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Just Say No…

By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed obama0404nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.

Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.

Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…

Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan Mikhail-Gorbachev-Ronald-Reaganattempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.

And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.

Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.

Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s jesse-helms-reagan_685352cnegotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.

Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…

Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”

By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.

That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?

Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on Brickerforeign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.

A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.

A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to goldwaterdisastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.

Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.

When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.

Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The GOP’s DNA Dates to Woodrow Wilson…

The most effective and eloquent opponent of that agreement was BorahIdaho Republican Senator William E. Borah who, it was said, brought tears to the eyes of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when he spoke against Wilson’s ideas on the floor of the United States Senate on November 19, 1919.

Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.

Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.

Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…

Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.

No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

 

High Popalorum, Low Popahirum

HueyLongHuey Long, the one-time Governor and Senator from Louisiana, was one of the great and colorful demagogues in American political history. Huey rarely said anything that wasn’t over the top, critical of Washington politicians of both parties, politically incorrect even in the 1930’s, and often very funny. A typical Long performance – unlike so much of today’s political rhetoric – came in the form of a folksy, witty story that made a larger political point.

One of my Long favorites: “The Democratic Party and the Republican Party were just like the old patent medicine drummer that used to come around our country,” Long once said. “He had two bottles of medicine.

“He’d play a banjo and he’d sell two bottles of medicine. One of those bottles of medicine was called High Popalorum and another one of those bottles of medicine was called Low Popahirum.

“Finally somebody around there said is there any difference in these bottles of medicines? ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘considerable. They’re both good but they’re different,’ he said.

“‘That High Popalorum is made from the bark off the tree that we take from the top down. And that Low Popahirum is made from the bark that we take from the root up.’

“And the only difference that I have found between the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership was that one of ’em was skinning you from the ankle up and the other from the ear down — when I got to Congress.”

Other great political phrase makers, Winston Churchill for instance, have the ability to slice with humor. Churchill once said of political rival and Labour Party Prime Minister Ramsey Macdonald that he “has the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thoughts.” Great line.

Or how about Ronald Reagan’s mix of humor and politics, including this searing putdown of his opponent in the 1980 presidential campaign. “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his,” Reagan said.

Such use of clever and clear political language has all but disappeared from our political discourse as members of both modern political parties become guilty of outrageous, uninspired and borderline crazy political speech hardly any of which is as funny or as precise as Long, Churchill or Reagan. Consider some recent examples.

The Washington Establishment Response:

Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president, has launched a Republican primary challenge against incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Not surprisingly, many of Enzi’s colleagues – Arizona’s John McCain, included – have endorsed his re-election. What does Liz Cheney do? She falls back, of course, on the lame, tired and limp response of, no doubt, a political consultant. “Liberal Republican Senators like John McCain…have endorsed my opponent.” Liberal Republicans? Like John “I ran against Obama in 2008″ McCain?

“The Washington Establishment is doing all it can to try to stop us,” the unimaginative Ms. Cheney says. “Even with the mess in Washington today, the Establishment is fighting hard to protect incumbents. You and I know that protecting incumbents won’t protect our freedom.”

The challenger is guilty of a political attack that fails to pass the smell test and, even worse, of being boring. If you can’t do better than that maybe you should stay in Casper.

The Invoke The Bible Response:

The always reliably kookie Rep. Michele Bachmann said recently that President Obama’s decision to provide arms to certain of the Syrian rebels was proof of, well let her explain.

“This happened, and as of today, the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists,” Bachmann said on a Christian radio show, “Now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end time history.”

The end times? The end times of her term in Congress maybe.

Invoke the Nazis:

A state representative in Arizona, Brenda Barton of Payson, took to Facebook during the recent government shutdown to complain about National Park closures and in the process, you guessed it, she made the Nazi comparison.

“Someone is paying the National Park Service thugs overtime for their efforts to carry out the order of De Fuhrer… where are our Constitutional Sheriffs who can revoke the Park Service Rangers authority to arrest??? Do we have any Sheriffs with a pair?” she wrote.

When called on whether the Nazi angle to the government shutdown was really appropriate Rep. Barton doubled down. “You better read your history,” she said. “Germany started with national health care and gun control before any of that other stuff happened. And Hitler was elected by a majority of people.”

Actually, reading the real history, tells us that the German social welfare system began to come together under Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck in the 1870’s and evolved over time, much as Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act have in the United States.

As the National Institutes of Health says about German health care: “Rather than being solely a lesson about leftist politics and the power of trade unions, health care in Germany is above all a story of conservative forces in society. These forces include public and private employers, churches, and faith-based and secular social welfare organizations. They remain committed to the preservation of equitable access to quality medical services, and they form crucial pillars for the delivery of medical services and nursing care.” It is less complicated, I know, to just make up “your history” and blame the Nazis.

The Texas flaming meteorite Sen. Ted Cruz had his own “invoke the Nazis” moment recently when he said failing to defund Obamacare was analogous to “appeasement” of Hitler’s Germany in “the 1940’s.”

“If you go to the 1940s, Nazi Germany,” Cruz said. “Look, we saw in Britain, Neville Chamberlain, who told the British people, ‘Accept the Nazis. Yes, they’ll dominate the continent of Europe but that’s not our problem. Let’s appease them. Why? Because it can’t be done. We can’t possibly stand against them.'”

Ted, Ted. First, the lessons of Munich are still much debated by thoughtful people, including imminent historians, who continue to sift through the nuances of whether Hitler and the Nazis might have been stopped short of world war. And, for what it’s worth, the Yale education senator got his decade wrong. Britain was at war with Germany in September 1939. But here’s the real point – the “appeaser” label is one of the cheapest and sleaziest charges any politician can level at another, as that “liberal” John McCain made clear to the boy senator from Texas.

As a general rule you know a politician is standing on swampy ground when he invokes, in relation to a contemporary issue, the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. There are many lessons for America today from the period immediately before World War II and one important lesson is don’t make sweeping generalizations about someone’s patriotism based on a charge of “appeasement.”

The Ripped from the Pages of History Approach:

Here is another old, old chestnut of political rhetoric. Take a chapter of American history, typically completely out of context, and use that example to support a highly controversial position of the moment.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Virginia Republican, employed this bit of rhetorical malpractice recently when he argued that it would be OK to shut down the government and even default on the nation’s debts, because the Founders – its always the Founders – did damage to the economy to save it in 1776.

“I will remind you that this group of renegades that decided that they wanted to break from the crown in 1776 did great damage to the economy of the colonies,” Griffith said. “They created the greatest nation and the best form of government, but they did damage to the economy in the short run.”

Actually, Mr. Griffith, those “renegades” launched a revolution against the British crown with many of them – Washington, Jefferson, Adams, for example – putting their personal fortunes and freedom at risk. The damage done was really to the British economy, but never mind.

And then there is Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, who had his campaign send out a solicitation that compared the Tea Party faction of the GOP to the Ku Klux Klan, complete with burning cross symbolism.

“[T]here is overwhelming evidence that the Tea Party is the home of bigotry and discrimination in America today, just as the KKK was for an earlier generation,” Grayson said. “If the shoe fits, wear it.” Actually, that shoe pinches. In its hay day the KKK was more than a political force, it mounted a reign of terror – lynchings, murders, beatings and more – primarily against blacks, but also against other minorities. Invoking the Klan to characterize your opponents on the right today is just as offensive as invoking the Nazi to smear your opponents on the left or, in Sen. Cruz’s case, smear members of your own party.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Political discourse over important and controversial issues is cheapened and weakened when public official lack the imagination or historical grounding to make an argument on the merits or, at least, an argument that enlightens with a smile.

It is asking entirely too much, I know, for today’s political class to have anything approaching the class of a career politician like Winston Churchill, but perhaps they could make an effort to use the language as well as he did. After he became British Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill formed a unity government that included Labour Party leader Clement Atlee, a long-time political opponent, as deputy prime minister. The two men were hardly friends, but did win a war together and maintained a grudging respect for each other; the type of wary respect of one ambitious man keeping a close eye on another ambitious man. Churchill could still cut his opponents down to size with a sharp one liner.

Churchill once referred to Atlee as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” and on another occasion as “a modest man, who has much to be modest about.” One of Winston’s best lines reflected in one sentence just what he thought of Atlee’s ability and intellect. “An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street,” Churchill said, “and when the door was opened, Atlee got out.” Brilliant. How do you respond to that?

I love politics. I just want to listen to better debate from people smart enough to make better arguments. In other words, a bit more High Popalorum.

 

Graveyard of Empires

“All along the north and northwest frontiers of India lie the Himalayas, the greatest disturbance of the earth’s surface that the convulsions of chaotic periods have produced.” That’s how Winston Churchill began his still highly readable 1897 book The Story of the Malakand Field Force.

Young Winston wrote from the British cavalry barracks in Bangalore where he was stationed as part of his deployment to the part of the world the Brits more than once tried to subdue. It worked, as Churchill’s book makes clear, about as well for them as it has for us.

 New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has now limped home from his first surprise trip to Afghanistan reduced to admitting the obvious – “it’s complicated.” Hagel, a decorated Vietnam vet and, I suspect like many from his generation who served and fought he is a reluctant warrior. Hagel was dissed by the increasingly detestable Hamid Karzai who actually said during the secretary’s visit that Taliban acts of violence in Afghanistan proved a level of collusion with the United States. Karzai then cancelled a joint press conference with Hagel just to make his contempt for the fighting and dying done by American’s perfectly clear.

It should tell us something that Hagel – and all high level visiting Americans – need to make “surprise” visits to Afghanistan since the security situation is so tenuous. It’s clear some the attacks during the Hagel visit were meant to send a message. Is anyone listening?

Former New York Times columnist and Council on Foreign Relations chairman Leslie Gelb says, in a piece titled “To Hell With Karzai,” that it’s time for the Obama Administration “to stop letting these Karzai guys play us for suckers and speed up our exit, and stop wasting American lives and dollars.”

We’re finding – and, of course, this was completely predictable – that getting into Afghanistan was a whole lot easier than getting out. Like Vietnam and Iraq before, we have met the limits of our ability to project force to change politics and history on the ground, this time in the shadow of the Himalayas.

It was a fool’s errand to try in the first place, but makes even less sense to prolong the effort. We will eventually leave Afghanistan and the departure will signal a return of the tribal wars and turmoil that have been a fixture of the place for hundreds of years. It’s difficult, almost impossible, for a superpower to admits its limits, to admit that we cannot always be the positive, democratic role model we so desperately believe to be our destiny, but doing so – admitting the limits of western power in an ancient tribal culture – is the beginning of realism and maybe, just maybe, the beginning of a better approach.

“Except at times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land,” Churchill wrote of Afghanistan (and Pakistan) more than 115 years ago. “The people of some valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”

And we are the strangers. As of this morning 2,050 Americans have died and more than 18,000 have been wounded in this place where strife prevailed before we arrived and will prevail after we are gone.

 

Winston’s Birthday

churchillThe Boneless Wonder…

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on this day in 1874.

The world has not been the same since.

In any one of a half dozen fields – the military, literature, history, painting, lecturing, acting (?) – Churchill could have become an international celebrity, acknowledged for his remarkable talents. Thank goodness he chose politics.

For two years running now, I have had the genuine pleasure of attending the annual Chartwell Society dinner at the elegant Arlington Club in downtown Portland, Oregon. The dinner has been organized for 17 years by a group of Oregon Churchillians who gather to remember the great man’s life and legacy. Of course, true to Churchill’s memory, they also enjoy cocktails – or Winston’s favorite Pol Roger champagne – good roast beef and fine French wine. The whole affair is conducted amid much talk of the man who gave Britain her roar during the awful days of World War II.

Unfortunately, recent changes in Oregon law prevented the standard after dinner cigar at the recent Chartwell Society gala. Winston would not have approved. Generally, he favored a Romeo y Julietta; Cuban, of course and in the size he made famous. One of his cigars, reportedly partially consumed at the Casablanca conference in 1943, was recently valued at 800 pounds.

I had the honor of delivering one of the toasts during the Chartwell Society dinner, a toast to Churchill’s wartime friend Franklin Roosevelt. I believe theirs was the most consequential friendship of the 20th Century.

The Chartwell dinner gets me thinking about the remarkable accomplishments of Churchill and, in fairness, also his rather remarkable failures.

Decidedly on the plus side of his legacy is the fact that he provided the vocabulary and the courage needed for Britain to hang on against the Germans in 1940 and 1941 while the United States remained a largely isolationist nation. He forged a great alliance with Roosevelt that still resonates with us today.

Churchill is also remembered for engineering the disastrous British expedition to the Dardanelles in 1915 that ultimately forced his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty. Winston was a man of action and ideas. Some of his actions and ideas were great, many others were not. Still, perhaps the greatest lesson of Churchill’s long and fascinating life was his determination to always carry on.

He famously said: “When you are going through Hell, keep on going.” He did.

When Churchill returned to lead the British Navy in 1939 – remember he had been forced to resign from the same post 24 years earlier – he was, at age 65, widely considered the right man at the right time, in fact the only man for the job. He went to his old office in the Admiralty Building and found the same charts and maps that he had left there nearly a quarter century before. To mark his return, a signal was flashed to the fleet – “Winston’s back!” Who says there are no second acts in political life? Churchill had a second, third and fourth life. He always kept on going.

Churchill will be long remembered for his remarkable ability to inspire with the written and spoken word. He was an elegant, earthy, inspirational, funny and profound speaker, and, take note today’s politicos, his remarkable way with words – something he worked very hard to master – was a talent that contributed directly to his political success.

One of my favorite stories involves Churchill’s critique of Labour Party Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, a dour Scotsman who Winston believed was a weak leader. During a parliamentary debate he painted an unforgettable word portrait of MacDonald, who was seated across the floor in the House of Commons:

“I remember when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum’s Circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the program which I most desired to see was the one described as ‘The Boneless Wonder.’ My parents judged that the spectacle would be too demoralizing and revolting for my youthful eyes and I have waited fifty years to see The Boneless Wonder siting on the Treasury Bench.”

You can almost hear the laughter, see the nodding heads and know that the victim of the wit and cutting put down had no possible recourse. What does one say to being called The Boneless Wonder?

One of the greatest resources for all things Churchill is the Churchill Centre which sponsors an annual conference in the United States and vigorously defends the old boy’s reputation. The scholarly analysis of Churchill’s role in two world wars and the post-war world of the 1950’s and 1960’s continues unabated. My guess is that he will be written about as long as the history of the English speaking people is recorded.

Like all great men – and women – Winston Churchill was far from perfect. He was however a remarkable leader at the very moment the world needed him the most. We should remember his birthday every year.