They’re “drinking the sand!”

In the entertaining 1995 movie, The American President, President Andrew Shepherd played by Michael Douglas starts a relationship  with an environment lobbyist, Sydney Ellen Wade played by Annette Benning. The president’s high approval rating takes a dive as the public’s discomfort with a dating president takes hold. President Shepherd refuses to engage the public or political opposition on the issue, taking the “high road” that his private life is none of the public’s business. As his chief of staff A.J. MacInerney played by Martin Sheen retorts, “the American public has a funny way of deciding what is and what is not their business.”

Eventually, one of the president’s chief advisers Lewis Rothschild played by Michael J. Fox confronts the president with the latter’s refusal to speak up and defend his relationship against withering attacks by the president’s election rival, Senator Bob Rumson played by Richard Dreyfus.  While acknowledging the President’s patriotism, Rothschild passionately claims that,

“People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”

It seems that at the moment some notable portion of the American people are indeed “drinking the sand.”

On the one hand we have Democrat Bernie Sanders, an intense campaigner, appealing mainly to younger and poorer Americans with the promise that if we just tax the top one percent, trillions of dollars will eventually appear to provide free education, free health care, and higher payouts for Social Security. Maybe someone ought to level with the American people and tell them that no such sums are available. If Mr. Sanders were elected we could expect a dramatic increase in the number of wealthy Americans giving up their passports and moving overseas, adding to the record numbers claiming that distinction last year. (Remember Bjorn Borg moving to Monaco to escape Sweden’s tax burden?)

Then we have political neophyte Donald Trump who has raised insulting people to an art form and has been rewarded with zealous support by a sizeable minority of Americans. Mr Trump promises to suddenly “make America great again” by building a wall on the border with Mexico, taxing Chinese imports by 45%, and refusing to allow Muslims into the U.S. (with notable exceptions for Muslim celebrities). Disentangling ourselves from the labor of Mexico, the goods of China and the energy of immigrants will be more painful than Mr. Trump and others might imagine. Of course Mr. Trump and his minions as well as the media ignore the benefits of free trade to U.S. jobs and business profits, especially for small businesses.

The answers sound so easy.

The rhetoric of these two demagogues (Yes, liberals, Mr. Sanders is one too!) feels so empowering after bearing with the reserved and aloof “Professor-in-Chief” for the last eight years. The public loves the loud and emboldening language of Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump; it feels so liberating to think we can charge into the future behind an aggressive leader. After all, Americans have made it a habit of electing presidents who possess qualities the previous president conspicuously lacked. Jimmy Carter to Richard Nixon seems the best example.

President Obama has refused to sell his policies aggressively and use the bully pulpit to engage the public. His quiet intellectual tone and undemonstrative appeal to rationality has made Americans thirst for more dynamism.  He has left the American people feeling adrift in a sea of sand, in a world that seems so threatening. Of course a Republican-led Congress, slightly more popular than terrorists, has successfully stonewalled almost every move he made.

This leaves many Americans yearning for some direction. But as President Shepherd retorted to his adviser Lewis Rothschild in the movie, “people don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty, they drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.” Maybe “we the people” should do a little investigating to try and discover what we might get ourselves into before casting a ballot for a candidate promising pie-in-the-sky solutions that feel emotionally satisfying.

What a “Great” Country!

Though the furor has subsided, questions about President Obama’s lack of enthusiasm for an unqualified  “American exceptionalism”  linger deep in the heart of some conservatives suspicious of his birthplace, faith and loyalties. Even if the President took to wearing a little flag pin on his lapel, some on the right of American politics would refuse to believe that a non-military, black intellectual could possibly love the United States. In fact some on the “rabid right” have claimed that the President actually wants to destroy the American economy intentionally!

Before I digress too much, the hullabaloo over the President’s feelings have made me ask the question, “What makes a great country?” Americans often claim that we have a “great country,” and I am sure they are referring to our freedom, rule of law, opportunity to create, invent, and work hard, and, believe it or not, our tolerance. (Some on the “loony left” would doubt that.) Some people have even claimed it is “God’s will”, though the British, French, Germans, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese, among others have made similar assertions of greatness and heaven’s favor.

It seems to me that the criteria for becoming a great country might be different from that of remaining a great country.  After all the aforementioned values have been the product of hard work and sacrifice by natives and immigrants, civilian and military,  women and men, and a multitude of races and ethnicities.  It also begs the question that after watching our politics for the last fifty years, “Are we at risk of squandering that benefit?”  If we are to remain a great country, aren’t we going to have to start to work towards and sacrifice for future generations of U.S. citizens?

All of this is a long-winded way of getting around to the recent antics of our federal legislature and its acrobatics in trying to pass a simple highway bill. It used to be in this country that the people who used the roads would actually pay tolls or higher gasoline taxes to maintain them. Not any more. We have fallen under the spell of charmers who have convinced us that if we all just keep all of our own money and reduce taxes until we pay nothing then we’ll all live happily ever after.  All without public education, social security or the American armed forces. (Yes readers, it actually does take tax revenue to fund those institutions.)

Now we have a legislature that resorts to “pension smoothing” where businesses are allowed to delay pension contributions so they can report higher profits, thereby allowing the federal government to collect higher tax revenues to pay for needs like highways.  Of course those business will make up the difference to said pensions later on. I am not making this up! Recently, our lofty legislature has been debating a six-year highway bill that the House of Representatives passed with three years of funding. Then they started patting themselves on the back.

The recent legislative “sausage” includes a provision to raid the Federal Reserve’s “surplus account” which according to the Wall Street Journal, “helps the central bank absorb potential losses” from financial panics and other banking needs…to pay for highway construction and repair?! Of course House Speaker Paul Ryan adamantly refuses to allow an amendment to raise the gasoline tax as part of the bill. Politically speaking, Mr. Ryan does not want Republicans to have to vote on a tax increase in advance of an election, and Democrats do not want to hike taxes on working-class voters who commute a lot, also in advance of an election. Of course since gasoline costs less than 50% of what it did two years ago, now would be the ideal time to add back about 10% of that savings for safer and more reliably functioning highways, bridges, rails and airports of the future.

Ah, there’s that word again…”future”.  Can we Americans sacrifice for it? Do we even remember what the word “sacrifice” means anymore? The trouble with letting tangible signs of our power, wealth, and self-respect erode and decay is that when we talk about our “greatness,” visitors to our shores will look around and wonder whether we are referring to our educational test scores, size of our waistlines or competency of our legislators. My question is: How much longer can we remain a “great country?”

Extremism Begetting Extremists

On Sunday, May 3, 2015, two extremist Islamic sympathizers from Phoenix, Arizona tried to enter an exhibit of Mohammad caricatures in Garland, Texas sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative.  The group, led by anti-Muslin extremist Pamela Geller, believes that “Islam” is trying to take over America. It seems that in America, one good extremist deserves another!

Aside from the free speech issues and respect for others’ religious beliefs, my astonishment stems from the audacity of the Islamic jihadis to attack a group of potentially and likely armed Texas citizens. After all, according to some gun advocates, isn’t a well-armed citizenry supposed to deter these attempts at mass murder?

I cannot count how many times I have heard this refrain. After the Aurora, Colorado theater mass shooting and the mass murder at Virginia Tech and the Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter, countless arguments by the NRA and its partisans dominate the media. If only the professors and teachers and theater attendants had side arms, “bad guys” would not dare carry out their nefarious plans.

I do not believe that I am misrepresenting the argument. I am used to misrepresentation in the gun debate. Incessant calls from extremist gun owners constantly try to associate common sense gun control measures with an absolutist position of eliminating all gun ownership. Most gun control advocates do not want to ban all guns or even very many. That would be a losing battle. But that does not stop the shrill screams from gun extremists trying to smear any practical measure to limit gun use. Lumping together common sense gun control measures with the desire of a few to ban gun ownership serves a very useful rhetorical purpose. It makes all gun control supporters seem like extremists.

The greatest affront to common sense emanating from the gun advocate side is the arming of large numbers of citizens in any context to deter mass murderers. As any military man would tell you, the element of surprise can level the odds in any violent engagement. Regardless of well-armed “good guys,” an extremist bent on mayhem can kill a lot of people.

To take an extreme example (since we are on the subject of extremists), some extreme gun advocates want to be able to carry weapons onto aircraft. Using the argument of the extremists, if everyone on an aircraft had a gun, all of the passengers would be safer.  No airport detectors and screeners required. Now that would do wonders for airplane security and the comfort level of the passengers!  I admit I have chosen an extreme example; see, wasn’t that easy.

Leaving extremism aside, the element of surprise can be a decisive factor in any violent engagement, military or otherwise. That is why the Texas confrontation between the extremists came as no surprise. Fanatics obsessed with destruction will overpower superior firepower when initiating the confrontation without the knowledge of armed defenders. It is ironic that the American Freedom Defense Initiative hired Texas law enforcement personnel to guard the event and that it was the law enforcement personnel that stopped the intruders.  The potentially well-armed civilians inside did not deter the jihadis. And I am sure that this example will not deter extremist gun advocate and their arguments. People usually believe what they what to believe, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

Locks for Love (And other idiosyncrasies)

A few weeks ago a story from Paris amused me. It seems Parisians are tired of lovers weighing down bridges in Paris with locks that symbolize their everlasting love. The Parisian bridges are not the only bridges around the world where couples “lock their love” together with a tangible manifestation, but they are probably the most famous. The locks are so numerous on one of the bridges that parts of the railings have fallen off from the weight of the locks. Recently, some Parisians have organized to attack the locks with bolt cutters in an attempt to “save the bridges”!

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The story piqued my interest as I fondly recalled the August my wife and I spent in Paris in 2013. Paris is everything everyone has ever said about it: charming and breathtaking and inspiring. But I will never forget the morning in Paris that my wife and I crossed the Quai des Tuileries. As I looked up and saw the thousands of locks attached to a bridge, I stopped in complete puzzlement. As a neophyte cosmopolitan  I had never heard of the practice of couples attaching locks to a bridge railing to represent their undying love. After my wife explained the meaning of the multitudinous master locks, I doubled over with laughter.  I couldn’t stop.

As a teacher of world cultures, I am used to taking a detached view of the cultural norms and peculiarities of peoples from around the globe. In the process of introducing my students to the behaviors and beliefs of various cultures, they have recently discovered the foibles of child marriage, female genital mutilization, and “re-virginization” surgeries in the Middle East and Africa; the mania for investing in empty apartments in China, the plastic surgery obsession in Venezuela and South Korea, the wishful thinking of Europeans regarding the plans of Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine, and the destructive belief in religious purity in Pakistan.

Not that the United States does not have its own self-destructive practices. We Americans waste millions of hours a year waiting in traffic.  We remain fervently addicted to fossil fuels despite their extraneous costs.  We idolize athletes and other entertainers while eschewing learning.  We defend a drinking age of 21 regardless of its role in binge drinking and when “adults” ages 18-21 can defend their country, be legally liable for signing a contract, and be executed for certain crimes. And we stubbornly cling to the notion that the proliferation of firearms will make us safer in all contexts even as we wait expectantly for the next mass murder, domestic violence shooting, or child misusing an uzi.

While these cultural practices and beliefs are more serious than my encounter with the “locks for love” on the bridges of Paris, the latter remind me that cultural idiosyncrasies are universal human adaptations. People from all corners of the globe have placed their faith in the symbolism of the locks; they are not the work of one ethnic group or nationality.

And why do people use those locks? Do people really want to symbolize forceful attachment? Are  emotions so fickle that they need a physical device to “bind” their partner? Do they have so little faith in their relationship that they require a padlock to fasten feelings mechanically. Of course the “lock lovers” believe that the locks are a sign of their devotion and intend to remain bound together. Whether all of those relationships remained as fast as the locks is beside the point. They represent all too human desire for permanence. After all, people are human too.

Barbarians at the “gate”.

Most Americans have  heard of ‘Deflategate”.  The New England Patriots supposedly reduced the air in footballs to make them easier for their quarterback, Tom Brady, to throw. What puzzles me is why the media designated this incident as a “gate”. What qualifies an event as a “gate”,  and more broadly why does the media keep using the suffix at all?

Anyone with a basic knowledge of U.S. history has heard of Watergate, the 1970’s plan by lieutenants of Richard Nixon to wiretap the Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate hotel and apartment building in Washington, D.C. The plot was part of a larger plan of CREEP (Committee to Re-elect the President) to manipulate the 1972 election so that President Nixon could face the weakest Democratic candidate possible. The plan worked.

A cursory internet search reveals literally dozens of “gates” from all over the world. There was “Tunagate” in Canada, involving the sale of tainted tuna. Mexico had “Toallagate”, implicating the Presdent’s residence for the high cost of bathroom towels. The UK endured “Pastygate” which comprised the attempt by the government to tax pasties, inexpensive snacks consumed by average Brits. And Florida witnessed “Fangate” when Republican candidate Rick Scott refused to show up for a political debate after Democratic opponent Charlie Crist had a small fan placed on the podium. And who  could forget “Wienergate” which exposed U.S. representative Anthony Weiner sexting his…..oh, you get the picture.

Why the western media’s obsession with attaching the suffix “gate” to any issue that might involve secrecy, dishonesty, or bad behavior? Has the media lost its power to report the news in a compelling fashion? Does the voting public  have such an attention deficit that the media needs to use a well-worn shorthand to get their attention, like trying to flash a Pavlovian red light?  Does using the suffix “gate” give a shout out to the public like, “Hey morons, pay attention; this is serious?”

And there really are some frivolous examples. Why should an affair by the wife of Ireland’s First Minister, Iris Robinson, be termed “Irisgate”? Or “Hairgate” after a haircut given to President Bill Clinton? Or “Mammygate” when the wife of Kansas City’s mayor called one of his secretaries, “Mammy”?

If using the suffix “gate”  is so important to provoking the public’s attention, why not use it for really serious social concerns? Why not “the U.S.-electoral-system-is-controlled-by-an-oligarchy-gate”? Or “the future-world-economy-is-not -going-to-produce-enough-jobs-gate”.  Or “financial-markets-will-crash-because-the-middle-class-does-not-make-enough-money-to-support-the-economy-gate”? Or “electronic-technology-is-helping-us-lose-our-ability-to-coin-imaginative-language-to-characterize-events-gate”?

It reminds me of another group of people who had trouble making themselves understood. Ancient foreigners who came into contact with the Greeks earned the opprobrium, “barbarians”, because they seemed to echo the syllable bar….bar…..bar….bar. Poor foreigners. They simply spoke a different language, and the Greeks could not understand them. At least those foreigners had an excuse. Today’s muddled media and confused consumers have to fall back on the “gate”, despite our information-saturated world. Now I know how the Greeks felt.

Monday Morning Quarterbacks

Long ago and far away when professional football was played exclusively on Sunday afternoons, the day after the games media outlets and fans  would speculate on what the local team could have done differently to improve the result of the previous day’s game.  These “Monday morning quarterbacks” would question the judgement of the professionals that the same “quarterbacks” had praised the previous week. “Monday morning quarterbacks” are always right; hindsight is always easier than foresight.

Alas, the NFL now plays ball several days a week and living in a democracy means that everyone gets to be a “Monday morning quarterback” on any issue. Leaders are “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t”. President Obama has been the target of numerous critics lately who claim that he should have taken different actions in the Middle East (You know, that area of the world that has yielded so many easy solutions over the centuries!), especially in regards to Syria and Iraq(see map) .

In Syria, the most common complaint is that the US should have armed the moderate Syrian opposition early in the rebellion and then Bashar al-Assad would have been toppled from power.  President Obama has responded that given the inexperienced nature of the moderate Syrian rebels, the weapons might have ended up in the hands of Islamist extremist rebels as they clashed over the goals of the rebellion. In retrospect, Mr. Obama has a point; after all, in the recent use of air power to thwart the Islamic State in Iraq, the United States finds itself bombing ITS OWN MILITARY HARDWARE which the Islamic State seized from a professional Iraqi army that the United States military trained!

In addition, when it looked like the Syrian rebels might succeed, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iranian government were quick to come to the aid of the Alawite Shiite Assad.  I am not sure overthrowing Mr. Assad was in the cards unless the US was willing to hazard more direct involvement. Though I do believe Mr. Obama should have backed up his “red line” threat with something, like taking out every Syrian airfield or establishing a “no fly” zone. At least we have eliminated Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, it seems, and that is something.

As for Iraq, the complaint is that Mr. Obama did not leave US troops in the country and did not try hard enough to negotiate the “status-of-forces” agreement that the US concludes EVERY TIME it stations troops in a foreign county. Status-of-forces agreements or SOFA’s (love that acronym) ensure that our soldiers are not subject to whimsical foreign legal systems if they get into trouble in a foreign country.

Of course the “Monday morning quarterbacks” neglect to mention that when you “liberate” a country and give it a chance at democracy, if they decide not to want your presence, you don’t get to stay. I have not seen evidence that Nouri al-Maliki, the recently departed Shiite leader of Iraq, was serious about concluding the status-of-forces agreement. Conservatives have recently tried to blame the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq on Mr. Obama and claim that he was never serious about finalizing a SOFA.

Now it is obvious that Mr. Obama campaigned in 2012 on his ending the war in Iraq, and maybe he wanted to be able to use that claim in his campaign. But it is also true that Mr. al-Maliki and the Shiite majority parties in Iraq wanted the US out in 2011. These Iraqi “democratic” politicians had read the Iraqi polls of 2011 that overwhelmingly wanted the US presence and its humiliating overtones gone from their country. I am not sure the conservative “quarterbacks”  from the National Review or Weekly Standard recognize that fact.

I did believe that  Mr. Obama should have taken advantage of Iraqi’s open, desert terrain to take out some of the ISIS fighters back in June with drones. After all, we have gone after similar threats in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in the past. But I also have to admit that Mr. Obama’s refusal to have the US air force  be the “Iraqi air force” put pressure on Iraqi politicians, especially Shiite allies and rivals of Mr. al-Maliki, that led to his departure as prime minister last week. Now Iraq may have a chance to survive as a country, though that still looks like a long shot.

It always feels good for humans to have their countries and governments “attack”! Remember that internationally renowned Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s genius general was derided as “Granny Lee” when he decided to dig trenches and play defense. We feel  like we have more control when we humans take the action to the enemy. When we “charge”! But remember the sick feeling and even horror after our troops charged into Iraq and got ambushed and blindsided a decade ago.

I have been very frustrated by Mr. Obama’s lack of leadership in domestic policy, and that is another story. But given the desire on the part of much of the American public for their president to focus on domestic matters and avoid foreign adventures, I am not sure we can blame Mr. Obama as much as his conservative critics reflexively do. The situations in the Middle East are extraordinarily complex; maybe the Monday morning quarterbacks should appreciate that constantly throwing “Hail Mary” long bombs might only make situations worse.

Humpty Dumpty

     Events in Iraq recently call to mind the English nursery rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty”. Despite arguments among literary analysts about its origin and inscrutable applications such as the title of one of the great American novels, All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren, the usage of a line from the rhyme seems more than appropriate for the political state of affairs in Iraq. Can  policymakers put Iraq “together again”? Do they even want to? Should they try?

     Any cursory look at a map of the Middle East makes one wonder at the architects of the symmetrical border lines that delineate countries such as Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. The answer has its root in the secretive and surreptitious Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France during World War I, an attempt to maintain their imperial presence in the region. The allies were carving up the territories even before they had won the war, without consulting any of the residents or their representatives, of course. The boundaries’ origins probably do not concern the claims of the Middle East’s current wrecking ball, called ISIS or ISIL, and now renamed, “The Islamic State”.

     That group has rallied Sunnis of several persuasions, including disaffected Sunni tribes in the west and north of Iraq, remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party, and even inspired recruits outside the Middle East. Having incubated in Iraq during the American presence there a decade ago and taking advantage of a power vacuum in Syria’s east and south, the current group’s political claims seem to have obliterated the border between Iraq and Syria, and The Islamic State has claimed the lofty designation of a “caliphate”.

     That would seem to be a remarkable claim given the group’s relatively small numbers and the fact that their hold on power dates back about one month. If I remember my history correctly, claiming the status of a caliphate means that The Islamic State demands the political and religious obedience of all Moslems throughout the entire world; it  claims sovereignty over all of Islam. Given the fractious state of Islam, the outright hostility of Shiites in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and the longstanding status of the regional Sunni power, Saudi Arabia, right next door, it is difficult to stifle a chuckle at what would seem to be the grand designs of the Sunni upstart.

     Of course what The Islamic State hopes to do with such a claim is to inspire and recruit young and disaffected  Sunnis from around the Middle East and the world to come join their cause.

This is no laughing matter to any Sunni government, especially adjacent Jordan,  or even to European and American authorities, as reports of the arrest of a Colorado woman seeking to join the jihadis in The Islamic State surfaced last week. Given that other devotees who have or will join the Islamic State carry western passports, European and American officials are already scrambling to thwart anticipated terrorist attempts.

     In addition to these grim scenarios, American policymakers like Secretary of State John Kerry are struggling with putting Iraq together again, hoping that a stronger more coherent Iraq could frustrate the ambitions of The Islamic State. Much of his effort has been focused on getting Iraqi Shiite leader Nouri al-Malaki to form a government more inclusive of his Sunni and Kurdish countrymen and meeting with Kurdish leaders to get them to resist the temptation to form an independent state of their own.  As recent events have shown, Mr. Kerry might have a sisyphean task ahead of him.

     U.S. military advisers recently sent to help bolster the Iraqi army might help stem the advance of the Islamic State. Shiite Iran is probably providing some help to prop up Mr. Maliki’s regime, especially given the presence of Shiite holy shrine at Karbala south of Baghdad. Already reports of infighting among Sunnis in the Islamic State have materialized. The elan of most Sunni adherents to The Islamic State might wither under the extremely strict lifestyle demands and draconian punishments of the governing authorities. Maybe it is the Islamic State that will come to resemble Humpty Dumpty after all!

     But we must resist the impulse to see anything comic in these events. Maybe a more serious and  controversial question might be, “Should we even try to put Iraq back together; would everyone, especially the Iraqis, be better off as three separate entities?”  Certainly the Iraqi Kurds seem to have developed their own secure, coherent state. Would it be possible to marry the Syrian Kurds to that entity without threatening Iran and Turkey, countries with Kurdish populations too. The Shiites might feel most secure with their own state in the south, but would it become a tool for Shiite Iran? And even a Sunni state in the north and west of Iraq, by itself or even overlapping with some areas of Syria might not turn out to be the threat we all believe it to be. Given the fissures that already seem to be emerging among the Sunnis in The Islamic State, would it be unrealistic to let the more “moderate” elements in that area challenge the original fanatics of ISIS? Would Saudi Arabia bring assets to bear to moderate such a state?

     Of course each of the three entities would need to have secure access to oil resources, but looking at various maps that might be worked out. Would it be possible for the Administration to approach the Iranians and Saudis and try to arrange a conference with the Russians  and representatives of the Iraqi parties and work out a deal? The Saudis could lean on the Sunni groups, the Iranians on the Shiites, and Turkey would need reassurance regarding their Kurdish population. But such a scenario might bring more security to all and in the long run, probably a better chance of democratic reforms.

     Unfortunately, such a plan might strike some as far fetched. It certainly might anger American soldiers and their families who sacrificed to keep Iraq together. American Interventionists who reflexively reach for military responses would howl. And Sunnis and Shiites would have to trust each other. But with more bloodletting, and bloodletting usually is required in cases like these to bring humans to their senses, this arrangement might be a more realistic long-run situation for the peace and happiness of the inhabitants of a large swath of the Middle East. It also might be more efficient and more humane than constantly battling to keep all these artificial “Humpty Dumpties” together over and over and over again.

     For more insights and some great visual representations, consult the following sources:

 Power Struggles

Autonomy for Kurds

Al-Qaeda Franchises

ISIL Territory