Category Archives: Foreign Policy

A Showman Stages an Accidental War

We just passed a significant date in U.S. history: August 7, 1964, the beginning of the Vietnam War. On that date, Congress enacted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the President to conduct military action against North Vietnam. Congress acted quickly in response to the now infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident that allegedly occurred on August 4. Just two days before, there had been an exchange of fire between the USS Maddox and North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats. On that occasion, the Maddox determined that the approaching patrol boats were threatening and unintentionally initiated the battle with warning shots across the bow. That warning, regrettably, was misinterpreted. The patrol boats launched torpedoes and were summarily destroyed or damaged. But the stage was set for the phantom attack on August 4, its erroneous report, and the resulting Congressional authorization to begin the Vietnam War.

I was caught up in that war. For many years, I suppressed its memory until I finally decided to confront the shadow that lurked deep in my soul. The novel that resulted from that decision— “A Culpable Innocence”—was a work of historical fiction, researched from many historical accounts and declassified documents. My research uncovered two startling facts. The first I just recounted: the incident that started the war never occurred. The second was the 1952 Geneva Treaty that called for an end to the Vietnamese-French conflict and a national election to presage a peaceful transfer of power to a reunified Vietnam. Although America negotiated this treaty, at the last minute the Eisenhower Administration pulled out of the agreement. The American government betrayed its own diplomatic effort to unify Vietnam and effectively laid the groundwork for the war that ensued.

Today, America just won a resounding diplomatic victory in the United Nations Security Council where all 15 participants voted to impose severe sanctions on North Korea for its continuing development of nuclear weapons and their ICBM delivery system. But instead of supporting this diplomatic breakthrough, the President seems intent on sabotaging it by inciting the North Korean leader into a war of threats and bluster: in the President’s own words, “fire and fury, the likes of which the world has never seen.” As a result, Kim Jong-un has responded by putting cruise missiles on patrol boats and by announcing an August 15 missile launch aimed in the direction of Guam. If he does so, how will America respond to a missile landing at or near one of its military bases. Even if the missile landed 300 miles away from Guam, how would the American military determine its intended target after traveling nearly 3,000 miles? Or how would America respond to a cruise missile shot across the bow of an American destroyer? What could possibly go wrong?

We lost more than 58,000 soldiers and over 250,000 wounded veterans in Vietnam. We killed over a million enemy soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). (Casualty figures for the NVA are not available since American combatants left only the dead behind.) If we now shortcut our diplomatic efforts with threats of “fire and fury” and stumble into a war over a chance or mistaken encounter, the result would make the Vietnam casualty figures appear miniscule. We have some 20,000+ American troops on the border facing a million-man army. There are ten times that number of American civilians living in South Korea, mostly in Seoul, only 60 miles from about a thousand enemy howitzers. Within 14 minutes, those howitzers would begin to rain shells on Seoul. Hundreds of thousand could die under that bombardment. If Kim Jong-un decided to use his nuclear arsenal, millions could die. Of course, North Korea would be devastated. There are some 70 trident missiles lurking offshore in American submarines. The President just ordered B1 bombers to Guam and already has authorized their flights offshore of North Korea. Even if these flights remain over international waters, they will challenge North Korea to shoot down an American military plane–as they have done in the past.

Listen, America, the President is not just threatening a nuclear holocaust, he is readying for a nuclear war.

Confronted with this possibility, the President just said, “it’s better we fight them over there, than here (a paraphrase).” How do you think our South Korean and Japanese allies feel about his priorities? If his real intent is just to distract Americans from the Russian collusion investigation or win public support for defending America from an insane dictator, then Congress should begin impeachment proceedings as soon as possible. If, instead, he believes North Korea presents an immediate and serious threat to the homeland, then he needs to present facts and figures to Congress and the American people to support his bellicosity. I am no military expert, but cruise missiles on patrol boats do not seem like much of a threat to the counter measures built into our Navy ships. And long-range missiles with no fins seem unlikely to hit any intended target thousands of miles away – except by accident.

Simply put, are we overreacting to ridiculous provocations? And to what purpose is the President rallying Americans with his war cry? If he undercuts his Administration’s attempts at diplomacy and blunders into a war, he will likely become the first wartime President in history to be impeached. But even his impeachment could never undo the shadow he would cast over future American generations.

World leaders are beginning to criticize our President for his language and warlike posture. Perhaps his supporters will applaud the emotions he elicits with his hyperbolic rhetoric. On whatever stage he occupies, he is ever the entertainer. But as a President on the international stage, he casts a very dark shadow. What happens when the curtain comes down on his circus act? He may be ludicrous and the gist of satire. But the flipside of the dark humor he inspires is a sickening feeling in the pit of the stomach. That feeling is repulsion—a mixture of anxiety, disgust, and moral outrage.

America desperately needs a real President, not a showman. Let’s remove this showman from the world stage before he brings the curtain down on an apocalyptic climax.

How to Survive in a Post-Modern World

How does one define the “modern world”? Most would say it is our contemporary world. But what makes it modern versus its predecessor? Many historians would agree with me that the answer begins with the American Revolution and the new republic formed in its aftermath. The principles that formed that republic were partially foreseen during the Age of Enlightenment, courageously declared in 1776, and then experimentally constituted in 1787. But even at its founding, there were cracks in its foundation that fourscore and seven years later shook a budding nation to near collapse. But the experiment was destined to continue, even after the spilling of much blood and the imposition of martial law over much of its territory. Initially, America was referred to as the “new world.” What was discovered as “new” became “modern” because of its initial declaration that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These were the rights used to justify the institution of a new nation subject to the “consent of the governed.”

Later, in the formal Constitution of this new “model” of a nation, a marker was set down that has bedeviled America ever since. The goals expressed in this document were ambitious enough: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” What made these goals extraordinarily ambitious is that they were stated as means to an end. That end is the new nation’s fundamental underlying purpose, namely, “to form a more perfect Union.” In that purpose we find the crux of nearly every internal conflict this nation has endured since its founding—from Civil War, to reconstruction, to women’s suffrage, to civil disobedience, to the initial revulsion against almost every new wave of immigrants, to segregated housing, and to contemporary issues of fairness in the criminal justice system, in policing, in the provisioning of public services, and, as witnessed in the recent campaign, in the treatment of immigrants on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or legal entry into the country. The problem with this “more perfect Union” is that it implies social assimilation as well as de facto equality under the law. The former is a responsibility of every citizen. The latter is the purview of the government that guarantees the Constitutional rights of every citizen.

Even a very cursory review of human history must recognize how America’s very existence is a break with all of human history. Previous to its founding, nation states were formed around racial, tribal, and/or religious identities. America broke with this past and aspired to be different. What it created inspired many nations to form liberal democracies, though none as pluralistic as America would gradually become. The ongoing struggle to form that “more perfect Union” is at the very heart of America, its founding principle. It is also at the center of America’s evangelical influence on the rest of the world to follow its example in governance. Especially since the world wars, American diplomacy has encouraged the formation of democracies and a world order that mimicked its rule of law. The result has been the United Nations and so many other international organizations that influence trade, currency, worldwide humanitarian interests, and so much more. Europe, in particular, has benefited with NATO securing its borders and with the impetus to form its own interdependent union of historically distinct nations. It is almost as if the American Pledge of Allegiance has been extended from “one nation under God” to one world, “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Globalization, for example, is an analogue for America’s interstate commerce. The United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Geneva Conventions, and so many other international agreements and treaties reflect America’s federalist propensities. For better or worse, America has become the archetype for the modern world.

If you will concede that America has become the blueprint for a modern world, then you must also admit that it is a work in progress. And, as President Obama recently admitted, that work does not progress in a straight line. Besides the internal conflicts already mentioned, there have been many obstacles to that progress. For example, the nineteenth century gave birth to two very different economic/philosophic ideologies, namely, communism and capitalism. The former never really took root in America, despite the fears raised by McCarthyism. The latter actually undergirded the institution of slavery, for cheap labor was the underpinning of the South’s economic juggernaut and its plantation lifestyle. Its moral justification—that Blacks represented an inferior race—was a bit of sophistry to win public support for an inhuman economic system that perverted the key founding principle of America. After the Civil War and the failure of reconstruction, capitalism was the engine behind a new age of industrialism. It unleashed an era of wealth for a new class of economic barons who threatened to control the country in the service of growing their businesses and profits. President Teddy Roosevelt feared this threat; but, more importantly, wanted both labor and business to work fairly in the interest of the nation as a whole. While he introduced legislation to curtail monopoly and corruption, the breach between the economic wealth of the rich and poor widened until the stock market crash of 1929. It was Teddy’s cousin, Franklin, who began to introduce the bank controls and safety net legislation that established some measure of control over unbridled capitalism and of economic security for Americans.

Why do I bring this history into my narrative? Well, it is prologue to another hurdle for this grand American experiment in a self-governing pluralist nation. We just experienced an election campaign where we granted to an elitist billionaire the power to purge America of his self-ordained undesirables, namely, immigrants who are neither Christian nor white enough. His campaign promises regarding undocumented immigrants and Muslims categorize people by ethnic origin or religion in order to deny them the American experience and acceptance into the American community. His campaign was divisive. In addition, he is appointing other billionaires to his Cabinet who have supported policies that further divide the nation by undermining universal public education, nationwide environmental protection, union membership, American Indian treaty rights, criminal justice system reform, fair housing programs, and affordable health insurance for the poor, while proposing tax advantages for the very rich. The gap between the rich and poor, to illustrate just one example, will be further widened by making healthcare and education too expensive for millions and by changing the tax system to favor the rich more than it already does. Whatever might work towards a more perfect union he seems intent to dismember, defund, or simply negate by executive fiat.

Most of these policy positions cannot be enacted without the support of Congress. But many will find support in Congress where similar positions on repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax reform have already been proposed. In addition, the Speaker of the House would like to privatize Social Security and replace Medicare with a voucher system. A compromise between the Speaker and the President Elect might deliver legislation that suits both of their interests. The Speaker’s ideas for tax reform are already very similar to the President Elect’s proposal. The Speaker’s plan, however, is not as generous to the super rich as the President Elect’s, whose plan would increase taxes for the few poor barely living above subsistence level (earning less than $18,550) by 2% and decrease taxes for the upper middle class (earning between$151,900 and $231.450) by 2% and for the very rich by 2 to 6.6%, on an ascending income scale. Billionaires, of course, would rake in many more billions under these proposals. These policy positions have the net effect of increasing income inequality and further polarizing the nation into the “haves and have nots.” This economic polarization further accentuates the divisions he has already advocated between native or naturalized citizens and the undocumented, and between Judeo/Christian and Muslim.

When the President Elect admitted that the nation is already divided, I suspect he was referring to the urban and rural divide that he exploited so successfully. But he has yet to propose anything concrete that would bring these groups together either. It is true that globalization has incurred job dislocation along with the benefits of free trade. He promises to address the concerns of rural communities that are often disproportionately affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign labor markets. He has promised to make better trade deals and to repeal NAFTA. Even if he could repeal NAFTA, the net effect would likely be some decline in the Mexican economy, more border crossings for job seekers, higher prices for goods manufactured in Mexico, fewer jobs currently dependent upon our exports, and less income from the export business we now have with one of our biggest export markets. The net effect is not readily determinable and was certainly never itemized by the President Elect. Besides, he has not included in his analysis the impact of technology on manufacturing or other blue-collar jobs. It is not likely that a forty year out-of-work steel worker and head of household will be able or even want to obtain a college degree in order to support his family. The President Elect has made no mention of alternative blue collar work that might be made available, such as building windmills or assembling and installing solar panels. Like the current Administration, he supports infrastructure programs that would require unskilled labor. Unlike President Obama, he makes no mention of an infrastructure bank that would rely mostly on private investment. Instead, the President Elect wants to invest public money towards a trillion dollar infrastructure restoration. His purpose is laudable, but it does not address the loss of good paying blue collar manufacturing jobs. Many of the applicants for the jobs he wants to create are the very people he wants to deport. Moreover, his tax plan will not support these expenditures without blowing up the Federal debt. Besides the groups he has already alienated, like minorities, immigrants, and Muslims, he offers no solution for those others who feel isolated and adrift in an economy that is leaving them behind.

The actual promise of the next administration is further division and a dismantling of policies that might actually bring the nation together. Wittingly or unwittingly, Donald Trump is whittling away at America’s founding principle. If allowed to continue on this path, he will not make America great again. America’s greatness has always been in the future, not in its past struggles to advance the goals initially set in our founding documents. Our history has always been about realizing what it means to declare that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights. Plainly, America is about assimilating all groups within its borders and governing “with liberty and justice for all.” By contrast, President Elect Trump conducted a campaign that succeeded by “divide and conquer.” But if he governs in this manner, he will not be able to continue this nation’s progress towards a more perfect union. Instead, he will become liable for its deconstruction.

Earlier, in the twentieth century, after the communist revolutions in China and Russia, many feared the threat communism posed to American democracy, especially after the socialist legislation of the New Deal. But communism exploited social justice in a way that socialism could never imagine. It was not communism that threatened American democracy, but communists. While China never presented an existential threat, Russia’s very real nuclear threat did. The Cold War exasperated this threat. It was not, after all, Russian communism that unnerved us, but Russian militarism. Henry Adams, the renowned historian and progeny of two American Presidents, had foreseen this military threat of the Russian bear as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century. Now, after Russia’s unprovoked invasions of Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, President Elect Trump seems to favor some form of partnership with the Russian dictator. Vladimir Putin has long sought to reclaim the Soviet Empire’s status as a co-equal super power with the United States. He would welcome any form of joint agreement that might divvy up the world into equal spheres of influence. But appeasing Putin would unsettle all of Eastern Europe and weaken the NATO alliance that protects all European borders (reference “Why does Putin Favor Trump”). In addition, the President Elect’s remarks about abandoning America’s policies on nuclear non-proliferation not only threaten to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement but also encourage South Korea and Japan to become nuclear powers. Taken together these policies could spell an end to the Pax Americana or, at least, to America’s ability to maintain peace through diplomacy alone.

After having drawn this bleak picture, I must pause to admit that conjecture is not necessarily prologue to the future. Certainly, there are signs that point to a pivot from what we have come to believe to be the “modern world.” Populist movements seem to be gaining strength in many western democracies. The European Union, for example, seems to be near the breaking point. The BREXIT vote in England and the recent no confidence vote in Italy may just be the beginning of a wave. But, as Mr. Trump said during his campaign, he would not govern the way he campaigned. Listening to his recent interview with Chris Wallace, I was impressed with his sincerity and obvious emotional commitment to bring constructive change to American government. But, at some point, he needs to stop being the purveyor of sham facts to support his cause. Presidents need to win over the public with sound policies and honest communication. In the same interview where he argued eloquently about inhibiting corporate flight, job dislocation, and regulatory obstacles, he also stated that he won the greatest landslide victory in history. Actually, his margin of victory in the Electoral College ranks forty sixth amongst the fifty eight presidential elections. And he lost the popular vote by the largest margin of any candidate who won in the Electoral College. (There were only two other instances.) At some point, he needs to deal with facts if he expects to gain credibility with a majority of the electorate and not just with his supporters who believe in him without regard for the truthfulness or substance of his message (reference “Politics and the Illogic of the Heart”).

The press is already going crazy with their nitpicking about his non-attendance at daily intelligence briefings, about the absence of press conferences, about Mr. Trump’s excluding of the press from his dining out plans, about the imagined significance of everybody seen in front of the elevators at Trump Tower, and so on. Imagine the press reaction to his more substantive actions or policies as President. Although Mr. Trump has been allegedly quoted as saying “all press is good press,” I do not believe the manner in which he manipulated the press during the campaign will work to his benefit as President. There is a higher bar of truthfulness for the Presidency. He needs both to be informed and to inform at least as professionally as his predecessors in office.

If a tsunami is approaching, we all need to move to higher ground. Much of what we have grown to recognize in the modern landscape may be swept away. But each of us can survive, in fact, become better versions of ourselves. What I mean is better illustrated by what I have witnessed in my life. Many years ago, I found myself in the middle of a fierce war. Even to this day, there has never been a war where more live action fire fights were recorded. Missed in this recorded history, however, is the number of civilians caught in the crossfire: refugees moving from village to village, carrying their wounded, sick, and aging with them. They moved as a community, each caring for the other. The courage, the compassion, and the resilience I saw in many Vietnamese faces are etched in my mind forever. Even to this day, when I happen to meet a Vietnamese from that time, I ask for his or her story. Usually, I tear up and end our conversation with a hug. But that hug is not so much spawned by compassion, but by gratitude.

Politics can improve or destroy lives. Diplomacy can secure peace or devolve into wars. But only people of character can inspire others. Over time, that inspiration will eventually lead to better institutions of government, to improved relations between countries, and someday to a world community that protects this planet and its inhabitants.

Most often the reason Americans fall prey to anxieties and fears is the absence of any real threats to our security or wellbeing. We fear we may not be up to the test. It is only when truly put in danger or challenged, that we have the opportunity to test our worth. After Pearl Harbor, men volunteered for service and women replaced them in the factories while still caring for their children. African Americans walked into an angry mob at Selma and withstood the anticipated onslaught. When we have the courage to join with others and face our challenges and fears, we make the resulting engagement meaningful and discover our own strength. We may be facing difficult times ahead or not. The future is not yet determined. But if it marks the end of an era, then it will be up to each of us to define a new era.

I believe in America, and I believe in you, my fellow Americans. You care for your family and friends; you not only do well at work, but do good as well; and whatever you create, you make available to all. You should feel grateful for what you have and for what you can contribute. Whatever may be in store for America and the world, it will not change your worth or the meaning of your life. For only you can do that.

The President Elect’s Challenges

A new President Elect comes to Washington as an outsider, riding a wave of support from the common people of rural America. The Administration he will replace is aghast and, in the words of its Secretary of State, his supporters are “like the inundation of northern barbarians into Rome.”* That Secretary of State was Daniel Webster. And the President Elect was Andrew Jackson. Although “Old Hickory,” as he was famously called, had sought the White House for the previous six years, he had little background in politics and even less patience with the duplicity of politicians. He was, however, determined to alleviate the plight of the common laborer at the hands of a burgeoning industrialism. Like our current President Elect, that determination had to contend with his natural reluctance to leave a well-established home—in his case, a Tennessee plantation. And both men abhorred the hordes of office seekers and publicity hounds that awaited them in Washington. Jackson went so far as to sneak undetected into DC and, on the day of his inauguration, to scale the wall behind the Capitol to make his entrance as clandestine as possible. Mr. Trump’s secretive “comings and goings” between New York and Washington and his use of a private rear entrance into Trump Tower is reminiscent of Jackson’s natural recoil from public exposure of his movements. On the surface, there does seem to be some similarity between these two President Elects. Beneath the surface, we find a very different story.

Although our President Elect only has to fill 4,000 office vacancies compared to Jackson’s 11,000, his transition period is made more problematic by a barrage of media criticism both at home and abroad. Unlike Jackson who had been a Superior Court judge in Tennessee and a United States Senator, he has no public service experience upon which to draw. Moreover, Jackson was the much heralded hero from the Battle of New Orleans, as the general who defeated Wellington, Napoleon’s nemesis at Waterloo, and who effectively won the War of 1812. As a result, he came to Washington with a nearly universal mandate. Our new President Elect does not even have the majority support of the electorate and has no such reputation or public service history with which to leverage acceptance of his policies. Winning a/o maintaining public support may be a challenge for President Trump.

Although there may be similarities in the transition phases of these two President Elects, it is patently unfair to compare an American hero with the controversial character of Donald Trump. Something other than character was operative in Trump’s victory. And therein is a problem both for our President Elect and for our country. Besides lacking a popular mandate, a recent exit poll reported a fourth of those who voted for him believed him unfit for office. In other words, it may be assumed that at least some of those Trump votes were not actually for him, but were simply protest votes. In addition, many of his true believers admitted they bought into the native flamboyance of his character and his generic promises for change. They voted for him in spite of his lack of specificity and his more outlandish rants and hyperbole. Naturally the enthusiasm he generated amongst his supporters attracted an inordinate amount of media attention. But the same media that was so enthralled with his enthusiastic rallies and with the extravagance of his lies and conspiracy theories will now be prepared to criticize his every word and action—just as they did with his predecessor. Even as President Obama is preparing to leave office, the often liberal leaning MSNBC asked its viewers whether Obama was responsible for Trump’s victory. As preposterous as this question may seem, it is emblematic of a media obsession with finding fault in whoever holds the office. President Trump faces an unremitting adversary in the commercially supported media which tends to cater to the public’s eager consumption of “lies, sex, and videotape.” Mr. Trump has already wet this appetite. The press will be unrelenting in their attempt to feed this hunger. Securing press support for his administration, even from the conservative leaning FOX network, may prove to be a daunting challenge for President Trump.

I am not, as you may have already surmised, totally buying this comparison of Trump to Jackson. It was initially made by a political commentator in one of those 10-20 second soundbites. Besides the similarities I have noted, this commentator also proposed a similarity in character. He felt both men were similar in their ability to fight for their beliefs and personal honor and to inspire a movement. Regarding their respective pugnacity, Andrew Jackson was certainly a man of integrity who never backed down from a fight and, in tune with the honor code of his time, even took a bullet in the chest to defend the reputation of his wife. And Trump may be, as he explained, a “counter puncher.” But he seems to defend his ego more than any principle or respect for another. Regarding their respective movements, Jackson’s social cause was about the application of Jeffersonian ideals to the labor dislocation of the 1820’s nascent industrialization. His politics were nuanced to the times, on the one hand fighting Hamilton’s American system and at the same time welcoming Federalist support from the Supreme Court. In other words, his politics were anchored in the Constitution and our founding principles. Trump, by contrast, would appear to trample on the inalienable rights outlined in that document as I argued elsewhere in “Politics and the Illogic of the Heart.” His business acumen may have served him well in private enterprise, but its self-serving nature offers no platform for launching a selfless public service regime. His company is already engaged in a string of civil lawsuits. In fact, his post-election affiliation with his business enterprises, as currently planned, presents serious conflicts of interest that will likely run aground of the law. President Trump may well face Federal indictment as a result. Unless he establishes a blind trust, his ongoing business ties will present a serious legal challenge for President Trump.

Our President Elect’s avowed policy “leanings” may be well served by appointing to the position of Attorney General a former civil rights antagonist and supporter of torture, to National Security Advisor a Turkey lobbyist and outspoken advocate for Islamophobia, to Chief Political Strategist an alt-right activist supported by white supremacists, to Director of the Central Intelligence Agency an advocate for resumption of torture and unrestrained surveillance, and to Director of the Environmental Protection Agency a person who thinks climate change is merely a hoax. Currently, among the possible choices for Secretary of State, he is considering a Russian lobbyist. Considering his previous statements in support of Vladimir Putin and his complementary remarks about Putin on RT’s (Russia Today’s) telecast, it is not unlikely that our President Elect will choose somebody that mirrors his tendency to seek some kind of rapprochement with Russia. By allowing the stated policy preferences of these appointments, he would be undermining fundamental American values and any constructive role in foreign affairs. Earlier in “There are Five Stages,” I stated my hope that the President Elect would impugn his campaign positions; instead he appears to be doubling down on them. These appointments could spell disaster for America and may already be one of the greatest challenges to his Presidency.

Prior to any consultation with the State Department, he has already had a conversation with Mr. Putin. Perhaps in the future they might work out a “compromise” where Russia would agree to join the United States in fighting Daesh and limit its annexation of sovereign territory to Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in exchange for joint acceptance of Assad as President of Syria and of unfettered Russian interference in the Baltic States which it considers its historical sphere of influence. Although hypothetical, this type of “rapprochement” is well suited to our President Elect’s stated positions with respect to Russia. It is also antithetical to America’s current foreign policy, to NATO’s charter, and to the international coalitions America has formed with western democracies. President Trump would face backlash from many nations with whom we have partnered for the last 70 years. But he may count as a positive that not only Russia, but even North Korea has expressed support for his Presidency. If his foreign policy continues in its current direction, America would face increased isolation in world affairs and may well facilitate the dissolution of the Pax Americana.

But perhaps our new President Elect will find a threat to his tenure in office of greater concern than the challenges enumerated here. Paradoxically, the most severe threat that may face President Trump is from his own Party. As many have stated, he is more pragmatic than ideological. His Republican “conservatism” is suspect on many issues, as shown during his primary debates. Also, he violated the Reagan oath to never criticize fellow Republicans. In fact, during his campaign, he alienated many Republican leaders, including the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader. The latter are the very people who would prosecute an impeachment if Trump failed the challenges put forth here, most especially any domestic legal charges or serious foreign policy mishaps like a conflict of interest or collusion with a foreign power. Having won the election, he appears to have regained support of nearly all Republican officeholders. But that support is opportunistic, not organic. Beneath the surface, there still lurks a smoldering distrust of his Republicanism.

Now you might think a Constitutional confrontation between the branches of government would be remote. But it was only eighteen years ago when a Republican Congress attempted to impeach a President for perjury and obstruction of justice because he lied under oath about a consensual affair he had while in office. Remember “I never had sex with that woman.” His only defense was what he thought sex “is,” thereby incriminating a defenseless intransitive verb. Compared to President Clinton’s failure with his personal challenge to marital fidelity, President Trump’s potential to fail before much greater challenges elicits risks both to the general welfare of all Americans and to America’s status in the world. If he should fail here, impeachment might not only be justified, but it would be politically desirable for the Republican Party. The current Vice President Elect is a very conservative Republican who served for twelve years in Congress and considers the Speaker a personal friend. Republicans would readily welcome him in place of an impeached President Trump.

Remember General Othello was undone by his trusted ensign. In the house of cards Donald Trump is building, there are many possible Iagos.

*As quoted by Marquis James, in “Andrew Jackson: Portrait of a President,” p. 181.

“The Only Thing We Have to Fear . . .”

Fear is a potent and persuasive force in the rhetoric of a political operative. It is also an effective way to capture an audience’s attention. But, in life, we have to choose our fears carefully. Attacking windmills is no alternative for having the discernment, the tenacity, and courage to address real problems. Fear is our early warning system that can either inhibit us or spur us to action in the face of a real problem. If the problem is not real, then the elicited fear is not real, but an artificial ploy. Recognizing the difference is personal and liberating. And that recognition is true for both the individual and the nation.

When I was a little boy, my father and I would wrestle on the floor of our small living room. Besides the intimacy that I always had with my father, I remember how he did not always feign defeat in these matches. Sometimes, he would pin me to the floor. My mother would hear my complaints and attempt to intervene. But my father would say, “He needs to learn how to recover from defeat. He won’t always win in life.” Later, when he discovered that I was being bullied at school, he confronted me with the question, “Do you like being bullied?” Of course, I said “no.” His response was to buy me a punching bag and teach me how to defend myself, even against a bully older and bigger than myself.

It would be easy to draw the wrong lesson from my father’s actions. It was not about aggression, but about resilience. Eventually, I came to understand his intent as I learned the context of his life. As a teenager during the Depression, he and his older brother carried 100 lb. sacks of coal they stole from abandoned mines in Pennsylvania in order to keep their family warm during the harsh winter months. With the death of his step father, the family struggled to clothe and feed themselves. They depended upon the meagre income he earned from the streets and a local bakery. When he graduated from High School, he was offered a college scholarship. He refused. Instead, he went to New York where he could earn more money to support his widowed mother and younger siblings and pay for his sister’s college tuition. After Pearl Harbor, he wanted to enlist. But he was still the sole support of his family and his new wife. As it turned out, his desire to enlist was preempted by the draft. But before he was sent into combat, the army found him medically unfit and honorably discharged him. The soldiers in his Platoon went on to fight at Normandy and, according to reports, were all killed on D Day. Were it not for the ear infections that partially deafened him for life, I would not have been born.

During my development years, my father was the family breadwinner. He worked as a blue collar worker all his life and somehow managed to pay my undergraduate tuition and, after I left home, invested in my mother’s late blooming career. One of his best friends as a young man went on to earn a doctorate at UC Berkeley. That friend said of my father that he was the most intelligent man he had ever known. On the occasion of my father’s funeral, he wrote, “he was the best of us.” What my father’s life taught me was to always choose the “high road” and never give up or give in.

My previous blog closed with a reference to the sacrifices made by my father’s generation—“The Great Generation,” as chronicled in Tom Brokaw’s book. My father was not alone. Many men, women and children persevered through the challenges of Depression and World War. The Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt witnessed the soup lines, massive unemployment, Pearl Harbor, the sinking of commercial ocean freighters, and, of course, World War II in which over 400 thousand American soldiers died. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” were designed to bolster the American population during those times of stress. He assured his listeners that America would eventually win the peace and secure our country. So why did he caution against fear?

I think the answer relates to my father’s question, “Do you like being bullied?” Both men knew that fear can immobilize an individual or a people. Roosevelt, for example, recognized that a nation gripped with fear risked defeat or a response stultified by panic. He chose for America the “high road,” demanding sacrifice, courage, and persistence. The lesson of my father was really the same for his entire generation. Together, they suppressed their fears and persisted to win that peace and build a platform for future prosperity. The lesson was one of resilience. And their fear was real.

Today, America is secure and prosperous. But it still harbors fears. During the Presidential campaign, the fears that seem to dominate the news cycle come from issues of terrorism, a Syrian refugee crisis, Muslim or undocumented immigrants, and the possible ill health or incompetency of the Presidential candidates. Do these issues justify the fear they engender? And is the fear real? Perhaps a closer look is warranted.

➣ Today we recognize the fifteenth anniversary of the World Trade Center disaster. Since 9/11/2001, there have been no successful attacks on American soil from foreign terrorists. Instead, we have experienced mass killings by Americans who claimed to be inspired by Daesh.
➣ Actual immigration and refugee statistics for the last year have not yet been released. But, in 2014, America gave slightly over one million immigrants permanent residency status. Only 96 thousand of these immigrants were refugees. None of them came from Syria. Some were undoubtedly Muslim, though I could not find an immigration statistic for this population. Their religious affiliation, of course, is not material to their immigration status. This year America has admitted ten thousand Syrian refugees; and several hundred thousand of the 11 million Syrian refugees have so far made their way to Europe. America has agreed to vet another 65 thousand Syrian refugees for residency in 2017.
➣ In 2014, 133 thousand Mexican nationals were awarded residency status. Currently, the influx of undocumented immigrants now matches the exodus of Mexican nationals. Since a large portion of those now crossing the borders without visas are from other Central American countries, the actual number of undocumented arrivals from Mexico is actually decreasing. Of course, the Hispanic population in this country is increasing because of the number of births within that community. Somewhere between a third and half of the estimated 11 million undocumented Hispanics currently in America were born in America. In other words, in accordance with our Constitution, they are actually fellow Americans. Nevertheless, this Administration has extradited more undocumented immigrants than any previous Administration. Among the factors accounting for more extraditions are two changes made during this Administration: the border control force has been augmented and is now larger than all Federal law agencies combined; and the Administration has emphasized the priority of extraditing all undocumented residents with criminal records whether recorded here or in their country of origin. Having stated these factors, I have not dismissed the number of law-abiding undocumented immigrants that have been exported to their native countries. I just do not have their numbers, but can only guess at the anguish of their families.
➣ The issues of health and competency of our Presidential candidates seem to be a matter for the electorate to decide. Both candidates have letters from medical doctors testifying they are fit for office. Both candidates will be the oldest nominees for office since President Reagan. Their medical condition is a matter for consideration in their respective eligibility for office.

These issues are not the only things discussed and argued during this campaign season. But they seem to get the most attention. Apart from the nominees’ respective health or competency, why should we fear foreign terrorist, Syrian refugees, undocumented Mexican nationals, or Muslims? Obviously, terrorists do not present an existential threat to America at this time. The focus should be—and already is—on corralling and defeating Daesh in Syria, limiting their ability to resupply and support their fighters, and counter their internet recruitment efforts. Regarding the Syrian immigrant crisis, it has hardly touched the United States homeland. At this time, America is already the largest contributor to refugee camps overseas. But it is true that America’s one to two year vetting process does slow down the flow of refugees. This vetting process could be expedited if Congress chose to exempt certain classes of refugees, as they did at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Given the large number of immigrants already seeking residency in America, there seems to be little incentive for Congress to exempt or reduce the vetting of Syrian refugees. The concern about large numbers of criminals entering via our southern border or of terrorists entering with visas from Muslim countries like Syria is not supported by facts. With respect to Muslim immigrants, our Constitution would prohibit their exclusion on the basis of their religion. And Muslims have been immigrating to America since 1880; and nearly all of the three million or so Muslims currently living in America were born here. Never in the intervening 136 years have American Muslims presented any reason for other Americans to fear them. So, given these considerations, why do these issues consume so much consideration?

The answer involves motivation. The Republican nominee fans unwarranted fears of a denigrated portion of the electorate, while demonizing his opponent. The Democratic nominee uses these misdirected fears to draw attention to her counterpart’s incompetence, while likewise demonizing him. The press is content to cover any contest that entertains its audience or readers with the back-and-forth of accusations, conspiracy theories, alleged scandals, and personal insults. In other words, both campaigns and the press want to shape the narrative to either sell a candidate or hold an audience’s attention, respectively. But what is being missed in this campaign charade? What issues are real causes for concern? Let’s review a few hard problems that are being overlooked.

➣ Our contest with Russia has been on a slow burn for over a decade now and threatens to overheat to that point of no return. The press laughed at the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee for drawing attention to this concern. But is another Cold War imminent? Or are we already so engaged? This contest with Russia did not start with the Georgia invasion nor culminate with the invasions of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. It is ongoing and has precedents. President Bush encouraged the expansion of NATO to the Russian border and withdrew the United States from the ABM treaty. Under President Obama, the United States activated a missile defense site in Romania, broke ground on another missile defense site in Poland, and punished Russia for its actions in Ukraine with stringent economic sanctions. Meanwhile, Putin has been planning how to neutralize the supposed threats posed by these missile defense sites in Eastern Europe. While Congress is proposing a one trillion dollar allocation over ten years to modernize the nuclear triad, including new cruise missiles, nuclear submarines, ICBMs, and bombers, Putin has announced he will bring five new strategic nuclear missile regiments into service. It is naive to call Putin a bully who merely needs to be confronted. He is acting out of the context of recent history and his own predilections regarding America’s allegedly devious intentions. Our next President has to find a way to deal with Putin before either side continues this escalation into a tense standoff in Eastern Europe—something reminiscent of the Cuban missile crisis.
➣ North Korea and Iran are both developing ICBMs which normally are built to deliver nuclear warheads. Meanwhile, President Obama has decided to deliver a missile defense system to South Korea. Israel, of course, already has the American supplied Iron Dome Missile Shield. With respect to Iran, The President’ pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal was intended to immediately set back Iran’s nuclear program and establish an inspection protocol that would permanently remove the threat of a weaponized nuclear program. (Whether his intent is successful will depend upon the verification protocol being maintained and Iran’s behavior after the initial ten year reductions in their atomic energy program are “normalized.”) North Korea’s recent underground nuclear test definitely raises the stakes there. Kim Jong Un’s intent to develop intercontinental missiles weaponized with nuclear warheads is transparent. Perhaps I am alone in wondering whether the missile defense systems the United States is installing in Eastern Europe and South Korea might also have a dual role. Besides protecting our allies, they could also serve as an early warning system for a possible nuclear attack on the homeland. Maybe my imagination is running away with me. But, last I checked, our nuclear defense is still based upon mutual mass destruction. In this context, early warning is critical. And the intent of a nuclear armed North Korea becomes critical in raising America’s alert level and response preparedness.
➣ China now boasts that its nuclear submarine fleet is larger than the U. S. fleet. It has extended its reach from the South China Sea to the Western Pacific. Meanwhile, the U. S. has ramped up its naval presence in the Eastern Pacific and promoted alliances across Asia as a counterweight to Chinese influence in the region. American ships and reconnaissance flights in the South China Sea have instigated Chinese intercepts which have been termed provocative and dangerous by the Pentagon. Meanwhile the Chinese are proposing their own RECEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) agreement to counter the Obama Administration’s TPP (The Pacific Partnership) agreement that both Presidential candidates have criticized. China fears that the TPP will cement America’s influence in their region where possibly 40% of the world’s commerce may reside.
➣ The Middle East is in the midst of a medieval clash of civilizations where modernity is being weighed against the rigid security of oppressive regimes and the comforting customs of religious practice. Will some form of democracy emerge or, in the absence of democratic institutions, just mob violence? How can traditional religious practice meld with the secularism of modern states? The West could stand back and watch the Middle East burn. Or, perhaps under American leadership, the West could find a way to act constructively and respectfully in the region. The fighting in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and the spillover into terrorist acts of violence in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Jordan now overshadow the long standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territory. There is only one unifying theme in the region’s amalgam of dissident sects, tribal rivalries, and foreign engagement in proxy wars, specifically, distrust for the West. Although America was never part of the colonial regimes, it is still seen as the chief representative of the West and is called the Great Satan. Since the Carter Administration, every President has taken a turn at solving the Middle East conundrum. It may be unsolvable for anybody from the West. Nevertheless, no President can completely ignore the region for, as we have seen in Syria and the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya , this region’s dysfunction cannot be contained within its borders.
➣ On the home front, there are far too many issues that loom large; but none can be addressed because of gridlock in Washington. Party politics have made it impossible to address any issue in a united and coordinated fashion, including the national debt (13-14 trillion plus another 6 trillion owed to the Social Security Trust Fund), deficit spending (forecasted to average 500 billion per year through 2021), infra structure investments (roads bridges, airports, the electrical grid, internet access, etc.), other related tactics in support for job creation (like an infra structure bank, inner city economic zones, renewable energy subsidies, and so on), measures to address income inequality (like a minimum wage increase, extension of the earned income credit, tuition subsidies, vocational training in high school, additional support for community colleges, etc.), tax reform (leveling the corporate field for competition by eliminating loopholes and lowering corporate taxes uniformly, lowering the tax burden for working middle class families, eliminating tax havens overseas, etc.), health care (cost reductions in pharmaceuticals, shoring up the insurance loss counter-provisions now prohibited by the courts, possibly some compromise on a public option), and entitlement reforms to bolster the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. The reason there are so many unaddressed issues is the fact that they have been accumulating for years without even appearing on the Congressional agenda. Meanwhile, 50-60 repeals of “Obamacare” have passed the House; and the government’s budget is juggled like a hot potato until the legislators run for the exit at the midnight deadline. Whatever happened to the “service” in public service?

Both wittingly and unwittingly, the media shapes the narratives of this campaign season to focus on the less significant issues while the candidates in turn attempt to disqualify each other as unfit for office. My readers can decide on who is or is not fit for office. But I am free to question this misplaced focus for trivializing a Presidential election campaign. My last bullet captures perhaps the most critical issue before us. Americans are looking for a change election because they are fed up with the way the institutions of government are being managed. They have been hijacked by special interest and political stratagems that show little regard for the general welfare of Americans. (A specific example of the latter I addressed in my blog, “Perverted Politics.”)

The current political discourse hypes bogus fears that misdirect the public into unrealistic and simplistic solutions: build walls to “protect” the nation from “illegal aliens”; prohibit Muslim a/o Syrian immigrants to “protect” Americans from terrorists. Obviously, there are and have been people who live in America without proper visas. Not all of them are Mexicans. And their offense is legally termed a misdemeanor for which they can be deported. Looking out my window, I see several of them working on a construction project. I know they are not unionized and are underpaid for their work. This is a problem for them, their families, and for America. But it is not a cause for fear. Likewise, apart from the “shoe bomber” and “underwear bomber,” who were both unsuccessful, we have had no Muslim foreign infiltrators terrorizing America since the 9/11 attack 15 years ago. We have more homegrown terrorists with whom to reckon than foreigners. And they are not “Muslim extremists.” When I studied comparative religion, a religious extremist of any denomination was an advocate for a literal interpretation of sacred scriptures, not a terrorist. So use of the term “radical Muslim extremist” is more a derogatory comment on a person’s religious affiliation than a means to defeat Daesh. It is a mislabeling intended to induce fear and loathing for a religion—an easy scapegoat for the deluded souls who adopt various justifications—religious and otherwise—for their murderous rampage.

When Roosevelt attempted to quell fear, his purpose was to give hope and instill courage in the American people. He wanted to elicit their resolve in the face of fear. A leader inspires; a politician persuades. But the citizen must distinguish the difference between inspiration and demagoguery, between persuasion and manipulation. Fear is the artifice of choice for the manipulator and the demagogue. Just remember, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

(More on this topic can be found in “America’s Broken System” and with a touch of satire, in “Compromise, An Unfulfilled Promise.”)

Why does Putin Favor Trump?

Early in the primary season, Putin spoke out in favor of Donald Trump. He seemed to be responding to Trump’s stated remarks praising Putin. But it still struck me as odd that the Russian President would bother to remark on the American presidential campaign before the Parties had even selected their candidates. During the Cold War, a Russian President’s endorsement would have been the kiss of death for a candidate. So why would Putin speak out in favor of Trump? Was he seriously impressed with Trump’s credentials, as he indicated? Or did he have a subversive or other ulterior motive? Well, I did a little research and have discovered a few correlations that may hint at his motives. Of course, I have no way of knowing what is in Putin’s mind. But, still, I thought it useful to share the following:

➣ Maybe Putin sees Trump as somebody he can understand. Both are nationalist and use populist rhetoric to gain support of their followers. They both seem caught up in nostalgia for the past whether in Putin’s commitment to restoring the Soviet empire or in Trump’s avowed dedication to “making America great again.”
➣Putin might also infer some like mindedness between him and Trump in their professional associates and in their reaction to demonstrators. Paul Manafort, Trump’s political strategist, performed the same role a little more than two years ago for Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president that Putin controlled and protected. Although I have no reason to impugn Manafort’s involvement in the political repression of Ukrainians, his political involvement with both Yanukovych and Trump could be interpreted by Putin in Trump’s favor. Putin also shares Trump’s distaste for political opposition. His government threatened to withdraw financial aid to Yanukovych unless he suppressed protests. In February of 2014, Yanukovych ordered the mass shooting of protesters, thereby spurring a revolution, his own exile in Russia, and Putin’s invasion of Crimea. Trump certainly shares Putin’s distain for protesters and likewise disregards the possibility of any violent consequences.
➣Putin’s desire to form a Eurasian alternative to the European Union would be abetted by Trump’s stated intent to withdraw from NATO. The only entity in Europe that is committed to protecting state borders since World War II is NATO. Russia under Putin is provocatively testing those borders in his quest to form a counterweight to the EU. Trump’s interest in freeing America from European “free-loaders” goes far beyond President Obama’s insistence that NATO countries devote two percent of their state budgets to mutual defense. Trump is threatening to remove the American safety net altogether—a policy proposal that has already shaken our allies but that must warm the heart of Putin.
➣Trump’s perspective that America has failed, that the government is led by “losers” and “incompetents,” fits nicely into Putin’s view that the West is corrupt and a foil for his type of authoritarianism. Although Putin might like Trump’s analysis of America’s state of the union, he likely is more interested in what a Trump presidency would mean for Russia. In fact, the Kremlin seems to believe Trump’s erratic foreign policy initiatives might benefit Russia. According to the television producer and writer Peter Pomerantsev, the Russian elite are convinced that Trump will destroy US power (reference “Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia,” Public Affairs, p. 241).
➣ Besides, Putin really does not like Hillary Clinton. He accused her during her last state visit as Secretary of State of stirring up trouble amongst Muscovites and his opposition in Parliament over alleged rigged elections. After she left Moscow, he had the opposition leaders arrested.

So why does Putin favor Trump? Why does he insert himself in American politics? What has emboldened him to do so?

If we know anything at all about Putin, we must recognize that he is reliving, even recklessly reviving, the Cold War. Diplomacy for him is a zero sum game that he feels Russia must play against the West and specifically against the United States. When President Obama pulled Putin aside at the G20 Summit and told him “that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike” (reference, Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic, April 2016 issue), Putin agreed with the President’s proposal , but not out of any conciliatory or humanitarian initiative. It is likely he saw his own interests served. Perhaps he wanted to forestall the possibility of chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. Many Islamic Chechens who violently oppose Moscow are fighting with Daesh in Syria. But it would be naïve to overlook his likely intent to undercut our President in his ongoing tryst with political opponents at home. Republicans immediately highlighted the President’s weakness vis-à-vis Assad and Putin. The appearance of being upstaged by Putin played very well in the Kremlin, in the US media, and in Europe. This is the result, I believe, that Putin sought, especially in its effect on American allies whose trust in the American President’s “redline” was shaken.

There was a time in American politics when political adversaries in America always agreed on supporting the Presidency against any form of foreign aggression, including diplomatic. That time has passed. Some Republicans in Congress have unwittingly, or perhaps unconscientiously, aligned themselves with our diplomatic foes. It would have been unimaginable for any Republican to align with Khrushchev during the Kennedy administration or with Brezhnev or Andropov during the Reagan administration. Yet we hear the President’s political opponents praising Putin as a statesman who outwits the Administration’s foreign policy at every turn. What was unimaginable is now reality: the Kremlin is now emboldened to insert itself into American politics. A former KGB operative, a Cold War antagonist, can now openly favor a candidate for the American Presidency.

Whatever interest the Kremlin has in Trump and whatever Putin hopes to accomplish by publically commending him, we can be sure of one thing—his interests are not ours.

Politics Past and Present

My daughter suggested I write a blog on “something to do with correlations and causality in regards to the current state of the world or politics.” She raises a very high bar for me, which is probably more a reflection of her regard for her father than any real talent I possess. Amongst my 3,000+ subscribers, none have made specific requests other than “keep writing.” So her suggestion, while exposing my limitations, has elicited the following thoughts.

To begin, we owe the term “politics” to the Greeks (polis, “city state,” related to polites, “citizen”). The Greek city states were formed in the 10th century, BC. One can argue that political philosophy started in Athens in the 5th century, BC, with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The practice of politics, or the art of persuasion, was practiced with great fervor at the time by the Sophists. (Like modern politicians, they were masters of twisted logic.) But even before there was the term “politics,” humans organized into collectives to preserve their way of life and to survive in a dangerous world. Whereas most animal species procreate and protect themselves in some form of collective—herds, prides, flocks, etc.—humans require a special form of collective that allows them to fairly and safely go about the business of being human, to include working, playing, creating, and procreating. This need to form a collective is the impetus to form governments and their underlying cause.

The current state of politics bears a generic similarity with the past. Humans have always organized into groups with common interests: communities of like familial, ethnic, or cultural bonds. And these communities require some kind of enforceable structure, implying a locus of power. History shows a progression in that power structure. Perhaps it started with the strongest caveman who could lead the hunt for food, assure social order within the collective, and protect his family or tribe from danger. Certainly, the shaman assumed this role with his/her (yes, there were female shamans) ability to communicate with the forces of nature and exercise seemingly magical powers to guide his/her people and even to cure them of their ills. Following the shamans were god-like kings, pharaohs, and emperors. In subsequent civilizations, the theological underpinnings of divinely endowed leaders were preserved in religiously inspired doctrines of “the divine right of kings” and of the infallibility of Popes and Caliphs. As populations grew under these powerful figureheads, their power was increasingly shared with nobles, bishops and emirs. Gradually, this divinely sanctioned power became secular and evolved into Europe’s feudal systems which included both clerical and aristocratic control over land, wealth and people. The hoi polloi, or common people, were governed with little or no control over the means of their governance. Though they lived in a well-ordered society, today we would likely characterize their lives as indentured servitude. The people who lived in these earlier political organizations probably appear stunted to our contemporaries in the 21st century. Nevertheless, they experienced a certain degree of security inasmuch as they fit into an established system with a fixed destiny. However mean or destitute might be their living conditions, their system of government was predictable and probably experienced as unalterable.

Over two hundred years ago the nature of political organizations changed drastically as a result of the American and French revolutions. The concept of government “of the people, by the people and for the people” came into vogue with the birth of republicanism or representative democracies. The following centuries witnessed many new dynamic democracies. But what really changed was the very fabric of society. Citizens of modern democracies have a stake in government and a consequent responsibility. Previously silenced factions became part of the national discourse on matters of governance. But with open discourse come discord and the birth of pluralism in government. Living in a pluralist democracy is therefore a special kind of challenge. One cannot always have his/her way, neither in private or public life. Whereas the acquiescence required in a feudal, theocratic, or monarchical system was prescribed, citizens in modern democracies have individual rights and must develop the ability to respect the rights and perspectives of others. The homogeneous experience lived by citizens of a small city-state like ancient Athens, has no relation to our contemporary democratic republics composed of millions. The average American, for example, may have neighbors of a different cultural a/o ethnic background. Also, local communities develop significant political differences with other groups and communities. A West coast liberal, for instance, will not vote like a Deep South conservative. Even a Party devotee is not likely to agree with every component of his/her Party platform. This type of dissonance is magnified today by our interconnected communication systems. As a result, even in the recidivist totalitarian regimes, this political discord is ever present and is a characteristic corollary of modern day governments.

Political discord is the underlying tension both within and without the several Western democracies: federalism versus states’ rights; popular mandates versus delegate empowerment; totalitarian regimes versus democracies; international coalitions versus rogue states; theocracy versus “modernity”; centrally managed economies versus free markets; cultural identity versus pluralism; and so on. Complicating this tension is the role capitalism plays in democracies. Whereas unfettered capitalism seems to be a corollary of personal freedom, it can be destructive of the very freedom it advocates. Its destructive ability was well diagnosed in the 19th century, witnessed and addressed by American Presidents for most of the 20th century, and now in the 21st century universally recognized as the core problem in what is often referred to as income and wealth inequality. Although world poverty has been significantly reduced by free trade and emerging markets, the divide between the “haves and have nots” has widened. By some analyses, 85 families now have accumulated more wealth than 50% of the world’s population. Here in America, .1% of the population is said to control 60% of the nation’s wealth and nearly all of the income benefits from recent advancements in productivity. The world’s democracies are struggling to maintain the balance between individual and moneyed interests. To the extent this balance continues to favor international corporations and the growing billionaire class, the tension and discord will intensify.

The worldwide disparity in wealth has also affected democratic institutions. Here in America, for instance, a single billionaire can finance his own election. Two brothers have spent billions financing local, state, and national elections in order to maintain their influence over government policies, specifically policies favoring their core energy business. American firms spend over $3 billion a year on lobbying Congress. While wages stagnant, international corporations store between $800 billion and $1 trillion in offshore tax havens made lawful by a dutiful Congress. The health care and technology industries help Congress write exclusive patent laws that make these financial sectors among the most profitable in America. These are just a few examples of a broader enterprise to infiltrate the institutions of government. Unless thwarted, they will transform a representative democracy into a financial oligarchy, not unlike the feuding aristocracies democracies replaced. Perhaps unwittingly, they are destroying the public’s faith in the institutions created to serve their interests. More than the fomenting of public discord is at stake here, but the very fate of democracy itself.

Could it be that we are at another inflection point in human history? Has the experiment with democracy run its course? Perhaps it is time to reflect on the nature of democracy, the reason it has been advanced, and the measures required to preserve it.

Democracy implies a degree of individual freedom. And freedom implies risks and responsibility. For example, it requires tolerance of unfamiliar types of people and of competing ideals. Tolerance then presents a constant challenge to the natural desire for familiar and stable experiences. Nevertheless, it is necessary for civility to exist instead of prejudice and close-mindedness. At times it may appear to be an unwelcome corollary to modern democracies. But without tolerance of the rights of others, there can be no justice. Religious orthodoxy or totalitarian states can enforce uniformity and pose as just systems. But they do not determine individual morality. A former Republican nominee for President once said, “You can’t legislate (sic) morality.” He was right, of course, because morality must be lived to be real. But laws do reflect the moral values of the governed, at least that is the code followed by democracies. So he was equally wrong as well. No democratic government can exist for long without a robust system of justice that reflects the basic values of that democracy. A good example of these values is the rights defined in the American Constitution. Even America’s failures reinforce these values. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, and residual prejudice not only endangered the freedom and basic rights of African Americans but also the viability of American democracy. The fundamental principle of any democracy is the guarantee of personal freedom. Tolerance is the operating premise of that guarantee. It is, therefore, integral to the nature of any democracy.

It may appear that a democracy merely has to regroup around its founding principles in order to secure its future. But our experience with democracies has taught us more. America, as the oldest democracy, is not some fantastical utopia where its inhabitants feel secure and comfortable with their individual destinies. In the real America, there is insecurity, even fear. We Americans are not shielded from birth to grave by a singular philosophy or mythology that everybody serves and that promises our future with some degree of certainty. Not only is America not ancient Athens, but it is not the Holy Roman Empire either. Everything is at risk in our constitutionally defined political structure and society. America is in its essence an evolving enterprise. Its citizens must have the courage to face a future that they actively or inadvertently create, including the unwelcome consequences of laws or disastrous foreign policy decisions they may have supported. The success of a democracy is less the result of its flawless performance than of the wisdom gained from its mistakes. Democracies are not static collectives. They must evolve or die. Why else do Americans have this constant debate between conservativism and liberalism—between our past and present values? From the very beginning, America has struggled to “form a more perfect Union.”

Would Hamilton have recognized our modern capitalistic system? He would probably shudder at its current struggle with inequality. Could Lincoln have envisioned an African American President in the White House? Perhaps he would be less surprised by those who question the qualifications of this President. Can anybody today imagine America’s future? There was a time here in Northern California when a Miwok Indian shared a common experience and future with everyone in his/her tribe. That Indian was secure in his expectations for both the nature of his life and its destiny. In modern day America, our security is something we manage on a daily basis, else we lose it altogether. When our politicians remind us of our insecurities and scare us with impending doom and gloom, they are merely triggering instincts that our indigenous to Americans. Our system of government stands against centuries of political structures whose security was defined by rule of unquestioned authority, a fixed ideology, and/or an ethnic/cultural identity. America’s security, by contrast, consists in less tangible elements: acceptance of our differences, commitment to those common principles I often quote from our Constitution’s Preamble, a fair assessment of our failures, and a willingness to work together towards a future that better exemplifies our founding principles.

The measure of any form of government should be how well it takes care of its citizens. The causal chain in the development of political systems is a journey through organizational structures that provide security and identity for groups of people—tribes, city states, empires, and nations. Democracies are a special class, however, inasmuch as they maintain themselves in flux, necessitating constant efforts to manage the stability of their political structures. When our politicians address the issues of our time, they offer widely different solutions. To the extent they can find a common path forward to benefit their electorate, they move the country towards new horizons. Correlated with democracy’s special status then are ongoing adaptations to the needs of the majority and to the values of succeeding generations. In a perfect world, this correlation allows a democracy to evolve and adapt to the needs of its people and to any outside threats to its interests a/o existence. In the world we actually inhabit, however, democracies face many serious internal threats. Previous blogs have addressed the problems of power hungry operatives, of leadership unresponsive to the will of the majority, of insensitivity to minorities or the disadvantaged, and of Machiavellian manipulation of the American electoral system to the benefit of the rich and powerful. At the core of these threats is the problem of personal destiny or of how well contemporary democracies care for their citizens’ present and future prospects. If you are born in East Harlem or South Central Los Angeles, for example, your future may be no less determined than a serf in the feudal system of the past. The same may be said for segregated ethnic conclaves in Europe. Instead, you should have the same access to a public education and a safe environment as any member of a gated community. Western democracies cannot truly be democratic until their systems provide equal opportunity for all their citizens. That opportunity in America is integral to the clarion promise of our independence from monarchy, specifically the declaration of certain unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

America may be the oldest democracy in the world. But it is still a work in progress. Like the other democracies, it must deal with many threats from anachronistic forces both within and without that merely want to reestablish the embellishment of the few over the impoverishment of the many. Its success continues to be its ability to preserve, reform, and adapt its identity to a changing world.

American Democracy in a Dangerous World

Today’s blog asks the question whether the health of the American democracy is relevant to its survival in a contentious and dangerous world.

We all know that democracy, according to its Greek derivatives, means “people rule” or, less etymologically, “majority rules.” We also know that no Western democracy is governed by an Athenian forum where the vote of every citizen determines the specific rules or customs that every citizen must live by. We might call this form of democracy “big D.” Instead, contemporary democracies elect representatives of the public interests and invest them with the power to govern. We can call this form of self-government a representative democracy* or “little d.” The democratic principle of majority rule still applies, not only in the election of representatives but also in their functioning as legislators. The secret behind this form of democracy is that the minority CHOOSES to accept the will of the majority. That choice is based upon an unwavering belief in a democratic system and in its capacity to serve both the present and future needs of its citizens. A minority position may one day be held by a majority as circumstances or societal norms change. For example, decades ago a minority believed that widespread housing segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South were inhuman and contrary to the spirit of our Constitution. Today, a majority agree. Not very long ago, few people spoke in favor of same sex marriage. Today, it has become commonplace. This type of evolution is at the heart of any democracy and explains how America resolves its differences over time. American belief in democracy and its future falters when it excludes support a/o acceptance of majority rule—which explains the American public’s present disaffection with Congress. First, it has at times chosen to ignore the will of the majority of Americans, for example, when it refused to consider any form of gun control or to fund the government. These acts of obstruction are destructive inasmuch as they disregard the safety of American citizens and the integrity of their government. In these instances Congress was not tuned in to the people it represents. Secondly, congressional leadership has often obstructed legislative action by tabling bills it knows would pass. The perfect example of this type of undemocratic behavior is the immigration reform bill, passed by the Senate but tabled by House leaders. This type of obstruction directly splits the American polity into groups of citizens and non-citizens, exactly the same division that haunted the Greeks and endangered their democracy. By any definition, turning a deaf ear to the American majority and suppressing a majority vote within Congress are both undemocratic. Ignoring or preventing majority rule is categorically undemocratic and cannot be justified by claiming the minority opinion is more American. This perversion of a representative democracy is similar to the fiction created by dictators who justify their use of power by pretending to act in the interest of the governed.

The American combination of democracy and capitalism is not loved everywhere in the world. It often faces international opposition. For a good part of the last century the world witnessed a “face-off” between representative democracy and communism. It was called the Cold War; and its roots were planted in the nineteenth century in the contention between capitalism and communism—between the impact of the industrial revolution and the writings of Marx and Engels. They believed in a form of socialism where government was made up of people who, they believed, should not only hold the ultimate power but also the instruments of power, that is, the fruits of their labor to include property, the means of production, and all accumulated wealth. Marx called his tome “The Communist Manifesto” to connote its communal nature. His analysis of the pitfalls of capitalism, specifically wealth inequality, has found a new audience today. But his vision of equality in a socialist commune has never been realized. How could it? Human beings live as individuals with unique perspectives and personal proclivities, including ownership of property they claim as personal extensions of their selves. Besides, how would Marx’s ideal commune govern itself? Even monastic orders are governed by abbots and superiors. Nevertheless, Marx believed that a communist system would eventually be self-governing in order to ward off the ills of capitalism. We can call his form of communism “big C.” Lenin came along later and revised the socialism of Marx and Engels. He advocated for a strong central government that would own everything while assuring its citizens equal access to the products of labor and the resources of society. In his construct the will of the people would be subservient to an appointed apparatchik. And the bureaucrats in his proposed system would guard against the evils of capitalism by eliminating greed and distributing the accumulated wealth of the central government to all in equal measure. We can call Lenin’s view of communism “little c.” He never apostatized from his communist beliefs, he just advocated for a communist totalitarian government as the practical means to the future utopia envisioned by Marx. And thus the face of twentieth century communism was born. When everything is owned by the central government, all power is in the hands of the elite who control that government. People did NOT CHOOSE how they would be governed in this system. Free choice was not an option: acceptance was mandated. In this case, power was invested in the favored minority, thereby violating the very principle of socialism. Lenin’s construct functioned more like a cult where the elite or a strongman might govern with no other expectation from the governed other than their toil and unquestioning acceptance of state policy. Without this orthodoxy, communism would become no more than a form of oppression. With it, communists had created the fiction of a socialist state that was categorically not socialist. This perversion of socialism is the fiction created by dictators who justify their use of power by pretending to act in the interest of the governed.

Either unrepresentative democracies or the contemporary offshoots of communist totalitarian states can become dangerous. Both exemplify the perverted will to power I described as an aphrodisiac in “The Politics of Power.” The contention and competition between these governmental systems may not be a new Cold War, but can be something very much akin to it. Modern democracies, for instances, are challenged by Russian and Chinese governments directly descended from their communist progenitors. These countries play at their respective forms of “free” enterprise under control of a central government and a strongman with near absolute power. While China rattles the cages of Asian democracies with expansion of its military power and economic hegemony, Russia is busy undermining Europe and any projection of American influence in the world. Both countries and their respective leaders are focused on power. China’s President, Xi Jinping, is as concerned with his sphere of influence in Asia as Vladimir Putin is with his sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, Syria, and South Asia. Both are nuclear powers, though neither presents an existential threat to America at this time. But both present a challenge for America and its influence around the world. That challenge, however, differs in each case. China’s exports to the rest of the world give it economic leverage which it fashions mainly to its internal benefit. While it pillages Africa, the Middle East and Latin America of their natural resources, it avoids confrontation with America as long as America does not interfere with its interests in the South China Sea or Taiwan. China’s economic girth as perhaps the largest economy in the world pushes against America’s economic hegemony as the world’s most productive economy, holder of the world’s currency, and foremost international banker. China still has significant economic leverage: it can tweak its monetary policy to add billions of dollars to America’s trade deficit; and it holds 1.246 trillion dollars of the American 19 trillion dollar debt (as of 12/2015). Recently, China initiated its own infrastructure bank, attracting investments that many countries would have made to an American infrastructure bank where it not for a dithering Congress that refused to fund the President’s proposal. And now China is floating the idea of instituting its own monetary fund to compete with the International Monetary Fund that America initiated and largely influences.

Putin, on the other hand, never hesitates to explore every opportunity to extend or protect his hegemony. When Ukraine leaned toward an economic alliance with Europe, he immediately moved to annex Crimea and preserve his naval base there. When he saw his Ukrainian vassal fall from power, he immediately organized an invasion. He acted similarly when Assad’s government in Syria was threatened. He used his military to shore up Assad and protect another Russian naval base. As long as Putin acts within his sphere of influence, the West has been willing to play his game to a stalemate but has simultaneously been reluctant under American leadership to knock his pieces off the board (reference “What Strategy?”). The problem with Putin, however, is deeper than these tactical interventions in neighboring states. He is a former KGB Cold War warrior. Before the fall of Soviet Russia, which he considers the great disaster of the twentieth century, he was actively involved in destabilizing western democracies. Every conceivable right wing group received money and arms from the KGB, even when it was unsolicited. Also, Russian propaganda during that period was relentless in depicting the sins of the West. Today, Putin funds the same type of propaganda throughout Europe and the United States. Fortunately for America, Putin apparently no longer has the resources to fund dissidents in the West. But he is finding some welcome allies for destabilizing western democracies. Daesh in particular has weakened the European coalition with the refugee crisis and the terrorists it has spawned. And the American Congress has done its part to weaken America’s role in international diplomacy: undermining the Iran nuclear deal, refusing to ratify treaties negotiated by the Administration**, and declining to authorize the use of military force (AUMF) in support of the President’s anti-terrorist campaign. Putin has taken advantage of the Daesh diversion and this division in American leadership with his military adventures in Eastern Europe and Syria. In addition, he has given vocal support to the right wing voices emerging in many European countries and, deviously, to one of his admirers in the current American presidential campaign. If limited in resources, there is no better way to win a zero sum game than to encourage your opponent to weaken its self.

The international community is like a gathering of contentious and sometimes warring tribes. America, since World War II, has tried to act as a defusing, organizing, and at times intervening agent. Obviously, it has not always chosen the best means or experienced the best outcome. But it has almost always acted with one voice, until now. What America presents to the world today is a cacophony of voices. Congress tables Administration requests for a 2016 AUMF to fight terrorists or a 2014 AUMF to punish a rogue state for violating international prohibitions against genocide a/o the use of chemical weapons, attempts to undermine a nuclear disarmament agreement, voices agreement with world leaders who oppose American foreign policy—even praising Putin on the floor of Congress, and ridicules any and all agreements the Administration attempts to make with China whether on trade, monetary policy, climate change or coordination of military operations near China and in the South China Sea. In the past, for the most part, issues like these were debated until a vote was cast, and then the nation spoke with one voice. Even when America errored, like in the questionable 2003 AUMF against Iraq or the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that spurred the Vietnam War, it spoke with one voice. Democracies can make mistakes, but they can learn from them too. Broken democracies do not learn from their mistakes, do not resolve their differences, and cannot evolve.

Soldiers who volunteer for military service sometimes fight in wars they would otherwise not support. They do so because they are Americans. Members of the House and Senate debate issues, vote their preferences, and, hopefully, abide by the will of the majority. They do so because they are Americans and are representatives in a democratic system of government. Failure to do so, however, can result in two really bad outcomes: outwardly our nation appears divided and unable to contest or compete effectively on the world stage; inwardly, our citizens become disaffected and disassociated with their government. One might argue that the majority is not always right, as more than a few failed military interventions can attest. But that argument only emphasizes the need for more reasoned debate and an effective media-informed electorate. All governments make mistakes. The main benefit of a democracy is the public forum where issues can be debated and solutions can be found by reasonable compromise. America is now the oldest democracy to grace this planet. But it was not born perfect. And we would not have survived as a democracy if we still had slaves or denied women the vote. America is, as our founding fathers fully recognized, a work in progress. Ironically, America has even incorporated government-managed social services into its representative democracy, thereby saving socialism from its “little c” abortion and giving “little d” the more human inflection of social justice. America will persist in history as long as it continues to progress under the moral and cultural impetus of a majority of its people. But that progress is obstructed by those who use power for their own purposes to the exclusion of the majority. They tear the fabric of democracy and expose us to the viral infection of power seekers both within and without.

*There are a few exceptions to “little d” at the state level. For instance, in California all residents can vote for an “initiative” that has the power of law or for a “referendum” that can and has removed an elected official.
**Most of these unratified treaties were negotiated with the goal of replicating existing domestic law into international law. A few noteworthy examples include The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, The Biodiversity Convention, and The Framework Convention on Tobacco. Executive agreements like the Bretton Woods of 1945 that established the World Bank and the IMF deliberately circumvent the treaty ratification responsibility of the U. S. Senate. These types of agreements represent 95% of all international agreements made by America between 1939 and 1989. Nevertheless, for over a hundred years they have been a bone of contention between several Administrations and their respective Senates. And, as one might expect, they have triggered many Constitutional challenges. So it is understandable that the Obama Administration would call upon his executive authority to negotiate the recent Climate Change Agreement in Paris and that the U. S. Senate would threaten to undermine it.