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.
SOURCE: Salon (2-21-11)
In 2006, while the Bush administration smashed its way through two wars, countless constitutional constraints, and a fragile economy constructed on the slippery slope of tax cuts for the wealthy, Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian, pondered in Rolling Stone whether W. would be regarded as America's worst president. Rather coyly, Wilentz never came right out and said that Bush 43 was the worst, but his essay gathered together all the evidence that pointed toward only one verdict: guilty as charged.
In making his case, Wilentz mentioned a 2004 poll of historians, who predicted that Bush would surely end up among the worst five presidents. While presidents have a way of rewriting their own history -- witness Bush's recent book tour -- he doesn't seem to be on a path to any near-term redemption. For example, a poll conducted in July 2010 by the Siena Research Institute revealed that 238 "presidential scholars" had ranked Bush among the five worst presidents (39 out of 43), with Andrew Johnson solidly occupying the very bottom of the list. Johnson is a particular favorite for the bottom of the pile because of his impeachment (although he was acquitted in the Senate by one vote in May 1868), his complete mishandling of Reconstruction policy, his inept dealings with his Cabinet and Congress, his drinking problem (he was probably inebriated at his inauguration), his bristling personality, and his enormous sense of self-importance. He once suggested that God saw fit to have Lincoln assassinated so that he could become president. A Northern senator averred that "Andrew Johnson was the queerest character that ever occupied the White House."
Queerest? Perhaps. But worst? Johnson actually has some stiff competition for the bottom rung of the presidential rankings, not only from W, but also from one of his own contemporaries, James Buchanan, the fifteenth president.
Interestingly enough, Johnson and Buchanan, two of the worst presidents, stand as bookends for arguably the best: Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln's greatness might never have manifested itself if it weren't for Buchanan's utter and complete incompetency, and for that reason I cast my ballot in favor of the fifteenth president as our absolutely worst chief executive ever....
Posted on: Monday, February 21, 2011 - 15:55
SOURCE: National Review (2-21-11)
Ronald Reagan, who narrowly lost the Republican party’s presidential nomination in 1976, realized that his party needed to broaden its base into a durable coalition that would help its members win and maintain office at the local, state, and national levels. Speaking before a gathering of conservatives in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 15, 1977, just five days before Jimmy Carter took the oath of office, Reagan emphasized this point, stating:
The New Republican party I envision is still going to be the party of Lincoln and that means we are going to have to come to grips with what I consider to be a major failing of the party: its failure to attract the majority of black voters.
It’s time black America and the New Republican party move toward each other and create a situation in which no black vote can be taken for granted.
Throughout the late 1970s, Reagan continued to exhort fellow Republicans to face this problem, and he worked to win the black vote after he won his party’s presidential nomination in 1980. Speaking at the Urban League convention in New York on Aug. 5, 1980, he proclaimed, “I am committed to the protection and enforcement of the civil rights of black Americans. This commitment is interwoven into every phase of the programs I will propose.”...
Posted on: Monday, February 21, 2011 - 14:58
SOURCE: New York Post (2-20-11)
Publication of Donald Rumsfeld's memoirs, "Known and Unknown," has renewed the fierce debate about the most controversial secretary of defense since Robert McNamara. Most of the debate centers around what many see as mistakes and misjudgments on Rumsfeld's watch from 2001 to 2006: the invasion of Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction which didn't exist, for example. People ask why it took so long to win in Iraq and why we still haven't won in Afghanistan.
Yet, with all the criticisms flying thick and fast, not enough attention gets focused on what Rumsfeld did right during the momentous half-decade after 9/11, and how his legacy has made America and the world a safer place -- indeed, keeps us safe still, under President Obama.
Rumsfeld was sitting in his office on Sept. 11, 2001, when a terrorist-controlled airliner smashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people in the second leg of the 9/11 attack. If the plane had struck the other side close to the building's river entrance, the secretary of defense would almost certainly have been among the dead.
Even as the flames were being put out, Rumsfeld made it the Pentagon's top priority to ensure no such attack on Americans happened again. It is easy today to forget there was no clear road map on how to accomplish this.
Some decisions, like pursuing WMDs in Iraq, proved missteps. But three others have had major benefits for our national security to this day...
Posted on: Monday, February 21, 2011 - 14:16
SOURCE: National Review (2-17-11)
In times of massive deficits, why are we borrowing millions to subsidize profitable agribusiness? Lots of presidents have asked that question. George H. W. Bush tried to cut farm subsidies. Bill Clinton did, too. George W. Bush wanted them ended as well. All failed.
The so-called “Freedom to Farm Act” of 1996 was supposed to stop farm supports for good, by offering the carrot of extending crop payouts to growers, regardless of current commodity prices, in exchange for ending the flow of federal money altogether after a slow weaning-off period of seven years. But when it came time to honor the agreement, suddenly a new rationale appeared — that of post-9/11 security. So crop subsidies reappeared under the “Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002,” on the dubious premise that in a new terrorist climate, Americans needed to ensure the prosperity of agribusiness. In today’s bureaucratese, remember, “investment” translates into the government borrowing more money to distribute to special interests.
When worries about national security gradually died down, and when it was clear that agribusiness would not accept the ending of subsidies as promised over a seven-year period, a new justification arose: providing fuel for an energy-strapped America under the “Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008” — a $288 billion, five-year agricultural bill. Supposedly farmers now needed massive crop subsidies to ensure our independence from foreign oil producers and sky-high gas prices.
Even presidents cannot stop Congress from passing these unnecessary farm bills, because they are brilliantly, one might say cynically, conceived. Such federal support always uses the current crisis of the day — whether the promise is to cut the deficit, protect the country, or provide new energy....
Posted on: Saturday, February 19, 2011 - 18:49
SOURCE: The New Republic (2-19-11)
Anti-labor forces have waited decades for the opportunity that they are now trying to seize in Wisconsin. Republican Governor Scott Walker’s plan, echoed in proposals put forward by several other conservative governors, to take away the collective bargaining rights of most Wisconsin public employees under the guise of deficit reduction represents a bold effort to undo a half-century of labor history. It would turn back the clock to the early 1950s, a time when public workers still labored under a form a second-class citizenship. The goal? Republicans insist it is to spur economic growth—but, in fact, it is to undermine organized labor as a political actor.
First, some history. Public-sector collective bargaining arose in tandem with the civil rights movement between 1955 and 1965. This was no coincidence, as both movements were making the same point: How could the nation justify denying some citizens the rights and freedoms that it granted to others? The Wagner Act of 1935 protected the right to organize unions and bargain collectively for many private-sector workers, but it did not cover local, state, or federal workers. Nor did the Social Security Act cover them. By the 1950s, as the civil rights struggle pricked the conscience of the nation, this unequal treatment seemed less and less justifiable. As collective bargaining helped open the door to a middle-class lifestyle for millions of private-sector workers in the 1950s, the inequity became even clearer. Thus, by 1955, a special committee of the American Bar Association had called government labor practices “an apparent anachronism” and concluded that any government “which imposes on other employers certain obligations in dealing with their employees may not in good faith refuse to deal with its own public servants on a reasonably favorable basis.”
Following the example of cities like New York and Philadelphia, in 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to enact legislation recognizing the rights of government workers to bargain collectively. Similar laws spread in subsequent years, encouraged by Wisconsin’s law and inspired by Executive Order 10988, signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, which allowed federal workers to bargain over some aspects of their work (but not their pay or benefits). Critically, this growth enjoyed bipartisan support: Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act in 1968, which brought public sector bargaining to California. Through his own executive order in 1969, President Richard Nixon strengthened the bargaining rights Kennedy had first offered federal workers. As a result of this support on both sides of the aisle, between the mid-’50s and the mid-’70s, there was a tenfold increase in the membership of government workers’ unions.
But, since 1970, bi-partisan support for government unions has eroded. By the middle of the decade, anti-union voices on the right, alarmed by the rising political influence of public-sector unions, had begun a long battle to roll back collective bargaining—the same battle we’re seeing waged today in Madison....
Posted on: Saturday, February 19, 2011 - 18:40
SOURCE: Salon (2-18-11)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has declared war on state workers, almost literally.
First, he proposed a state budget that would cut retirement and healthcare for workers like teachers and nurses, and strip away nearly all of their collective bargaining rights. But even more significantly, he announced last Friday that he had alerted the National Guard to be ready for state workers to strike or protest, an unprecedented step in modern times.
This would be the first time in nearly 80 years that the National Guard would be used to break a strike by Wisconsin workers, and the first time in over 40 years that the National Guard would be used against public workers anywhere in the country. The last time was the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968, just before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination....
To understand the visceral, emotional nature of this outcry, you have to understand the history of the National Guard and the labor movement -- and what this means for the relationship between labor and the state today.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, governors often mobilized the National Guard during strikes. Sometimes the Guard was genuinely neutral, assigned to buffer the dangerous zone between strikers and their employers. Other times, the Guard was explicitly charged with breaking the strike. During these instances, violence often erupted between strikers and soldiers with terrible, bloody results....
Posted on: Friday, February 18, 2011 - 10:33
SOURCE: CS Monitor (2-17-11)
Can democracy and religious fundamentalism co-exist?
That’s the question of the moment in the Middle East. In Egypt, the ouster of Hosni Mubarak has raised Western fears of an Islamist takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood. Similar worries surround protest movements in Yemen, Bahrain, and Algeria: Would the fall of secular dictatorships spell the rise of religious ones?
Skeptics point to Gaza and Iran, where popular uprisings empowered decidedly undemocratic regimes. Optimists invoke Turkey and Indonesia, where religious parties have competed peacefully in elections and have abided by the rule of law.
But Americans don’t have to look to the Middle East to see how fundamentalism can mesh with democracy. Instead, we need only look in the mirror. Over the past four decades, fundamentalist Christians have surged into United States politics. And, in the process, they have enriched – not constricted – our democracy.
Religious right more liberal than liberals
Anyone who thinks otherwise should read Jon Shields’ terrific 2009 book, “The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right.” A political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, Mr. Shields spent several years observing anti-abortion activists at rallies, protests, and conventions.
What he found might surprise American liberals. When orthodox Christians enter the public arena, they demonstrate all the virtues of, well, classical liberalism: reason, tolerance, and mutual respect. In this sense, they are often more liberal than their opponents on the Left....
Posted on: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 18:15
SOURCE: TomDispatch (2-17-11)
[Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books)]
Here’s the latest news from Congress, in case you’ve been in Afghanistan for the last couple of weeks. A debate about slashing the federal budget is now upon us, while fears of a possible government shutdown as spring approaches are on the rise. The Republican leadership of the House of Representatives originally picked $40 billion as its target figure for cuts to the as-yet-not-enacted 2011 budget. That was the gauntlet it threw down to the Obama administration, only to find its own proposal slashed to bits by the freshman class of that body's conservative majority.
They insisted on adhering to a Republican Pledge to America vow to cut $100 billion from the budget. With that figure back on the table, Democrats are gasping, while pundits are predicting widespread pain in the land, including the possible loss of at least 70,000 jobs “as government aid to cops, teachers, and research is slashed.”
In the meantime, the Obama administration has hustled its own entry in the cut-and-burn sweepstakes into place, leaving Democrats again gasping. Its plan calls for ending or trimming more than 200 federal programs next year. It also reportedly offers cuts adding up to $1.1 trillion over a decade and puts in place a “five-year freeze on domestic programs [that] would reduce spending in that category to the lowest level, measured against the economy, since President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961.”
It all sounds daunting, and the muttering is only beginning about “entitlement” programs -- Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid -- that have yet to be touched.
Which reminds me: Didn’t I mention Afghanistan?
If so, how fortunate, because there’s a perfectly obvious path toward that Republican goal of $100 billion. If we were to embark on it, there would be even more cuts to follow and -- believe it or not -- they wouldn't be all that painful, provided we did one small thing: change our thinking about making war.
After all, according to the Pentagon, the cost of the Afghan War in 2012 will be almost $300 million a day or, for all 365 of them, $107.3 billion. Like anything having to do with American war-fighting, however, such figures regularly turn out to be undercounts. Other estimates for our yearly war costs there go as high as $120-$160 billion.
And let’s face it, it's a war worth ending fast. Almost a decade after the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. military is still fruitlessly engaged in possibly the stupidest frontier war in our history, thousands of miles from home in the backlands of the planet. It's just the sort of dumb conflict that has, historically, tended to drive declining imperial powers around the bend, just the sort -- in the very same country -- that helped do in the Soviet Union. And though news from that war remains remarkably grim, were we by some miracle to win, for hundreds of billions of dollars we would have gained tenuous control over the fifth poorest, second most corrupt, and premier narco-state on the planet. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, would undoubtedly still be happily ensconced in the Pakistani tribal border areas with a range of superbly failed states available elsewhere for exploitation.
There’s genuine money to be slashed simply by bringing the troops home, but okay, I hear you. You live in Washington and you can’t bear to give up that war, lock, stock, and barrel.
I understand. Really, I do. So let’s just pretend that we’re part of that “moderate” and beleaguered House leadership and really only want to go after $40 billion in the 2011 federal budget.
In that case, here’s an idea! We’ve been training the Afghan military and police forces for almost a decade now, dumping an estimated $29-billion-plus into the endeavor, only to find that, unlike the Taliban, our Afghans generally prefer not to fight and love to desert. What if the Obama administration were simply to stop the training program? What if we weren’t to spend the $11.6 billion slated for this year, or the up-to-$12.8 billion being discussed for next year, or the $6 billion or more annually thereafter to create a security force of nearly 400,000 Afghans that we’ll have to pay for into eternity, since the Afghan government is essentially broke?
What if, instead, we went cold turkey on our obsession with training Afghans? For one thing, you’d promptly wipe out more than a quarter of that $40 billion the House leadership wants cut and many more billions for years to come. (And that doesn’t even take into account all the saveable American dollars going down the tubes in Afghanistan -- a recent report from the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction suggested it adds up to $12 billion for the Afghan Army alone -- in graft, corruption, and pure incompetence.)
Think about it this way: Are we actually safer if we get rid of police, firefighters, and teachers here in the U.S., while essentially hiring hordes of police and military personnel to secure Afghanistan? I suspect you know how most Americans would answer that question.
Dumb Intelligence Runs Rampant
Here’s another way to approach both those $40 billion and $100 billion targets. Start with the budget for the labyrinthine U.S. Intelligence Community which is officially $80.1 billion. That, of course, is sure to prove an undercount. So, just for the heck of it, let’s take a wild guess and assume that the real figure probably edges closer to... $100 billion.
I know, I know, the Republican House majority will never agree to get rid of all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, and neither will the Democrats. They’ll claim that Washington would be blinded by such an act -- although it’s no less reasonable to argue that, without the blinders of what we call “intelligence,” which is largely a morass of dead thinking about our world, our leaders might finally be able to see again. Nonetheless, in the spirit of compromise with a crew that hates the “federal bureaucracy” (until the words “national security” come up), how about cutting back from 17 intelligence outfits to maybe three? Let’s say, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency.
I’ll bet you’re talking an easy $40 to $50 billion dollars in savings right there -- and the cost of the job-retraining programs for the out-of-work intelligence analysts and operatives would be minimal by comparison.
According to a Washington Post series, “Top Secret America,” here are just a few of the things that you, the taxpayer, have helped our intelligence bureaucracy do: Produce 50,000 intelligence reports annually; create the sheer redundancy of “51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, [to] track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks”; and, in the category of the monumental (as well as monumentally useless), construct “33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work... since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings -- about 17 million square feet of space.”
Take just one example: the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency which has 16,000 employees and a “black budget thought to be at least $5 billion per year.” Until now, you may not have known that such a crew was protecting your security, but you’re paying through the nose for its construction spree anyway. Believe it or not, as Gregg Easterbrook has pointed out, it now has a gleaming new, nearly Pentagon-sized headquarters complex rising in Virginia at the cost of $1.8 billion -- almost as expensive, that is, as the Freedom Tower now going up at Ground Zero in Manhattan.
Or let’s check out some smaller, distinctly choppable potatoes. Officially, America’s Iraq War is ending (even if in a Shiite-dominated state allied with Iran). All American military personnel are, at least theoretically, to leave the country by year’s end. Whether that happens or not, the Obama administration evidently remains convinced that it’s in our interest to prolong our effort to control that country. As a result, the planned “civilian” presence left behind to staff the three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar citadel of an “embassy” the U.S. built in downtown Baghdad and various consular outposts will look uncomfortably like a mini-army.
As Wired.com's Danger Room website put it recently, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq"will become a de facto general of a huge, for-hire army." We’re talking about 5,500 mercenaries paid to guard the 17,000 “civilians,” representing various U.S. government agencies and the State Department there. To guard the Baghdad embassy alone -- really a regional command headquarters -- there will be 3,650 hired guns under contract for almost $1 billion. The full complement of heavily armed mercenaries will operate out of “15 different sites... including 3 air hubs, 3 police training centers... and 5 Office of Security Cooperation sites.”
In 2010, USA Todayestimated that the cost of operating just the monstrous Baghdad embassy was more than $1.5 billion a year. God knows what it is now.
What if the cost-cutters in Washington were to conclude that it was a fruitless task to try to manage the unmanageable (i.e., Iraq) and that, instead of militarizing the State Department, the U.S. should return to the business of diplomacy with a modest embassy and a consulate or two to negotiate deals, discuss matters of common interest, and hand out the odd visa. That would represent a cost-cutting extravaganza on a small scale. (And the same could be said for the near billion-dollar “embassy” being built in Islamabad, Pakistan, and the $790 million going into another such embassy and consulates in Afghanistan.)
Deep in the Big Muddy
It's important to note that none of the potential cost-cutting measures I've mentioned touch the big palooka. I’m talking about the Pentagon budget, a very distinctive “entitlement” program on the American landscape. Given the news reports on “Pentagon cuts” lately, you might think that the Obama administration is taking a hatchet to the Defense Department's funds, but think again. As defense analyst Miriam Pemberton wrote recently, “The Pentagon is following the familiar tradition of planning ambitious increases, paring them back, and calling this a cut.” In fact, at $553 billion, the proposed Pentagon budget for 2012 actually represents a 5% increase over the already stunningly bloated 2011 version of the same.
Keep in mind that U.S. military spending equals that of the next 15 countries combined (most of them allies) and represents 47% of total global military spending. If Washington's mindset were different, it wouldn’t be hard to find that $100 billion the Republican House freshmen are looking for in the Pentagon budget alone -- quite aside from cuts in supplemental war-fighting funds -- and still be the most heavily armed nation on the planet.
And here’s my question to you: Don’t you find it odd that cuts of this potential size are so obviously available and yet, with all the raging and groaning about deficits and budget-cutting, no one who matters seems to focus on such possibilities at all? To head down this path, Washington would need to make only the smallest of changes: it would have to begin thinking outside the war box for about a minute and 30 seconds.
Our leaders would have to conclude the obvious: that, in these last years, war hasn’t proven the best way to advance American interests. We would have to decide that real security does not involve fighting permanently in distant lands, pursuing a “war on terror” in 75 countries, or growing the Pentagon (and the weapons-makers that go with it) year after year.
Americans would have to begin to think anew. That’s all. The minute we did, our financial situation would look different and for all we know, something like not-war, if not peace, might begin to break out.
Forty years ago, Americans regularly spoke about a war 7,500miles away in Vietnam as a “quagmire.” We were, as one protest song of that era went,"waist deep in the Big Muddy.” Today, Afghanistan, too, looks like a quagmire, but don’t be fooled. The real quagmire isn't there; it's right here in Washington D.C., that capital mythically built on a swamp.
There's no way that thinking so old and stale, so out-of-date, can begin to take in or react adventurously to a fast-changing world. Look at Egypt, or China, or Brazil, or India, or Turkey. There, new thinking and new developments are blooming, but you wouldn’t know it in Washington.
Neither $553 billion nor $80.1 billion can buy Washington a brain. Right now, by all evidence, our leaders are still convinced that it's their job to run the world and fight distant wars until hell freezes over. They can't bear to think a new thought, or take a chance, or experiment on anything, or look at our planet in a new way. At the moment, the evidence indicates that they have the brainpower of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz without that character's urge for self-improvement, and it’s taking us down.
Posted on: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 17:02
SOURCE: The Nation (2-17-11)
The Arab world’s presidents for life and absolute monarchs are quaking in the aftermath of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Arab politics had been stuck in a vast logjam for the past thirty years, from which its crowds are now attempting to blast it loose. The protesters put their fingers on the phenomenon of the vampire state and concluded that before anything important could change, they had to put a stake through its heart.
Under European colonialism the Middle East had a few decades of classic liberal rule in the first half of the twentieth century. Egypt, Iraq and Iran had elected parliaments, prime ministers and popular parties. However, liberal rule was eventually discredited insofar as it proved to be largely a game played by big landlords overly open to the influence and bribery of grasping Western powers.
From about the 1950s, the modern one-party states of the Middle East justified themselves through the struggle for independence from those Western colonial empires and the corrupt parliamentary regimes. They undertook land reform, developed big public sectors and promoted state-led industrialization. In recent decades, however, each ruling party, backed by a nationalist officer corps, increasingly became little more than an appendage of the president for life and his extended clan. The massive networks of informers and secret police worked for the interests of the central executive.
These governments took steps in recent decades toward neoliberal policies of privatization and a smaller public sector under pressure from Washington and allied institutions—and the process was often corrupt. The ruling families used their prior knowledge of important economic policy initiatives to engage in a kind of insider trading, advantaging their relatives and buddies....
Posted on: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 14:57
SOURCE: The Nation (2-17-11)
“Egyptian Workers Join the Revolution,” proclaimed the headline of Al-Ahram, the government-owned daily, the day before ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Tens of thousands of workers—in textiles, military production, transportation, petroleum, cement, iron and steel, hospitals, universities, telecommunications and the Suez Canal—participated in strikes or protests in the three days before Mubarak’s departure. Although it is too soon to render a definitive judgment, the demographic and economic weight of workers in the popular uprising was likely one of the factors that persuaded Egypt’s military chiefs to ask Mubarak to step aside.
From the start, workers participated in the demonstrations as individuals. It was only toward the end that they registered their presence as organized workers. This is partly because the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the only legal union in Egypt, functions as an arm of the state. Unlike the General Union of Tunisian Workers, neither ETUF nor any of its affiliated unions joined the insurgent forces. As they have for more than a decade, Egyptian workers who sought to engage in collective action had to do so in the face of concerted opposition from the official union apparatus.
Much of the attention of the media and think-tank analysts has focused on the grievances of youth and their use of Facebook and other social media to mobilize the insurgent movement. The high unemployment rate of educated Egyptians under 30 and their facility with web technologies were undoubtedly major factors in launching the uprising. However, the events of January–February followed a decade of escalating mobilizations among many different sectors of Egyptian society—committees in solidarity with the Palestinian people and in opposition to the US invasion of Iraq; the Kifaya (Enough) movement for democracy; doctors, judges, professors; and, above all, industrial and white-collar workers....
Posted on: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 14:56
SOURCE: American Interest (Blog) (2-14-11)
If a specter haunts the chancellories of America, it isn’t communism and it isn’t Karl Marx. It’s Thucydides, the chronicler of the 30 year Peloponnesian War between ancient Sparta and Athens that led to the comprehensive defeat of the world’s first great democratic power. The assumptions most Americans bring to the study of foreign policy — that there are win-win solutions for most problems, that democracy makes for a more peaceful world, that international law can prevail and that power need not be the final arbiter in human affairs — strike Thucydides as pious, nonsensical claptrap.
Unfortunately, he was a very smart man, and much of what he wrote makes sense.
Democracies are as likely to fight as oligarchies and perhaps more so, says Thucydides. The mob loves glory as much any tyrant, and tyrants and oligarchies will sometimes refrain from foreign adventures because they want to keep the army at home. Worse, democracies are not only likely to go to war, once at war they are likely to fight more brutally and more ineffectually than their enemies. Ruled by unscrupulous and incompetent demagogues with no real understanding of the world, democracies are slaves to the passing fads of the moment. Their moods swing from arrogance to despair and they are unable to stick to a coherent long term strategy.
The American love of commerce and the faith that growth in trade will limit war cuts no ice with this hard headed Greek. Trade breeds empire and war, not prosperity and peace, Thucydides finds....
Posted on: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 14:09
SOURCE: Salon (2-17-11)
Surprise! Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has put his foot in his mouth. His impulse when confronted by reporters earlier this week was to refuse to condemn those in his state who would resurrect the infamous Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, slave trader and Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and put his image on a commemorative license plate. "I don’t go around denouncing people," Barbour said.
Nostalgia for the "War Between the States" is a fact of American life. But Barbour’s failure to do the right thing comes close on the heels of another embarrassing episode in which the onetime chairman of the Republican National Committee claimed that racial segregation and violence had not marred his hometown of Yazoo City, Mississippi during his younger years in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The reason for Barbour’s latest gaffe is that his Tea Party constituency wants to "take the country back" to Nathan Forrest’s time, Reconstruction, when something “had to be done” to arrest the trend of Black Republicans undermining the power structure of the white South. The Obama administration is the perfect foil: A liberal black man from the Land of Lincoln (or maybe Africa?) is imposing the heavy hand of federal authority on the "prostrate" South all over again....
Posted on: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 12:50
SOURCE: Foreign Affairs (2-15-11)
Egyptians seeking to build a new future after the rule of Hosni Mubarak hope to draw on, as well as correct, the flaws in the country's longstanding constitutional tradition. In the days since a military council took power from Mubarak, the country's political opposition has been quick to articulate its demands in the language of dry legal texts and procedures.
The current constitution was first enacted in 1971 and amended several times in the years afterward, but its precursors date back to a century before. Egypt's first constitutional effort came in 1882, when an assembly approved a basic law to govern its relationship with the cabinet. In 1923, when the country gained its independence from the British Empire, a second and more comprehensive document was written to combine, however uneasily, a parliamentary system with a monarchy.
When the 1923 constitution was scrapped in the wake of a 1952 military coup, Egypt's legal scholars set to work designing a republican constitution based on liberal and democratic values. Their work was shelved in 1954, however, by the country's new military rulers, who issued instead a series of documents to serve their own ideological and institutional needs. These new rules delivered the Egyptian polity into the hands of a one-party system in which all power rested with Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's president until his death in 1970.
In 1971, Egypt received a new constitution, which would prove to be a more complicated and long-lived document. When Anwar al-Sadat succeeded Nasser, he found himself with rivals in various institutions, such as in the sole political party and the security apparatus. At the same time, he looked to recalibrate the regime's ideology, moving gently away from socialism and toward religion. Both problems, he realized, could be addressed with a new constitution. Sadat convened a large and remarkably diverse committee: feminists, Islamic legal scholars, liberals, socialists, nationalists, and representatives of the Christian church were all represented. On the whole, the group moved in the direction Sadat wanted: weakening the party, nominally strengthening legal institutions, and promising Egyptians a move away from the harshest aspects of Nasserist authoritarianism....
Posted on: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 12:32
SOURCE: Foreign Affairs (2-10-11)
There are worse places to begin a search for the sources of Egypt's current political earthquake than in the company of a middle-aged French soldier imprisoned in a German stalag during World War II. For the prisoner, Fernand Braudel, captivity felt -- if not like an eternity -- at least like an awfully longue durée. At the time he was captured, Braudel was well into his research for a doctoral dissertation on the history of the Mediterranean. Isolated by barbed wire, he grieved not only for his freedom but also for his research notes and books. Writing atop a single plank of wood, Braudel filled the small pages of school lesson books from memory.
Published shortly after the war, the finished work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, now stands as a landmark of historical methodology. La longue durée, or "long haul of history," is Braudel's central insight. From this perspective, real historical change is so slow as to seem immeasurable. The barely perceptible changes in climate, demography, and geology; the gradual formation of religious and cultural practices; and the slow growth of trade networks or agricultural practices -- all of this, Braudel held, is the real stuff of human affairs. Politics was relegated to the ghetto of l'histoire événementielle, or "event-based history." Rarely meeting a metaphor he did not like, Braudel also described political events as "fireflies flitting across a stage, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion."
Oblivion seems too harsh a prognosis for the events at Tahrir Square. It seems improbable that the effects of the uprising will have only the equivalent two-month lifespan of a firefly. The demand of Egyptians -- young and old, men and women, secularists and faithful -- for democracy and dignity has rocked the foundations of an authoritarian and brutal state that seemed, just a month ago, as stable as the pyramids.
Yet, because pyramids crumble slowly, Braudel's approach offers an ideal vantage point from which to view the events in Egypt. In The Mediterranean, he warned against the attractions of event-based history. Like the foam of waves carried by the tides of deep history, this level catches our attention but then evaporates before our eyes. And although events are exciting, they wedge the observer into the same "dimensions of the anger, dreams, and illusions" felt by those living through them. Instead, a student of history must chart the "underlying currents, often noiseless, whose direction can be discerned only by watching them over long periods of time."...
Posted on: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 12:31
SOURCE: Guardian (UK) (2-17-11)
I thought I should see for myself the impact of these revolutions on the Arab street. The Arab street in Europe, that is. So I have come back to the Calle de Tribulete in Madrid. Along this one narrow street, with its seedy bars and phone-and-internet locutorios, where immigrants talk to their convulsed homelands, you meet Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians – and, in a dusty little shop called the House of Pharaoh, a young Egyptian, Safy. He came here three years ago from the Mediterranean port of Rashid, or Rosetta, where Napoleon's troops found the famous Rosetta stone.
What Safy tells me, and Mokhtar, and Muhammad (several Muhammads) is this: at last there is some hope at home. And if those hopes are realised, if what an Algerian migrant worker calls his "mafia government" also goes, if there is a real prospect of jobs, housing and yes, more freedom, they will go home. They are here in Spain to make a better life for themselves and their children. There is much they like about being here, although they say anti-Muslim prejudice has got worse since the Madrid bombings of 2004. But given the chance, they will go back. For now there is "how do you say – l'espoir?".
This is not just any European Arab street, though you can find the likes of it in every larger city in western Europe. No, this is the very street from which some of the Madrid bombers came. They used to meet in La Alhambra, a quiet cafe-restaurant. A man called Jamal Zougam worked in one of those talk-to-home locutorios. He prepared the mobile phones that detonated the bombs which killed so many innocent Spanish commuters on the trains into the nearby Atocha station on 11 March 2004. When I was here six years ago, I met young men who had pictures of Osama bin Laden on their mobile phones. They spoke of their fear, anger about the Iraq war, and desperation.
Today those locutorios and mobile phones are alive with better tidings. In the House of Pharaoh, Safy and Ibrahim rejoice at his fall. And the man behind the bar at La Alhambra, a thoughtful Moroccan who once studied medieval history, talks warily of possible change for the better in the kingdom of his birth. In free elections, he says, Moroccan Islamists could do well, but they would be peaceful, law-abiding, democracy-respecting Islamists like those in Turkey, "only even more moderate".
Well, as Herodotus says, my business is to record what people say – but I am by no means bound to believe it...
Posted on: Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 10:38
SOURCE: National Review (2-16-11)
The year is quite young, and yet it has already seen a multitude of disturbing events and trends — unrest in Cairo and North Africa; nuclearization in Iran; a growing anti-American alliance among Turkey, Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria; the expansionary designs of a newly unabashed China with attendant repercussions on Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan; calls for the end of the dollar as the global currency; the muscle flexing from an “I can’t believe my good luck” Russia; and the tottering of the European Union. I have no idea how most Americans react to any of the above, and I don’t think the administration has either.
We do know that President Obama wants to borrow another $1.6 trillion this year to ensure expansion of EU-like entitlements. One mystery is why the Chinese — 400 million of whom have never encountered Western-style medicine — apparently won’t mind lending us more of their hundreds of billions of dollars in surpluses to fund Obamacare. Another is why people should risk their environments in Africa, the Russian Arctic, and Asian coastal waters to provide petroleum for a thirsty planet, while we will not take much smaller risks to satisfy our own voracious oil appetite. The only common denominator is our desire to consume more than we produce.
Yet the impending crises on the horizon — so reminiscent of the annus horribilis of 1979, when the wages of another American president’s sermonizing and economic weakness came due — are not foreordained to come at America’s expense. Were we to put our financial house in order, slash our deficits, show the world how we intend to pay down our $14 trillion debt, and make the needed long-term reforms to Social Security and Medicare, the United States would be in a unique position in comparison to an ailing and sclerotic Europe, a demographically challenged Japan, and a China with a rendezvous with social tension, environmental catastrophe, and a warped demography. We are still a more open and transparent society than our rivals — with a more meritocratic ethos, far greater social and political stability, and blessed with vast natural and human resources. Why, then, cannot we regain our exceptionalism?..
Posted on: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 19:47
SOURCE: Dover Post (2-15-11)
At the center of the Islamic world sits Egypt, located on the western edge of the Fertile Crescent. It was here, in the Nile Valley, where civilization emerged 7,000 years ago.
While most people know little about modern Egypt, they are familiar with ancient Egypt, which still casts a long shadow into the present....
And, of course, everyone knows that the Suez Canal, built in the mid-19th century, is one of the world’s lifelines for transit. Egypt’s strategic importance cannot be overestimated. In World War II, one of the initial aims of the allies was to keep it out of German hands, and thanks to the British and the Americans, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was evicted from North Africa, preventing it from taking Suez.
Along with Turkey, a member of NATO and a Muslim nation, Egypt is the pivot of the region, a friend and ally of Washington for more than 40 years.
Today, we have seen a successful effort to oust President Hosni Mubarak, who came to power after the assassination of President Sadat on Oct. 6, 1981.
How this crisis will play out is an open question, but with Mubarak stepping down, the door may be open for a more democratic Egypt. What Washington and the European Union fear is that Egypt will fall into more chaos, and out of this chaos, the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge....
Posted on: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 19:45
SOURCE: NewsLeader.com (VA) (2-15-11)
Condemned criminals of low birth were often hanged with a short rope and their bodies left to rot in a gibbet: an iron cage hung from gallows-type structure. Those of more fortunate social standing had their head chopped off by a large axe. Heretics and blasphemers were burned alive at the stake.
Traitors were "hanged, drawn and quartered," meaning they were strangled to the point of near death, emasculated, disemboweled, and cut into four pieces. The head was stuck on a pole and displayed in a conspicuous place.
The legal code favored the upper classes, religious clerics, and men. Nobles could strike a serf, and serfs possessed few legal rights their lord was bound to respect. Speaking out against the government or the church could land you in jail and in front of a cruel inquisitor. Hearsay was often evidence enough for the state or the church to confiscate one's property....
Posted on: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 19:38
SOURCE: CNN.com (2-15-11)
Even the most hardened realist couldn't help but shed a tear when the news broke that pro-democracy protesters succeeded in ousting the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
For the moment, a peaceful revolution has shaken the status quo in the Middle East. A corrupt government has been brought down by citizens, united by social media, who refused to be intimidated by violence and who insisted on the right to participate in their own political future.
Some skeptics have warned that fundamentalism, not democracy, comes next. They fear that Islamic militants will control the new regime, producing something even worse for Egyptians, and the world. The example they point to is the Iranian revolution in 1979.
To be sure, we don't know what comes next. The dangers posed by certain organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are potentially serious, as is the possibility of permanent military rule.
But policymakers should not be blinded by pre-existing assumptions about international relations. For over a decade, American policymakers have been focused on the threat posed by terrorist organizations that are tied to Islamic fundamentalism.
Yet it is important to be careful in how we approach the changes in the Middle East. After all, another lesson of the 1970s is that sometimes U.S. officials are so driven by a certain set of foreign policy ideas that they miss fundamental changes that are occurring in a region....
Posted on: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 19:23
SOURCE: CNN.com (2-14-11)
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly states that all people born in the United States are citizens. But some Republicans, in their wide-ranging attack on illegal immigrants, treat the amendment as an antique inheritance from the Civil War era that turned into an overly generous gift to generations of immigrants.
They neglect the intentions of its framers -- yes, original intent -- that it be a source of benefits to the nation by securing the allegiance and obligations of all who live here and by ensuring against successive generations without clear national identity....
The framers of the 14th Amendment were not romantics. They had lost their illusions in the Civil War. They were facing a vicious effort by the states of the former Confederacy to undo freedom for African Americans by a wave of laws -- the "black codes" that undermined equal citizenship. It is clear from the records of the debate in 1868 that many members of Congress had to swallow hard before voting, but they knew that without constitutional reinforcement, the South would thumb its collective nose at the Bill of Rights....
Birthright citizenship has protected the U.S. in just the ways its framers intended. We do not contribute to the stupendous growth of a stateless population that floods the globe as refugees, asylum seekers, trafficked persons and irregular migrants. As irregular migration carries more and more people across international boundaries, new restrictions are being added to nationality rules. If such restrictions are added in the United States, they will introduce the very kind of instability the 14th Amendment was meant to prevent.
Whether tinkering with America's strong tradition of birthright citizenship comes in the form of legislation or constitutional amendment, it is ill-advised.
Its framers informally spoke of the 14th as an "amendment to enforce the Bill of Rights." It has long been one of the most robust elements of the Constitution. Now it needs to fight in its own defense against plans to undermine its core provision.
Posted on: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 18:57