Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
... The Islamic tradition insists very strongly on two points concerning the conduct of government by the ruler. One is the need for consultation. This is explicitly recommended in the Koran. It is also mentioned very frequently in the traditions of the Prophet. The converse is despotism; in Arabic istibdad, "despotism" is a technical term with very negative connotations. It is regarded as something evil and sinful, and to accuse a ruler of istibdad is practically a call to depose him.
With whom should the ruler consult? In practice, with certain established interests in society. In the earliest times, consulting with the tribal chiefs was important, and it remains so in some places -- for example, in Saudi Arabia and in parts of Iraq (but less so in urbanized countries such as Egypt or Syria). Rulers also consulted with the countryside's rural gentry, a very powerful group, and with various groups in the city: the bazaar merchants, the scribes (the nonreligious literate classes, mainly civil servants), the religious hierarchy, and the military establishment, including long-established regimental groups such as the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. The importance of these groups was, first of all, that they did have real power. They could and sometimes did make trouble for the ruler, even deposing him. Also, the groups' leaders -- tribal chiefs, country notables, religious leaders, heads of guilds, or commanders of the armed forces -- were not nominated by the ruler, but came from within the groups.
Consultation is a central part of the traditional Islamic order, but it is not the only element that can check the ruler's authority. The traditional system of Islamic government is both consensual and contractual. The manuals of holy law generally assert that the new caliph -- the head of the Islamic community and state -- is to be "chosen." The Arabic term used is sometimes translated as "elected," but it does not connote a general or even sectional election. Rather, it refers to a small group of suitable, competent people choosing the ruler's successor. In principle, hereditary succession is rejected by the juristic tradition. Yet in practice, succession was always hereditary, except when broken by insurrection or civil war; it was -- and in most places still is -- common for a ruler, royal or otherwise, to designate his successor.
But the element of consent is still important. In theory, at times even in practice, the ruler's power -- both gaining it and maintaining it -- depends on the consent of the ruled. The basis of the ruler's authority is described in the classical texts by the Arabic word bay'a, a term usually translated as "homage," as in the subjects paying homage to their new ruler. But a more accurate translation of bay'a -- which comes from a verb meaning "to buy and to sell" -- would be "deal," in other words, a contract between the ruler and the ruled in which both have obligations.
Some critics may point out that regardless of theory, in reality a pattern of arbitrary, tyrannical, despotic government marks the entire Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world. Some go further, saying, "That is how Muslims are, that is how Muslims have always been, and there is nothing the West can do about it." That is a misreading of history. One has to look back a little way to see how Middle Eastern government arrived at its current state.
The change took place in two phases. Phase one began with Bonaparte's incursion and continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when Middle Eastern rulers, painfully aware of the need to catch up with the modern world, tried to modernize their societies, beginning with their governments. These transformations were mostly carried out not by imperialist rulers, who tended to be cautiously conservative, but by local rulers -- the sultans of Turkey, the pashas and khedives of Egypt, the shahs of Persia -- with the best of intentions but with disastrous results.
Modernizing meant introducing Western systems of communication, warfare, and rule, inevitably including the tools of domination and repression. The authority of the state vastly increased with the adoption of instruments of control, surveillance, and enforcement far beyond the capabilities of earlier leaders, so that by the end of the twentieth century any tin-pot ruler of a petty state or even of a quasi state had vastly greater powers than were ever enjoyed by the mighty caliphs and sultans of the past.
But perhaps an even worse result of modernization was the abrogation of the intermediate powers in society -- the landed gentry, the city merchants, the tribal chiefs, and others -- which in the traditional order had effectively limited the authority of the state. These intermediate powers were gradually weakened and mostly eliminated, so that on the one hand the state was getting stronger and more pervasive, and on the other hand the limitations and controls were being whittled away.
This process is described and characterized by one of the best nineteenth-century writers on the Middle East, the British naval officer Adolphus Slade, who was attached as an adviser to the Turkish fleet and spent much of his professional life there. He vividly portrays this process of change. He discusses what he calls the old nobility, primarily the landed gentry and the city bourgeoisie, and the new nobility, those who are part of the state and derive their authority from the ruler, not from their own people. "The old nobility lived on their estates," he concludes. "The state is the estate of the new nobility." This is a profound truth and, in the light of subsequent and current developments, a remarkably prescient formulation.
The second stage of political upheaval in the Middle East can be dated with precision. In 1940, the government of France surrendered to Nazi Germany. A new collaborationist government was formed and established in a watering place called Vichy, and General Charles de Gaulle moved to London and set up a Free French committee. The French empire was beyond the reach of the Germans at that point, and the governors of the French colonies and dependencies were free to decide: they could stay with Vichy or rally to de Gaulle. Vichy was the choice of most of them, and in particular the rulers of the French-mandated territory of Syria-Lebanon, in the heart of the Arab East. This meant that Syria-Lebanon was wide open to the Nazis, who moved in and made it the main base of their propaganda and activity in the Arab world.
It was at that time that the ideological foundations of what later became the Baath Party were laid, with the adaptation of Nazi ideas and methods to the Middle Eastern situation. The nascent party's ideology emphasized pan-Arabism, nationalism, and a form of socialism. The party was not officially founded until April 1947, but memoirs of the time and other sources show that the Nazi interlude is where it began. From Syria, the Germans and the proto-Baathists also set up a pro-Nazi regime in Iraq, led by the famous, and notorious, Rashid Ali al-Gailani.
The Rashid Ali regime in Iraq was overthrown by the British after a brief military campaign in May-June 1941. Rashid Ali went to Berlin, where he spent the rest of the war as Hitler's guest with his friend the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. British and Free French forces then moved into Syria, transferring it to Gaullist control. In the years that followed the end of World War II, the British and the French departed, and after a brief interval the Soviets moved in.
The leaders of the Baath Party easily switched from the Nazi model to the communist model, needing only minor adjustments. This was a party not in the Western sense of an organization built to win elections and votes. It was a party in the Nazi and Communist sense, part of the government apparatus particularly concerned with indoctrination, surveillance, and repression. The Baath Party in Syria and the separate Baath Party in Iraq continued to function along these lines.
Since 1940 and again after the arrival of the Soviets, the Middle East has basically imported European models of rule: fascist, Nazi, and communist. But to speak of dictatorship as being the immemorial way of doing things in that part of the world is simply untrue. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and unconcern for the Arab future. The type of regime that was maintained by Saddam Hussein -- and that continues to be maintained by some other rulers in the Muslim world -- is modern, indeed recent, and very alien to the foundations of Islamic civilization. There are older rules and traditions on which the peoples of the Middle East can build....
Posted on: Wednesday, May 11, 2005 - 20:59
For all their rhetoric about Israel's"vicious" and"brutal" occupation, Palestinian Arabs - including their leaders - sometimes let down their guard and acknowledge how they prefer Israel to the Palestinian Authority. Here are some recurring themes:
Restraints on violence. After PA police raided the house of a Hamas supporter in a late-night operation and roughed up both him and his 70-year-old father, the father yelled at the police,"Even the Jews did not behave like you cowards." When the son came out of the PA jail, he declared it as much worse than Israeli prisons. An opponent of Yasser Arafat noted that Israeli soldiers"would first fire tear gas, and then fire rubber bullets, and only then shoot live ammunition. ... But these Palestinian police started shooting immediately."
Rule of law. A Gazan leader, Haydar Abd ash-Shafi, once observed,"Can anyone imagine that a family would be happy to hear a knock at the door in the middle of the night from the Israeli Army?" He went on:"When the infighting began in Gaza, the people were happy because the Israeli Army imposed a curfew." Likewise, Musa Abu Marzouk of Hamas compared Arafat unfavorably with Jewish leaders:"We saw representatives of the Israeli opposition criticize [Prime Minister] Barak and they were not arrested ... but in our case the PA arrests people as the first order of business."
Democracy. Israel's 1999 elections, in which the incumbent prime minister lost, impressed many Palestinian observers. Columnists remarked on the smooth transition in Israel and wanted the same for themselves:"I envy [the Israelis] and desire a similar regime in my future state." The director-general of the PA's Information Ministry, Hasan al-Kashif, contrasted the changes in Israel with the power of"several names in our leadership" who rule in seeming perpetuity. The leader of the terrorist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Nayif Hawatma, wants the PA to make decisions the way Israel does, by putting them to a vote.
Minority rights. Christians and secular Muslims particularly appreciate Israel's protection at a time when Palestinian politics has taken an increasingly Islamist cast. A Palestinian Christian declared that when the Palestinian state comes into existence,"the sacred union against the Zionist enemy will die. It will be time to settle accounts. We will undergo the same as our Lebanese brothers or the Copts in Egypt. It saddens me to say so, but Israeli laws protect us."
Freedom of expression. In an ironic turn of events, a lawyer living in Gaza, Na'im Salama, was arrested for slander by the PA when he wrote that Palestinians should adopt Israeli standards of democracy. For his audacity, he served jail time. An obsessive anti-Israel critic, Hanan Ashrawi, reluctantly acknowledges that the Jewish state has something to teach the nascent Palestinian polity:"freedom would have to be mentioned, although it has only been implemented in a selective way, for example, the freedom of speech." A prominent psychiatrist and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, Iyad as-Sarraj, confesses that"during the Israeli occupation, I was 100 times freer."
Economic benefits. Palestinians who live in Israel, including Jerusalem, appreciate Israel's economic success, social services, and other benefits. Salaries in Israel are about five times higher than in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel's social security system has no parallel on the Palestinian side. Palestinians living outside of Israel want an economic in - when the Israeli government announced the completion of the security fence in one region, a resident of the West Bank border town of Qalqiliya reacted with outrage:"We are living in a big prison."
These comments point to Palestinian appreciation for the benefits of elections, rule of law, minority rights, freedom of speech, and a higher standard of living. Amid all the PA's political extremism and terrorism, it is good to know that a Palestinian constituency also exists for normality.
Unfortunately, it remains a furtive constituency with little political sway. The time has come for decent Palestinians to make their voices heard and state that Israel's existence is not the problem but the solution.
This article derives from a longer analysis in the current issue of the Middle East Quarterly.
Posted on: Tuesday, May 10, 2005 - 13:59
[David Ekbladh is a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is currently completing a history of modernization as an instrument of U.S. foreign relations during the 20th century.]
... American involvement in Korea began in the backwash of World War II, but it took on increasing significance as the global Cold War evolved. Success in Korea would allow the United States to prove to the world the superiority of its approach to development. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, American and Soviet troops rushed into the power vacuum that had been created in northeastern Asia. Korea was abruptly freed from the colonial rule to which it had been subject since annexation by Japan in 1910. A hasty decision in August 1945 split the peninsula into a Soviet sphere of influence in the North and an American zone in the South. In a late-night meeting at the State Department, Americans suggested the 38th parallel as the boundary between the two—and were surprised when the Soviets accepted. They should not have been. The demarcation resembled an agreement made some 50 years earlier between Japan and tsarist Russia when both were vying for dominance in Korea....
For the Americans, stability in the South was essential to counter a communist-controlled North and to carry out the larger U.S. strategy in East Asia at a time of uncertainty and peril in the region. In the view of Secretary of the Army William Draper, a stable Korea could provide an indispensable, even “natural” market and source of raw materials for Japan, the region’s economic powerhouse. Though that had been Korea’s erstwhile role in the Japanese Empire, influential policymakers such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson thought it necessary still, and all the more important after the Communist victory in China in 1949 denied Japan another traditional outlet for trade. Acheson and his boss, President Harry S. Truman, were convinced that the United States could not afford to let one of its proxies founder, especially one that abutted a Communist competitor. So the need to mold South Korea into a viable state—preferably but not necessarily democratic—with a modern economy insinuated itself into wider American policy goals in the late 1940s.
At first, the agent of modernization in Korea was the U.S. Army. The occupation rested on an assumption that had been articulated at the Cairo Conference in 1943. The wartime Allies took for granted that, after liberation from Japanese rule, Koreans would require a period of trusteeship, and that they would be granted independence “in due course.” With this predisposition toward tutelage, the army saw South Korea as a developmental problem. Near the top of the army’s list of concerns was the impact of the country’s sudden division at the 38th parallel. Breaking Korea in two left the bulk of the heavy industry—chemicals, steel, mining, and electricity production—in the North. The South, with an economy dominated by textiles and agriculture, seemed ill suited to standing on its own.
But the geographical division often took second place as a source of anxiety to the effects of Korea’s colonial history. Yes, the Japanese had rapidly expanded Korea’s industrial capacity, but the Americans believed that the colonial government had purposely stunted Korean society. Koreans had been allowed to attend primary schools, but there were rigid limits on more advanced education, especially in the technical arts. Postcolonial Korea was bereft of the cadre of engineers, managers, and administrators essential to the functioning of a modern industrial state.
Looking at Korean society as a whole, the Americans saw a land mired in traditional and hopelessly backward values. “Something of the corrupt medieval monarchy of old Korea, flavored with a dash of the Chinese warlord tradition, still survives,” said a 1947 army report saturated with the biases of the day. “Although the Koreans have been called the ‘Irish of the Orient,’ being sociable, fond of fun and drinking, of talking and fighting—they differ from the Irish by being afflicted with what appears to be a deeply rooted inferiority complex, doubtless engendered from the systematic and prolonged humiliation at the hands of the Japanese. The results—evident in political life—are extreme sensitivity (‘face’), instability verging on irresponsibility, proneness to mob psychology, and occasional bursts of unreasoning anti-foreign feeling.”
For a viable and stable state to emerge, the Americans concluded, Koreans needed to develop a future-oriented worldview that put its faith in material progress and modern institutions. That view drew the Americans far beyond relief into nation-building, or “modernization,” as it was called at the time. They launched programs of land reform and industrial and agricultural development. In the countryside, the stultifying grip of the yangban (local landlords) was gradually loosened. The Japanese-designed school system was subjected to wholesale revision, bringing not just new textbooks but a new philosophy. From elementary school onward, curricula that produced loyal imperial subjects were replaced by curricula that instilled a faith in progress and technological accomplishment. The occupation authorities established technical training programs to create a new generation of skilled workers, and the first Korean students, soon to become a stream of thousands, were sent to American colleges and universities to learn the latest techniques in medicine, agriculture, and engineering.
[But then came the dictatorships of Park and others.]
... By the mid-1960s, South Korea appeared to be turning the corner economically. U.S. economic aid declined as the country’s industrial and export economy began to expand. But for all of the South Koreans’ efforts, it’s unclear how successful they would have been if fortune hadn’t intervened in the form of U.S. military involvement in yet another Asian nation, South Vietnam. Park committed two divisions of troops to the struggle at a time when the United States was desperate for allies to share the burden in Vietnam, and in return he received generous rewards from President Lyndon Johnson. There was aid, of course, but also military contracts. Just as it had boosted the economy of Japan with purchases during the Korean War, the United States now lifted the South Korean economy with a deluge of war-related orders. The war effort swallowed 94 percent of South Korean steel exports, as well as significant amounts of machinery, chemicals, and other goods. Hyundai, Hanjin, and many of the other chaebol (corporate conglomerates) that now dominate the South Korean economic landscape got their first solid footing with big Vietnam-era contracts from the U.S. government.
By the late 1960s, South Korea’s economic improvement had allowed it to “graduate” (the term at the time) from the “school” of American foreign aid. William Bundy, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs from 1964 to 1969, would later recall that perceptions of South Korea shifted to the belief that, “given enough patience, and of course enough material support, but above all enough time for methods to sink in, ‘it could be done.’” South Korea would continue to receive U.S. economic favors in the form of loans and guarantees, but it ceased to be dependent on massive grants and direct assistance. No longer a “basket case” of developmental failure, South Korea by the 1970s was billed as a triumph and a model to be emulated—and all the more important as such because of the failure of American-sponsored development in South Vietnam and Iran. The world marveled at the “East Asian economic miracle,” and those looking for lessons and inspiration were referred to South Korea and its fellow “dragons.”
But economic success did not automatically translate into political progress. Delighted by the economic “takeoff” of its Asian charge and mindful of the enemy looming north of the 38th parallel, Washington was never eager to press Park and his military successors for democratic reforms, even as the regime grew more and more authoritarian and violent during the 1970s. Park himself was murdered by his own intelligence chief in 1979, only to be succeeded by leaders who were even more bloody-minded. In 1980, the regime’s brutal suppression of a protest in Kwangju, which led to wider violence and hundreds of deaths, elicited only a muted response from Jimmy Carter’s White House. Still, the South Korean prodemocracy movement gathered momentum and managed, through large strikes and protests, to force the military gradually to retreat from politics in the early 1990s. In 1997, when Kim Dae Jung, a prodemocracy activist who had been sentenced to death by the military in the 1970s, was elected president, the success story was complete.
It had taken 52 years.
The Republic of Korea today displays all the trappings of a member in good standing of the exclusive club of highly industrialized, affluent democracies. Seoul, a shattered city of 900,000 in the aftermath of the Korean War, is now a world-class metropolis of more than 10 million. South Korean steel, automobiles, and electronics flood the world’s marketplaces. The role of the United States in this story was not always something to be proud of. Nonetheless, Americans should take some genuine satisfaction in having helped create a modern South Korea.
The book is by no means closed on U.S. involvement in South Korea. Nearly 60 years after the first American troops came ashore in South Korea, some 37,000 are still stationed there, facing a hostile North Korean regime that stubbornly endures. Virtually nobody foresaw the scale of commitment that would be necessary to create a model nation-state in South Korea. Americans assumed that their know-how would rapidly bring change. But the easy assumptions of a half-century ago yielded to a painful reality. American aid was part of a complex mixture of contingent factors—including the extraordinary perseverance and initiative of the South Korean people—that led to the elusive goals of prosperity and freedom only after immense and protracted effort.
Posted on: Friday, May 6, 2005 - 22:06
Of the two superpowers that faced each other down in an almost half-century-long Cold War, one -- the United States -- emerged victorious, alone in the world, economically powerful, militarily dominant; the other, never the stronger of the two, limped off, its empire shattered and scattered, its people impoverished and desperate, its military a shell of its former self. This is a story we all know, and more or less accept. Winner/loser, victor/vanquished. It makes sense. That's the way we expect matches, competitions, struggles, wars to end.
But what if, as I've suggested recently, the Cold War turned out to be a loser/loser contest? That may seem counterintuitive. In regards to the U.S., it would have been considered laughable not so long ago, except to a few scholars of imperial decline like Immanuel Wallerstein, and yet it may be an increasingly plausible thought.
Let me start, however, with the obvious loser of the Cold War, and with the semi-secret -- or at least not particularly well covered -- tale of how the victorious U.S. superpower attempted to finish off its former rival, the Russian remnant of the USSR and its last outlying regions of control, its"near abroad."
By the 1980s, the USSR was an overstretched empire -- economically worse than shaky, its military overblown, its money going down an imperial rat hole -- and then, of course, there was Afghanistan. (Anything already sound a little familiar here?) Afghanistan was Russia's Vietnam, exactly as several American administrations wanted it to be -- the difference being that Vietnam was a resounding regional defeat for us; while Afghanistan was a politically and economically empire-shattering defeat for the Soviet Union.
After the Berlin Wall came down, U.S. administrations, especially the present one, poured money (direct and indirect), effort, and planning into the penetration of, and stripping away of, Russia's"near abroad." By now, the old Baltic SSRs of the former Soviet Union have entered NATO (and American jets fly missions over them); Romania and Bulgaria are readying themselves for possible future American bases; Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan have all had at least semi-democratic revolutions (Orange, Rose, and Tulip), led by oppositions at least partly funded (in all sorts of complex ways) and organized through the good offices of the U.S. government and allied foundations (using"methods [that] have matured into a template for winning other people's elections"). The U.S. now has military bases in the former Central Asian SSRs of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and may conceivably already have more military bases (and missions) in the far-flung imperial regions of the former USSR than do the Russians. (It's not even a contest if you throw in Afghanistan.) Our Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her confirmation hearings, tossed the last remaining western edge of the old Soviet Union, the"democratic" dictatorship of Belarus into her new list of"outposts of tyranny."
When it comes to Russia, the Bush administration has moved U.S. policy from the Cold War position of" containment" to the Cold-Warrior dream-state of"roll back." And despite the President's friendly invocations of"Vladimir" in his press conferences and elsewhere, administration officials undoubtedly yearn for, or are even aiming for,"regime change" in Putin's Russia. In the meantime, Russia's"near abroad" has been largely stripped away under the banner of the administration's latest crusader slogan -- distinctly it's most user-friendly one --"democracy." Though it's certainly been a selling slogan, as Jonathan Schell has pointed out, the administration's enlistment of"democracy" (as well as the genuine democratic urges of peoples all around the rim of the old Soviet Union) in its drive for global domination has also been a corrupting one.
In all of this, the Cold War's"winner" has been highly successful in at least one aspect of its global imperial mission: penetrating previously off-limits regions of the former imperial foe, setting up its own military outposts there, and supporting whatever new Bush-friendly (or NATO-friendly) regimes emerged. Unsurprisingly, this has been especially true in regions capable of contributing to nailing down control over the Middle Eastern (and Caspian) oil heartlands of the planet.
There are, however, limits to such a strategy. Two of them are Russian in nature. The first is that, at a time when (despite recent dips) oil and natural gas prices are on the long-term rise, the Russians sit on significant reserves of both, which translate into power reserves in every sense. But Putin's regime sits on another kind of"power reserve" as well. However unmentioned these days, this reserve -- the second limit -- effectively constrains American action in the world. Militarily, Russia may be only a shadow of the former USSR, but it still has a world-ending supply of nuclear weapons. While no longer a global superpower, in this single arena it remains just that -- no small matter at a time when, defying all odds, nuclear weapons have become the global coin of the realm, more so perhaps than in the old two-superpower universe.
A third limit on American power is only now coming into sight: the beginning of the formation of regional power blocs (not necessarily military in nature) in opposition to the lone superpower's various goals. While Greater Europe, still in formation, represents one of these blocs; and some greater Asian combination another (as was indicated by the surprising, if tentative, recent détente between China and India as well as the shaky proto-military alliance between Russia and China); perhaps the least expected and commented upon of these blocs lies far closer to home, consisting of a growing set of left-leaning democracies in Latin America determined to pursue their own collective interests whatever the Bush administration has in mind.
Coup-making in Our Backyard
The key to these developments lies in Iraq -- or rather in the Bush administration's 2001 decision that ultimate global power and its own fate lay in the Middle East. If Afghanistan was the USSR's Vietnam (only worse in its effects), Iraq may prove the American Afghanistan (even without an oppositional superpower funding the insurgency in that country). The greatest gamble of the Bush administration -- made up of the greatest gamblers in our history since Jefferson Davis's secessionists -- was certainly its"regime change" leap, under the guise of the Global War on Terror, via cruise missiles and tanks, into the occupation of Iraq.
With no end in sight, the draining Iraq War has already trumped much of the rest of the Bush administration's aggressive foreign policy (especially in Asia) and has left the administration thoroughly distracted when it comes to whole regions of the world. As Chris Nelson of the Washington-insider Nelson Report put matters this week:
"All this by way of saying that we can now see even more clearly than before the import of Secretary of State Condi Rice's extraordinary interview last week in the Wall Street Journal. The former Soviet expert repeatedly made clear that the entire focus of Bush Administration policy is and will continue to be on the Middle East. All responsibility for coming up with a solution to the North Korea problem Rice cheerfully consigned to China."
The war in Iraq has also left the Middle East increasingly destabilized; oil prices on the rise; the dollar undermined; and the U.S. military desperately overstretched, if not incapable of dealing with other major global challenges. No wonder the President clutched the hand of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah the other day down in Crawford. He needs whatever help he can get.
This, in turn, has opened a remarkable space for experimentation and change in, of all places, the little attended to"near abroad" of the winning superpower -- a space Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has recently been playing with for all he's worth. A former military man with his own shadowy past of coup d'états, Chavez, the twice elected and popular president of Venezuela, is the sort of figure that American administrations once dealt with decisively. But Chavez, who finds himself in control of the third largest source of U.S. imported oil (to the tune of 15% of all our oil imports, almost as much as Saudi Arabia), has in the last months managed to: make energy deals with super-competitor China and super-hated Iran (Hey, that's our energy!); form a thumb-your-nose informal economic alliance with super-hated Cuban leader Fidel Castro, part of an attempt to create an alternative to the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas (from which Cuba is excluded); buy arms from Russia and Spain; threaten to cut off Venezuelan oil supplies to the U.S. if his government should be endangered or blockaded by Washington; and last week -- in the ultimate insult to the Bush administration (for whom foreign policy and military policy are almost the same thing) -- throw the U.S. military out of Venezuela.
That this happened without evident retaliation was a milestone of some sort; for Chavez suddenly broke off military-to-military relations, just about the only kind the Bush administration ever promotes, and threw out "a small group of U.S. officers who were teaching and studying in Venezuela," accusing them of encouraging plots against his government. He also ended joint military exercises, suspended all military exchanges, and even threatened to try in Venezuelan courts any American military officer found spying.
As background to this ongoing imbroglio: In April 2002, Venezuelan military officials and business leaders launched a coup d'état against Chavez, forcing his government out of power for 47 hours. During those hours, as Marc Cooper of the Nation has written,"[a]lthough the coup was denounced by nineteen Latin American heads of state as a violation of democratic principles, the Bush Administration publicly countenanced the military takeover." (After the coup collapsed, President Bush stated that he hoped Chavez had"learned his lesson.") The U.S. government initially denied that it had had any role in, or knew anything about, the coup before it took place. Documents soon came to light, however, showing that, at a minimum, the U.S. intelligence community was"getting a steady stream of reports on planning for this coup" and that these had been distributed at high levels in the Bush administration.
Soon after the coup collapsed, the reliable Ed Vulliamy of the British Observer reported that the"failed coup in Venezuela was closely tied to senior officials in the US government, The Observer has established. They have long histories in the [Central American] 'dirty wars' of the 1980s, and links to death squads working in Central America at that time." These figures included Otto Reich and Elliot Abrams. Reich, once U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and a key Bush administration policy-maker on Latin America, reportedly met with the coup plotters over many months.
There is now an acceptable formula for describing what the U.S. did in Venezuela, which can be found regularly in press accounts, as in a recent New York Times piece (U.S. Considers Toughening Stance Toward Venezuela) by reporter Juan Forero:"…the United States tacitly supported a coup that briefly ousted Mr. Chavez in April 2002." Here's another version from Ray Suarez of PBS's Newshour:"[E]lements in the U.S. Government, in the Bush administration, knew that there was a coup under way in Venezuela, and did not rise to support the current government."
Given the history of the United States in Latin America, when a coup occurs in a situation like this, it should really be assumed that the U.S. government was involved in plotting it, not just"tacitly supporting" it. (A decade or three from now, when it no longer matters, we'll undoubtedly have the documentation on this one.) In any case, in the wake of the"botched coup" meant to overthrow the elected government of Venezuela, the U.S., according to a Newsday investigation, began"pumping money into Venezuela immediately… creating a new ‘Office of Transition Initiatives' in Caracas" to distribute funds to those opposed to Chavez. For instance, the" civic group" run by Corina Machado, who signed the decree designed by the coup plotters"that would fleetingly transform the fragile democracy into a dictatorship... was awarded tens of thousands of American tax dollars from two major U.S. agencies -- The National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The funds were used partly to encourage voter participation in a subsequent effort to oust Chavez, this time through a recall referendum."
Late this March, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, soon to be on his way to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan, toured Latin America denouncing Chavez's government -- as did Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week. As Rice hopped from country to country in our near abroad, she called for a"free and completely democratic Venezuela." In addition, Forero tells us:
"As President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela veers toward greater confrontation with Washington, the Bush administration is weighing a tougher approach, including funneling more money to foundations and business and political groups opposed to his leftist government, American officials say."
It's the Ukrainian approach, but against a democracy. What's at stake, as Forero's article (egregiously anti-Chavez in tone) makes clear, is oil."The United States, said [a high-ranking Republican aide on Capitol Hill who works on Latin America policy], is particularly concerned because Venezuela is one of four top providers of foreign oil to the United States. ‘You can't write him off,' the aide said of Mr. Chávez. ‘He's sitting on an energy source that's critical to us.'"
The American Near Abroad Peels Away
Still, the escalating tussle with Venezuela is but the tip of the near-abroad iceberg. Just last week, for example, with Secretary of State Rice in Latin America and lobbying hard, the Organization of American States elected a Chilean socialist, Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza -- the very candidate she had lobbied against (until the last second) -- to be its secretary general."It is the first time in the organization's history," reports Larry Rohter of the New York Times,"that a candidate initially opposed by the United States will lead the 34-member regional group." As a candidate, Insulza"not only favored steps to bring Cuba back into the organization but also had the support of Mr. Chávez." Call it a sign of changing times.
Perhaps a greater sign of those changing times was the fact that, on their separate trips across the continent, both Rumsfeld and Rice made clear attempts to back up a crescendo of warnings about and threats against Chavez with some communal action -- and failed dismally. As Rohter put it,
"Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited South America last month in what was seen as an effort to stitch together an anti-Chávez coalition, but got nowhere. Ms. Rice came to the region this week with much the same mission and received the same chilly reception from governments for whom the principles of nonintervention and sovereignty are nearly sacred."
Or take the response of Brazilian Defense Minister Jose Alencar in a press conference with Rumsfeld in late March. Just after Rumsfeld questioned Chavez's motives in buying 100,000 AK-47's from Russia (" I can't imagine what's going to happen to 100,000 AK-47s. I can't imagine why Venezuela needs 100, 000 AK-47s."), Alencar was asked by a reporter if he was" concerned about Chavez." His response was:
"Brazil has always defended and will continue defending the self-determination of the different peoples and non-intervention in the affairs of other countries. Obviously, here in Brazil, which is a country historically pacific (peaceful), obviously we would like to increasingly deepen our diplomatic and trade relations with our countries, with the objective of achieving the common good."
In diplomatic-speak, that meant: Back off, Don.
Let's try to put this in context: Unlike in areas bordering Russia and in the Middle East, the United States has put no money into a"Latin Spring," and yet it's happened anyway. We may, in fact, already be at the very start of something like a Latin Summer. Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico -- the largest countries in the region -- are all now democracies; and all but Mexico are led by socialists or independent-minded leaders. This trend hasn't been restricted to the more economically powerful countries in the region either. It has taken hold from Uruguay to Ecuador. Next year, if the leftist mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is elected president, Mexico will put a stunning cap on the process. Two-thirds of Latin America is now considered left-leaning.
Latin America, of course, has long been thought of as the imperial backyard of the United States. From the 1950s through the 1970s, from Guatemala to Argentina, Brazil to Chile, we encouraged, funded, organized, and sometimes (as in Guatemala and Chile) led or all but led military takeovers of democracies. As it happened, the militaries of those countries, with their carefully nurtured ties to the U.S. military, proved far easier to topple than the one-party, one-leader system that has ruled Cuba through a forty-odd year American siege. In those decades, throughout the region, our representatives (ordinarily from the CIA) taught the local police and military torture techniques of an Abu-Ghraib variety, backed regimes renowned for disappearances, and generally helped impose a blanket of draconian rule on the continent in the name of anti-communism.
In the 1980s, with the help of a number of people who are now household names, including new intelligence"tsar" John Negroponte, the Reagan administration repeated the process in Central America, supporting death squads, military killers, and right-wing thugs in a counter-revolutionary terror. We poured multimillions into this process; later invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada and then Panama; and finally worked hard to impose an impoverishing economic system ("neoliberalism") on the continent in the 1990s.
Leaving the Imperial Orbit
Given all this, it's remarkable what the Bush administration can't do today in its own backyard. It can't fully isolate Cuba; it can't create a regional" coalition of the willing" against Venezuela; it can't simply impose its version of economics on the continent; it can't stop a number of countries in the region from making energy deals of one sort or another with China, Iran, India, and other potential energy competitors. (And if, for a moment, you were to glance north, rather than south, you might notice that it was recently unable to impose its pet boondoggle, the Star Wars anti-missile system, on our recalcitrant northern neighbor. Another small sign of the times.)
There is perhaps no area of the world where the Bush administration has been less successful in fostering the military-to-military relations that are seen are crucial to its plans. Part of this has been due to its tunnel-vision unilateralism. In an attempt to prevent U.S. soldiers or officials from ever ending up in a foreign or international court on any kind of war crimes charges, it sent the American Service Members Protection Act (ASPA) winging through Congress. This"prohibits U.S. security assistance funds and most military cooperation unless a country rejects the U.N.-backed ICC [International Criminal Court] or signs a bilateral immunity agreement with the United States." It then pursued such agreements with just about every nation on the planet. As it happens, 11 of the nations that have ratified the ICC agreement and refused to grant the United States bilateral immunity are in Latin America. Another sign of the times. As Pamela Hess, UPI's Pentagon correspondent, put the matter:
"[E]xcept for Colombia and Argentina, all the major countries of South America are on the ASPA black list: Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay and Brazil. Prior to the passage of the ASPA, the major South American players had nearly 700 officers in training in U.S. military schools under the International Military Education and Training program. That number is essentially down to zero, say U.S. Southern Command sources. ‘We have lost access to a whole generation of military officers,' a Southern Command source told UPI.
"‘Extra-hemispheric actors are filling the void left by restricted U.S. military engagement with partner nations. We now risk losing contact and interoperatibility with a generation of military classmates in many nations of the region, including several leading countries,' [Southern Command chief Gen. Bantz Craddock told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.]. The void left by the United States after ASPA is increasingly being filled by China, Craddock warned."
More striking yet has been the rise of a new kind of"people power" -- a term we usually associate with Soviet-controlled Poland or the Marcos-controlled Philippines -- throughout Latin America. It could most recently be observed in Ecuador, where popular demonstrations drove the Bush-administration-backed President, Lucio Gutiérrez, who had only recently illegally dissolved the Supreme Court, out of the country; and again, only a week ago, in Mexico City where an estimated 1.2 million people turned out in a"silent march" to support Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, that city's left-wing mayor and the country's leading candidate for president in next year's election, after Vincente Fox's ruling party had tried to railroad him out of the race and into jail on a trumped-up charge. As Danna Harman of the Christian Science Monitor wrote of the march (People power rattling politics of Latin America), while discussing"the weakening of authoritarian regimes [in Latin America] and the growing self-assurance of the people -- including, in the case in Bolivia, the indigenous":
"Chalk up another victory for Latin American people power. In the 1990s, what politicians feared most was apathy. But lately, Latin Americans from Mexico City to Quito, Ecuador -- much like the citizens of Ukraine and Lebanon -- have been taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers."
Harold Meyerson, writing in the Washington Post in mid-April on earlier Mexican protests over Obrador, commented (Greetings from Mexistan):
"Apparently, there are several kinds of capital city rallies. There are those in Kiev, where multitudes turned out to protest the subversion of a national election and the attempted murder of the opposition leader. There are those in Beirut, where people gathered to protest the murder of an opposition leader and to demand self-determination. These were outpourings that our government encouraged.
"And there was the one last Thursday in Mexico City, where 300,000 protesters filled the Zocalo… And what was the response of our government?... Did we tell the crowds gathered in the Zocalo that America walks at their side?
"Not quite. While Condi Rice waxes eloquent about our concern for democratic rights in Central Asia and the Middle East, the most the Bush administration has managed to say about democracy in the unimaginably faraway land of Mexico has been the comment of a State Department spokesman that this is an internal Mexican affair. Democracy may be all well and good, but Lopez Obrador is just not Bush's kind of guy. As mayor of Mexico City, he's increased public pensions to the elderly and spent heavily on public works and the accompanying job creation. He's criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement as a boon for the corporate sector and a bust for Mexican workers..."
As it turned out, the Mexican people didn't need George Bush's funding or organizational support; nor, it seems, did any other manifestation of"people power" to our south. For what we have been seeing throughout Latin America -- as along Russia's border -- has been a serial revolt in country after country against the Cold War world and the imperial orders it imposed on its near abroads. Once upon a time, an American administration would have put such revolts down serially, using the CIA, military to military relations, economic power, and aid of various sorts; but, though events in Latin America are finally making the Bush administration sit up and take note, its ability to act is more limited than usual. After all, Iraq is proving a black hole for American power and something of a graveyard for the administration's global ambitions and energies -- giving new meaning to that old Vietnam-era word"quagmire."
There can be little question that, in the superpower-funded revolt of the Russian near-abroad and the unsupported revolt of the American near-abroad, you find similar impulses. When imperial power anywhere begins to crumble, it naturally creates space for local and regional experiments in new kinds of power relations. Unfortunately, all our covert (and less than covert) help in"organizing" democracy movements from Ukraine and Georgia to Kyrgyzstan and Belarus gives our leaders the feeling, I fear, that they are actually creating democracies by manipulation in someone else's near abroad.
My own guess is that, given crumbling Russian power and the space it's left open, democracy movements would have developed apace (as in Latin America), even had our help never been offered. Of course when our leaders come across"people power" that has developed without their imprimatur (not always a pretty sight) -- whether in the form of brutal struggles for national sovereignty (as in Iraq) or in their democratic form in Latin America -- they are invariably caught off guard and generally appalled. But it's only in looking at these forms of popular power – whether violent or peaceful – that you can see the genuine strangeness of what may turn out to be our loser/loser superpower world.
No one should, of course, underestimate the power of an empire to, as George Lucas might say,"strike back." And yet, let's hold out hope of a sort against empire and its plans for domination. Despite our recent emphasis in"the homeland" on security and borders, what are borders really? What are they actually capable of keeping out? It's strange sometimes how permeable walls and borders prove. As Paul Woodward, the canny editor of the War in Context website wrote recently:
"People power's a fine thing for shaking up Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but as it spreads to the Americas, it could be coming uncomfortably close to home. What if people power caught on in the United States? What if accountability was being demanded not just from governments in Kiev and Beirut but also those in London and Washington? The bread and circuses approach to democracy has so far been an effective guarantor of political apathy across America, but what if Americans in large numbers were to one day wake up from their political slumber and demand that they too deserve a truly representative government?"
What if, indeed. What if we all began slipping out of the imperial orbit?
This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.
Posted on: Friday, May 6, 2005 - 20:38
Ron Chernow, in the NYT (5-6-05)
[Ron Chernow is the author, most recently, of "Alexander Hamilton."]
LEADING evangelical conservatives are taking on the federal judiciary, which they see as hostile to religion, and they have much more in mind than simply putting an end to Senate filibusters against judicial nominees. Some have now proposed that Congress cut off federal financing for judges and even abolish some lower-level courts that they feel have issued decisions that mandate a secular, anti-Christian state. "We set up the courts," said the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, a key ally of the evangelicals. "We can unset the courts. We have the power of the purse."
Some religious political leaders are fond of invoking the nation's founders as kindred spirits. But those founders - a notably fiery, opinionated bunch - seldom spoke with one voice on any issue, especially when it came to the federal judiciary. How Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton would have felt about Senate filibusters against judicial nominees we can only speculate, as the filibuster wasn't introduced until 1825.
But as for denying money to or dismantling courts, historians can speak with far greater authority. This is because we are witnessing a re-enactment of a historic drama that unfolded two centuries ago, shortly after Thomas Jefferson's election as president.
First some background. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, it was widely assumed that the judiciary would be the feeblest branch of government. The very order of the Constitution's articles - with the legislature covered in Article 1, the executive in Article 2, and the judiciary in Article 3 - tacitly underscored the presumed order of importance.
This didn't please everyone, especially New York's legal wunderkind and the impresario of The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton. In Federalist No. 78, he fretted that the judiciary "has no influence over either the sword or the purse ... and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments." In No. 79, he brooded about abuses that might arise from legislative tampering with judges' salaries. "In the general course of human nature," he wrote, "a power over a man's subsistence amounts to a power over his will."
To offset these handicaps, Hamilton endorsed the constitutional provision that federal judges should serve for life, subject to impeachment only for official misconduct, not for unpopular decisions: "The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited constitution."
In the early years of the new government, many of Hamilton's forebodings about judicial weakness were realized. The Constitution had specifically called for a Supreme Court, but had left the formation of the lower courts to Congressional discretion. Congress dithered, and the Supreme Court justices had to endure the hardship of riding the circuit in the hinterlands for weeks or months each year, often spending more time on horseback than on the bench. This situation also placed them in the potentially awkward situation of having to listen to appeals of decisions by circuit courts on which they themselves had sat.
This disgraceful state was remedied at a most inauspicious moment: the interval between Thomas Jefferson's election as president and his taking office. The lame-duck Congress, still controlled by Hamilton's Federalist Party, passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created 16 circuit court judgeships. Jefferson's Republican Party blasted this as a last-minute, partisan maneuver, and with some justification: President John Adams, in his waning days in power, named a phalanx of Federalist judges to the posts. Adams had also appointed John Marshall, a distant relative and confirmed enemy of Jefferson's, as chief justice.
George Washington and Adams had been at least nominal Federalists, so President Jefferson and the new Republican-dominated Congress faced a judiciary under unanimous Federalist control. "The Federalists have retired into the judiciary as a stronghold," wrote an indignant Jefferson, "and from that battery all the works of republicanism are to be beaten down and erased."
Posted on: Friday, May 6, 2005 - 14:41
On Sept. 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln gathered his cabinet to tell them he was going to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He said he had made a solemn vow to the Almighty that if God gave him victory at Antietam, Lincoln would issue the decree.
Lincoln's colleagues were stunned. They were not used to his basing policy on promises made to the Lord. They asked him to repeat what he'd just said. Lincoln conceded that "this might seem strange," but "God had decided the question in favor of the slaves."
I like to think about this episode when I hear militant secularists argue that faith should be kept out of politics. Like Martin Luther King Jr. a century later, Lincoln seemed to understand that epochal decisions are rarely made in a secular frame of mind. When great leaders make daring leaps, they often feel themselves surrendering to Divine Providence, and their strength flows from their faith that they are acting in accordance with transcendent moral truth.
And I also think back on Lincoln at moments like these, when other boundaries between church and state are a matter of hot dispute. Lincoln is apt, because this emancipation moment was actually exceptional. Lincoln was neither a scoffer nor a guy who could talk directly to God. Instead, he wrestled with faith, longing to be more religious, but never getting there.
Today, a lot of us are stuck in Lincoln's land. We reject the bland relativism of the militant secularists. We reject the smug ignorance of, say, a Robert Kuttner, who recently argued that the culture war is a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism. But neither can we share the conviction of the orthodox believers, like the new pope, who find maximum freedom in obedience to eternal truth. We're a little nervous about the perfectionism that often infects evangelical politics, the rush to crash through procedural checks and balances in order to reach the point of maximum moral correctness.
Those of us stuck here in this wrestling-with-faith world find Lincoln to be our guide and navigator. Lincoln had enough firm conviction to lead a great moral crusade, but his zeal was tempered by doubt, and his governing style was dispassionate.
The key to Lincoln's approach is that he was mesmerized by religion, but could never shake his skepticism. Politically, he knew that the country needed the evangelicals' moral rigor to counteract the forces of selfishness and subjectivism, but he could never actually be an evangelical himself....
Lincoln's core lesson is that while the faithful and the faithless go at each other in their symbiotic culture war, those of us trapped wrestling with faith are not without the means to get up and lead.
Posted on: Thursday, May 5, 2005 - 18:52
[Ken A. Grant is a doctoral candidate in church history at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.]
Wading into the turbulent waters of the relationship between church and state is always a treacherous affair, whether entering from the church or state side. With the installation of Pope Benedict XVI, we might be reminded of this fact.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger entered into these deeps during the last presidential election cycle.... Cardinal Ratzinger raised the specter of excommunication for those Catholic politicians who did not steer clear of a pro-choice position. This brought to my mind the actions of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), who dove headfirst into church-state relations with the express intent of ensuring a church completely free of any secular entanglements.
Gregory VII rendered much subsequent tinkering with the church-state line to be just that -- mere tinkering by comparison. He not only excommunicated King Henry IV at the Lenten Synod of 1076 (the result of a long-brewing confrontation between the two), but took the additional step of deposing him. He obliterated the line between church and state, and was soundly and widely criticized for his glaring innovation and revolutionary use of papal authority.
Previously, Pope Gelasius I (492-496) had commented on the relationship between the church and the empire: "[T]here are two powers by which chiefly this world is ruled: the sacred authority of the priesthood and the authority of kings. And of these the authority of the priests is so much the weightier, as they must render before the tribunal of an account even for the kings of men." While this might at first seem to support the position of Gregory VII, it was widely believed that the Gelasian "two swords" theory maintained that these two powers -- political and religious -- should not be held by the same person.
This battle culminated in the eleventh century, as the papacy attempted to wrest control away from the king and other secular rulers who were practicing Lay Investiture. That is, they had begun to name bishops, who were thereby invested with secular and sacred authority. The Investiture Controversy -- the title often given to the hubbub surrounding the late eleventh-century reform movement that sought to rectify this practice, and which reached its peak during the pontificate of Gregory VII -- was settled in 1122 with the Concordat of Worms. The Concordat stated that the king had the right to invest bishops with authority in the secular realm, while the church would endow bishops with the signs of sacred authority. The separation of the two swords was regarded as the most palatable compromise, as each side realized that the chaos following Gregory's political use of papal authority was detrimental to all.
Pope Benedict XVI ascends to the papal see amid a set of public attitudes that differs dramatically from Gregory's day, most notably in that a great many people outside the church seem to be quite sanguine about the former cardinal's foray into the political calculus of the United States. Inserting himself into the campaign, Cardinal Ratzinger did not only attempt to sway, through intimations of excommunication, Catholics whose beliefs regarding abortion he found to be completely out of line with Catholic teaching (wholly and rightfully within his purview). He also attempted to affect the outcome of the presidential election, knowing that the threat alone would change the way certain parts of the electorate would look at the candidates in question.
The most significant problem with such action on the state side of the church-state line is straightforward. When the popes of the thirteenth century acted on the precedent set by popes such as Gregory VII and Innocent III, secular powers began to treat them as just one more common prince to combat, bargain with, or vanquish. Similarly, today the church might come to be viewed as simply one more group which both politicians and the general populous either pander to, co-opt, or, perhaps worst of all, ignore.
A complementary effect is produced on the church side. When so involved in the secular fray, the church loses its voice; the Gospel itself is simply tuned out, as cynics regard its preaching to be one more way to produce a victor aligned with a particular political perspective.
The church, I think, cannot afford this kind of diminishment. So we might hope, then, that Pope Benedict XVI will relinquish the political sword he is poised to use. His hands will be full enough without it.
Posted on: Thursday, May 5, 2005 - 17:38
How can you tell if a political party is brain-dead? Easy. It spends an entire campaign denouncing the incumbent as a smarmy, good-for-nothing liar, rather than outlining its own agenda. The Republicans tried it against Bill Clinton in 1996, the Democrats tried it against George W. Bush in 2004, and now in Britain the Conservatives are trying it, with equal lack of success, against Tony Blair.
Such a tactic is beguiling because, to True Believers, the other side's triumphs are never on the up and up; they must be the result of hoodwinking the hapless electorate. The problem with this approach was pointed out to me by a political strategist last week: "Voters think all politicians are liars. So telling them that someone is a particularly effective liar doesn't work."
It especially doesn't work for the Tories because they're accusing Prime Minister Blair of duplicity on an issue about which they actually agree with him. Conservative leader Michael Howard says he would have supported the invasion of Iraq even without weapons of mass destruction — the subject of Blair's supposed dissembling. By nevertheless making the L-word the centerpiece of today's election, Howard comes off as opportunistic and unprincipled.
Beyond the "liar liar" taunts, the Tories have little to offer British voters. Their agenda is essentially indistinguishable from the Labor Party's. The biggest change Howard has promised is a reduction in immigration. This may snare some votes among xenophobic yobs, but it has also led (Arnold Schwarzenegger, pay attention) to a backlash against "mean-spirited" right-wingers.
Much of the Tories' trouble is due to the skill with which Blair has seized the political center. He has run a tough, pro-American foreign policy while not interfering with a domestic economy that has produced 13 years of growth. Yet there are still issues on which he could be vulnerable, even if the Tories stay away from the "third rail" of British politics, the National Health Service.
The first of these is taxes. Although the Labor government has kept top income tax rates where they were after the Thatcher cuts of the 1980s, it has presided over dozens of stealth tax increases. The share of the economy taken by government has edged up from 35% in 1997 to a projected 42% today. (In the U.S., it's 29%.) The Tories should be promising big tax relief, as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did. Instead they're offering a paltry $7.5 billion in cuts, just 0.6% of the budget.
The second issue the Tories should be hammering is the European Union. Blair has tried to have it both ways by backing the controversial new EU constitution but not taking a stance on whether Britain should adopt the euro. He has also supported NATO while backing an EU defense force that would compete with NATO. The Conservatives are against the EU currency, the EU constitution and the EU army, but they've soft-pedaled those issues because of divisions in their own ranks.
The third issue tailor-made for the Tories is defense. Although Blair has made frequent use of the military — in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq — the defense budget has not risen in absolute terms in the last decade. Last year, his government announced cutbacks in the number of its soldiers, warships and aircraft. The British army will be reduced to its smallest level since the First Afghan War of 1839.
Admittedly the Tories have some credibility problems in all these areas because of the disastrous John Major government, which took Britain further into the EU, raised taxes and cut the defense budget. But Major has been out of office since 1997 — long enough for the Tories to have recovered. The reason they haven't is that they've been focused more on political posturing than on principled policies. As Bruce Anderson writes in the Spectator, Britain's leading conservative magazine: "For the past seven weeks, the Tories have been suffering the consequences of seven years' timidity."
There's a lesson here for the Democrats as they chart their way out of the political wilderness: Now is the time to do some hard thinking on the big issues rather than simply trying to sex up their marketing.
Posted on: Thursday, May 5, 2005 - 17:05
[Matthew Dennis, professor of history at the University of Oregon, is the author of "Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar."]
Since the beginning of the republic itself, the role of religion in American life has been controversial - even as the United States supposedly became a more secular society, and even in Oregon, statistically the least churched state in the union.
A case in point is the annual Eugene-Springfield Mayors' Prayer Breakfast, the subject of an April 10 column by Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin. The local event is an example of a larger phenomenon, which includes annual mayors', governors' and even presidential prayer breakfasts. Many occur on the official National Day of Prayer on the first Thursday in May. This year that falls on May 5 and competes with an altogether different occasion, Cinco de Mayo, a celebration of diversity....
The roots of the Mayors' Prayer Breakfast go back to the early 1950s, in the context of the Cold War, when a joint resolution of Congress, signed by President Harry Truman, declared an annual National Day of Prayer. This was the era in which "under God" was spliced into the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower presided over the first National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Soon prayer breakfasts multiplied and became fixtures in state capitals and other communities across the country, sometimes set for the National Day of Prayer and sometimes held on other dates.
Despite the participation of public officials and their public prominence, the breakfasts are technically private, not official, government-sponsored events. Therefore, they usually manage to avoid charges that they violate the constitutional doctrine of the separation of church and state.
Still, it's easy to see the confusion that such not-quite-official events create. Particularly when prayer breakfasts are more stridently sectarian, like the one that Rabbi Husbands-Hankin experienced last year, they convey a message - not simply that one faith community is praying for public leaders, but that the U.S. is one nation under a particular God, and that this particular religion has special governmental access and authority. Implicit endorsement by public officials through their participation lends powerful weight to such exclusionary messages.
In some communities, prayer breakfasts are broadly inclusive, reaching out to various Christian denominations, Jews, Muslims and others. In most places, they are not.
The Central Florida Mayors' Prayer Breakfast Web site explains, for example, that its event "is held in the belief that only God's guidance and inspiration can provide optimum leadership for the people, our cities, states, nation and world."
Whose God do they mean?
A prominent link takes browsers to the Ministry & Prayer Request Card, available at the breakfast, to request more information "on Christian life" and "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." One can check a box to indicate, "I have received Jesus Christ as my Personal Savior ... at this breakfast ... (or) Recently."
Such sectarianism has inspired criticism, not merely from nonbelievers and non-Christians but from Christians as well....
Controversy will no doubt continue as Americans debate "under God," spend coins inscribed "in God we trust," open court sessions with religious invocations, and eat breakfast amid Christian prayers and proselytizing implicitly sanctioned by public officials. Since Gov. George W. Bush's proclamation in 2000, there has been a Jesus Day in Texas and in other states as well. Religion endures in American life.
Yet, ironically, American religion's health depends not on its ability to force its way into official status but on the protection all faiths receive by allowing no particular faith to dominate. In short, we all benefit by giving currency to the First Amendment and to the motto, E Pluribus Unum.
Posted on: Tuesday, May 3, 2005 - 18:28
The Bush administration's push for quick democracy in the Middle East has an increasingly clear implication: if Islamist organizations such as Hamas are to be likely electoral winners, Western powers should stop classifying them as terrorists and instead come to terms with them.
This conclusion follows from such efforts as those led by Alastair Crooke and his Conflicts Forum; the European Union's exploration of opening a dialogue with the Islamists; and an astonishing statement in which the White House spokesman referred to Hamas members as"business professionals."
Before this whitewashing of Hamas proceeds, it bears noting that the organization has not just murdered over four hundred Israelis but also prepared itself for war with America.
The ideological justification for war is in place. In 2003, Hamas declared President Bush"Islam's biggest enemy" and in 2004 it called him"the enemy of God, the enemy of Islam and Muslims." A 2004 press release announced Hamas considers the U.S as an enemy and as an accomplice to the Israeli enemy aggression against the Palestinians. … The U.S will face responsibility for its position as an accomplice with Israel."
Hamas logistical cells could be quickly turned operational. By early 2002, Eli Lake disclosed in the New York Sun, the FBI concluded that 50 to 100 trained Hamas and Hezbollah agents"had already infiltrated America." where they worked"on fundraising and logistics," but Dennis Lormel, formerly in FBI counterterrorism, notes that these cells"have the potential of being operational."
FBI Director Robert Mueller reaffirmed the threat in February 2005:"Although it would be a major strategic shift for Hamas, its United States network is theoretically capable of facilitating acts of terrorism in the United States." According to a senior government counterterrorism official, Hamas could be merging with elements of Osama bin Laden's"all inclusive military arm" and the two together then" carry out military strikes" against America. They have operations planned for here, they have the capabilities to strike at will and when the time is right they will do it."
Counterterrorism specialist Boaz Ganor notes,"Hamas formally does not engage, and does not intend to engage, in a terrorist attack on American soil. But I think it is not inconceivable that Hamas would change its strategies, and they would like to be ready for that option."
Hamas has gone global. Reports indicate it is active, planning attacks against American forces, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait. Of particular note, it was a Palestinian with possible ties to Hamas, Ahmed Mustafa Ibrahim Ali, who shot three American corrections officers at a prison in Kosovo in April 2004.
Palestinian anger could prompt violence in America. Ken Piernick, who had headed the FBI counterterrorism efforts against Hamas, told the New York Sun:"In time, a very volatile and vitriolic hostility brewing in Gaza in particular will slowly suffuse itself to Hamas and Hezbollah cells in America. In the past couple of years we have already seen inflammatory rhetoric from their supporters in the United States. At some point in time it's like the glass rod will snap."
Potentially violent Hamas operatives in America have already turned up.
In November 2003, the Israelis arrested Jamal Akkal, 23, a Canadian immigrant of Palestinian origins and a year later, he pleaded guilty to planning to kill Israeli officials traveling in the United States as well as leaders of the American and Canadian Jewish communities.
In August 2004, a longtime Hamas money-man, Ismail Selim Elbarasse, was arrested for videotaping the details of Maryland's Bay Bridge. This"set off alarms among U.S. counterterrorism investigators," the Baltimore Sun reported. They treated the incident as a Hamas reconnaissance of the bridge and"as a potential link between Hamas and Al Qaeda." In court papers, authorities alleged that the images Elbarasse's shot of the bridge included close-ups of features"integral to the structural integrity of the bridge."
Hamas, in short, can attack America at will, something that should not be forgotten.
President Bush stated in June 2003 that"the free world, those who love freedom and peace, must deal harshly with Hamas" and that"Hamas must be dismantled." That approach should remain American policy.
This article is reprinted with permission by Daniel Pipes. This article first appeared in the New York Sun.
Posted on: Tuesday, May 3, 2005 - 15:39