Posts Tagged ‘Roger Cohen’

DEMOCRACY’S NOT DEAD YET

Several nights ago, I heard a symphony of foghorns. I live two miles from the Pacific and half that distance from San Francisco’s Baker Beach and the Golden Gate. Yet extended periods of time often pass between my visits to the beach to admire the ocean’s size, energy and mystery.

So it is with much in life. Beauty and wonder often are much closer than we realize. Politics, war and disasters—natural and man-made—attract our attention. We close our eyes and minds to the good that also surrounds us.

Another matter relates. Tomorrow (Saturday) night, Jews will celebrate Simchat Torah (Joy of the Torah). Then or on Sunday, synagogues will unroll a Torah scroll and read the last verses of the year’s final portion, V’zot HaB’rachah(And This is the Blessing), which concludes with Moses’ death. Without a pause, reading will continue with the first verses of B’reishit(Genesis) with which the Torah starts, presenting creation and life.

Why read the same text year after year? The scholar Jeffrey Tigay explains that we find new insights on every page (as we might at the beach or in a forest), “not because the Torah has changed, but because we have changed since we read it a year ago.”

Looking past immediate concerns, Americans can gain new perspectives on our present situation and our past—hear the call of the Liberty Bell too often drowned out by shouting. We may discover that the nation’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses. As I write, I’m gazing at the cover of October’s The Atlantic. This special edition asks a disturbing question: “Is democracy dying?” Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg titles his introduction “The Crisis in Democracy.” A toxic brew of populism, tribalism, Donald Trump and technology worries a number of The Atlantic’s writers and contributors. Nothing new here. A recent edition of Foreign Affairsconsidered the same matter. The non-Fox media continue to do so.

Sure, there’s plenty of worry to go around. Witness the hyper-partisanship surrounding yesterday’s Senate testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanagh. Yet America weathered previous storms.

White people enslaved black people. The Ku Kux Klan promoted racism and segregation not just in the South but all over the country. Universities and medical schools restricted Jewish matriculation. Women couldn’t vote until 1920. In the 1930s, upwards of thirty million Americans listened to Father Charles Coghlan’s anti-Semitic radio broadcasts. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans. Throughout our history, the nation also suffered a series of economic depressions and, of course, 9/11.

Un-democratic, prejudicial laws and customs have always had strong proponents. Hence the secession of the Southern states leading to the Civil War, considerable opposition to women’s suffrage in Congress and later political maneuvering like Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. All these battered and bruised American democracy. We moved forward.

I’ll give the last word to New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, writing from Greece: “Democracy is stubborn. It raises our gaze. It is the system that best enshrines the unshakable human desire to be free. Athens reminds us of that. America reminds us of that. It fails. It falls short of John Winthrop’s ‘city upon a hill.’ It strives still to fail better.”

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ALEPPO REVISITED

Two months ago, I wrote about the battle of Aleppo pitting Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Russia against a hodgepodge of rebels, from secular to Islamist. Despite the horrific violence, I thought major U.S. involvement unwise: “Only the peoples of the Middle East can create lasting peace for themselves.” The battle’s over. I haven’t changed my mind.

The Syrian bloodbath didn’t occur because President Obama foolishly drew a red line in the blood-soaked sand then backed off when Assad used chemical weapons. (True, he did.) It started well before and increased in ferocity when Russia and Iran tilted the battlefield towards Assad.

Are Americans aghast at the slaughter and destruction in Aleppo? Yes, and rightly so. But using American military power to halt the ghastly actions of appalling political leaders sometimes runs deep risks.

Would Russia and Iran have withdrawn so we could roll over Syria’s military and depose Assad? I doubt it. If they did? We’d have won a short-term victory then been saddled with overseeing the formation of a new government.

Once again, American troops would have to protect a government lacking widespread support. We’d also have to build a trusted Syrian security force while American troops faced insurgency and terrorism from many quarters. We’d suffer casualties. And all with no guaranty of Syrian stability once—whenever that might be—we left.

Some Americans might say, “We have to project American power in the face of inhumanity. Freedom isn’t free.” They can afford that stance. I agree that freedom’s not free, but they don’t pay the price. Ours is a military of courageous volunteers. Many Americans encouraging the nation to throw its weight around have no skin in the game. Their children don’t serve. They never served.

Is America toothless? Hardly. Should we withdraw to Fortress America? No. The U.S. plays a special role in helping keep peace—where strategic considerations are most critical. An evolving geopolitical climate demands that we understand military power’s limits.

Reality is, we’ve never ruled the world. That’s why I was taken aback when the New York Times’ Roger Cohen wrote that the Pax Americana—the global peace guaranteed by the United States—is over (12-16-16). Pax Americana represents a semi-myth.

Yes, we kept the former Soviet Union from overrunning Western Europe. We prevented China from expanding in Asia, although China never sought to invade other countries; it seeks to co-opt them economically. We helped protect South Korea but at the cost of over 50,000 U.S. lives. North Korea eventually developed nuclear weapons. Vietnam proved a debacle with 58,000 American lives lost. Genocide ravaged Rwanda, Darfur and the Balkans on “our watch.” Our 2003 invasion of Iraq didn’t remake the Middle East in our image. It destabilized it. Witness Syria and Libya. (Yemen had been fractured earlier.)

We court disaster when our hubris exposes our troops to the physical and emotional hazards in lands whose cultures we don’t understand and whose people reject us. The folly grows when many of our most enthusiastic proponents of using force talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. American power takes many forms. Military force is one but not always the wisest choice. That’s a hard lesson to learn. We’re best off learning it.

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IRAN: NOW WHAT?

The Iran deal is done—at least until Congress votes on it. President Obama will veto a “no” vote, and overriding that veto will be difficult. So what lies ahead? We can only speculate. But I do have a warning.

First, let’s look at some possibilities. We’ve bought time, but following the ten-year agreement, Iran—unless a younger generation abandons revolution—may rush to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran’s holding a nuclear threat over Israel, the Middle East and American policy is unsettling. Some think tank inhabitants believe we can live with a nuclear Iran. Until we get there, it’s all theory.

Before the agreement ends—perhaps well before—Sunni Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and perhaps Egypt, may seek to develop their own nuclear weapons. Make no mistake. A proxy war in the Middle East now pits Shiite Iran against Sunni Saudi Arabia. Yet nations have much in common. They’re Muslim. They fund extremists. And they consider each other apostates.

Regrettably, lifting sanctions and unfreezing Iranian assets will enable Tehran to fund more terrorism, increasing its backing for the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite groups in the Gulf and probably Hamas in Gaza. President Obama admittedly focused solely on the nuclear issue. We have our work cut out.

Now let’s examine reality. Peter Beinart—a liberal who supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq then later saw its folly—rejects the theory of American omnipotence (The Atlantic online, July 14). We may be the world’s most powerful nation, but power is relative. We cannot dictate terms to other nations which, while not as strong as us, are formidable regional powers capable of great harm. The administration of George W. Bush set out to remake the Middle East with the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein. Lovely theory. Ugly results.

Unfortunately, saber rattling comes easy. Restraint—particularly when the United States is so potent militarily—poses a major challenge to those who think we can use force with impunity. (Side bar: we are friendly with Vietnam following a war, which cost us more than 58,000 lives; there’s always hope.) Sober commentators like Roger Cohen (New York Times, July 16) point out that the Iran deal does not bring us into the best of all possible worlds. But no one offers a better alternative.

What would have happened had we foregone deal making and ratcheted up sanctions? Would Iran really have given up its quest for the bomb? Remember the bomb drawing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu held up at the United Nations in September 2012? Although tough sanctions were in place, Iran was thisclose. But Bibi and his cabinet didn’t unleash the Israeli Air Force.

Look, I’m no pal of the ayatollahs. They and the Republican Guard are odious hate mongers. Their anti-Israel and anti-America rhetoric constitutes a thin ploy to distract Iranians from their deprivation of human rights and Iran’s regional aggression. But Peter Beinart correctly notes the limits of American power and the delusional nature of “American exceptionalism”—to wit, we know it all and can do no wrong.

I’m glad the White House hasn’t trumpeted “peace in our time.” And I hope that the deal’s critics won’t advocate, “nuke the bastards.” The future is murky. Living with uncertainty is a rough challenge. Get used to it.

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WHAT IF?

At year’s end, the United States faces interesting questions. What if our economy really is improving? What if the naysayers are wrong about the President’s position on taxes and spending cuts? And what if Washington responds accordingly? I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses, but a level of optimism may be justified. Here’s why…

First-time unemployment claims dropped to 350,000 for the week ending Dec. 20. The current four-week moving average stands at 356,750—the lowest since March 2008. Some economists tagged 400,000 as the milestone for stopping job loss and 350,000 as the target for meaningful job growth. We’re getting close. Oh, and in October (the most recent date for figures), single-family home prices rose for the ninth month in a row. Meanwhile in November, contracts for home resales hit a 2-1/2 year high.

Good news about the Treasury, too. It recently sold the last of its shares in the insurance giant, AIG. The $182 billion bailout rankled some people—particularly Tea Partiers—but America’s financial system was on the brink. And while the matter should never be considered a business opportunity for Washington, the Treasury cleared a $22.7 billion profit.

The government also is getting out of General Motors. Steven Rattner (The New York Times, Dec. 19) wrote that Washington should recover all but $14 billion of the $82 billion in TARP funds invested in Detroit (Chrysler also needed assistance; Ford made it through on its own). Auto sales have increased from 10.4 million in 2009 to a projected 15 million-plus for 2012. Moreover, Rattner reports, as many as 250,000 workers have been added.

Just as encouraging, American manufacturing may be coming back. In the Dec. 2012 Atlantic, Charles Fishman writes about General Electric bringing appliance manufacturing onshore from China. Why? Product designers, production specialists and marketers can all work face to face. GE is lowering manufacturing costs while eliminating shipping costs from Asia. In the same edition, James Fallows writes about small start-up companies designing and manufacturing products here (San Francisco is on the cutting edge) to respond faster to market demand. We won’t re-capture all our lost jobs, and new jobs will require more education. But the future offers exciting new opportunities.

Add to that, the U.S. may be heading towards energy self-sufficiency and more. Roger Cohen pointed out in the Times (Dec. 14) that the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) sees the nation being a major energy exporter as soon as 2020. This will result from new technologies enabling dramatic increases in the production of shale oil and natural gas. There are risks, yes. But risks can be overcome. Improved mileage standards will help, too. Cohen cites the NIC study: “The prospect of significantly lower energy prices will have significant positive ripple effects for the U.S. economy, encouraging companies to take advantage of lower energy prices to locate or relocate to the U.S.”

I’ve always believed in American ingenuity and flexibility. What if Congress—particularly Speaker John Boehner—demonstrates enough ingenuity and flexibility to believe in our nation’s strengths and turn away from the Fiscal Cliff lying in wait? What if they got out of the way and actually put America first?

May the New Year be a good one for you!

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