Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

What are America’s Global Interests?

December 28, 2021

After their December 7 video call, President Biden said Putin got the message “loud and clear” that invading Ukraine (again) would incur a big price.

The actual message: the price would be tolerable.

Economic sanctions? Pah! Putin doesn’t give a turd about that. He’d care about a military bloody nose. But Biden made clear we won’t meet force with force.

Russia casts us as aggressors, pulling Ukraine from its ancient ties. Actually Russia was building a partnership with the West under Yeltsin, but Putin took it elsewhere; and bullied Ukraine into enmity instead of cultivating their historic affinity.

The seven decades after WWII saw a rules-based world order, with the most basic rule being no invasions. Major advanced nations no longer attacked each other. This was huge. Not only curbing war’s death and devastation, but promoting wealth-expanding world trade, driving global prosperity up and poverty down.

The architect and guarantor of this world order was America. Exemplified by treating Japan and Germany not as conquered domains, but building them up as our partners; the Marshall Plan to resuscitate Europe; and so much more. This was a new concept in world annals. And it reflected not just airy altruism, but self-interest, properly understood. Realizing we ourselves were primary beneficiaries, making a world better for us to live in.

Then it began to unravel. Perhaps starting when President Obama declared a red line regarding Syrian chemical weapons use, only to muff it. And in 2014 the system took a big hit when Russia got away with grabbing Crimea. Incurring economic sanctions that were, for Putin, mere annoyances.

Trump, ignorant of our true global interests, shredded them. Telling the world we could no longer be looked to, or trusted. Didn’t even understand what side we’re on. And whatever Biden does to patch things up, it’s clear there’s no longer a U.S. political consensus behind it, our global role now beholden to the whims of bloody-minded voters. Trump or his like could return. Congressional partisanship stymies our global engagement by blocking even many ambassadorial appointments. And Biden’s gestures are contradicted by the Afghanistan fiasco, making America look undependable.

The biggest looming test is Taiwan. Which China insists belongs to it. In fact, Taiwan is effectively an independent (and democratic) nation; and previously, except for 1945-49, was held by Japan, not China. Yet China asserts a right to seize Taiwan by force. And has been methodically assembling the means.

After Russia’s Crimea crime, it may be too late to get this genie back in the bottle. China’s raping Taiwan would be the death-blow for the post-WWII global order. Would America act to defend it? Militarily?

Our commitment to Taiwan was always left fuzzy — “strategic ambiguity” it’s been called. But Biden recently said we would indeed defend Taiwan. Yet China might not be deterred, skeptical that America today is up for such a battle. Taiwan means much more to China than (seemingly) to us. And it’s increasingly doubtful a Chinese invasion could be beaten.

In a recent gabfest, a friend (no dummy) said we’re tired of being the world’s hegemon — let some other country do it now. As if that might be one like Switzerland — not China! Other serious voices echo this. Words like “limits of power,” and “restraint” resonate. There’s a growing feeling that overseas engagement, like in Afghanistan, is doomed to futility. A creeping defeatist fatalism. One foreign policy maven on the PBS Newshour advocated resolving our “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan by announcing we would not defend it. (An open invitation for China to invade.)

Few Americans seem to grasp the big picture of what’s at stake. The Economist has said that after the global order’s demise, “Americans themselves may be surprised to discover how much they benefited from it.” We won’t like living in a world built to China’s blueprint.

Idiocracy

December 11, 2021

As someone vaunting human reason, the 2006 comedy film Idiocracy haunts me. It starts with an upscale couple — intelligent, educated, thoughtful — agonizing about whether to have a child. Then we see a gaggle of lowlife dumbasses reproducing like rabbits. Repeat for a few generations and you get a dumbass nation. An idiocracy.

The president in this dystopian future is of course a crass buffoon (Black — go figure). Back then we could laugh. But politics is incidental in the film, more concerned with a dumbed-down cultural landscape. Epitomized by its most popular TV show — “Ow! My Balls!” Yucks galore. (As if people would still be watching network TV generations hence.)

The film’s premise of an intelligence collapse was silly. Studies show average human intelligence is actually increasing (the “Flynn Effect”). Yet what’s descending upon us is something darker and scarier than mere innocent dumbness. Imagine another movie:

Though 74 million vote to re-elect a crass buffoon president, he’s unsurprisingly defeated. But his deranged ego can’t accept it. So he makes up a lie that the election was a fraud. Laughed out of court; but instead of hooting him off the stage his cult followers storm the Capitol in support of his attempted coup. After which his hold on his party actually grows, their indignation over the imaginary “election steal” intensifying. And its unprincipled politicians use that as a pretext for every possible underhanded trick to steal the next election themselves and return to power.

Nah, that movie would be too implausible. This is America, not some banana republic (or “shit-hole” country.) Weren’t we made great again?

Meantime, polls show voter support for Biden and Democrats plunging. A lot of the reasons are bogus (“socialism,” “defund the police,” “critical race theory,” “open borders”). Biden is not blameworthy for inflation. And voters are also venting frustrations over the pandemic — perversely, since of course it’s Republicans hugely blameworthy, insanely battling against needed public health measures. Forgotten too is the rest of Trump’s litany of atrocities, even including the January 6 attack upon our democracy itself, and how Republicans have abetted it.

There’s been tons of analysis trying to explain voters. Many just act like bloody-minded nihilists. Maybe it’s idiocracy after all. So as of now, reprobate Republicans (helped too by their gerrymandering) look poised to retake the House of Representatives in 2022.

But if you suppose this would be just another routine swing of the political pendulum, you’re not paying attention. We saw what lengths Trump went to, last time, to overturn the election and keep power. He might have succeeded, if Democrats hadn’t (barely) controlled both House and Senate. Next time, a Republican-led House of Representatives can block certifying electoral votes. Throwing the election to the House itself, where they’ll crown Trump. They’ll have the votes; think they won’t have the balls?

We see country after country where such manipulations prevail. Often just simply fabricating vote counts. Even presidents with real public support skirting zero, like Maduro, Ortega, Assad, and Lukashenko, get “re-elected.”

This is the movie we’re in now. A tragedy, not a comedy. Much darker than Idiocracy, with its mere innocent dumbness.

We won the Cold War, defeating Communism, with democracy ascendant. But now it’s under vicious assault again, as Anne Applebaum writes in The Atlantic, from what has grown into a new alliance of anti-democratic regimes, supporting each other and perfecting the tools of repression. Trump actually aligned with them. If he returns to power, sinking democracy even in America, it’s game over.

I could live in an idiocracy. Not in a trumpocracy.

The Deep State

November 26, 2021

“The Deep State” refers to a locus of true power, hidden, pulling strings behind the scenes. Journalist David Rohde discussed his 2020 book about this, at the New York State Writers Institute’s 9/25 Albany Book Festival.

No, Rohde’s book did not expose the Deep State. Instead exposing the fevered fantasies about it.

The term actually originated in 1990s Turkey, and then Egypt, where something like a deep state was a reality. The idea being that elected governments were just a veneer, their doings without real consequence, the shots being called elsewhere. Mainly by the military, in concert with powerful economic players. In Turkey, that’s been superseded by Erdogan’s autocracy. Egypt’s deep state was overthrown in 2011 but returned even more powerfully in 2013. Pakistan’s another case, its deep state centered on the military and its associated intelligence outfit, never really out of power.

In America, the basic idea long had resonance on the left. The old term “military-industrial complex” entailed something like that. Rohde also pointed to the 1970s Church Committee, investigating the CIA, with a whiff that it was more malignly powerful than we realized. And there were echoes in the “Occupy” movement.

The far right version of the “deep state” trope, in Rohde’s telling, originated with Peter Dale Scott’s 2007 book, The Road to 9/11. When Scott appeared on Alex Jones’s conspiracy-crazed show, it was off to the races. Not just 9/11, but the Oklahoma City bombing, and Sandy Hook were all staged by the government, for some nefarious reason — like a pretext for confiscating all guns. Which, you know, actually happened.

Then came 2016. Jones and his ilk insanely cast Trump as the hero who’d smash the deep state. But of course it would resist. Steve Bannon’s right-wing Breitbart News, in December, before Trump took office, rang a warning bell that the deep state was bent on thwarting him at every turn and bringing him down.

Many people in government did try to stop things Trump was doing. Considering them wrong and destructive, which was true. But it’s cuckoo to imagine some organized secret conspiracy to illegitimately screw Trump. (Two failed impeachments might at least have proven the “deep state” actually impotent.)

Nevertheless, this notion of a dark plot against Trump was trotted out continually — all the “witch hunt” rhetoric — as a way to revv up his cult followers into even greater frenzy. And it got worse, transmogrifying into QAnon.

“Q” is/was a supposed government insider anonymously ripping off the covers. The “deep state” conspiracy comprises pedophile baby eaters. All the major Democrats are in on it. Trump is waging a secret war against them. On the day of reckoning, “The Storm,” they will all be arrested (executed?) with Trump returned to office in glory. Millions continue to seriously believe this lunacy, despite the march of events since last November (and their putative savior being a mad incompetent fool).

And what does this QAnon story resemble? Obviously the “end of days” and Christ’s second coming. The congruences between Trumpism and religion are indeed striking. For many American “Christians” today, “Christian” is really more a cultural signifier than a true religious faith. For that, they look instead now to Trump. Religion is always a flight from rationality. This Trumpian religion flings reason to the ground and stomps on it.

Afghanistan’s Bitter Lessons

October 4, 2021

Craig Whitlock’s book, The Afghan Papers: A Secret History of the War, is a depressing litany of what went wrong — reading as if everything did. Is this a balanced picture? In any giant enterprise, involving human beings, horror stories will abound. Afghanistan had more than its share. And things did end badly. But is that the whole story? Did no American do anything right in Afghanistan?

The 2021 book is based on government documents, mainly reports of interviews with frontline personnel, in a “Lessons Learned” exercise. Echoing the Vietnam War’s Pentagon Papers. Despite the ostensible remit of subjecting the Afghan story to public accountability, the Washington Post had to battle for access to the documents.

Elucidated are two early, crucial, and very contradictory mistakes. First, at Tora Bora, we muffed a chance to get Bin Laden, and to deal the Taliban a death blow. Easier said than done? Monday morning quarterbacking? Actually, Whitlock details how that critical moment cried out for throwing in more assets, but higher-ups nixed it, in order to sustain the picture of a “light touch” military involvement. Thus setting the stage for one anything but light.

Our other, contradictory error: the Taliban expected to be treated as a vanquished foe, and might well have been open to negotiating peace on that basis. Instead they were treated as pariahs to be hunted down and exterminated. Excluded when we organized negotiations among numerous Afghan players, to set up a new political dispensation. This, failing the Taliban’s destruction, ensured prolonged conflict.

George W. Bush campaigned as an opponent of “nation building,” his own ironic terminology. “But we got there and realized we couldn’t walk away,” one U.S. official is quoted. Whitlock says no nation ever needed more building. His picture of Afghanistan’s dysfunction is pretty grim. And we ultimately spent more on it than on the post-WWII Marshall plan to rebuild Europe (adjusted for inflation).

Whitlock says the basic problem was lack of a coherent vision for how to remake Afghanistan, in light of its reality. We tried to build a strong central government, when the nation’s whole history was power dispersion. Few Afghans actually understood the concept of government, in terms we’d recognize. Whitlock cites a Monty Python film where the King on horseback, passing a peasant in the dirt, declares, “I’m the King!” The peasant looks up and says, “What’s a king?”

It didn’t help that the president we installed, Hamid Karzai, was a very flawed and problematic figure. He actually doesn’t come off too badly in the book. Whitlock seems to suggest we didn’t listen to him enough.

The U.S. war strategy appears to have been simply to kill Taliban. Or presumed Taliban — we never had a good handle on exactly who we were fighting. Anyhow, nor was it clear what this would actually achieve. The more we killed, the more Taliban popped up.

“No military solution” is a catch-phrase heard constantly, as though no problem ever does have a military solution. I think there sometimes are military solutions. But there seems a universal tendency to botch them. Certainly true in Iraq (disbanding its army was idiotic). Likewise in Afghanistan we made one big glaring misjudgment after another. For example, in 2009, President Obama announced sending 30,000 more troops — but only for 18 months. Practically telling the Taliban to just wait us out. And certainly our exit was botched.

When it comes to modern wars like in Afghanistan, there’s a fundamental problem. Our military is vastly sophisticated, and undoubtedly very good at fighting a conventional army like itself. As in WWII. But its fighting in a place like Afghanistan is like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. Our capabilities had no nexus to the actual mission challenge. We never got a grip on the nature of the fight we were in.

One chapter concerns the recurring U.S. effort to destroy Afghanistan’s opium farms. Actually the country’s biggest industry! Any fool should have seen how counterproductive this was, creating more enemies for us. For Whitlock it exemplifies that we just didn’t know what the heck we were doing. For me it also exemplifies the insanity of our whole “war on drugs” mentality, that fucks up everything everywhere.*

Meantime we flooded the country with billions splashed out on do-good schemes so ill-conceived that most of it was pissed away. What those billions really bought was a monster that swallowed Afghanistan, plunging this land without rule of law into a black hole of corruption. Destroying the legitimacy of the government we tried to prop up. While even helping to finance the Taliban.

Dishonesty is a pervasive theme of the book. Nobody ever wanted to say the emperor was naked. “Making progress” was the constant refrain as things went from bad to worse. But it wasn’t just misleading the public. You cannot grapple successfully with a complex situation absent a clear-eyed grasp of its parameters. That, in every aspect of our Afghan involvement, was lacking.

The whole sorry tale reinforces the old-time conservative skepticism of government doing anything right. Even with the best of intentions. Throwing money around without discipline. Even ultimate democratic accountability is too distant to matter. And the law of unintended consequences is very powerful.

Many voices now chide that we should have realized the whole Afghan effort was hopeless. That even if we had done everything right, Afghanistan’s culture was impervious to modernization. Which might actually have been said of many countries before they did modernize their cultures. No nation is born modern.

A recent global analysis by The Economist is relevant here.** Dividing the world between countries that are peaceful and prosperous, and those that aren’t. And what makes the difference? Female empowerment. Patriarchal cultures, where women are repressed, are poorer and violence-prone. Especially where men can have multiple wives; the rich and powerful hog women, leaving legions of men without, a huge source of societal instability. Thus countries with primitive male-female dynamics — like Afghanistan — are the world’s poorest and bloodiest. The road to progress runs through vaginas.

* Like in Colombia. Phil Klay’s novel, Missionaries depicts sickening violence involving police, army, paramilitaries, insurgents, and drug gangs. Drugs really the root cause of it all. More specifically, drugs’ illegality.

** I wrote about this subject myself, in 2018: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2018/08/17/the-polygamy-problem/.

Trump versus Biden versus China

September 21, 2021

His first day in office, Trump handed China a giant victory by nixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal we’d expressly created to blunt China’s clout. Yet Republicans call President Biden “soft on China.” The truth is the opposite.

We have two main global antagonists. Russia has been called a Third World country with missiles (which it cannot use). It’s a mischief maker, including its election subversion, but is no existential threat.

China is far more powerful and, in ways, more threatening. China does want to take us down a notch, to swagger as the world’s kingpin. That doesn’t require destroying America; and unlike in the Cold War, it’s not an ideological triumph China seeks. While Biden is right to see a contest between authoritarianism and democracy, it’s more like a popularity contest. Our aim being to showcase a better model. Shouldn’t be hard — while a collectivist mentality makes most Chinese accept a repressive surveillance society, that’s not real attractive elsewhere.

China’s real challenge is not ideological but economic competition. But all nations compete with one another. Just as all businesses, globally and within a nation, compete. And because competition drives prices down to the costs of production, the lion’s share of the wealth that’s created benefits not businesses but consumers. This is not merely theoretical, it’s why average living standards worldwide rose dramatically in recent decades and poverty (contrary to what many imagine) plummeted.

Of course this requires true, fair, unfettered competition, hard to attain because so many interests vie against it. But we’ve succeeded to a degree perhaps surprising. And that battle must be waged with China.

Trump’s tariffs, instead of promoting fair open competition, impeded it, making it harder and costlier for goods to get to market. This may have “protected” some U.S. businesses and jobs from Chinese competition, but damaged the U.S. economy as a whole — the costs borne by American consumers, who pay more for their purchases. Reducing their ability to buy other things, which would have stimulated our economy and created jobs, offsetting those lost to foreign competition. And while both sides suffer thusly from the tariff war, most economists reckon America’s damage exceeds China’s.

Exemplified by his assault on Huawei, Trump also sought to decouple from China, severing the global economy into two ghettoes, ours and theirs. China is doing likewise. Unwinding the globalized supply chains that integrate commerce and maximize efficiency by enabling businesses to obtain the best and least costly inputs. That economic vandalism can only hurt everyone.

Sadly, instead of casting us as the champion of an open global economy, Biden too is trying to wall off ours from theirs. And he’s sticking with Trump’s tariffs. Biden does understand Trump’s stupidity in picking fights with allies, rather than building a common front vis-a-vis China. But that’s undermined by a narrow fixation on American jobs — signaling our friends that they’re actually on their own. Yet seemingly giving them a “with us or against us” choice. Though joining our decoupling from China is self-harming.

Biden seems to frame this as a battle only one side can win. But we cannot “defeat” China. We should instead aim for win-win. That wouldn’t mean not fighting China on intellectual property, human rights, territorial aggression, cyber-hacking, and so forth. We can have those arguments while still expanding mutually beneficial trade and without actually being enemies. You have fights with your spouse but still have intercourse.

Biden’s Trumpian foreign policy

September 6, 2021

For four Trump years we had a bull-in-a-china-shop foreign policy. An ignoramus thinking himself a genius — a deadly combination. His “America First” policy so idiotically executed it vastly harmed us.

Few Americans paid close enough attention, so he skated through it, like everything, with no comeuppance. Not even his disgraceful Northern Syria betrayal seemed to register.

Then comes President Biden — an experienced, knowledgeable, conscientious, decent, sane man — whom I hugely supported — and he blows it, bigly, regarding Afghanistan. There is no cosmic justice. Life is unfair.

Why couldn’t this debacle have come on Trump’s watch? After all, it was he who “negotiated” the “deal” with the Taliban, for America to leave (in exchange for nothing) even quicker (in May). Hence Republicans’ Biden bashing is really rich. As if the monster they worship would have done things better. The worst epithet for Biden’s Afghan fiasco is Trumpian.

He says it was time to end this war. In fact, it wasn’t even really a war. For Afghans it was, but not for us. We had long since stopped treating it so. We were now merely providing a little help — indeed, utterly piddling compared to other continuing overseas commitments — tens of thousands of troops in Germany, Japan, South Korea, etc. Yet in contrast to those, our cheap little Afghan efforts were paying huge dividends — in quality of life for millions of Afghans (especially females) and, importantly for us, avoiding a humiliating defeat. Pulling that plug made no sense.

So we have unnecessarily incurred that humiliating defeat. And, to boot, with vivid shameful pictures displayed to the world.

Biden says quitting Afghanistan lets us focus on the bigger China problem. Couldn’t we do both? Actually, our Afghan debacle worsens the China problem. Now China is on a soapbox, jeering, “See? We told you America is a feckless declining nation.” While European allies, who worked with us in Afghanistan, feel betrayed. Biden had proclaimed, “America is back.” He might as well have said, “Trump is back.”

In today’s world, everything is connected to everything. We should not imagine the Afghan denouement will have no effects beyond its borders. That’s a dicey neighborhood. All the fallout from this disaster cannot yet be foreseen, but it isn’t likely to be good.

Already in one way the world has been made more dangerous. Islamic extremists everywhere are thrilled and energized by what they deem their triumph. Defeating an infidel superpower. Thinking, “if the Taliban can do it, why not us?”

Biden vaunts the achievement of evacuating 124,000 from Afghanistan in just a few weeks. Those who did it, despite the chaos, do deserve kudos. But the time constraint was Biden’s own doing. Even if you think leaving Afghanistan was right, surely doing it in such a rush was not. And once the Taliban takeover changed the picture, why no course correction?

Left behind are hundreds of U.S. citizens, an untold number of green card holders (legal permanent U.S. residents) — and tens of thousands of Afghans, many of whom should have qualified for special expedited visas, for people who worked with us and are now consequently in the Taliban’s gunsights. Bureaucratic obstacles kept myriads from completing that paperwork. A sadly familiar story. But Biden should have knocked some heads together, to get these people out before his self-imposed deadline. Now it’s too late.

This unfortunately reprises our shabby abandonment of legions of Iraqis, in similar circumstances, not so long ago. Such callous irresponsibility, toward people who trusted in us, is a profound moral stain. I believe in an America better than that. But that faith is faltering.

Lessons of Afghanistan: cynicism versus humanism

August 29, 2021

“Hubris” is the word of choice to sneer at America’s global engagement. Now we’re scolded that we arrogantly deluded ourselves we could do good in Afghanistan. When a hard-nosed realism should have told us to forget it. And so we wasted 20 years, trillions of dollars, and many lives. With, in the end, nothing to show for it.

But 20 years in which millions of Afghans — especially women — could live decent fulfilling lives is not nothing. Legions of girls getting education was not nothing. Which could have continued, for what would really have been very modest cost to us. Quitting was penny wise and pound foolish. Any savings surely outweighed by the damage to America’s global standing. Just in casualties, the 13 soldiers killed in the Kabul airport bombing (a consequence of our leaving) exceeded those lost in Afghanistan since the start of 2020. And never mind the immense damage to Afghan people.

A New York Times essay by Ezra Klein* casts as a failure not the Afghan outcome, but the entire effort. Indicting our whole foreign policy mindset. It’s the “hubris” argument again. The problem with our Afghan venture, Klein argues — as with Iraq — was not merely flubbed execution, but “overreach.” He quotes scholar Emma Ashford: “we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.” Klein thinks focusing on botched implementation just obscures the deeper problem.

He sees it too as “not just the illusion of our control, but the illusion of our knowledge.” Again, Iraq — all the smart people were sure Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. When in fact he was bluffing. (I felt we couldn’t take the risk that he wasn’t.) Anyhow, Klein says, “we do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.”

And, he writes, “to many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop.” And so forth. You know the cynic’s tropes. And, says Klein, binding humanitarian ambitions with “delusions of military mastery” too often end badly — and bloodily.

Klein’s critique itself overreaches. Nobody imagines America is omniscient and omnipotent. If that were the requisite for action, we’d be paralyzed. Sometimes action can make sense even knowing the outcome is uncertain. Indeed, it’s rarely otherwise.

This all recalls Andrew Bacevich’s 2008 book, The Limits of Power. Arguing that because historical processes are too vast and messy for anyone to really grasp, let alone control, and given the law of unintended consequences, trying to remake the world is futile. Reprising Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History, similarly disparaging what he deemed a misguided “messianic” effort to manage history. Writing at a time when the U.S. had adopted an over-arching foreign policy vision to help rebuild nations walloped by WWII, including our former foes; to support democracy; and contain Communism. All rather successful.

Bacevich would have said: don’t even try.

But history is not some ineluctable force impervious to human effort. America is not on some “messianic” mission to democratize the world or “manage history;” rather, we merely believe the world can improve if certain countries can be helped to progress, and some problems can be ameliorated. True, we’re not always consistent, and as Klein notes, we tolerate some bad situations. But is inability to do everything a reason to do nothing?

The whole human story is unwillingness to accept things as they are, trying to do all we can to better our situation. In that, humanity has spectacularly succeeded. And U.S. foreign policy has not been a total failure either.

Some see the Afghan denouement as proving that nothing ever changes; that people never change. It’s certainly disheartening that Afghanistan’s rise from barbarism could not be sustained. Yet people do change. Societies progress. Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature documents how we’ve literally become better people over time. What Afghanistan really proves is that hard men with guns (especially with religion) can defeat such progress, and how to fight them remains a tremendous challenge.

But Klein concludes thus: “if we truly care about educating girls worldwide, we know how to build schools and finance education. If we truly care about protecting those who fear tyranny, we know how to issue visas and admit refugees . . . Only 1% of the residents of poor countries are vaccinated against the coronavirus. We could change that. More than 400,000 people die from malaria each year. We could change that too.”

We have learned that trying to solve problems by military means often turns out more problematic than we imagined. Of course the whole realm of nonmilitary global engagement — foreign aid and all that — also tends to be pitfall-ridden. The law of unintended consequences is powerful indeed. But throwing up our hands and doing nothing is again not the answer. We do the best we can. And Klein is right that we err in over-reliance on military efforts. Those resources are much better devoted to non-military initiatives:

“We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.”

* https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/26/opinion/afghanistan-us-withdrawal.html

Afghanistan disaster

August 17, 2021

President Biden decided that 20 years of commitment to Afghanistan was enough, so he’d pull out our few thousand troops. Never mind that we’ve had tens of thousands in Germany, in South Korea, in Japan, for over 70 years — with far less compelling rationales.

We had invested vastly in Afghanistan. But at this point the mission’s cost there — in manpower, money, and casualties — was comparatively small. Yet had a big payoff. While we weren’t winning the war, we were managing to sustain a status quo with the Taliban contained, thus enabling millions of Afghans to live decently. Pulling out gained very little, with huge risks of the horrible outcome now unfolding.

Even politically it made no sense. American voters were not clamoring for an Afghan pullout. But the result is egg all over Biden’s face. Deservedly.

He blew off the consensus of military and intelligence experts who warned of dire consequences. Which came even faster than foreseen.

Thanks also to the bungled execution. This was no well-planned withdrawal. While only weeks ago Biden swore we’d never see people airlifted from the embassy roof like in Saigon in 1975, that’s exactly what happened in Kabul. Ghastly airport scenes of people frantically trying to get out, some killed in the chaos.

The Afghan army melted away, after all the billions we’d invested in it. Notably in their air force, a key factor against the Taliban. But with us gone, those planes could no longer be maintained and kept flying. Afghan soldiers had already made tremendous sacrifices battling the Taliban, taking huge casualties. With very little in pay and back-up. Then we completely abandon our partnership. Yet Biden cravenly slams them for not throwing away their lives to continue a fight we’d now made futile.

Our rush to the exit is supremely callous toward the whole Afghan people, left to a grim fate. Especially women. The Taliban has long mounted a campaign of targeted assassinations of the intelligentsia — government officials, judges, journalists, etc. Especially women, who had ascended to such roles. Now they won’t even be allowed in school. Nor, apparently, will unmarried females be allowed. Holdouts to be forcibly married to Taliban fighters.

What perverted humanity. I can never fathom vast numbers of people lining up behind such evil. Fighting it was a noble endeavor.

For another perspective on our responsibility to Afghanistan, I highly recommend an essay (https://lizrobinson.squarespace.com/blog/) by my daughter Elizabeth, who has lived there, working in the international engagement.

The Biden administration is trying to blame this disaster on Trump. Who’d negotiated a deal with the Taliban, for a cease-fire and anti-terrorism promise, in exchange for our withdrawal. (They also got 5,000 prisoners released.) Those Taliban pledges were always worthless and immediately violated. Biden had no reason to stick with our side of that phony Trump deal. It’s no excuse for his actions.

This is one more damning signal to the world that today’s America is a weak feckless country that cannot be relied upon. China is laughing at us. After Trump’s brainless shredding of our international credibility, I expected better from Biden. But in every aspect of this Afghan fiasco, he bears an unnerving resemblance to Trump at his worst. Even down to falsely blaming his predecessor.

* * *

After long observing the world I’ve learned to expect disillusionment. I’d hugely supported Biden’s campaign. But what I’ve also come to understand is the world’s complexity. A vast machine with myriads of moving parts, and no master control. Thus bad stuff is inevitable. Yet I remain an optimist because in the (very) big picture, far more is going right than wrong. I supported Biden, most fundamentally, because he is a good person. Far from perfect, but good. I think that’s still true. Whereas Trump was wicked through and through. Good people don’t always do what’s good. But better than bad people.

* * *

Hakainde Hichilema, a businessman, lost five Zambian presidential elections; surely cheated out of victory, and persecuted and imprisoned, by the ruling party. In this sixth try, against President Edgar Lungu, The Economist said Hichilema would win a free and fair election — but saw no chance of that. Lungu, whose corrupt misrule has been wrecking Zambia, did everything possible to rig the poll. When Hichilema nevertheless clearly won, Lungu tried to pull a Trump, claiming the election was not free and fair (!). We’ve seen this movie too often, especially in Africa. But now — surprisingly — Lungu has relented and conceded defeat.

Some optimist sugar for me on the bitter pill of Afghanistan.

The voting rights fight: Is humanity ready for democracy?

July 19, 2021

I believe in democracy. That might sound platitudinous, but it’s actually a carefully developed philosophical stance, grounded in a utilitarian concept of the greatest good for the greatest number.

America led the way in 1776, with our democratic manifesto. Eventually the idea caught on in many other countries, and for good reason. As Francis Fukuyama explained, it serves a fundamental thirst for recognition of one’s human dignity (which he gave the Greek word thymos).

But America’s own democracy is now in trouble. Almost half our citizens in a movement in effect seeing democracy as an impediment to goals they value more. (Mainly preservation of white Christian cultural domination.)

Thus the battle over voting rights. Republican rhetoric about ballot integrity is simply dishonest. We have no ballot integrity problem. It’s a smokescreen for their real aim, to win by any means necessary. They don’t expect to win fair elections. The larger the vote, the lower their chances, so they want to prevent as many citizens as possible from voting. Especially targeting minorities who overwhelmingly vote against them.

Such voter suppression is nasty enough. But even scarier is the push, in many states, to shift authority over vote counting to Republican-controlled political bodies.

We’ve seen this movie too many times across the world. This is how dictatorships hold onto power. It doesn’t actually matter how people vote, if you control the count. You just make up the results.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad was almost certainly trounced for re-election in 2009, but the regime simply said otherwise, then brutally crushed widespread protests. In Congo’s 2018 presidential election, Fayulu apparently got three times more votes than Tshisekedi, yet Tshisekedi was declared the winner. And in Belarus, reviled dictator Lukashenko surely lost to his challenger, but here again announced the opposite result, and unleashed ultra-violence when the citizenry erupted in protest.*

Can it happen here? January 6 was an effort to overturn the 2020 election result. That violent attempt failed, but now Republicans are laying the groundwork for doing it under color of law. What if Trump loses Georgia in 2024 but the vote counting authority, set up by the Republican-controlled state legislature and staffed with its operatives, simply announces different numbers? If you doubt they could be that dishonest — where have you been for five years?

Yet almost half the country supports this gang. Fervently. That’s the scariest thing of all.

I was thrilled visiting Russia in the ’90s. A democratic Russia! The triumph of my ideals. It seemed democracy was busting out all over. Since then, it’s gone the other way. Autocrats learned to adapt to today’s world — with a lot of help from foolish voters. While finagling elections does help too, unfortunately many people are suckers for political snake oil.

Take Italy. Its electorate is divided among a bunch of parties — one more crackpot than another. Old-fashioned sober serious parties can no longer compete.

India used to be heralded as the world’s biggest democracy. Now Narendra Modi is consolidating the classic authoritarian model, giving democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Press freedom is almost entirely extinguished. A new “Unlawful Activities Prevention Act” empowers the regime to jail anyone it doesn’t like, no specific charges even needed. The law is being utilized with gusto. A recent victim was an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and human rights advocate, Stan Swamy, with no criminal record. Denied bail, and medical care, he died in his cell.

Worse yet, this Hindu nationalist regime seems bent on making non-citizens of India’s hundred million Muslims. An insane folly if there ever was one.

India’s voters might have stepped back from the brink in the last national election. Instead they gave Modi a stonking majority.

So this is the problem of democracy: voters. I still believe a nation is better off with democracy than dictatorship. I do not believe in Plato’s idea of a philosopher king knowing best. But I increasingly worry whether enough people have the mature wisdom to vote sensibly.

Religion is part of the problem, scrambling minds into pathways of irrationalism. India is again a prime exemplar: Hindus actually thinking it’s a good idea to enflame intercommunal conflict. Such irrationalism also characterizes America’s quasi-religious Trump cult. As long as religion continues to mess up so many minds, I question whether humanity is ready for democracy.

* It’s a tribute to the power of the democratic idea that even dictators feel they need to have elections — even if phony ones.

Manifesto for a new political party

June 4, 2021

We have a two-party system. Except that one is no longer a responsible legitimate party. After 53 years as a Republican, I became a Democrat as the only sane option. But I still hanker for a good second party, and I’ve thought about what it might stand for. I have no illusions that it could spring forth in today’s America. But, as an exercise in political imagination, here is the platform:

1. Truth and honesty. This even being on the list — let alone as #1 — is a sad commentary on today’s Republicans. Inhabiting an alternate reality of lies. Many Republicans know it. Bad faith pervades the party.

2. Civic virtues — democracy, decency, civility, tolerance, fairness, compassion. Sad too that this requires stating. We’d thought our democracy was secure. Now we know it needs defending. This includes the right to vote itself.

3. Science acceptance — this goes with #1. Science is not just another viewpoint, it’s how we know things. Republican rejection of science — on evolution, climate change, covid, you name it — makes it a party of fools.

4. Racial comity. Our history of slavery still afflicts us, its legacy a factor in Black Americans, on average, living less well than whites. Most fundamentally, many still feel they’re not accepted or treated as fully equal. Simply put, we must ensure such treatment. This certainly means no tolerance for racist or white supremacist views. Or police abuse. It’s not “law and order” (and not “freedom”) when police — armed government enforcers — overstep their authority.

5. Freedom of speech. Democrats are too tolerant of intolerance. True, some viewpoints can be deemed beyond the pale (See #4). But most such issues concern what should be matters of legitimate debate. We must end the McCarthyism of punishing people for their opinions. Republicans do it too, persecuting apostates from Trump worship.

6. Free market capitalism. It’s not some system thought up by ideologues, it’s how people interact economically absent interference. And businesses trying to make a buck by selling stuff gives us the goods and services underpinning our advanced living standard. Of course there must be laws and regulations to prevent abuse (we have laws against jaywalking) and there are some functions the market cannot fulfill. Otherwise, consumers and society reap the bulk of the wealth created, when markets are competitive. Anti-competitive government actions and regulatory capture are key problems.

Many Democrats romanticize government running everything. Such a concentration of power would be the antithesis of democracy.

7. A caring society. America is a very rich country. We can amply ensure every citizen has at least minimally decent health care, shelter, nutrition, etc. Don’t call it socialism or “social justice,” it’s simply recognition of our common humanity.

8. Equal education opportunity. Its lack is central to inequality. People born in disadvantaged circumstances are put further behind by rotten schools, that tend to go with the territory. Democrats have a poor record here. School choice would help. By failing to invest in all our children, we make adults who are burdens rather than productive citizens.

9. Global human rights. Remember George W. Bush’s second inaugural, casting America as the global promoter of democracy and human rights — widely mocked by cynics? But being seen as standing for what’s right, and for humanity’s highest aspirations, is key to America’s own global standing. And a more democratic and thus more peaceful and prosperous world benefits America.

10. Free trade. Both parties have lost their way, succumbing to narrow interests at cost to our national interest. Free trade does hurt some people, but makes us collectively richer. If other countries harm themselves with protectionism, we shouldn’t respond by doing likewise. It’s not a zero-sum world; freer trade globally makes all countries richer — again good for America.

11. Global engagement. In both the above respects, “America First” should not mean America alone, retreating behind walls. Since 1945, we led the way building a rules-based world order aided by a network of alliances with nations sharing our values and aspirations for human betterment. We have benefited hugely, yet again making a world in which America itself can best flourish.

12. Church-state separation. One of America’s greatest blessings. Freedom of religion shouldn’t mean government favoritism toward religion — a source of woe throughout history. Church-state separation has benefited religions, it’s a key reason why they remain so strong in America compared to Europe. Those trying to tear it down play with fire.

13. Gun control. All rights are subject to reasonable regulation to protect the public, and that includes gun rights.* America’s unique proliferation of guns is a major contributor to violent crime. We must act to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and ban military style assault weapons.

14. End the “War on Drugs.” Drug use should be a medical matter, not a criminal one. The drug war itself harms society vastly more than drug use ever could. While achieving almost nothing. (Psst Republicans: this is another “freedom” issue.)

15. A welcoming country. America, uniquely among nations, is blessed by the diversity of enterprising people who chose to live here. They enrich us, culturally, economically, and spiritually. As Ronald Reagan said, America is a shining city upon a hill — whose wall has a great big door.

This platform distills a lifetime of thinking and political engagement. Is it so radical? Radically reasonable and rational perhaps. Yet can we imagine an American political party with such a program — and winning elections?

*The Supreme Court seems headed for an insane contrary ruling.