Archive for November, 2010

Chalmers Johnson

chalmers johnsonAn American Critic

Chalmers Johnson, who died recently at age 79 in California, may be among the most influential foreign policy thinkers since George Kennan and too few people outside of the academy knew his name.

Johnson, an Asian scholar, was one of the first to understand and reinterpret the economic strength of Japan and China and, after spending his early life as a CIA consultant and a hawk on foreign policy, he transformed his thinking into insightful analysis of what he saw as the imperialist tendencies of the United States.

Johnson repeatedly asked a simple question that American policy makers rarely confront. Why is it that since the end of the Cold War, American defense spending has continued to escalate at a remarkable rate and why do we need more than 700 military installations in every corner of the world? Good question.

Johnson argued in a 2007 NPR interview and in his book Nemesis that America’s vast military complex, the cost to maintain it and the power it invested in the presidency was a fundamental danger to American democracy.

Johnson was in the tradition of great scholar/writers and politicians who were also foreign policy thinkers. He attempted in a careful, thoughtful way to place the American experience in the world in the context of history. He was not blinded, as so many political leaders are today, by the notion that America’s role in the world is somehow pre-ordained. The Romans and the British were forced, eventually, to come to grips with their lack of “exceptionalism” and that empire was a costly, ultimately futile (and fatal) exercise. The same fate may await the United States.

Chalmers Johnson argued that American democracy is the only aspect of our story that is truly exceptional and with so much attention devoted to American empire we are in danger of squandering the very thing that makes us great.

Happy Thanksgiving

lincolnLincoln’s Decree of Thanksgiving in 1863

It is well to remember that as troubled as our economy is at this traditional season of Thanksgiving, there have been darker times.

During the awful year of 1863, with a vast and bloody civil war raging across the nation, Abraham Lincoln caused the nation to pause and celebrate its bounty and blessings.

Andy Malcolm at his Los Angeles Times blog dusts off that eloquent proclamation today along with President Obama’s Thanksgiving decree.

Enjoy reading them with a profound prayer of Thanksgiving and a hopeful wish for better times – soon – for all the world.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Books, Books and Books

booksGood Reads for Winter

The Lonely Planet guidebook recent published a Top 10 list of the world’s greatest bookstores. (I’m happy to say I’ve browsed in three of the Top 10, including the stores that LP lists as No. 1 and No. 2.)

That list of great bookstores got me thinking about the best books I’ve come across in the last few weeks. So in no particular order, here are a four good reads for winter.

Two new presidential bios are out.

Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is a big, sprawling book about the president we all know, but really don’t. As the Christian Science Monitor noted in its review: “From Washington’s churning emotions beneath a cool exterior to his love of ladies and dance, the hero of the Revolutionary War and America’s first president emerges as an admirable, flawed, and human figure.” In other words, a more interesting and approachable man and politician than the stone figure of statues and myth.

The long awaited final volume of Edmund Morris’ three-volume life of Theodore Roosevelt – Colonel Roosevelt - is also in the bookstores. I haven’t read it yet, but the NPR interview with Morris about the post-presidential life of the great TR was absolutely fascinating. The first two volumes of this trio were simply superb history and biography and, I’m betting, the final volume will be just as good.

The New York Times said of Morris’ opus that it “deserves to stand as the definitive study of its restless, mutable, ever-boyish, erudite and tirelessly energetic subject. Mr. Morris has addressed the toughest and most frustrating part of Roosevelt’s life with the same care and precision that he brought to the two earlier installments. And if this story of a lifetime is his own life’s work, he has reason to be immensely proud.”

Two new books on United States foreign policy in the post-war world deserve praise. Presidential historian Robert Dallek has produced an assessment of the post-World War II blunders of most of the world’s major leaders – Truman, Stalin, de Gaulle, Churchill, among others. The book – The Lost Peace – argues that the Cold War wasn’t inevitable and might well have been avoided.

Dallek reminds us, for example, that Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh spent significant time during his younger days in the United States, Britain and France. Ho’s guerrilla activities, aimed at the Japanese and Vichy France during the war, were all about Vietnamese nationalism. Dallek makes a compelling case that a lack of imagination on the part of American policy makers coupled with de Gaulle’s desire to maintain French colonies after the war pushed Ho toward open confrontation with the West. Ho repeatedly petitioned President Truman for acknowledgement of Vietnamese aspirations for independence. Truman never responded.

Another book of note examines the Cold War from the perspective of two giants of American foreign policy from the 1940’s to the end of the century. The Hawk and The Dove by Nicholas Thompson tells the story of the friendship and rivalry between “the hawk” Paul Nitze, a career Washington policy insider, and “the dove” George Kennan, a Soviet expert who spent most of his life trying to influence policy from the outside. Thompson is a deft storyteller and great researcher who is also Nitze’s grandson, but he never plays favorites.

As the Washington Post said, “In this important and astute new study, Nitze emerges as a driven patriot and Kennan as a darkly conflicted and prophetic one.”

Late in life the two brilliant men reconciled their political differences and Nitze, while never admitting it, came to embrace Kennan’s view that nuclear weapons must be reduced and eventually eliminated. This is a great book if you want to better understand American foreign policy from Roosevelt to Reagan.

If you’re not quite ready to tackle Sarah Palin’s latest, any one of these four very good books will provide real insight into American politics and history and provide a great way to spend a winter evening or weekend.

 

The Man

musialThe Last Great of His Generation

There was much appropriate notice the last few days of the 90th birthday of Stan “The Man” Musial, the great outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. The single best line about Musial was uttered by the guy who may just be the current “best player in the game” – Albert Pujols, also a Cardinal. The Great Pujols told St. Louis fans never to refer to him as El Hombre. There is only one Man in St. Louis, says Albert.

Perhaps because he labored in a smaller market than Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio, and was by all accounts a nicer guy not given to ignoring writers or marrying movie stars, Musial hasn’t always gotten the attention or worn the laurels that his lifetime .331 average and sweet left handed swing demands. It’s wonderful to listen to the late, great Cardinal broadcaster Jack Buck praise Musial not as just a great ballplayer, but a fine person.

As the Baseball Library website notes: “When he retired, Musial owned or shared 29 NL records, 17 ML records, 9 All-Star records, including most home runs (6), and almost every Cardinals career offensive record. In 1956 [Sporting News] named Musial its first Player of the Decade.”

Now, President Obama will bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom on The Man in a White House ceremony next year. Pretty fast company, too, Bill Russell, Yo-Yo Ma and a baseball playing ex-president George H.W. Bush.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Bernie Miklasz put together a Top 90 list of things to like about Musial. The first, according to Miklaswz, “Musial is the nicest person we’ve known. He’s devoted much of his life to making others happy. ‘I suppose it’s because I’m a you-only-live-once type, and I figure I might as well enjoy everything that happens,’ Musial said at the end of his career. ‘It’s also with me pretty much a matter of putting myself in somebody else’s place. So what I try to do is never to hurt anybody else and figure if I don’t, then I’m not likely to get hurt myself.'”

Sounds like a guy who is worthy of a Presidential Medal.

Those Awful Earmarks

capitol domeJust About the Least of the Problems

The Constitution of the United States of America says in Article I, Section 9:

“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”

Just to be clear, it is the specific duty of the Congress of the United States to appropriate money. The Founders set it up that way. Deciding the priorities of how the federal government spends your money is what Congress does.

The federal budget represents one of the most excruciatingly complex processes in our democracy. It is difficult to explain in simple English, but it goes something like this: Federal agencies, through the Executive Branch (the president) present requests to the Legislative Branch (Congress). Congress considers those recommendations and authorizes a certain level of spending for, say, the Department of Defense. Then the Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate determine how much will be spent on this weapons system or that air base. A tiny fraction of the money authorized – one or two percent – has typically been directed to certain projects or purposes by your representatives. Think back to Article I, Section 9. These directed appropriations are the now toxic and dreaded earmarks.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate, has been a champion of securing earmarks for his state – $1 billion in recent years – but he has now sworn off the dirty business. Same goes for Colorado Democrat Mark Udall. President Obama is on the earmark ban-wagon.

Most of these sensible legislators and the president are vowing to disown earmarks not because ending their use really has anything to do with controlling the massive federal budget, but because the dreaded earmark has become a symbol for an out of control federal budget. Symbols can be useful, but frankly this debate is not helpful because it obscures the real challenges of controlling the budget.

Eliminating earmarks, even if the ban is strongly enforced and enterprising appropriators resist finding ways to finesse the ban, will reduce the budget by a tiny, tiny fraction. It’s the equivalent of filling your gas tank with 50 bucks worth of fuel and then not squeezing the last three or four cents of gas into the tank. You might save a few cents at the pump, but you’ve still spent 50 dollars on gas. Former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, the co-chair of the controversial deficit reduction commission, dismisses the earmark ban as “sparrow belch.” I think that means not consequential.

Earmarks are not the problem with the federal budget – not even close. The real problem is to provide a factual, realistic framework for what needs to be done to control the budget; a framework that the American public can understand. In short, political leaders need to do something that has virtually disappeared in our politics – they need to educate and inform in a sensible, candid manner.

If we devote all of the future debate about the budget to sideshows like bans on earmarks, the American people will never get engaged on what really needs to be done. Certainly there have been abuses of the earmark. Randy “Duke” Cunningham is in federal prison for essentially selling earmarks for political and personal favors, but the earmark is also the way a small state secures research dollars for a state university or a small hospital gets new equipment.

Banning earmarks will thwart another Duke Cunningham, but the cure may be worst than the disease and, fundamentally, a ban won’t mean a thing to the deficit.

Other emerging strategies won’t do much either. New GOP leaders in the Congress are proposing, as a budget strategy, a return to 2008 or earlier budget levels. Such a move might cut $100 billion in spending. The current deficit is about $1.3 trillion.

Small steps, including symbolic cuts like banning earmarks, don’t just fail to address the deficit problem they risk being intellectually dishonest and they may serve to avoid doing what is really necessary – a wholesale assessment of spending and taxing and significant adjustments in both.

You can see why politicians are reluctant to engage in this serious conversation. Closer to home, a new poll in Idaho shows how vast the disconnect has become between public wants and public realism and understanding. The new poll says, in essence, that Idahoans, with the legislature facing a $340 million deficit at the state level, want no more budget cuts and no tax increases. Oh, if pressed, we could handle a big increase in the cigarette tax. This is the cake and eat too approach to fiscal reality.

The wise and measured Fareed Zakaria, writing in TIME, wonders if this looming debate over the budget and the deficit signals a fundamental turning point in American fortunes. “Historians may well look back,” he says, “and say this was the point at which the U.S. began its long and seemingly irreversible decline.”

It may indeed be a rare moment in American history when serious people step forward to talk about serious issues, or we may just settle for banning earmarks.

 

The Olbermann File

olbermannThe Agony of Cable

I have been trying for a week now to sort out just how I feel about this Keith Olbermann matter and I keep coming back to one question: Isn’t his 15 minutes of fame about up?

If you are a watcher of news about “the news,” you know that the MSNBC host of the popular show Countdown was suspended for a few hours recently for violating an NBC News policy about employees of the news division making political contributions. In keeping with the general tone of cable TV, the hubbub over the Olbermann suspension has lasted longer than the Olbermann suspension.

Now Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast offers up the inevitable story – Olbermann has antagonized all his bosses at NBC who seem on the verge of showing him the studio door even as he enjoys the remainder of a four-year, $30 million contract. Don’t bet on it.

That last fact about money is perhaps all one really needs to know about this story.

Keith Olbermann, a clever, opinionated partisan (playing a journalist on cable) gets paid a lot of money by the folks at MSNBC for performing essentially the same shtick five nights a week. He offers opinion and commentary in the guise of “news,” interviews people with much the same point of view and draws a fairly large audience of like-minded Americans every night. Over at Fox, Bill O’Reilly does the same thing, as does Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Nothing going on here has very much to do with news and nothing at all to do with the public interest. Meanwhile, the top brass at NBC looks pretty silly because they are trying to apply the old rules of TV news to the new reality of the openly partisan swamp of cable.

Leave it to Jon Stewart to really sum this up: “Yes, MSNBC, it’s a stupid rule, but at least it was enforced poorly.”

The very best thing I’ve read from the Olbermann file is the take from former ABC News correspondent Ted Koppel that appeared in the Washington Post. Koppel, a real journalist, made a telling point when he quoted Olbermann as saying the NBC rule he had violated just needed to be “adapted to the realities of 21st Century journalism.” There you have it.

Serious journalism on the tube is a dying institution. Some of the last surviving dinosaurs, the Tom Brokaws and Koppels, still show up to bemoan the good old days when the Keith Olbermann’s further push the lines of what real journalists know to be acceptable, but even they know real news on TV is in its death throes. Cable and the vast corporationization of news has left the public interest notion on the curb, while entertainment masquerading as news drives ratings and money.

Some of us can remember, as Ted Koppel does when: “Much of the American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening, separate but together, while Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know. The ritual permitted, and perhaps encouraged, shared perceptions and even the possibility of compromise among those who disagreed.”

That hopelessly old fashioned model, as Koppel says, was far from perfect, but it has much to recommend it that the antics of an Olbermann and a Beck certain don’t.

The reality of 21st Century journalism is simply money and ratings. The old fashioned sense that broadcasters had a public service role to play by virtue of their use of the public airwaves – a notion embodied in the 1927 federal legislation providing some framework for organizing those airwaves – has gone the way of 16 millimeter film.

If you really wonder why our politics – brace yourself for the Lame Duck Session – are as dysfunctional, nasty and vacuous as they are, you can start to find the answer in the vast wasteland of cable “news.” You’ll find no notion of shared perception or compromise out there. Peel back the hot air and find the mother’s milk of cable: it’s all about the money.

I seriously doubt MSNBC will dismiss Keith. It would be like firing your franchise. They hired him to be outspoken, full of himself and a shameless partisan. The powers to be at NBC are getting just what they have paid for and they are moralizing all the way to the bank.

His 15 minutes of fame just got extended.