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Deal or No Deal…

There was bipartisan understanding that when the Iranians indicated a readiness to talk the U.S. would lead the negotiations to test Iran’s seriousness. – Statement supporting the Iranian nuclear agreement signed by sixty bipartisan foreign policy and national security leaders.

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Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s historic nuclear deal with Iran has been visceral. Most Republicans disliked the idea even before negotiations commenced in earnest. They hated the deal when the preliminary details emerged months ago. Now they detest the final agreement.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

Much of the opposition is purely partisan, some is based on historic rightwing Republican opposition to any foreign policy agreement, a good deal is based on both a concern about the deal’s impact on Israel and a desire to curry favor with the Israeli-American lobby, and some is based  – a minor consideration one suspects – on the belief that a better deal could be had if only there were better negotiators.

I wrote back in April about the traditional Republican skepticism about foreign policy agreements that dates back to the Treaty of Versailles, but the current visceral NO seems in an altogether new category of opposition.

Placed in the wide context of presidential deal making in the post-war period, the almost total Republican opposition to a deal, which is designed to prevent, or at the very least substantially delay, Iranian development of a nuclear weapons, is a distinct outlier. It is difficult to find an historic parallel to the level of partisan disdain for a major foreign policy initiative of any president, Republican or Democrat. It amounts to the emergence of a new political generation of what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called “the primitives.”

Return of “the primitives…”

It took the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy more than eight years to negotiate a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy doggedly pursued the negotiations – Great Britain was also a party to the talks – and finally signed the treaty in August 1963. A few weeks later the Senate ratified the agreement by the strongly bipartisan margin of 81-19 with fifty-six Democrats and twenty-five Republicans constituting the majority.

John Kennedy signs test ban treaty flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

John Kennedy signs the limited test ban treaty in 1963 flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

The treaty came about in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, hardly a moment in 20th Century history when trust in the Russians was at a high point. The same could be said for Richard Nixon’s effort to craft the first strategic arms limitation treaty or Ronald Reagan’s later efforts to strike a grand disarmament bargain with the Soviets that Reagan hoped would eliminate nuclear weapons.

Jimmy Carter’s effort to sign and ratify the Panama Canal treaties in the late 1970’s arguably contributed to his defeat in 1980, as well as the defeat of several Senate liberals – Idaho’s Frank Church, for example – who courageously supported the effort to ensure stability around the vital canal by relinquishing control to the Panamanians. Senators from both parties supported the treaties or they never would have been ratified.

In each of these cases there was substantial political opposition to presidential action, but it is nearly impossible when looking closely at this history not to conclude that each of the “deals” were beneficial to long-term U.S. security. An underlying assumption in each of these historic agreements is that presidents of both parties act, if not always perfectly, always with desire to produce an outcome that is in the nation’s – and the world’s – best interest. Few reasonable people would suggest, given the intervening history, that Eisenhower or Kennedy, Nixon or Carter or set out to make a deal that was not ultimately in the country’s best interest or that would imperil a long-time ally.

Yet, that is precisely what Republican critics of President Obama’s agreement with Iran are saying. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, called it “an absolute disgrace that this president has sacrificed the security and stability” of Israel in order to reach a deal. “This is a betrayal that history will never forget,” Franks added. Franks is the same guy who introduced a resolution authorizing war with Iran back in 2013.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk went even farther. “This agreement condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf,” Kirk said. “It condemns our Israeli allies to further conflict with Iran.” Kirk continued: “This is the greatest appeasement since Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.” The senator predicted that Israel would now have to “take military action against Iran.”

Idaho Senator James Risch, a Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “the deal shreds the legacy of arms control and nonproliferation that the United States has championed for decades – it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will be impossible to contain.” Risch accused the president and Secretary of State John Kerry of going back on commitments to Congress and said, “The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, said “This is the most dangerous, irresponsible step I have ever seen in the history of watching the Mideast. Barack Obama, John Kerry, have been dangerously naïve.” Graham admitted on national television that he had not read the agreement, which was announced just an hour before the South Carolina senator pronounced his judgment.

OK…What’s Your Suggestion…

When you sift through the various denunciations of the Iran deal you find a remarkable degree of consistence in the criticism: abandonment of Israel, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, assurance that Iran would be locked into an absolutely certain path to attain nuclear weapons. What is also remarkably consistent is that among all the words used to denounce the deal are very few that actually address the details contained in the 150-plus page document. As a result, Republicans come dangerously close to suggesting that Obama and Kerry have consciously sold out Israel, made an already explosive Middle East more so and weakened U.S. national security all in the name of just naively making a deal.

There are legitimate questions about the best way to contain Iran in any quest for the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Would continuing sanctions against Iran without international inspections of Iranian facilities be better as an approach that what Obama suggests, which allows for detailed oversight that is backed by our allies the British, French and Germans, as well as Putin’s Russia? That would be a real debate over effectiveness, a principled discussion over means and ends.

There are two men in Washington to watch closely as this “debate” reaches the end game. One is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has lately railed against the agreement, but remains a thoughtful, fair-minded voice on foreign policy deals. The other is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, one of the key members of the U.S. team that worked out the deal with Iran who all seem to agree actually knows something about the subject of nuclear weapons development.

In a recent NPR interview, Moniz offered a full-throated defense of the agreement. “I think we should realize that basically forever, with this agreement, Iran will be, in some sense, farther away from a nuclear weapon than they would be without it,” Moniz said. “Now, clearly in the early years, in the first decade, first 15 years, we have lots of very, very explicit constraints on the program that roll back current activities. Whether it’s in enrichment, whether it’s in the stockpile of enriched uranium that they hold, whether it’s in R&D, all of these are going to be rolled back, complemented by much, much stronger transparency measures than we have today.”

The Whole World is Watching…

While Congressional Republicans work to overturn the administration’s Iran deal – Mario Rubio has pledged, for example, to undo the deal on his first day in office – much of the rest of the world has moved on. The most impressive leader on the current world stage, Pope Francis, has endorsed the deal and will speak to Congress just days before the vote. Germany’s Angela Merkel, a politician who displays more grit and gumption than the entire United States Senate, strongly backs the deal. Great Britain has re-opened its long shuttled embassy in Tehran and French officials have spoken of a “new era” in its relations with Iran.

iranmapRejecting the deal will serve only to strengthen the hand of the Iranian hardliners and the other hardliner who is party to the agreement, Vladimir Putin of Russia. Do Congressional Republicans, or for that matter Democrats like Chuck Schumer who oppose the deal, think for a minute that Putin will not find a way to fill the void that will be left if the Iranian agreement collapses in the huff of American domestic politics?

Perhaps the Europeans recognize what some American politicians fail to grasp. A fifteen year, highly monitored deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is about as good as it gets in the modern Middle East. The critics who wonder what happens after fifteen years are missing the fact that the interval provides a window for young and more worldly Iranians to assert themselves as the country tiptoes back into the world community.

The pragmatic bottom line question is simply this: can the U.S. and the rest of the western world continue a policy of isolation for a country of 80 million people, more than 40 percent of whom are under 24 years of age? Obama’s agreement isn’t perfect, but this deal gives the west leverage to influence and indeed control the Iranian nuclear threat for a not insignificant number of years into the future.

Without a deal our leverage consists of two blunt instruments: continued sanctions that further alienate a whole new generation of Iranians and a pre-emptive military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Some folks casually invoke the “bomb, bomb Iran” option, but cooler heads know it would very likely mean a general war in a region where the United States’ ability to turn its military might into political change has been a dismal failure.

Ironically, as the administration has now started saying, Iranian failure to live up to the terms of the nuclear deal would actually create the context and rationale for taking military action to end the threat of a nuclear Iran. The international community will never support unilateral U.S. military action, but could be made to support air strikes, for example, if the Iranians cheat on the agreement.

The president, I believe, will ultimately prevail on the Iran deal and we’ll quickly return full attention to the political circus running up to another election. Still, it is worth considering the question Obama has persistently asked the critics of his diplomacy: What is your option? The answer is mostly crickets, but it is still a good question.

 

The Lessons of Carter…

“I would like the last Guinea worm to die before I do.” – former President Jimmy Carter on his campaign to wipe out the parasitic disease that has historically afflicted millions in Africa.   

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It took Jimmy Carter’s brain cancer to show me what is so sorely missing from American politics – humility and class; lack of self-pity and abundance of humor.

Mention Carter at a dinner party or a ball game and you’ll almost certainly get some spirited conversation going. The comment will likely range from “the worst modern president” to “a smart guy just not up to the job” to the “best ex-president we’ve ever had” to “history will treat him pretty well.”

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 20:  Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis during a press conference at the Carter Center. on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

ATLANTA, GA – AUGUST 20: Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis during a press conference at the Carter Center. on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The news conference last week where Carter calmly, factually, stoically and with humor and grace discussed his cancer, its treatment and his long life was a sterling reminder for me of what a fundamentally decent and quintessential “American” man he is and has always been. Who in the current field attempting to grab the brass ring of the presidency has even a fraction of Carter’s self-awareness and humility?

When asked if he had any regrets, Carter said he wished he might have been smart enough to have sent another helicopter on the hostage rescue mission to Iran in 1979. Had that mission succeeded – a crash in the desert doomed the chance – Carter would have had his Bin Laden moment and might well have won re-election against Ronald Reagan in 1980. A less secure, less comfortable-in-their-own-skin public person would just have said in response to that question – “Regrets? I have no regrets…”

During the run-up to the remarkable election of 1976, I interviewed both Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. Fresh out of college, I was working at a small radio station in eastern Iowa when Mrs. Carter came to town. In her own quiet and persistent way Rosalyn was pursuing the breakthrough “Iowa strategy” that allowed a little known Georgia governor to launch a successful presidential campaign. Carter was the first to understand that Iowa’s quirky caucus system could be a launching pad for a little-known candidate. I don’t remember what I asked the spouse of the candidate in the fall of 1975, but I do remember her poise and kindness. She had all day, or so it seemed, for a bumbling young radio reporter.

Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

By early 1976, I had moved to television and to Idaho, and Carter made a stop in Boise while campaigning for votes in that state’s caucus. I distinctly remember elbowing into a hot, sticky and very crowded meeting room at the old Holiday Inn near the Boise airport to watch Carter meet the press. After answering the obligatory questions from the traveling press corps – I particularly remember a hectoring Sam Donaldson of ABC – Carter took time to do one-on-one interviews with we locals. I think I asked a probing question about whether the candidate thought he could win Idaho’s caucus vote and, of course, he said he could. He didn’t. Favorite son Senator Frank Church entered the race and won Idaho.

Still my memory of Carter all these years later – and of also of President Gerald Ford, who I also interviewed in 1976 – is that of a low-key, thoughtful, decent men in control of their egos and motivated, as we hope all candidates are, by the right reasons.

Carter’s quiet and controlled personality was once mocked by many who saw the Georgia peanut farmer as out-classed by the Georgetown set, but they had it wrong. Carter possessed real American values. He regularly taught Sunday school, – he still does – built homes for Habitat for Humanity and carried his own suit bag off Air Force One. The same quiet, understated, but effective approach has marked the work of the Carter Center in Atlanta, which has focused on health issues in Africa and the advancement of peace through democratic institutions around the world.

Carter in Nigeria

Carter in Nigeria

Carter’s post-presidential good work earned him a Nobel Prize and with nary a hint of scandal about money or purposes.

Carter’s after White House life stands in stark contrast to the activities of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Carter has let his good work speak for itself, while the Clinton’s work is subsumed amid the flaunting of their big money connections and holidays in the Hamptons. Humble it isn’t and Carter could teach them a thing or two if they where humble enough to listen.

Faced with one last and inevitably losing fight, Jimmy Carter has again struck a grace note, as his one-time speechwriter James Fallows has observed. “The 1970s are so dis-esteemed,” Fallows wrote in The Atlantic, “and Carter has been so vilified (in counterpoint to the elevation of Reagan), and the entire era is now so long in the past, that many people may wonder how Carter could have become president in the first place.”

The key to answering that question, Fallows said, and I agree, is contained in Carter’s approach to his own discussion of his perilous health and his exemplary life. If you haven’t seen the clip you should. This is the way real people talk minus the calculation and self-centeredness of political life.

The common narrative around Carter’s presidency is that he failed, but history, which rarely treats one-term presidents well, will record that the power of his will brought Israel and Egypt to peace at Camp David and his Baptist sense of right and wrong helped power the controversial decision to relinquish to the Panamanians the canal we once stole fair and square. Completion of the Alaska conservation legislation – during a lame duck session of Congress no less – will forever rank as one of the greatest conservation accomplishments by any administration. Carter’s focus on human rights in foreign affairs, again much mocked during his tenure, still demands, as it should, a central place in American policy.

Carter with Egypt's Sadat and Israel's Begin

Carter with Egypt’s Sadat and Israel’s Begin

But here is the real measure of Carter: his quiet, thoughtful approach to public life during his presidency and after is a genuine model for how to behave in the public arena. He would never have won a shouting match with a Christie or a name-calling contest with a Trump. Today we identify political leaders by their cult of secrecy and sense of entitlement, their self-absorption or that all-too-familiar strut of self-assurance without the burden of accomplishment. Carter was – and is – different.

America suffers a civility and humility deficit. It’s reflected in our politics and our popular culture. There is a coarseness, a meanness, an emptiness that sucks the air out of what is really important. The insufferable Ted Cruz, for example, a man with more self-regard than public accomplishment, waited hardly a day after Carter’s cancer announcement before taking to the stump to lambast the former president’s record. Nice touch.

Carter said he’s at ease with whatever comes, his faith intact, thankful for friends and for his vast and important experiences. We all reach this point eventually, staring our own mortality full in the face and most, I suspect, would hope to exhibit Jimmy Carter’s sense of peace about a life of purpose, meaning and service. 

For one, brief moment last week Jimmy Carter reminded us what a well-composed public life can look like. It’s not about bluster and bling, not about the nasty and fleeting. It is about decency, composure, respect, modesty and, yes, good humor. God knows we need some more of all that and a 90-year old man with brain cancer reminds us that he has done his part to try and help make all of us a little better. We should all be so lucky. 

 

Playing Not to Lose…

Hillary Clinton is campaigning as if she were running out the clock, trying not to lose rather than playing to win.

North Carolina's Dean Smith

North Carolina’s Dean Smith

The late, great North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was one of the great innovators in basketball. Smith, who died earlier this year and will long be remembered – especially by Duke fans – as a nice guy who rarely finished anywhere other than in first place.

Smith pioneered the use of analytics to assess the performance of his teams. He once said he would have been happy being a high school math teacher. His players adored him, even when he pushed them mercilessly during practices because he also praised and encouraged them lavishly during a game when everyone was watching.

Fellow coaches revered him and adopted his lessons. Every player on the bench got to his feet, for example, when a teammate left the game and Smith’s players knew they were expected to help a teammate to his feet after that teammate took a charge.

The Coach – or Candidate – as Innovator…

Coach Smith was also a very political man in a low-key, but effective way. He said late in his life that North Carolina would never have accepted him had they known how liberal he was. I doubt Hillary Clinton is much of a basketball fan, but the great Coach Smith could probably tell her a thing or two about the danger of going too soon into the political equivalent of the four-corner offense that Smith pioneered.

Carolina ran the Smith 4-corner as a tribute during a game last season

Carolina ran the Smith 4-corner as a tribute to the great coach during a game last season

The four corner offense was Dean Smith’s brilliant strategy to hold on to a lead by killing the clock – holding the ball, passing, cutting, passing, cutting, passing and never looking to score. It was offense by playing it safe and often it worked just as planned. In the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in 1982, Smith’s team held the ball and a one point lead for the last eight minutes of the game before defeating Virginia. The final score was 47-45 and that game helped usher in the college basketball shot clock that essentially made Smith’s hold-the-ball offense obsolete.

Clinton’s flat, joyless, dull campaign, insulated from any meaningful contact with the press and featuring only tightly controlled interaction with voters is a strategy to run down the clock. Designed to be risk free, it is really the type of political effort that induces unforced errors.

Hillary: The Inevitable…Again

Clinton is presumed, apparently by her handlers and by herself, to be so far ahead of her Democratic challengers that she can coast to victory and then glide into the general election. To mix the sports metaphors, she could be using the primary as a political spring training to get in shape for the long regular season, but rather than taking extra batting practice she’s jogging out on the warning track. Clinton partisans proclaim how different things are this time than when she employed essentially the same approach and lost in 2008. But there is little evidence that Clinton’s “new” political approach is anything new, at all.

Hillary Clintonmwalks through the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hillary Clinton walks through the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Clinton has lightened up a bit lately on the vice-like control that has been a hallmark of her approach to politics, but she still gives the impression she is trying to prevent a mistake rather than win an election.

Politico’s Rachael Bade reported recently that Clinton went through all the motions at a cattle call Democratic event in northeastern Iowa, but rather than work the crowd and shake every hand in sight she briefly mingled and “then she disappeared behind a makeshift black curtain walling off a corner of the ballroom. Fans pushed up against the veil, trying to get a peak of the 2016 Democratic front-runner. But her security detail held them back, allowing only a handful to enter and see the hidden candidate before she left, leaving a swarm of disappointed voters who didn’t get a handshake.”

Her husband would still be in the room, waving off aides trying to get him moving, while he schmoozed and charmed voters. Not Hillary’s style.

The Clinton campaign launched a $2 million television ad buy recently in Iowa and New Hampshire that featured two well-produced, but strangely cold-blooded ads that were all about how Hillary’s mother had been such an influence in her life. I don’t doubt the genuine feeling, even passion, behind the message, but couldn’t help thinking as I watched the spots that Clinton can’t even talk about her mother without a tightly scripted pitch.

Still from Clinton TV spot

Still from Clinton TV spot

The commercials were designed to illustrate the human side of the candidate, to “re-introduce” the one person in the race – maybe Trump excepted – who we already know really, really well.

The latest commercials focus on the perseverance and courage of Dorothy Rodham and feature Clinton saying, “this is why I do this…” You can almost see the candidate and the ad maker huddling over a script parsing every word trying to gin up maximum emotion. A less controlling campaign and a more natural politician might have just let the camera roll, while the candidate talked from the heart about her mom, but that is clearly not Hillary’s style. She is so controlled she has become what Trump never will be – bland.

When Clinton enjoyed a big lead over Barack Obama back in 2007 she was content, way beyond the point she should have been, to play it safe and sit on that lead. She went into the four corners and lost any political momentum and then the Democratic nomination. She seems to have learned little from what must have been an extremely painful experience and failing to learn lessons in politics is often deadly.

Hitting the Delete Button…

The Clinton email saga has been the one consistent message swirling around her candidacy for months now and we may just be seeing the beginning. Clinton’s approach to campaigning – slow, measured, risk averse and secretive – is mirrored in her mostly ineffective response to the news that she used only a personal email set-up during her years as secretary of state.

So far she has offered no believable explanation as to why she went to all the trouble to work around the government’s own email system other than to say it’s no big deal and amounts to a would be scandal dreamed up by nasty partisans determined to attack her. That has essentially been Clinton’s response to every criticism dating back to the Rose Law firm and Whitewater.

One suspects she hasn’t offered a believable rationale for the email situation because there is no believable rationale. She went off the government system, installed her own private server managed by her own private contractor because she didn’t want to leave an electronic record of her correspondence that might one day be fodder for attack. It has now become clear that several key Clinton staff members used the same approach and now with the FBI involved there will be certainly more questions about whether information of a sensitive national security nature was compromised.

It all begs the question – why? And that question demands a follow-up: why stall and dither and hedge on dealing with the controversy? If there is nothing to hide, why hide?

The conventional political wisdom remains, even as poll numbers tighten and her favorable numbers tank – voters increasingly think she is about as trustworthy as Trump – that Clinton can’t possible lose the Democratic nomination. Under this theory her fundraising, her potentially historic status as the first woman president and her last name will ultimately carry the day.

The New York Time’s in-house conservative columnist Ross Douthat made his own fearless prediction this way: “Many things are possible. But to this soothsayer, it feels like a good time to double down on that thesis instead, and make my prediction as firm and wiggle-free as possible: Hillary’s going to win the nomination, and it isn’t going to be particularly close.”

Maybe. But it has also become clear that Clinton is no where near the natural political animal her husband remains and, in fact, she may be one of the worst candidates in terms of basic political skills of any “sure” winner in recent American political history.

Some other observers contend it is already just too late to depose Clinton as the Democratic nominee, but just see what happens if the email issue, or some yet unnamed scandal, reveals more and more vulnerabilities. And what happens if Clinton stumbles badly in a face-to-face encounter with Bernie Sanders or, heaven forbid, during an interview with a tough reporter.

Playing to Win…

When Dean Smith finally brought his four corner offense to near perfection, the NCAA changed the rules in a way that destroyed his strategy. Holding the ball would no longer work, so the great coach did the only sensible thing – he adapted. The great coach designed new strategies based on a new and different game and Smith’s Tarheels kept right on winning.

Politics isn’t basketball, of course, but politics, like the hoops game, is always about adapting, moving and being willing to call an unusual play that catches an opponent flat-footed. Dean Smith mastered the four corner offense and then when he needed to do something different he did. As one of his players said when reflecting on his methods, “He never coached not to lose. He coached to win.”

The Democratic frontrunner is playing not to lose and she may find that is a sure fire way not to win.

 

The Education of the Younger Brother

It’s difficult, no matter your personal politics, to not have some sympathy for Jeb Bush and his efforts to articulate a plausible foreign policy approach for his presidential campaign. Given the wreckage his brother left him – and us – it’s a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallenda Family.

George W. and Jeb  (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

George W. and Jeb (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

Bush’s stumbling attempts to get his arms around the issues, however, points out how dangerous things can be on that high wire. Still if he hopes to be president, Jeb will be forced to regularly and publicly struggle with brother George W’s legacy in the Middle East, while always trying to tip toe around the smoldering wreckage. No easy task.

Bush tried mightily this week to both avoid talking about the family mistakes and pin the continuing mess in Iraq and Syria on the current president and the former secretary of state. Even he must know its a stretch. Bush’s major foreign policy speech, delivered on the hallowed ground of the Reagan Library in California, was equal parts reinventing recent history and continuing the proclivity of many American politicians to work very hard to avoid confronting obvious, if difficult truths.

Grappling with the Facts and Lessons on History…

WW1centenary_715x195 (1)Across Europe this summer and last, the Brits, French, Germans and others have been marking both the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the centenary of the Great War that did not end all wars. British school children have taken field trips to the scenes of the carnage on the Somme in 1916 and near the tiny Belgian village of Passchendaele in 1917. But in reading about the various memorials and events, one gets the impression that something is missing from the history of this war – why did this catastrophe happen, this great war that destroyed empires, spawned an even more destructive second world war and gave us – apparently to the continuing astonishment of many current politicians – the map of the modern Middle East that was drawn during and after the war with little regard for facts on the ground?

The commemoration of the Great War and the end of the second war is, of course, entirely appropriate, but remembering the conflicts is not nearly enough. And some politicians – Japan’s prime minister, for example – would just prefer to move along, thinking; been there, done that. The anniversary of the Great War, for example, is only being quietly marked in Germany and the French continue to mostly ignore the their own troubled history during the second war.

British historian Max Hastings

British historian Sir Max Hastings

Failing to heed the lessons from such vastly important events has consequences, including the repeating of old mistakes. We must, as the respected British military historian Sir Max Hastings said recently, probe and question, debate and discuss the meaning, the causes and the consequences of our wars.

Hastings argued in a 2014 interview with Euronews that it is a serious mistake to simply mark the horror of the Great War without a serious grappling with the issues and reasons behind the fighting. Hastings’ lessons about that war and about the importance of teaching its lessons to new generations is worthwhile viewing. One wishes the current crop of candidates took the time to listen and think about such big questions, particularly as they rush to define their foreign policy platforms in an area of the world that is still so very unfamiliar to us.

Cloudy Thinking, Shaky Facts, Bad History…

In terms of understanding issues like the U.S. role in Iraq and the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sometimes called ISIS – we can’t even agree what to call the movement) there is always a simple, concise explanation that is wrong, which leads me back to the allegedly “smarter” Bush – Jeb.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

The essence of Bush’s recent foreign policy argument is that Iraq was “secure” in 2009 following the “surge” of American troops that was instituted by his brother. That strategy, temporarily at least, propped up the perfectly awful regime headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malicki.

Then, at least in Bush’s telling, President Obama with the support of Hillary Clinton let it all go to hell with the premature removal of American combat troops from Iraq. Therefore, under this logic and accepting Bush’s telling, Obama and Clinton “lost” Iraq and paved the ground for the rise of the spectacularly brutal ISIL. Bush’s analysis if, of course, mostly aimed at Clinton and is simple, concise and mostly wrong.

Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, one of the more astute analysts of the American experience in Iraq, says: “the Republican argument that a handful of American troops could have saved Iraq misses a larger point. The fundamental problem was American policy—in particular, the American policy of supporting and strengthening Maliki at all costs. Maliki was a militant sectarian his whole life, and the United States should not have been surprised when he continued to act that way once he became Prime Minister. As Emma Sky, who served as a senior adviser to the American military during the war in Iraq, put it, ‘The problem was the policy, and the policy was to give unconditional support to Nuri al-Maliki.’ (Sky’s book, The Unraveling, is the essential text on how everything fell apart.) When the Americans helped install him, in 2006, he was a colorless mediocrity with deeply sectarian views. By 2011, he was an unrivalled strongman with control over a vast military and security apparatus. Who enabled that?”

Filkins’ answer to the enabling question is that George W. Bush, Obama and Clinton all had a hand in creating the mess, but he also notes a fact that Jeb ignores – it was his brother who established the timeline for the troop withdrawal, a timeline that Obama was only too happy to implement since he had campaign to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Amending that agreement, as Bush said “everyone” thought would happen, was entirely contingent on the Iraqi government we had helped establish agreeing to U.S. troops remaining. Changing the Bush agreement, given the internal strife in the country, was never going to happen and, in fact, the Iraqi parliament refused to consider modifications of the troop withdrawal timeline.

As Filkins says, “at best, Jeb is faulting Obama for not amending the deal.”

Other commentators, including Paul Waldman, have observed that Jeb Bush, as well as other Republicans, continue to believe, against all evidence, that the United States could bend the internal politics of Iraq in a way that we might like. Remember the rhetoric about a western-style democracy taking root in the heart of the Middle East? It was a pipe dream and still is.

“And this is perhaps the most dangerous thing about Bush’s perspective on Iraq,” Waldman wrote recently in the Washington Post, “which can also be said of his primary opponents. They display absolutely no grasp of the internal politics of Iraq, now or in the past, not to mention the internal politics of other countries in the region, including Iran. Indeed, most Republicans don’t seem to even believe that these countries have internal politics that can shape what the countries choose to do and how they might react to our actions.”

As for Clinton, who of course is the real political target of Bush’s recent critique of past and present U.S. Middle East policy, Dexter Filkins says: “She played a supporting role in a disastrously managed withdrawal, which helped lay the groundwork for the catastrophe that followed. And that was preceded by the disastrously managed war itself, which was overseen by Jeb Bush’s brother. And that was preceded by the decision to go to war in the first place, on trumped-up intelligence, which was also made by Bush’s brother.

“All in all, when it comes to Iraq, Clinton doesn’t have a lot to brag about. But Jeb Bush might want to consider talking about something else.”

Let the Debate Continue…

Or would it be too much to just ask that Bush – other candidates, as well – grapple with the grubby details of the mess in the Middle East. It is a convenient sound bite to say, for example, that Obama and Clinton “allowed” the Islamic State to emerge amid all the sectarian violence that we could never have successfully controlled, even had we committed to U.S. boots on the ground for the next 50 years. Such thinking does little – nothing really – to help explain what has really happened in Iraq and why.

Islamic State fighters

Islamic State fighters

In a truly chilling article in the current New York Review of Books, an anonymous writer identified as a senior official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, provides some insight into all that we don’t know and can’t comprehend about the forces that have unleashed havoc in Iraq and Syria.

The latest ISIL outrage includes, according to the New York Times, a policy of rape and sex slavery, across a wide swath of the region. The sober and informed piece should be required reading for every candidate as a cautionary tale about how American policy, beginning with George W. Bush, has been a tragic failure. It is also a stark reminder of the real limits of what our military power can accomplish.

“I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the writer says in attempting to explain ISIL. “But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi [ultra-conservative Islamic] theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

“We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

If there is any good news amid the re-writing of our recent and often disastrous history in the Middle East it may be contained in the fact that Jeb Bush’s quest for the White House will mean that the American legacy in Iraq will continue to be debated. Smart politics might have dictated that Jeb leave the sleeping dogs of W’s policies lie, but that was never an option. The mess his brother made is still too raw and too important not to demand ongoing discussion, particularly from another Bush.

History will assign the blame for U.S. policy in the Middle East and I’m pretty confident how that will shake out. American voters, even given our short attention span and penchant to accept over simplification of enormously complex issues, should welcome the discussion that Jeb Bush’s speech has prompted. He may be, as Paul Waldman says, “shockingly obtuse” about the limits of American power and as misinformed as some of the people who led us down this rabbit hole, but we still need to force the debate and challenge the “theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination.”

Who knows, as Max Hastings suggests when considering the lasting lessons of the 100 year old Great War, we might actually learn something.

 

Trump and NPD…

It dawned on me Sunday as I reviewed the latest round of news regarding the presidential candidacy of one Donald John Trump that it is really not possible to explain Trump, as he habitually refers to himself, using classic political terms. He is in a wholly different category. More on that in a moment.

Donald John Trump

Donald John Trump

Search online for stories about Trump and you’ll see references to the blow dried real estate developer as “a showman,” or “a celebrity” or “reality television star” or my personal favorite “business leader.” He’s described as “a truth teller” who disdains “political correctness” and refuses to play by the conventional rules or politics. He’s also frequently called “a bore,” and “a bully” and even your local blogger has called The Donald “a clown.”

Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times, summarizes the conventional take on the clown who, even after his antics in the recent GOP debate, still leads the Republican field. “Trump is, as always, the gleefully offensive and immensely entertaining high-chair king in the Great American Food Fight.” The pundits are united in their assessment that the heart of Trump’s appeal is his “candor” and “unpredictability.”

Conventional Politics Can’t Explain Trump…

Yet none of this really or adequately explains Trump and its not enough to merely dismiss him as a blowhard with a massive ego. To understand the man and his approach one needs look to science, and not political science. I know I’ve called him a clown, but Trump’s behavior is more complicated. Trump displays, I’ve come to believe as have other observers, the classic symptoms of a person suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD.

Narcissus and his reflection

Narcissus and his reflection

NPD is, of course, a mental health condition described by the prestigious Mayo Clinic as a personality state, “in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

Sound like anyone you know?

The American Psychiatric Association only characterized NPD as “mental disorder” in 1980 and the “disorder” and the symptoms used to describe it remain somewhat controversial. Nonetheless, a year ago Time magazine published an online quiz under the headline “Are you a narcissist?,” which seems like it might have been created to describe the current Republican front runner. You might want to take the quiz and share the results with your spouse. It may just explain a lot of things.

Here is a brief sample of the 40 questions (and choices) that help determine your level of narcissism:

“Modesty doesn’t become me” or “I’m essentially a modest person.”

“I can usually talk my way out of anything” or “I try to accept the consequences of my behavior.”

“I’m no better or worse than most people” or “I think I’m a special person.”

“I insist on getting the respect that I am due” or “I usually get the respect that I am due.”

You get the idea. The Mayo Clinic lists the “symptoms” of NPD as:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

Any of that sound like a fellow who might paint his last name on the side of own personal 757 and every piece of real estate he touches? This mash-up of “Trump’s Greatest Hits” looks like a NPD training film.

Conceited, boastful or pretentious…

There’s also this from the Mayo Clinic’s explanation of the condition: “If you have narcissistic personality disorder, you may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious. You often monopolize conversations. You may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior. You may feel a sense of entitlement — and when you don’t receive special treatment, you may become impatient or angry. You may insist on having “the best” of everything — for instance, the best car, athletic club or medical care.

“At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior. Or you may feel depressed and moody because you fall short of perfection.”

When you consider Trump – he loves to refer to himself in the third person – has a disability as opposed to a political agenda it then becomes obvious that classic, time-honored political responses to his behavior are pointless. He’s a master, for example, of turning the probing question – just ask Megyn Kelly – back on the person asking the question, which is a typical response from a person exhibiting the condition. Nothing is ever about Trump unless he choses to articulate something about his superior talent or success, like “I’ll be phenomenal for women” or “I’m rich – really rich” or “I’m a really smart guy.”

Trump’s NPD symptoms help explain why he has become so combustible to the rest of the Republican field. As the New York Times notes, “If candidates denounce Mr. Trump’s provocations, they ensure that he will attack them, which then forces them to respond to Mr. Trump. And on it goes.”

When Trump was asked, for example, if his comments about women are demeaning and inappropriate he simply articulated his own success – at least the “success” that exists in his own mind – and then he immediately pivots to tee off on Jeb Bush, or John McCain or Lindsay Graham or anyone else who is enough of “a loser” to question him. Kelly, the aggressive Fox New questioner during the recent debate, should apologize to him for asking “stupid” and “dumb” questions Trump now says.

The only woman in the GOP field, Carly Fiorina, who chastised Trump for his response when challenged by Megyn Kelly, got this by now classic Trump put down on Twitter: “I just realized that if you listen to Carly Fiorina for more than ten minutes straight, you develop a massive headache.”

Trump’s personality refuses to allow him to be called to account since, after all, it’s never about him unless he choses to make it about him. Trump is superior, Trump is unbelievably talented, Trump is outrageously wealthy and – perhaps most importantly to the political world – Trump displays an “inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.” He displays none of the usual characteristics that we have come to associate with American politicians – modesty, self-control, empathy, humor, or even reticence because, well, he can’t. He suffers from NPD.

Age of the 'selfie'

Age of the ‘selfie’

Trump’s condition, amazingly, makes him an unusually effective candidate in the current age of “the selfie” – self obsessed, self important and unwilling, or more likely unable, to understand why anyone would presume to challenge him or his success. While the “beltway gasbags” wring their hands and fret, Trump’s mind churns out lines like my current favorite from his round of weekend interviews. “Of course it’s very hard for [women] to attack me on looks because I’m so good looking,” Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd. What do you do with that as a reporter, candidate or voter?

The Dark Side…

The old White House hand David Gergen, now a CNN contributor, sees the same thing in Trump that I see, but also points out that there can be “productive narcissists,” people like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, even Gandhi. The corporate world is filled with the type. The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs seems to have qualified – a brilliant, driven man who verbally abused many people close to him.

Gergen’s recent piece led me to a particularly revealing Harvard Business Review article by Michael Maccoby, a psychoanalyst and anthropologist who has counseled governments and corporations. Maccoby notes that Sigmund Freud was among the first to identify that, “People of this type impress others as being ‘personalities.”

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

But Freud also recognized, Maccoby wrote, “that there is a dark side to narcissism. Narcissists, he pointed out, are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful. Perceived threats can trigger rage. Achievements can feed feelings of grandiosity. That’s why Freud thought narcissists were the hardest personality types to analyze. Consider how an executive at Oracle describes his narcissistic CEO Larry Ellison: ‘The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.’ That observation is amusing, but it is also troubling. Not surprisingly, most people think of narcissists in a primarily negative way. After all, Freud named the type after the mythical figure Narcissus, who died because of his pathological preoccupation with himself.”

Looking on the bright side…

Trump is clearly a political phenomenon, but understanding his methods and, yes, even his appeal requires a broader frame than what we think of as “politics.” His race to the top of the Republican field cannot last, but it will nevertheless be commented on for years. His statements will be deconstructed and marveled over when Bobby Jindal and Ben Carson are reduced to answers in a political trivial pursuit game. Eventually the Republicans who are presently enamored with Trump will realize, as David Gergen says, that they aren’t comfortable with a guy who stays up until 3:00 am tweeting insults having his finger anywhere near the nuclear button.

Trump would be the last to recognize it, but ironically his bizarre candidacy and even more bizarre behavior could result – admittedly I’m looking for a silver lining here – in expanding awareness of a real problem – the NPD sufferer and how they might receive help.

Trump is obviously not a poster boy for presidential greatness, but he is, in a weird way, Exhibit A for better understanding the depth and breath of mental illness in our tightly wound society. The clown in the flashy tie with the orange hair might not be crazy, as some have said, but he really needs help, which sadly Trump will be the last to realize.

 

The Case for Jeannette

Poor old Alexander Hamilton. He’s about to lose his coveted spot on the $10 bill and be displaced by a woman. It’s way past time for that but still, he was Alexander Hamilton.

A Founding Father about to be displaced.

A Founding Father about to be displaced.

The first Secretary of the Treasury, inventor of American governmental finance and a top aide to General Washington, Hamilton probably should have been president. But was also born out of wedlock, got mixed up in a very messy love affair during the height of his political career and then got killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. He could have been a great president, but like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Adali Stevenson – all remarkable men who might have been great presidents – Hamilton sadly never got there. Now apparently he’s toast on the ten spot.

I come not to bury old Hamilton, but rather to praise him, but also to make the case for the woman who should grace the nation’s currency as Hamilton rides off into assured oblivion as the Founding Father most likely to be forgotten. There are a number of woman worthy of gracing the folding green – Eleanor Roosevelt for sure and Harriet Tubman, Frances Perkins and Rosa Parks, just to name a few – and I would gladly slip a few $10 bills carrying the image of any number of remarkable American women into my money clip.

Rankin shortly after his first election to Congress in 1916.

Rankin shortly after her first election to Congress in 1916.

But my choice is a bit different, a woman from the West, a champion of hard working miners and loggers, a supporter of organized labor, a liberal Republican (when there were such things), an advocate of women and children, a politician without guile or spite, but full of passion and principle, the first woman elected to Congress – even before woman could vote in many places – and, perhaps above all, an unabashed and stunningly courageous advocate for peace. An elegant fashion plate, too, who was surely a commanding figure on the stump. Her broad-brimmed hats and carefully tailored clothing created a political fashion craze decades before Hillary’s pant suits.

I say let’s put the incredible Jeannette Rankin from Missoula, Montana on the currency.

Rankin was pacesetter, role model, remarkably accomplished woman and elected official and she would be a powerful reminder that peace, humility, decency and equality are American values that must not be quietly tucked away in history books, but held forth as what we – what Americans – really should be all about.

Elected to Congress the first time in 1916, Rankin is best remembered for her vote against U.S. participation in the First World War. Her vote was a courageous and controversial move, but one completely in keeping with her values and beliefs. Nearly a hundred years later that vote doesn’t look too bad. Rankin ran for the U.S. Senate in 1918, lost the Republican primary in Montana, and ran in the general election as a third-party candidate. After losing that election Rankin re-grouped and re-dedicated herself to the cause of peace. She worked tirelessly for that cause between the world wars, while continuing her advocacy for women and children.

Rankin campaign button.

Rankin campaign button.

In one of the great ironies of American political history, Rankin ran for Congress a second time in 1940 just as the United States started in earnest down the path to involvement in the Second World War. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Rankin was back in Congress and facing her own moral and political crisis – whether to vote for a declaration of war. Agonizing over the decision – her brother and political confidante told her a “no” vote would amount to political suicide – Rankin nonetheless refused to vote for war. She stunned the House of Representatives and many of her constituents when, her voice filled with emotion, she said “I cannot vote for war.”

15 Jan 1968, Washington, DC, USA --- A group of women belonging to the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march in protest of the Vietnam War. Jeanette Rankin, the first female congress member, stands holding the banner at center (wearing eyeglasses). --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

January 1968, Washington, DC — A group of women belonging to the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march in protest of the Vietnam War. Jeanette Rankin, the first female congress member, stands holding the banner at center (wearing eyeglasses). — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Rankin’s lone vote against war in 1941 effectively ended her political career if not her anti-war activism. Rankin retired from elective politics, but was still leading marches against war – this time in Southeast Asia – as a spry 90 year-old in the early 1970’s. She died in 1973.

I’ve read all the Rankin biographies (and the one on her very political and very wealthy brother, Wellington), tried to understand her place in Montana and American history, even looked through some of her correspondence carefully preserved at the wonderful Montana Historical Society in Helena, but strangely still don’t feel I know everything I want to know about this remarkable, passionate and principled woman. By most accounts she had that effect on most everyone she encountered.

Mike Mansfield, for example, who replaced Rankin in the House of Representatives in 1942 and went on to his own distinguished career in the Senate, profoundly admired the elegant, outspoken woman from Missoula. I talked with Mansfield about Montana politics shortly before his death and when the conversation turned to Jeannette, Mansfield in his candid and clipped way said simply, “She was remarkable.”

Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin

My favorite comment about Rankin comes from an unlikely source. After her vote against war in 1941, the famous Kansas editor William Allen White, a strong advocate of American aid to the allies before Pearl Harbor and therefore on the other side of the great foreign policy debate at the time, wrote in his Emporia Gazette newspaper:

“Well – look at Jeannette Rankin. Probably a hundred men in Congress would like to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it.”

“The Gazette,” White continued, “disagrees with the wisdom on her position. But, Lord, it was a brave thing: and its bravery somehow discounts its folly. When in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based on moral inclination is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did but for the way she did it.”

I say put Jeannette Rankin on the $10 bill. She would be a fantastic reminder that personal and political courage make American heroes.