Monday, May 27, 2013

Understanding The Greatness Of Obama's End-To-Perpetual-War Speech

Barack Obama's speech last week calling for an end to perpetual war was, bar done, the greatest given by an American president in my lifetime.

This is because the speech articulated fundamental truths about the times in which we live long overdue in the telling, chief among them that our democracy demands that while we must continue to fight terrorism, the perpetual war the 9/11 attacks unleashed must end.  And this: History shows that while terrorism continues to be ever present in many guises, it is by no means the greatest threat that America has faced, let alone one that justified abrogation of the liberties and principles that are the bedrock of our society.
Republicans predictably took to the fainting couch en masse, because -- let's face it folks -- you either like war or you don't like it, and the ideologues who have bent the Grand Old Party out of any recognizable shape believe there is no higher calling than shedding American blood on foreign soil no matter how flimsy the reasons for doing so may be.  This mindset, in turn, prompted a litany of brickbats aimed at the commander in chief, the most inane of which surely was that he has "a pre-9/11 mindset."

Among those with that mindset was James Madison, whom the president quoted as saying, "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."  In other words, wars compromise our values and we eventually become what we hate.  (Thank you, Messrs Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.)

Obama defined the scope of the future struggle against terrorism and other global threats in a post-perpetual war America.
This includes repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force mandate, giving the military, intelligence agencies and law enforcement the right tools, focusing on more localized threats like Benghazi, and more judicious use of unmanned drones.  Oh, and dear Congressfolk, it's long past time to close Guantánamo Bay, dammit.
Talk, of course, is cheap and Obama has broken promises in the past.  Then there is the matter of those obdurate Republicans, whom he has no hope of engaging.  This means that when it comes to actions like closing Gitmo and transferring the hardest of the remaining hardcore prisoners to escape-proof federal maximum-security prisons, he will have to pretty much go it alone.
In the end, what made the president's speech so great was that it was an appeal to a war-weary nation for a return to normality.  That is to say an America that has a proportional approach to counter-terrorism, like the pre-9/11 responses to the Beirut embassy bombing, Pan American flight 103, and the attacks on American facilities and embassies in Saudi Arabia and East Africa.  In which soft power trumps hard power in all but the most extreme circumstances. 
I am 66 and a veteran. I also am a keen observer of history, and America’s perpetual warmaking has prompted me to reread Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake, two of the very best and most honest books about the Vietnam War. The lessons unlearned from that misadventure were much on my mind as Obama spoke.  His perspective, wisdom and candor were deeply refreshing, and all the more so because of my own malaise.
It seems to me that Obama has had a catharsis and was not merely coddling his grumpy liberal base or trying to paper over scandals, as some critics would have it.  Perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize winner was being mindful of his legacy.  In any event, I can imagine a late night conversation with a trusted friend who told him, “Mr. President, it’s time to take it home on this war business."
We may never know, but someone or something got to him and America will be better for it.
Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP-Getty Images

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Before Hallmark Cards There Was . . .

My Mother: Jane Page Snellenburg Mullen (1927-2000)
A Mother's Day Proclamation (1870)
By Julia Ward Howe
Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Monday, May 06, 2013

"We're Number 17! We're Number 17!" America's Hellbent Race To The Bottom

The United States was once an indisputably great country, and in some respects perhaps the greatest country.  I speak not of American Exceptionalism, the belief of neoconservatives and some fundamentalist Christians that God made this nation to spread liberty and democracy to the unwashed masses, in the case of the Iraq War at point of gun.   I speak of a nation where prosperity and success could be attained through hard work, where there were myriad educational and job opportunities, and where borders were open to people in pursuit of the American Dream.

But in recent decades America's standing has steadily eroded, and today it is indisputably no longer a great country, ranking at or near the bottom
among the 17 industrialized nations in quality-of-life and other social measures.  This, of course, will come as news to many of us, not the least of whom are the inside-the-Beltway politicians who fiddle while America crumbles.

America is first by some measures, all of them negative: These include infant mortality, incarceration rates and anxiety disorders, as well as a gulf between the rich and everyone else that accelerated during the Bush Recession as the economy tanked and unemployment soared, but CEOs and their corporations pocketed record stock dividends and profits.  But by other measures, including life expectancy (despite by far the highest health-care costs in the world), as well as obesity, child poverty, commitment to infrastructure development, broadband access and arts funding, America ranks dead last or nearly so.
* * * * *
This hellbent race to the bottom ("We're Number 17! We're Number 17!") has been a group effort, but the three arms of government -- the executive, legislative and judicial branches -- that are supposed to be the custodians of our national interests must shoulder most of the blame.
Nixon's excesses and Clinton's infidelities aside, the Bush-Cheney interregnum was not merely the darkest chapter in modern American history with its gross distortion of presidential power, including the use of torture and governance by fear, it has remained a debilitating presence in the four-plus years since Barack Obama took office.  While the young president has suffered his share of self-inflicted wounds, as well as the slings and arrows of cruel Republicans and spineless Democrats, the toxic fallout from the first eight years of the decade has compromised his ability to lead.
Congress deserves the harshest criticism because it is so out of touch with all but the most affluent and powerful Americans.  I recently read David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest and was struck by how President Johnson and his advisers had to escalate the Vietnam War by stealth because Congress would never have approved massive troop increases and a sustained bombing campaign because the American people would not have supported them.  Contrast that with how Congress rolled over on gun control in fawning obeisance to the National Rifle Association, America's largest terrorist organization, although most of us favor toughening laughably weak federal laws and demanded action in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become a branch of the Republican Party and the plutocracy, its hackery evident in decisions from Citizens United to enshrining workplace discrimination and validating civil liberties abuses, to protecting Big Pharma from liability for killer drugs and medical devices.
* * * * * 
I am in the clutches of a malaise.  It is impossible for me not to conclude that America is abandoning its youth, its elderly and its poor; is suffocating its middle class, increasing numbers of whom have become working poor; is timid and risk averse; is allowing the drift from productive manufacturing to a service economy where little is made of value; continues to give obscene tax breaks to the super rich and corporations; fails to confront the fossil fuel monster that saps our resources and further dirties our environment, and has turned its back on newcomers while disenfranching voters.
And not least has turned away from its own rich history, core values and virtues to the point where many of us, if shown a copy of the Bill of Rights, would believe it to be a subversive document.
* * * * *
What makes my malaise so deep is that I do not merely believe things will continue to become worse in a land for which I have bled red, white and blue.  I believe they may never get better.
If you feel otherwise, please offer your thoughts on how the country can rebound within the present political and social framework.  And if big changes are necessary beyond that framework, as well, what are they?  If the darkest hour is before the dawn, what should a new American dawn bring?

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/The Washington Post