly refusing to support uprisings in Iran, calling it a “disgraceful abdication of American moral authority,” while at the same time condemning Obama’s support of the uprising in Libya.

Mitt Romney is already promising to write checks we can’t cash. From empty threats of force against Pakistan to declaring he will aggressively “disarm North Korea,” Romney has already displayed a remarkable ignorance. He’s also playing a dangerous game with Benjamin Netanyahu, pitting the Israeli Prime Minister against Obama in an effort to woo the Jewish vote at home. Romney ignores the success both the Bush and Obama administrations have had covertly disrupting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and he underestimates the galvanizing effect a unilateral attack on Iran would have in the Arab world against both Israel and the US.

Even more troubling is the team of foreign policy advisors Romney has assembled, which includes several Bush administration retreads, two members of the Heritage Foundation—the sham conservative think tank supported by the Koch brothers—and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, an enthusiastic supporter of rendition.

Despite several initial missteps on the world stage by the Obama administration, it is imperative we maintain continuity with a nuanced approach and maneuver to achieve greater stability abroad; if for no other reason than to prevent the catastrophic return of Bush-era foreign policy that a Romney administration would bring. The world has had enough of American bluster, particularly when we no longer have the financial wherewithal or popular support to back it up.

PHOTO: President Barack Obama and Maj. Gen. Daniel Wright (r) salute the remains of army sgt. dale r. griffin of terre haute, ind. during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., Oct. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)