Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Encounter With William F. Buckley In 1987

As most of you know by now, William F. Buckley Jr., the intellectual who inspired the conservative movement with his provacitive commentary died today at the age of 82. Growing up I thoroughly enjoyed watching Buckley on Firing Lane and the debates his program sponsored. Even as I disagreed with Buckley's point of view, I appreciated his wit and rhetorical skill.

I also had the unique experience of having Buckley call a question I asked him "cuckoo" in the autumn of 1987. It was my freshman year at Sarah Lawrence College and Buckley was a guest speaker. Our college president, the late Alice Illchman introduced Buckley by informing everyone that he addressed a letter to her, "Dear Intelligent American." Standing at the podium inside Sarah Lawrence's Peforming Arts Center, Illchman beamed and asked, "Mr. Buckley, how did you know?" Buckley laughed in appreciation at Illchman's humor. It helped break the tension as Sarah Lawrence College is a bastion of liberal thinking and Buckley represented an ideology most of us passionately opposed.

At the time, the reform minded Michael Gorbachev was pushing Perestroika and Glasnost in the Soviet Union. It's easy to forget now but the Cold War was still very much apart of our lives and mindset. The Berlin Wall still stood, the Iron Curtain remained and bloody regional conflicts continued to rage in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. Liberals like me were hopeful that Gorbachev presented an opportunity to end the nuclear arms race.

We had an unexpected ally in President Ronald Reagan who faced strong opposition within his own party from people such as North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. Only a year later Helms and other conservatives would compare Reagan's rapproachment with Gorbachev to Neville Chamberlain's diplomatic appeasement with Adolph Hitler in the 1930s.

Ever the die hard cold warrior, Buckley did not share his audience's enthusiasm for Gorbachev. I distinctly remember Buckley disparaging the world for "irrationally" embracing Gorbachev and forgetting that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." He told us that the West should remain focused on our differences with the Soviet Union and not "romanticize" what we had in common.

The floor was opened for questions. A bearded student challenged Buckley that the point of diplomacy should be to focus on "common ground" rather than exacerbate differences. I recall Buckley dismissed the student as "naive." It seemed Buckley was fatigued and perhaps a little off his game. I was dissappointed he didn't engage my fellow student more because I thought his point was valid.

Another student raised his hand and challenged Buckley about his description of the Soviet Union as an evil empire. "Couldn't one say the United States is an evil empire?" I don't remember how Buckley responded to that question. I was sitting on the floor towards the front and do remember a condescending facial expression. Buckley's body language clearly communicated he thought the question ridiculous.

I was angry at his dismissiveness and raised my hand. Although angry I was also thoroughly intimidated. Nevertheless, I gamely asked Buckley, "Isn't the point that the United States might also be an evil empire a valid one? Look at what we're doing in Nicaragua. We're torturing innocent civillians while the CIA is making money off of cocaine through the Contras. Isn't that evil?" My heart was pounding. I was also sitting next to a pretty older student I hoped to impress.

Buckley smiled and said, "That's just cuckoo. You obviously don't know what an evil empire is." He proceeded to cite dozens of the Soviet Union's worst transgressions. I didn't have the nerve or skill to follow up with him as Buckley resumed answering more questions.

From that day forward, anytime I read one of Buckley's articles or saw him on television, I would flash back to that moment. In recent years, Buckley lamented the failures of George W. Bush's presidency and expressed particular displeasure about the Iraq War. I respected and admired Buckley. How I would have loved to tell Buckley that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld's folly in Iraq was cuckoo.

Monday, February 18, 2008

An Interview With Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist and Author Fred Kaplan

Most Americans are eager to turn the page on the Bush years. Yet even as we elect a new president we’re still coming to terms with an era that has both tarnished America’s reputation and diminished its influence.

Fred Kaplan chronicles the folly of the Bush years in his new book, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power (John Wiley & Sons).

Kaplan writes that,
“Nearly all of America’s blunders in war and peace these past few years stem from a single grand misconception: that the world changed after 9/11, when in fact it didn’t.

Certainly, things about the world changed, not least Americans’ sudden awareness that they were vulnerable. But the way the world works – the nature of power, warfare, and politics among nations – remained essentially the same.”
Kaplan also postulates that the Bush Administration as well as most Americans falsely believed we emerged from our Cold War victory stronger. In reality, our geopolitical position was weakened after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 because America’s allies were free to pursue their own interests. In a bipolar Cold War world, America’s allies depended on our protection and remained subservient to our leadership. Once the Cold War ended however, maintaining international coalitions required more compromise and skilled diplomacy because we didn’t enjoy the same leverage.

Tragically, the Bush Administration completely misread our geopolitical position and alienated the world at the very moment we needed friends. Even more remarkable when one considers how much of the world was initially sympathetic to America following 9/11.

Compounding these misconceptions was a Secretary of Defense in Donald Rumsfeld who simply viewed Iraq as a laboratory to demonstrate how easily America could topple a sovereign government’s regime. As Kaplan notes in his book, once Saddam’s government fell, Rumsfeld lost all interest in the required follow through as Iraq went to hell.

Kaplan also provides anecdotes in his book to explain that in George W. Bush’s universe, freedom is humanity’s default state. Hence, all one had to do was use military power to eliminate an obstacle to freedom like Saddam Hussein or hold elections in Palestine and freedom would magically appear. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld never considered the hard work of establishing conditions that facilitate a civil society so necessary to freedom as important.

Thomas E. Ricks, the author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq, had the following praise for Kaplan’s book:
“This is the inside history of our time, told with precision and confidence by an author who knows where the secrets are kept – and also that the most powerful and dangerous weapon in Washington, D.C. is a new idea.”
Kaplan who writes the “War Stories” column for Slate was a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Boston Globe while covering the Pentagon and post Soviet Moscow. He’s also the author of the classic book, The Wizards of Armageddon and has written for The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, the New Yorker and The Washington Post among other publications.

Kaplan agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his book and national security policy during the Bush years. Our conversation was just over forty minutes and covered the concept known as a “revolution in military affairs,” the fateful decision to disband the Iraqi army and ban members of the Baath Party from serving in high level positions, the Bush Administration’s bizarre path to a diplomatic accommodation with North Korea, the dysfunctional reign of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, the current dynamic with Rumsfeld’s successor Robert Gates and the path future presidents will need to follow for a sensible foreign policy.

Please refer to the media player below. This interview can also be accessed for free via the Itunes Store by searching for “Intrepid Liberal Journal.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Our Culture of Fear and Barack Obama

American politics typically reflects our cultural ethos of the moment. Just consider these questions:
  • Has our culture promoted community or celebrated greed?
  • Is our foreign policy based upon cooperation with the community of nations or the imperatives of empire?
  • Can individuals live in dignity regardless of their profession, economic class, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation or is gentrified wealth valued above character?
Ultimately, the answer to each of those questions is determined by the answer to this question: are we a culture of fear or confidence? The answer is America has vacillated between the two and been both at the same time. A confidence-based culture survived the Great Depression, defeated Nazi Germany, saved Western Europe with the Marshall Plan, nurtured a growing middle class, expanded rights and opportunities for minorities and women, welcomed immigrants that helped build this country, landed on the Moon and prevailed in the Cold War. It was America’s confidence-based culture that allowed my grandfather to escape Nazi persecution in Poland and comfortably raise a family as a salaried worker in the garment industry.

A fear-based culture engendered paranoia about Japanese Americans, communists, black criminals, radical feminists, environmental extremists, rock music, socialized medicine, Islamic fanatics, foreigners, as well as government regulation of business, atheists, secularists and social egalitarianism. It was our fear-based culture that detained the innocent Muslim brother of a former graduate school classmate of mine in 2002. Sadly and shamefully, industry, corporate interests, the media and politicians to ensure profits and maintain power effectively utilize fear.

President Eisenhower presciently warned Americans about the military industrial complex as the defense industry exploited fear in the name of national security. Through systematic brainwashing from birth, Americans are conditioned to fear black men while the correctional industry gorges itself on their exponential incarceration rate. Overall, the hidden hand of a fear industrial complex guides Americans.

In response to this pathology, those of us on the political left are motivated by fear and loathing of fear merchants who champion unjust wars, gratuitously incarcerate non-violent criminals and demonize unions. People like me are afraid of global warming, globalization, government officials that sanction torture in our country’s name, the rising cost of living, HMOs that allow bean counters to overrule doctors, the housing market, overzealous preachers who denounce evolution, the decline of public education, our crumbling infrastructure and the systematic erosion of our civil liberties.

Hence our political dialogue has become the great fear debate. Conservatives fear people who want to redistribute wealth, promote permissiveness, debase our white Judeo-Christian identity and surrender America’s position as the world’s lone superpower. Liberals like me fear the agents of corporatism and national security zealots who ignore the environment, steal elections, exacerbate the widening gap between rich and poor, launch immoral and ill-conceived wars and claim it’s all in the name of God and freedom.

Most Americans have overdosed on fear. I know there remains a fringe that will never get over their fear addiction. The thirty-percent that still support George W. Bush on one side as well as far left-wing reactionaries who regard anyone who ever votes for Democrats as unprincipled compromisers. The majority of Americans however are exhausted by fear. Seven years of the Bush/Cheney war mongering crime syndicate and a Democratic Party led by a self-gelding machine of ineptitude too afraid to stand up to them have Americans hungering for a fresh politics of confidence and renewal.

How remarkable that at this moment in history, we have a kaleidoscope candidate for president in Barack Obama with ancestry from Kenya and Kansas. A growing and diverse movement is projecting its’ hopes upon him. Some have condescendingly taken to referring to this as a cult. Such people are missing the point.

Across the divide of race and gender, Obama is increasingly viewed as someone who represents their ideals. I was absorbed by a conversation I overheard while taking the A-Train back home to Brooklyn today. A young Hispanic woman wearing an Obama t-shirt and a middle-aged white man in an expensive business suit, who acknowledged voting for Bush twice were talking about how they both wanted Obama to become president. What really amazed me was when the gentleman said, “I don’t agree with him but the country needs him.” I almost decided to stay on past my stop just to hear more of the conversation.

Now Obama is no saint. For example, Paul Krugman has rightfully taken Obama to task for attacking Senator Clinton’s plan for universal health care with a reprise of the Harry and Louise style propaganda from 1994. As far as policy is concerned, I believe there are larger considerations then the differences between Clinton and Obama on healthcare: namely that Obama opposed the Iraq war while Clinton cowardly supported it out of political expediency.

Putting that issue aside though, while critics like Krugman dismissively refer to Obama’s support as cultish they’re missing a larger point: if people with very different backgrounds and experiences such as the two I witnessed on the subway today are projecting their hopes upon Obama, he has a far better chance of serving the progressive cause then the polarizing Hillary Clinton.

On the flip side, Obama may also crash and burn either as a candidate or later as president, leaving the country even more disillusioned and fearful then before. When you’re a human kaleidoscope it’s almost inevitable that some constituencies will become disillusioned.

Nevertheless, I’m hoping Obama can help my country repair the national imbalance that currently favors fear over confidence. Not with the faux confidence of George W. Bush that is really fear under the guise of bravado and leads to the chest thumping and self-defeating pursuit of empire. Or the fear-based triangulation of Hillary Clinton that seeks to project strength through political expediency over doing what’s right. We need a leader that can inspire Americans to boldly address challenges as one people instead of dividing the spoils amongst race and class at home while alienating the world abroad as an empire in decline.

I had other preferences for president: Russ Feingold, Al Gore and John Edwards. I’m sure many of you reading this had other preferences as well. If Hillary Clinton is the nominee I will vote for her because any Republican is far worse in my opinion. Indeed, a John McCain presidency would be a calamity. However, in choosing between Clinton and Obama, I ask my fellow Democrats to chose the candidate that can best strengthen as well as consolidate institutions that empower the progressive cause of economic and social justice. Obama isn’t merely our best chance to win this November. He represents America’s best opportunity to reject fear and reclaim our future with confidence.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

My Fellow Democrats: Avoid Calamity and Nominate Obama

In 1996, Republican World War Two hero Senator Bob Dole challenged President Bill Clinton who sought a second term. While the political climate in 1996 was obviously quite different then it is today, like John McCain this year, Bob Dole was a heroic anachronism. Thinking about John McCain, these words from Vice President Al Gore’s speech at the 1996 Democratic National Convention come to mind:
“The president's opponent, Senator Bob Dole, is a good and decent man. We honor his service to America, and his personal courage in fighting back from injuries sustained in battle. Though we disagree with his ideas, only the unknowing would deny him the respect he deserves."
Similarly, I also give John McCain his due. How many of us would have willfully remained a prisoner of war in Vietnam rather than abandon our comrades? Furthermore, how many of us would have overcome the traumatic physical and psychological wounds inflicted upon McCain during Vietnam to achieve the stature he has? I’m not too proud to admit I likely would have accepted my captors offer to go home and become an embittered basket case afterwards. Yet this man raised seven well-adjusted children and overcame Herculean odds to emerge as the Republican nominee. There can be no denying John McCain’s intestinal fortitude.

McCain’s judgment and record however illustrate he is ill suited for the presidency. Just consider these facts recently compiled by about McCain’s record:

Before the War
  • McCain co-sponsored the Use of Force Authorization that gave President George W. Bush the green light – and a blank check - for going to war with Iraq. [SJ Res 46, 10/3/02]
  • McCain argued Saddam was “a threat of the first order.” Senator McCain said that a policy of containing Iraq to blunt its weapons of mass destruction program is "unsustainable, ineffective, unworkable and dangerous." McCain: "I believe Iraq is a threat of the first order, and only a change of regime will make Iraq a state that does not threaten us and others, and where liberated people assume the rights and responsibilities of freedom.” [Speech to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2/13/03]
  • McCain echoed Bush and Cheney’s rationale for going to war. McCain: “It’s going to send the message throughout the Middle East that democracy can take hold in the Middle East.” [Fox, Hannity & Colmes, 2/21/03]
  • McCain echoed Bush and Cheney’s talking points that the U.S. would only be in Iraq for a short time. McCain: “It’s clear that the end is very much in sight. … It won’t be long…it’ll be a fairly short period of time.” [ABC, 4/9/03]
  • McCain said winning the war would be “easy.” “I know that as successful as I believe we will be, and I believe that the success will be fairly easy, we will still lose some American young men or women.” [CNN, 9/24/02]
During The War
  • Senator McCain praised Donald Rumsfeld as late as May 12, 2004, after the Abu Ghraib scandal.
  • Asked if Donald Rumsfeld can continue to be an effective secretary of defense, McCain: “Yes, today I do and I believe he's done a fine job. He's an honorable man.” [Hannity and Colmes, 5/12/04]
  • Senator McCain repeatedly supported President Bush on the Iraq War – voting with him in the Senate, defending his actions and publicly praising his leadership.
McCain Maintains the War Was A Good Idea
  • At the 2004 Republican National Convention, McCain, focusing on the war in Iraq, said that while weapons of mass destruction were not found, Saddam once had them and “he would have acquired them again.” McCain said the mission in Iraq “gave hope to people long oppressed” and it was “necessary, achievable and noble.” McCain: “For his determination to undertake it, and for his unflagging resolve to see it through to a just end, President Bush deserves not only our support, but our admiration.” [Plain Dealer, 8/31/04]
  • Senator McCain: “The war, the invasion was not a mistake. [Meet the Press, 1/6/08]
  • Asked if the war was a good idea worth the price in blood and treasure, McCain: “It was worth getting rid of Saddam Hussein. He had used weapons of mass destruction, and it's clear that he was hell-bent on acquiring them.” [Republican Debate, 1/24/08]
  • McCain defended Bush’s rationale for war. Asked if he thought the president exaggerated the case for war, McCain said, “I don’t think so.” [Fox News, 7/31/03]
  • McCain has been President Bush’s most ardent Senate supporter on Iraq. According to Michael Shank of the Foreign Policy in Focus think tank, McCain was at times Bush’s “most solid support in the Senate” on Iraq. [Foreign Policy in Focus, 1/15/08]
  • McCain voted against holding Bush accountable for his actions in the war. McCain opposed the creation of an independent commission to investigate the development and use of intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq. [S. Amdt. 1275 to H.R. 2658, Vote # 284, 7/16/03]
  • McCain praised Bush’s leadership on the war. McCain: “I think the president has led with great clarity and I think he’s done a great job leading the country…” [MSNBC, Hardball, 4/23/03]
  • Senator McCain Has Constantly Moved the Goal Posts of Progress For the War – Repeatedly Saying It Would Be Over Soon:
  • January 2003: “But the point is that, one, we will win this conflict. We will win it easily.” [MSNBC, 1/22/03]
  • March 2003: “I believe that this conflict is still going to be relatively short.” [NBC, Meet the Press, 3/30/03]
  • June 2004: “The terrorists know that this is a very critical time.” [CNN, 6/23/04]
  • December 2005: "Overall, I think a year from now, we will have a fair amount of progress [in Iraq] if we stay the course.” [The Hill, 12/8/05]
  • November 2006: “We’re either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months." [NBC, Meet the Press, 11/12/06]
Senator McCain Opposed Efforts To End the Overextension of the Military That Is Having A Devastating Impact On Our Troops
  • McCain voted against requiring mandatory minimum downtime between tours of duty for troops serving in Iraq. [S. Amdt.. 2909 to S Amdt. 2011 to HR 1585, Vote 341, 9/19/07; S Amdt. 2012 to S Amdt. 2011 to HR 1585, Vote #241, 7/11/07]
  • McCain was one of only 13 senators to vote against adding $430 million for inpatient and outpatient care for veterans. [S Amdt. 3642 to HR 4939, Vote 98, 4/26/06]
  • Senator McCain has consistently opposed any plan to withdraw troops from Iraq
  • Senator McCain repeatedly voted against a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. [S. Amdt. 3876 to S.Amdt. 3874 to H.R. 2764, Vote #438, 12/18/07; S.Amdt.. 3875 to S.Amdt.. 3874 to H.R. 2764, Vote # 437, 12/18/07; S.Amdt.3164 to H.R. 3222, Vote # 362, 10/3/07; S.Amdt. 2898 to S.Amdt. 2011 to H.R. 1585, Vote #346, 9/21/07; S.Amdt. 2924 to S.Amdt.. 2011 to H.R.1585, Vote #345, 9/21/07; S.Amdt.2 087 to S.Amdt. 2011 to H.R. 1585, Vote #252, 7/18/07; S.Amdt. 643 to H.R. 1591, Vote #116, 3/27/07; S.Amdt. 4320 to S. 2766, Vote #182, 6/22/06; S.Amdt. 4442 to S. 2766, Vote #181, 6/22/06; S.Amdt.. 2519 to S.1042, Vote # 322, 11/15/05]
McCain Opposes Ending the Iraqi Occupation
  • McCain: "I believe to set a date for withdrawal is to set a date for surrender.” [Charlotte Observer, 9/16/07]
  • McCain called proponents of a congressional resolution opposing the troop surge in Iraq intellectually dishonest. [Associated Press. 2/4/07]
  • Senator McCain now says he sees no end to the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. McCain: "[M]ake it a hundred" years in Iraq and "that would be fine with me." [Derry, New Hampshire Town Hall meeting, 1/3/08]
  • McCain on how long troops may remain in Iraq: “A thousand years. A million years. Ten million years. It depends on the arrangement we have with the Iraqi government.” [Associated Press, 1/04/08]
In spite of McCain’s record of poor judgment and dangerous leadership, the corporatist media unceasingly praises him as a “maverick” while his credentials as commander and chief are deemed sacrosanct. Senator Hillary Clinton is ill equipped to challenge McCain’s credentials because her record, at least through 2005, is just as horrible as McCain’s.

Furthermore, Clinton’s lame efforts to invoke her “thirty-five” years of experience is at best a laughable contrast to McCain’s biography. McCain will easily deflect Clinton’s critique of his record as rhetoric from a disingenuous flip flopper.

Finally, Republicans are laying in the high weeds for former President Bill Clinton. Questions are sure to be raised about how Bill Clinton’s library was partly financed by Saudi Arabian money as well as the deals he’s made with Kazakhstan’s corrupt leadership. Yes it’s hypocritical for Republicans to criticize anyone about treacherous deal making that undermines America’s interests but McCain will get away with it.

Senator Barack Obama is not a perfect candidate either. The treatment he’s received from the Clintons is far gentler then the onslaught of coded racism, character assassination and Islamophobia that Republicans are certain to hit him with.

However, Obama at least offers the contrast of foresight regarding the Iraq War as well as the promise of a new direction that replaces America’s ill advised neocon delusions.

McCain vs. Clinton is yesterday vs. yesterday. Perhaps Clinton can prevail in such a campaign but she won’t earn a mandate for change. Indeed, the paradigm of America’s empire centric foreign policy will likely remain the same under another Clinton Administration only without the bellicose saber rattling George W. Bush bombast.

I therefore continue to urge my fellow Democrats to support Barack Obama for our party’s nomination. For me the slogan isn’t “yes we can” but “win we must.” Anything less will be a calamity for our country and the world.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Wrath of Booman

In my opinion, the most prolific and incisive blogger among the progressive netroots is Booman, the proprietor of Booman Tribune. Booman's analysis, wit and prose are far superior than Markos Moulistas of Daily Kos.

In a brief post earlier today, Booman unleashed his rhetorical wrath at the Clintons for push polling:

"I'm still waiting to read a story about Obama, or Edwards, or Dodd, or Biden, or Richardson, or Kucinich, or Gravel doing goddamn push-polling. I keep reading about the Clintons push-polling, but they seem to be the only ones on the Democratic side that do it. It's only one of many reasons the Clintons disgust me and I will never cast a vote ever again for either one of them for any office."

He's not alone. For what it's worth, I likely would vote for Senator Clinton if she's nominated because she'll have to appoint some progressives in her administration. But I'll be holding my nose at the vile stench.

I urge my fellow New Yorkers to vote for Senator Obama tomorrow. Hopefully, Senator Obama can achieve something resembling delegate parity in New York while prevailing in California. At stake is the Democratic Party's soul and an opportunity for our republic to end the pro-war corporatist plutocracy's reign of indecency.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Romney Confronts Allegations of Tolerance

In life and politics, humor often exposes truth far more effectively then a blizzard of facts. This humorous video below, courtesy of The Onion, is mock news coverage about Mitt Romney confronting "allegations of tolerance" for homosexuals. It's worth your two minutes of time and damn funny. What could be worse for a Republican presidential candidate then being accused of social tolerance?

Mitt Romney Defends Himself Against Allegations Of Tolerance