Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

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.

The power imbalance between good and evil

May 21, 2021

I literally wrote the book on optimism. Seeing people, and the world, improving over time. But that seems to have gone into reverse.

The power of good is considerable. Most people are better served when good prevails over evil, so work to achieve it. But the power of evil is stronger.

How so? Good is inherently self-limiting, ultimately bound by the golden rule, an iron law for people who do truly strive for goodness. The wicked are not so bound. The good have scruples and restrain themselves; the wicked do not, that’s their wickedness.

Thus the power imbalance between good and evil, recalling Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis. Humans, in mass, have indeed grown better, but it’s an ironic consequence that this means more moral restraint, and hence more vulnerability to the depredations of those without restraint.

We see this playing out all over. Some capable of anything to gain their aims, while resistance is handicapped by inhibitions on fighting fire with fire. Erdogan, Putin, Xi, Maduro, Lukashenko, Orban, Ortega, Assad. India’s Modi headed that way. El Salvador’s Bukele newly in the club. Trump tried. Myanmar’s generals willing to slaughter as many as necessary to keep power.

Willingness to kill is the top rung of the ladder that starts with flouting democratic norms, rule of law, and people’s rights. Killing is the ultimate denial of rights.

If any country ever embodied the principles of rule of law, democracy, and human rights, it was America. Don’t start in about our crimes. We’re not perfect — nothing human ever is — but we strove toward living up to those ideals, and progressed.

Until 2016. Then the power imbalance between good and evil hit. A president without restraints, compunctions, or scruples. Good did manage to prevail, but only just barely, and without finality.

America’s crisis has deep antecedents and is continuing. It was brutally exposed when Republicans blocked the Garland Supreme Court nomination, because they could. A classic instance of lack of restraint, defying democratic norms to get their way.

Behind it all lay the Obama-inspired crisis of white identity. Fears of losing demographic dominance were suddenly brought to a boil by a non-white president. Rather than Obama signaling a post-racial America, now many whites felt besieged, and that they had to make a stand. This is the elephant in the room of American political culture.

Successfully blowing through rule of law, democratic norms, and others’ rights requires the support of a critical mass of people willing to junk those principles for the sake of something that feels (to them) bigger. Such ideals once loomed large in the American imagination. But now, for many, they’re trumped by white tribalism. It’s a more primordial impulse. Democracy and rule of law are not instinctual ideas. If it’s a choice between them and white dominance, many pick the latter. They’re a minority, but a big enough one that they don’t need many additional dupes to win. Especially if unhampered by scruples.

Few of them consciously confront the reality. But white revanchism über alles is what today’s Republican party really represents. Making it an existential threat to American democracy. As seen in cultish devotion to a malign monster; propagating his big “stolen election” lie; excusing the January 6 insurrection; voting in Congress to overturn the election; and working everywhere to make voting harder. Far from being chastened by defeat, they’ve since actually gotten worse, more willing to shred democratic principles. All in service to their larger (albeit rancid and usually unspoken) tribalist cause. They’ve passed the ladder’s first rung. And their very lack of restraint confers a power advantage.

Trump finally lost because he was an incompetent fool. We may not be so lucky next time.

My optimism reality check

May 10, 2021

When I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2008, that case was powerful. My innate optimism intensified by observed reality. The big global story seemed to be progress toward greater human flourishing. Writers like Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, Amartya Sen, explained it. I was proud of my own contribution, making the case across the whole waterfront of human concerns.

I’ve followed up with my blog. Naturally, bad things have commanded attention, but I’ve tried to highlight good news, countering pessimists and cynics. However, looking back, I must acknowledge that my positive outlook too often proved misplaced. In a spirit of humility, I present a catalog of instances:

Egypt: a very democratic coup” (July 4, 2013). Ouch. Mubarak’s overthrow led to an election producing a Muslim Brotherhood government. It was an undemocratic disaster. I welcomed the coup that ousted it, seeing it as hopefully presaging a “do-over” putting Egypt on a sounder democratic path. I should have been more cynical about coup leader Al-Sisi, who became a more repressive autocrat than Mubarak. 

Democracy wins in Thailand” (July 14, 2011). Well, it did. For a while. Then here too the army ousted the elected government, and has settled in to stay. 

Modi for India” (December 27, 2013). Here I did have misgivings, over Modi’s rotten history on Hindu-Muslim relations. But he seemed to instead stress economic liberalization, which India desperately needed. He has initiated some good reforms. But that’s overshadowed by running a Hindu nationalist regime, enflaming intercommunal antagonisms — and following what has become the standard authoritarian playbook, giving India’s democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Plus now he’s much to blame for India’s Covid disaster.

Great news: Sri Lanka blows off authoritarianism” (January 15, 2015). I was delighted by the unexpected election ouster of another autocratic regime, under the Rajapaksa clan. Unfortunately the new government proved feckless. And guess what? The latest vote produced a Rajapaksa landslide. 

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil” (May 10, 2018). Similar story. The longtime ruling party was so corrupt and awful that extensive election rigging didn’t stave off defeat. But the successor government seems a mess. The tale is still unfolding, but the old lot’s reprise would be no surprise. 

Good news from Kenya” (September 2, 2017). Its highest court overturned President Kenyatta’s dodgy election victory. But guess what? He prevailed anyway in a second go.* In the wings: William Ruto, an even stinkier candidate.

Myanmar — On April 5, 2012, I wrote, with tentative hopes, about President Thein Sein’s democratization moves, after decades of military rule. On October 15, 2012, came my gushing paean to Aung San Suu Kyi. Who subsequently destroyed her heroic aura by making herself complicit in the Rohingya pogrom. And now the army has come back — with a blood-soaked vengeance. 

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story” (October 12, 2019). This new prime minister seemed a dream of an African leader, doing so much right. Even got a Nobel Prize. But hardly was the ink dry (so to speak) on my tribute when things went to to hell, the regime prosecuting an internecine war with appalling human rights abuses. 

All this begins to look like a pattern. And then:

America. Just after the 2008 election, I wrote in my book that “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and good will. . . . So we are becoming far more united than divided.” Ouch again. I did not foresee how Obama’s presidency would produce not just a racist backlash, but an intensification of racial disaffection by whites seeing their loss of caste more real. Which led to Trump — an optimist’s ultimate nightmare — America’s collapse as the avatar of Enlightenment values.

Thankfully we’ve reversed that — by a hair’s breadth — and how fully remains to be seen. A Trump return (could America go that insane?) would fit the pattern of cautionary tales I’ve related above.

Before he took office, I wrote (November 16, 2016) that power does not make bad men better. That, at least, proved prescient. And that is also a through-line in my recaps here. Lord Acton’s famous quote was “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You can actually leave off the last five words. Power corrupts. A proposition whose importance grows the more I observe the world. Not only does power not make bad men better; it can turn good men bad. 

But I keep saying that progress does not go in a straight line. For a time, liberal democratic values were on a roll; now, they’re in a bad patch. And China looms as a huge and growing anti-democratic center of gravity. Nevertheless, where the world will be in half a century is hard to foresee. It’s been documented that people are, on average, becoming smarter. I have to hope tolerance for repressive rule will wane. And while the political realm does have much to do with human flourishing, it is far from the whole story. All across the planet, lives continue to improve in countless other very important ways.

Finally — while I’m eating humble pie — on March 9, 2020 I posted:

Coronavirus/Covid 19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

*In 2020, Malawi’s courts similarly ruled the president’s re-election illegitimate; and there, the decision seems to be sticking. So far.

Goodbye, Afghanistan

April 23, 2021

She’d gotten a new job offer, our daughter Elizabeth said on the phone from Jordan. Asking our opinion. A nice surprise, that she’d ask. 

“It’s in Afghanistan,” she explained.

A lot of parents would have blanched. But we encouraged her to go.

Afghanistan is an afflicted country. I was proud of America’s helping, and that my own kid would be part of that good effort (albeit with a French organization). She didn’t stay there long, moving on to other jobs in the region, but would frequently return to Afghanistan working on development projects there. When asked to suggest a birthday present recently, she encouraged a contribution to an Afghan library-building initiative.

The modern cycle begins in 1978 with a pro-Communist coup. Insurgent Mujahideen guerrillas fought the new regime; the Soviets invaded to back it. America helped the rebels (including Osama bin Laden; a lot of thanks we got). When the Russians quit, the regime fell, ultimately replaced by the Taliban, a repressive extremist one, that harbored bin Laden’s al Qaeda. After 9/11, we invaded to go after them. Successfully at first. We managed to shepherd into being a more or less democratic government. A new day of freedom — especially for Afghan women, brutally repressed under the Taliban.

But we failed to fully exterminate the Taliban, leaving them to regroup, and torment the country ever since. So our troops kept fighting.

President Obama campaigned calling this “the right war” and ramped up our military involvement. That achieved nothing. So then Obama ramped it back down. Trump went back and forth; eventually the Great Deal Maker got a “peace deal” slating a U.S. withdrawal in exchange for, basically, nothing.

So finally this mess landed on President Biden’s desk. He made the decision to pull out.

I probably would not have. I’d cancel Trump’s crap deal. Unlike in the past, what Afghanistan is costing us now is actually very small in relation to the great risks and certain harm of withdrawing. Nevertheless, I give Biden much benefit of the doubt. In contrast to Trump, he acts responsibly, trying to figure out what’s really our best course, drawing from a well of deep experience. The military was against this decision, but I am sure Biden heard them out and gave all due consideration to their input. It was indeed a very difficult decision, and he faced up to it.

Originally, Afghanistan was our first front in the post-9/11 “war on terror.” Fighting there to prevent more attacks here. But what we wound up spending there, in lives and money, was out of all proportion to any terrorism risk. Which in the great scheme of things is insignificant. Yet we let it warp our entire foreign policy, the tail wagging the dog. President Biden is right to see that and stop it. (Meantime our biggest terrorism threat is home-grown, as we learned on January 6.)

I’m not one of those who say we can’t be the world’s policeman; can’t fix every problem; have plenty to do here at home. Well, your neighborhood could be a nasty place with no policing; we have to live in the world; we can fix some distant problems; and can do it without neglecting our own. It’s not an either-or choice. And like the Bible’s “good Samaritan” we have a human responsibility toward even people not like us. 

But there’s also the “serenity prayer” — the wisdom to know what we can fix and what we can’t. And the principle of “enough is enough.”

We did try hard to fix Afghanistan, and it’s painful to kiss off the huge investment we’d made in that effort, coming out with nothing to show for it. Our leaving is very bad news for Afghanistan. International help, not just of the military kind, will ebb away. Violence will escalate. Taliban power will grow and will probably wind up taking over the country. Women will lose all the freedom and dignity they’d achieved.

Malala Yousafzai was a teenager shot in the head, by the Taliban’s Pakistan branch, because she was an advocate for girls’ education. More recently, in Afghanistan itself, the Taliban has been conducting an extensive, methodical campaign of assassinations specifically targeting women with prominent societal roles — legislators, judges, journalists, etc.

Afghanistan is also full of ordinary people, fellow human beings, who just want to live decently like you or me. But alas, also many very misguided, ignorant, backward people and, yes, very bad people. It’s one of the tragedies of human life that the kind of situation that exists in Afghanistan is a playground for bad people to act out their badness. Worse yet when they’re imbued with the insanity of believing they’re doing God’s work. All this will make for untold harm until people finally grow up and free themselves from it. We can help show the way, but in the last analysis, it has to come from Afghans themselves.

Another thing I don’t believe is that people never change, cultures never change. History is full of examples of people and cultures that did change. Look how much America changed, in a very short time, with regard to gay people. But another thing we learn again and again is how tough it is when you’re facing hard men with guns.