Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Where are the responsible grownups?

An open message to the GOP:  Well, congratulations.  This was your election to lose, and you lost it.  Economic turmoil, concern about whether our nation is being run responsibly, some unpopular Democratic policies and some unpopular Democrats in office, and a big segment of the population that still associates the word "conservative" with the image of an honest, fair, trustworthy, cautious, pillar-of-the-community type on whom we can count for stability and responsible leadership.  All you had to do was deserve that image.  All you had to do was position yourselves as the party of responsible grownups.

Instead, you became the party of legislative obstructionists, more focused on stopping Obama and the Democrats from accomplishing anything than on working to solve national problems.

You became the party of budget-deficit nonsense, failing to make or even propose any meaningful cut in spending, as if we can eliminate our national deficit by de-funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting while refusing to trim anything from the 1500-times-larger defense budget.

You became the party of abandonment of leadership responsibility, forsaking your oath to well and faithfully discharge the duties of your office, in deference to a pledge never to raise taxes under any circumstances, cowering in fear of Grover Norquist's power to mobilize opposition to your re-election while even your own distinguished-statesman President George H.W. Bush asks, "Who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?"

You became the party of income inequality, clinging to the trickle-down theory despite decades of history showing massive wealth accumulation among a narrow segment of the population without corresponding trickle-down economic growth; suppressing the Congressional Research Service's own statistical analysis that suggests reduced top marginal tax rates do not contribute to economic growth but instead contribute to increasing concentration of wealth among the wealthy; refusing to acknowledge any possibility of legitimacy in the widespread public belief that our lobbyist-beholden legislative and economic systems reward the wealthy out of proportion to their contributions while transferring risk to typical citizens; and selecting as your presidential candidate a person who exemplifies life among the 1%.

You became the party of union-busting, as if the investment bankers and One-Percenters could trickle down their abundant wealth if only those pesky firefighters and teachers weren't ruining the economy--or as if unions, not corporations, were leading the labor/capital dance these days.

You became the party of voter suppression, as if one of the key problems facing the nation was a statistically significant rate of individuals registering to vote under false names and then actually managing to vote under those false names, presumably in addition to their own.

You became the party of the science deniers, as if it's inconceivable that human activity could influence the climate in ways we'll all come to regret, despite the climate's current unequivocally rapid rate of change, or as if the United States ought to lag the world (rather than lead the world) in developing responsible long-term means of addressing it.

You became the party of opposition to critical thinking, institutionally opposed to anything which might challenge fixed beliefs and institutional authority--instead of devoted to preparing the next generation of citizens to thrive in changing times in a changing world.

You became the party of bedroom supervision, as if the ability of committed same-sex couples to file joint tax returns or inherit each other's property or sue each other for divorce would somehow cause American citizens to suffer measurable harm.

You became the party of backwards movement in social policy, seemingly devoted to an idyllic Ozzie-and-Harriet 1950s culture that wasn't actually all that great for all Americans even when it *was* the 1950s.

You became the party of attention-seeking, divisive blowhards, allowing the Limbaughs and the Hannitys and the Trumps and the Becks to serve as your unofficial mouthpiece, free from any fear of contradiction or disassociation from party leadership regardless of how spiteful or non-productive their rants.

You became the party of self-destruction, vilifying your own Chris Christie for behaving admirably as governor of his state during a time of crisis--and having the audacity to do it in the company of the President.

So, congratulations.  How's that all working out for you?

The tragedy, of course, is that it's not working out well for *us*, the American citizens.  We don't want or need a do-nothing Congress.  We don't want or need a Democratic party that only has to be less ridiculous than the GOP in order to win elections.  We want and need real leadership from both parties, focused on the long-term good of the nation rather than the short-term good of one party or the other.  What are you prepared to do about it?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Pre-Emption as Military Doctrine

Written November 9, 2004
Published in a national military journal

Your editorial in the November issue, concerning pre-emptive military strike as an element of US power, focuses on the risk of inaction and the difficulty of recognizing and striking the right target at the right time.  On the other side of the equation, seemingly absent from recent debate, are the risks inherent in taking action without compelling and independently-verifiable justification.

The only thing that makes pre-emption an easy doctrine for Americans to accept is the implicit assumption that it happens to someone else, somewhere else.  If the FBI pre-emptively and violently invaded our homes because they thought we might be up to no good, but then could produce no compelling evidence and discovered the warrant had been based on bad intelligence, there'd be a public uproar and lawsuits and Congressional inquiries.  If it happened often enough or in serious enough ways, we'd stand on the Constitution and pursue justice, no matter how long it took or how well-intended the initial action may have been.

We pride ourselves on our history of defeating the unjust use of power, both abroad and at home.  Any assumption that we are the only people who are powerfully motivated by injustice, or that our perception of justice is the only one that matters, is short-sighted and dangerous.  The long-term risk of pre-emptive action without compelling, independently-verifiable justification must be part of the debate.

Wishing for Heroes

The state and national elections in 2004 were grave disappointments.  At the state level, Ohio passed "Issue 1", a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage:

Only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this state and its political subdivisions.  This state and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage."

At the national level, John Kerry ran against George Bush for President of the United States.

Issue 1
Written October 22, 2004 [prior to the election]
Published in my city's daily newspaper

It's sad that we consider making a divisive, discriminatory, unnecessary change to our Constitition, when so many much more serious issues go unresolved.  It's a rare day when the news doesn't announce a shooting, rape, domestic assault, or child abduction.  Racial divides, drugs, and violence diminish life everywhere.  Job losses and plant closings undercut our economic health.  Local school levies struggle year after year, while nothing happens to fix a state school-funding system long since found to be unconstitutional.  Meanwhile, we try to amend the Constitution to keep gay couples from claiming "married filing jointly" tax status or suing each other for alimony if they split up.

A Constitution ought to reflect the best in us:  Equality, justice, freedom.  Controls to make sure people's rights are only restricted after due process of law.  Changing our Constitution now, in this mean-spirited and prejudicial way, is a mistake.  I'll be voting No on Issue 1.

Wishing for heroes
Written November 4, 2004
Submitted to my city's daily newspaper, but not published

Reflecting on the campaigns, issues, and results of this election year, I wish for heroes.  Statesmen, leaders, individuals of such personal stature that they inspire the rest of us to rise above fear and suspicion and follow them to greatness.  In my mind I see Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, or some conglomeration of movie roles they played when I was a kid.  Not their victories but their personification of an America that deserved victory, earning it by living the principles of our founding fathers:  Freedom.  Equality.  Justice.  Government first and foremost to secure the rights of the governed.  Power tempered, and therefore deepened, by responsibility.

Tall orders, to be sure, and perhaps too much to expect of politicians--they can't all be Abraham Lincoln--but maybe government by politicians is the problem.  We don't remember Lincoln as a politician, but as a statesman, a leader, a hero.

The challenges we face this year are as important and enduring as any I remember, but heroes, and the American principles that make them so, seemed in short supply, chased from the national stage and the workplace water-cooler discussion by fear and suspicion.  Short-term reaction to perceived threats took the place of long-term strategy and real debate.  National and state policies seem shaped by an implicit judgment that the lives and cultures of those who are different from us are somehow less valuable than our own, not deserving of the due process and protections we take for granted.

Heroes would rally us to be true to the simple principles that made us great in the first place, not frighten us with ominous warnings or strive for soundbites designed for some political advantage.  Heroes would help us build and sustain policies that history might note as benchmarks of American greatness--like the US commitment in World War II, the Marshall Plan afterwards, or the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.  Decades later those still resonate worldwide with the self-evident truths that made them necessary and inevitable:  Freedom.  Equality.  Justice.  Government first and foremost to secure the rights of the governed.  Power tempered, and therefore deepened, by responsibility.  Will history see those same truths present in the war in Iraq, or in the "protect marriage" amendment?  Would Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda be willing to play the lead roles?

Iraqi Prison Scandal

Written May 7, 2004
Published in my city's daily newspaper

The larger question raised by the Iraqi prison scandal is "What will we do now to win the war?"  US military capability to defeat an opponent in battle is not in question.  Instead, the issue now is winning the hearts and minds of Iraqi leaders and citizens for long enough to help them build a stable, constructive government--and the perceived "rightness" of our presence and continued involvement in Iraq is directly relevant to winning hearts and minds.

That perception of rightness has always been the weakest link in the war.  Our claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and sponsorship of terrorism still have not been shown to be true, but we at least could rely on the fact that Saddam was a bad guy who ruled by force and fear.  As the good guys, who govern with laws based on equality, due process, and securing the rights of the governed, we could still hope to be welcomed and respected as we try to help Iraq establish a new government.  The prison scandal seriously undercuts that last hope.

The decision to go to war cannot be undone, but the US must still figure out how to win.  Lawyers, judges, and Defense Department leaders will gradually rebuild the perception of rightness in how we run prisons, but that is not the same as improving our ability to be welcomed and respected in post-war political rebuilding.  Only our national leadership can create that overall perception of rightness.  Regardless of the outcome of this year's election, I hope our President is up to the task.  I hope our senators, congressmen, religious leaders, news editors, and ordinary citizens make sure the President knows that it *is* the task.

Restoring US honor and credibility

Written May 9, 2004
Submitted to my city's daily newspaper, but not published

Your editorial says the "right thing is for Rumsfeld to resign."  Perhaps, but it wouldn't be enough to restore US honor and credibility, or to create a legitimate foundation for US leadership of post-war political rebuilding in Iraq.

President Bush, not Secretary Rumsfeld, created the basic circumstances of our current involvement there:  The use of force to achieve a short-term goal with little consideration of long-term implications, and in a manner that much of the world judged to be wrong.  That's the story of the war itself, not just of the abuses of the prisoners.  The individuals responsible for the prison scandal will correctly face consequences, perhaps including the resignation of Secretary Rumsfeld.  But any such consequences will not change the basic circumstances of our involvement in Iraq, so we should not expect any great reduction in the political resistance to our involvement.

To change the basic circumstances, we must acknowledge that the publicly-stated reasons for the war--clear and immediate threats of chemical, biological, nuclear, or terror attack conducted or supported by Saddam Hussein--have not proven to be true.  We must acknowledge that US dominance of post-war political rebuilding, given the weak justification for our presence there at all, is unlikely to lead to a stable and productive resolution.  President Bush may have been poorly served by his staff, but he alone made the decisions that created the basic circumstances in Iraq.  He alone can now act to make real and lasting improvements.

The speech that President Bush should have given

In early 2004, I had not yet personally participated in the war in Iraq but I'd watched it unfold on TV and in the papers.  The pride and confidence and sense of honor I'd felt in the US response to 9-11 was severely shaken by events in Iraq.

The speech that President Bush should have given
Written May 7, 2004
Published in my city's weekly newspaper

"To those persons detained in Abu Ghraib prison, to all citizens of Iraq, to members of the United States military and coalition forces, and to all who may hear these words:  I apologize for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, and I accept responsibility for the actions of those under my command."

"That such abuse could occur under the banner of American forces reflects a fundamental disregard for the principles upon which the United States has historically been and will continue to be founded.  I must re-emphasize them now, to make clear my commitment to the people of all nations, and to make clear my expectations of those who act in my service."

" 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.' "

" 'No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.' "

"Equality.  Justice.  Due process of law.  Government first and foremost to secure the rights of the governed.  The great and simple doctrine of the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.  Now as always we must hold to those principles, as we strive to give the citizens of Iraq the opportunity to cement them into the foundation of their own government.  We have changed the course of history by removing a tyrant who exercised power without responsibility.  If we ourselves cannot now demonstrate responsible use of power, if our actions belie the doctrine of our forefathers, we will doom the Iraqi people to yet more anguish and we will fail those who look to us for hope, for leadership, for belief in a better future."

"I will not allow that to happen.  Equality.  Justice.  Due process of law.  Government first and foremost to secure the rights of the governed.  Those will be the touchstones of our response to the abuses already committed, and of our actions in the future.  I make that promise to all who would listen. I give that order to all who act on my behalf."

That's what I wish I'd heard.  That's what I hope to someday still see.


In early September, 2002, I was an active-duty Air Force officer in charge of a group of younger officers at a field training site, helping them learn their wartime roles and responsibilities.  As the senior person on that trip, I'd felt a responsibility to have something to say on the 9/11 anniversary, and had struggled to find something I felt would be worthwhile.  A few days prior to the 11th, somebody noticed some racist graffiti in a portajohn.  On the 11th, I gave this speech:

September 11th.  9-11.  Those words and numbers have become part of our vocabulary in the past year.  Life is more complicated now, or at least it feels more complicated to us, to we who have been so comfortable and secure for so long.  As we mark the anniversary of this date, I ask you to join me in reflection.

Let’s take a moment now and each in our own fashion, devote a brief prayer of serenity for those who were killed or injured on September 11th, those who’ve risked or given their lives in the recovery and in the war, and to all their many thousands of family members who most closely feel the sacrifices.

You are here this week to learn some of the assets and procedures you’ll use when called to join this fight, or the next one.  Learn them well, and make it your business to keep learning about them every year of your career.  We face an enemy with charismatic leadership and an inflammatory message of blind hatred, with no commitment to peaceful diplomacy, no respect for the lives and cultures of their victims.  That is a deadly combination, and once formed it can only be met with force.  This is our nation’s current task, and I’m proud to serve with you as we face it.

That’s the easy part of my comments.  We’ve all experienced this past year and we’ve all chosen to serve our country, so I know I’m preaching to the choir.  I’d probably have left it at that, if not for something that just happened a couple of days ago.  So here’s a challenge, a more personal one:  Not just as members of the Air Force or as Americans, but simply as people, to reject blind hatred and unthinking prejudice in all its forms, in all our words and actions.

The sad irony of this war is that it’s not new, and no culture can claim complete innocence of the human faults that led to it.  Unreasoning hatred of another group.  An implicit judgement that the lives and cultures of those who are different from us are somehow less valuable, less deserving of respect, than our own.  The blind determination to avenge past grievances, real or perceived.  We were shaken awake in horror one year ago when violence fueled by these human faults crossed our borders—yet history and the daily newspapers and sometimes even our daily lives are filled with other examples, great and small, and we as Americans, we as the West, are not always innocent.

A few days ago one of you noticed graffiti in a portajohn here on this site, here on a US Air Force installation, here in the midst of us, and reported it.  I will not dignify it by repeating the exact wording, but it said in effect to kill everyone of Middle Eastern descent.  As I scraped it off, I couldn’t help notice the parallel:  We’re shocked by pictures of angry young Middle Eastern men burning our flag and chanting “Death to America,” yet someone who is now or was recently on this site—one of us, one of our peers as we train to defend the nation against attacks driven by blind hatred—writes in the most offensive terms to “kill all of them.”

I too have my human faults, and the scars and experiences of a lifetime lived with others no more perfect than I am, and sometimes my thoughts are no better than graffiti.  Perhaps we cannot change our thoughts or undo our scars and experiences—but we can and must choose our words and actions.  Racist graffiti on a bathroom wall is not the same as the Crusades of the Middle Ages or slavery or Nazi Germany or a jihad against Americans.  But ask yourself, at its heart, inside one individual at a time, what really is the difference?  Is it a difference to be proud of?  Is it enough of a difference to make us think we’re better than those we now fight?

We are a great nation.  We owe it to those who came before us, whose sacrifices have given us the freedoms and privileges we now enjoy, to become even greater—to honor their efforts by continuing and expanding upon them.

Today, September 11th 2002, and for the future, I ask myself and all of you to remember those who’ve suffered.  To excel at our role in defending the nation from future attacks.  But also to reject blind hatred and prejudice—individually and for our institutions—in all its forms, in all our words, in all our actions.

As I look back on that day, now some years later and with the US mired in a military/political catastrophe of our own making, I hope future US leaders will give some thought to what happened to the sense of honor and justice we as a nation felt in 2002.  I wish for heroes.