March 2011: Why Americans disagree over Libya

With apologies to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

The reasons for American disagreement over President Barack Obama’s decision to go to war in Libya can be found in historical and fundamental differences over the proper role of the United States in world affairs.

While it’s easy to see any argument over US foreign policy in the traditional terms of internationalists versus isolationists, the situation is more complex than that. The armed intervention by the US and its Western allies in Libya has created some strange political bedfellows.

Republican neoconservatives and many Democratic liberals have supported the attacks on the forces of Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Republican libertarians like Rand Paul and antiwar Democrats like Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, and Dennis Kucinich have lined up in opposition.

So it isn’t a simple case of Right versus Left, or conservative versus liberal, or Republican versus Democrat. Any analysis of the reaction to the Libyan intervention must move beyond common political labels.

Foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead has developed an explanatory model that helps make better sense of the situation. In his 2001 book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, Mead argued that the thinking of four American leaders—Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson—shaped our approach to global politics.

Mead summarized these four schools of thought in a 2010 Foreign Policy piece:

…Hamiltonians share the first Treasury secretary’s belief that a strong national government and a strong military should pursue a realist global policy and that the government can and should promote economic development and the interests of American business at home and abroad. Wilsonians agree with Hamiltonians on the need for a global foreign policy, but see the promotion of democracy and human rights as the core elements of American grand strategy. Jeffersonians dissent from this globalist consensus; they want the United States to minimize its commitments and, as much as possible, dismantle the national-security state. Jacksonians are today’s Fox News watchers. They are populists suspicious of Hamiltonian business links, Wilsonian do-gooding, and Jeffersonian weakness.

American foreign policymakers have been able to draw on these different schools at different times, Mead has argued, allowing them to fashion flexible and effective strategies. Wilsonian values of democratic change and respect for human rights have been particularly appealing around the world, leading “the most active, intelligent, and forward-looking elements in other countries regard the United States sympathetically.”

Mead noted that Senator Obama campaigned on a Jeffersonian platform in 2008 (calling for a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq) but, after some agonizing, has adopted a more Wilsonian position as President Obama (endorsing a troop surge in Afghanistan and waging a greatly expanded  “war-by-drone” against Islamic extremists).  The Libyan “humanitarian intervention” advocated by Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Hillary Clinton is unabashedly Wilsonian.

President George W. Bush and the neocons advising him were also Wilsonian in their aggressive promotion of democracy in the Middle East. George H.W. Bush approached foreign policy from a Hamiltonian perspective—thus he stopped well short of seeking regime change in Iraq, unlike his son.

Jeffersonians split into two groups, but both think American foreign policy “should be less concerned about spreading democracy abroad than about safeguarding it at home.” Those on the left generally reject the use of force, and want the resources spent on foreign wars directed to domestic needs. Left-of-center Jeffersonians favor limited government overseas and expansive government at home. A second group of Jeffersonians, traditional libertarians (and civil libertarians), want limited government, period. They heartily dislike the taxes (or borrowing) needed to pay for American military adventures and the funding of a permanent military-industrial complex.

The Jacksonians and foreign policy

Most middle-class Americans are Jacksonians, according to Mead, and have a populist suspicion of the New World Order schemes of Hamiltonians and Wilsonians. Jacksonians have supplied America’s warriors since the first Scots-Irish emigrated to the colonies, and their heartland support is vital to any successful lasting military operation.

Jacksonians place America and Americans first, and as nationalists are wary of threats to American sovereignty. They aren’t wild about free trade or international organizations, like the United Nations. If the US commits its military overseas, Jacksonians believe in applying overwhelming force and in achieving total victory—they hold little interest in “nation-building” or peace-keeping operations.

American presidents need to persuade Jacksonian voters that their foreign policy safeguards the homeland and supports the economic well-being of the average person. Mead made the point in Special Providence that American elites had lost the confidence of middle Americans, and that judgment seems as trenchant now as it did in 2001. Mead wrote then:

Hamiltonian trade policy looks to many Americans like a scheme to drive Americans’ wages down for the sake of corporate profits. Wilsonian support for humanitarian interventions looks like the road to a never-ending series of expensive, morally ambiguous, and potentially bloody engagements. As always, the young men and women on the front lines in these interventions will not be drawn primarily from the homes of the elites… Jeffersonian squeamishness about American power and the use of force strikes Jacksonian sensibilities as weak and muddleheaded, while the Jeffersonian critiques of the motives and morals of American foreign policy seem almost anti-American.

George W. Bush built a Wilsonian-Jacksonian coalition with American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Jacksonians supported war in Afghanistan as an appropriate response to 9/11. They were convinced by Bush that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction represented a threat to American national security, and backed the second Gulf War. Popular enthusiasm for US intervention in Iraq faded only when it became clear that the WMD danger had been exaggerated, and that a long-term occupation and “bringing democracy to the Middle East” was part of the Bush agenda.

Obama’s Libyan challenge

Obama hopes to recreate the Bush coalition for his Libyan involvement. By casting the war in Libya in moral terms, he wins Wilsonian backing. By arguing that the intervention is in the national interest, he hopes to attract Jacksonian support. And to hedge his bets, and to assuage the vocal Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic party, he insists the US part will be limited and brief in duration.

There are some glaring contradictions built into this strategy. Obama’s case for humanitarian war in Libya appears hypocritical when contrasted with his passivity in the face of human rights abuses by American allies in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of the slaughter in Somalia or the Congo. Wilsonian morality can look like moralism, as Mead has noted.

Moreover, many Jacksonians are suspicious of the multinational basis of the Libyan action. They are disturbed by Obama’s apparent preference for UN Security Council action versus Congressional approval when sending Americans into harm’s way. They worry it cedes American sovereignty. As nationalists, Jacksonians have no problem with unilateralism.

Further, many Jacksonians (and many Jeffersonians) remain concerned about the economy and high levels of unemployment, especially among the middle class and working poor. They question the wisdom of another costly military intervention in the Middle East and wonder whether the US can quickly extricate itself from Libya, as Obama has promised.

The political reality: Obama may struggle with his inner Jefferson, in Mead’s clever phrase, but he can safely assume liberal Democrats will vote for his reelection in 2012 even if he pursues—in a limited way—Wilsonian policies. He can’t afford to lose Jacksonian swing voters, however. Many will accept humanitarian interventions, like Libya, but only if they are short and decisive and don’t appear to be derailing domestic progress.

In explaining his decision to act in Libya, President Obama rightly appealed to an instinctive American desire to shield and protect the vulnerable (“Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.”) Few Americans would reject the limited use of American force to stop genocide as a last resort and when local or regional options are exhausted. But if the Libyan intervention ends up moving beyond that limited goal, and US troops find themselves into the middle of a tribal civil war, or American air support brings Islamist extremists to power in Tripoli, then the response will be significantly different.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


December 2009: Decade’s end and other observations

A tip of the New Year’s party hat to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

WAS IT REALLY SUCH A “LOW, DISHONEST” DECADE? That’s been a popular Anglo-American media meme adopted by writers commenting on the past ten years. The phrase comes from W.H Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” (“As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade”) and it was recycled by a number of commentators on both sides of the Pond for year-end use.

Harvard’s Joseph Nye (“Here’s to the 2010s”) cited the Auden phrase in his brief comments on Huffington Post, adding that optimism at the start of the century had been dashed by “the great recession, huge deficits and two wars.” In the Wall Street Journal Thomas Frank’s op-ed (“Low, Dishonest Decade”) bashed advocates of de-regulated markets, bankers, “preposterous populists,” lobbyists, and an asleep-at-the-wheel media for ”disfiguring” our country.

GlobalPost’s Michael Goldfarb (“Opinion: Low dishonest decade in review”) focused on British politics in attacking former Prime Minister Tony Blair (and the Bush administration) for the Iraqi war and for, in Goldfarb’s words, discrediting the idea of intervention in places like the Sudan, Zimbabwe and Iran. (Yet that reluctance to intervene could be a good thing—if you believe in a more restrained and realistic use of American force.)

There are two things wrong with all this. First, it’s absurd to turn to Auden for political wisdom of any sort. The Anglo-American poet wrote “September 1, 1939” during his “Oxford Communist” phase, and later “rejected” (Auden’s term) the poem, along with “Spain”—in which the poet countenanced “[t]he conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” Auden was a leftist dilettante at best: he fled to the U.S. in 1939 at the start of World War II and was, consequently, dogged with charges of cowardice and betrayal; later he was suspected of helping the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring.

Auden’s “low, dishonest decade” referred, in part, to his supposed disgust over western democracies’ unwillingness to confront Fascism during the 1930s. But if Frank, Nye and Goldfarb are going to borrow from Auden, to be intellectually consistent they should applaud George W. Bush’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq—certainly not Neville Chamberlain-like appeasement when facing threats to the West.

Secondly, it’s surprising that internationalists like Nye and Goldfarb (and I think that’s a fair characterization of their views) would judge the past decade solely on the American and British experience. What about the rest of world? As George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen noted in the New York Times (“For Much of the World, A Fruitful Decade“), there has been “raging economic growth” in China and India and “in economic terms, at least, the decade was a remarkably good one for many people around the globe.”

Cowen added: “Ideals of prosperity, freedom and the rule of law have probably never been more resonant globally than they’ve been over the last years, even if practice often falls short.”

DO RUSSIAN WOMEN PREFER CHINESE MEN? At least in Russian Far East border towns they may, according to Joshua Kucera’s fascinating piece in Slate, “Why Are Siberian Russians Drawn to China?” Kucera writes: “Much of this has to do with demographics—Russia has a surplus of women, while China has too many men. But as one Russian woman told me, ‘Chinese men are kinder and more attentive to their wives. And they usually have more money.’” File under: Nature abhors a romantic vacuum.

THE STATE DEPARTMENT’S CONSULAR SERVICE APPROVED THE UNDERWEAR BOMBER’S VISA TO THE U.S., and failed to rescind it even after concerns were raised about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s ties to Islamic extremists. Former Bush Administration official Elliott Abrams makes a compelling argument for moving the function to the Department of Homeland Security. Pointing to the British model, where U.K. Border Agency handles visas (not the Foreign Office) and cancelled Abdulmutallab’s visa earlier in 2009, Abrams writes: “Members of Congress seeking to react to the Detroit near-calamity in a useful way should hold hearings right after New Year’s and get a move on. No more visas for State.”

MORE EVIDENCE THAT STRICT VEGETARIANISM DOESN’T SQUARE WITH NATURE’S DESIGN. The British newspaper The Independent has reported (“The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes“) that researchers at Royal Botanical Gardens Kew “now believe there are hundreds more plants that catch and eat insects and other small animals than they previously realized. Among them are species of petunia, ornamental tobacco plants, potatoes and tomatoes and shepherd’s purse, a relative of cabbages.”

This, of course, represents an intellectual challenge to those who advocate vegetarianism on moral grounds—if petunias crave the nutrients found in insects, then why can’t humans eat a protein-filled steak without guilt?

BLACKLIST OR DEATH LIST? Screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg died in 2009 at the age of 95. Schulberg, best known for scripting the marvelous 1954 movie “On the Waterfront,” testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, “naming names” of Hollywood figures he knew were Communists.

Schulberg broke with the CPUSA when party officials tried to dictate what he should write. In the New York Times Sunday Magazine special section “The Lives They Lived,” Anthony Giardina provided more on the context for Schulberg’s actions:

His former colleagues were slow to accept the sins of Stalin, turning a blind eye to the suspicious deaths of the Russian artists Schulberg met and admired. “They think I support the blacklist,” he said of his accusers. “I think they support the death list.”

In a 2004 profile of Schulberg (“Unrepentant“) in the Canadian magazine The Walrus, former Nation editor Victor Navasky, author of Naming Names, told journalist Gare Joyce that he had “sympathy and empathy” for Schulberg. “He believed that Stalinism was a greater sin than McCarthyism. Am I persuaded by his argument? No, ultimately, I’m not.”

The HUAC investigation of Hollywood was a shabby political circus, and the blacklist was fundamentally un-American in its singling out of writers, actors, directors, musicians and others for economic retribution solely because of their political beliefs. But Schulberg’s broader point deserves consideration: from a historical perspective, the blacklist pales in comparison to Stalin’s death list, and American CPUSA apologists for the Soviet regime are no different morally than those in the German American Bund who excused (or applauded) Adolf Hitler’s crimes.

A PEARL HARBOR MYSTERY SOLVED? Researchers have found the remains of a Japanese mini-submarine, one of five believed that participated in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, according to the Los Angeles Times. The midget submarine apparently fired its torpedoes at Battleship Row, probably hitting and capsizing the battleship Oklahoma. The sub crew later scuttled it, and it was found in an underwater wreckage yard outside the harbor.

Marine historian and former Navy submariner Parks Stephenson told the Times the discovery had modern implications: “The capsizing of the Oklahoma is the second most iconic event of the attack. If one submarine could get in in 1941 and hit a battleship, who knows what a midget sub could do today. Iran and North Korea are both building them. It’s very worrying.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM AUTHOR RUDYARD KIPLING (1865-1936): “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

September 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Naming the Great Recession, Paul Robeson’s tragic American life, the limits of international law, and other observations

With a tip of the hat to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

WILL THIS GLOBAL ECONOMIC DOWNTURN BE KNOWN AS “THE GREAT RECESSION”? The term has become ubiquitous, appearing constantly in the mainstream media—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and that traditional arbiter of journalistic practice, the Associated Press. Back in March, Catherine Rampell in the Economix blog looked at the etymology of the phrase and found “Great Recession” had been applied to nearly every downturn since the Great Depression.

But should this slump be called the Great Recession—a near-Great Depression—or is it just another very severe economic downturn? Its relative severity depends, in part, on your perspective. As Ronald Reagan famously said, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours.” (He went on to add the punch line: “And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”) Judged by some economic yardsticks, the use of the adjective “great” seems overblown. National unemployment has hit 9.8%, but falls short of the 10.8% level of 1983. Employment has held up in some sectors of the economy (biotech, education, government) while cratering in others (construction, real estate, financial services). Now economists say that quarterly GDP is growing again.

Yet there are aspects to this downturn that are unique and historic—especially the stress on the financial system caused by the real estate bubble bursting and the crisis on Wall Street in September and October of 2008. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced on September 15 that the recession was “likely over” and that “it’s still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time, as many people still find that their job security and their employment status is not what they wish it was.” The prospects of a jobless recovery make the impact of the 2008-2009 recession long lasting. Two Rutgers economists now say that employment levels could remain disappointing until 2017!

Based on the lingering effects of this downturn, and its persistence negative effect on the job market, perhaps the phrase used should be the Long Recession, not the Great Recession.

PAUL ROBESON (1898-1976) WAS AN AMAZING RENAISSANCE MAN—A SINGER, ACTOR, SCHOLAR, ATHLETE, CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATE, AND, SADLY, AN UNREPENTANT STALINIST. Peter Applebome of the New York Times recently reported on a concert to celebrate Robeson’s life in Peekskill, N.Y., near where local thugs disrupted a planned Civil Rights Congress concert in August 1949. (The Civil Rights Congress was a Communist-dominated organization that often clashed with the NAACP and ACLU over emphasis and tactics).

Robeson’s life was tragic in many ways—his turn to Communism largely a response to the racism he faced despite his out-sized record of accomplishment. His ideological commitment caused Robeson to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s excesses, and there’s evidence that he had firsthand knowledge of the Soviet purges. Tim Tzouliadis’ recent book The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia relates the story of how American emigrants to the Soviet Union experienced the horrors of Stalinism, and recounts Robeson’s encounters with persecuted expat Americans and Soviet Jews and his public silence about their plight. Robeson never renounced the Soviet experiment, even after Nikita Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes.


International law is only as strong as the states with an interest in upholding it. Ambitious schemes that seek to transcend countries’ interests routinely fail. The 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawed war shortly before the worst war in world history. The League of Nations was bypassed and ignored. The United Nations has never lived up to its ambitions and has only proved effective for narrow projects after expectations were scaled down to a realistic level. The greatest achievement of international law — the modern trade system institutionalized in the World Trade Organization — depends for its vitality on the good faith of a handful of great powers relying on weak self-help remedies.

Human rights fare best in affluent countries, Posner notes, and suggests that economic development is more important in protecting those rights than what he calls global legalism. Posner also predicts that President Barack Obama will disappoint the liberal-left with a realpolitik approach to international law.

ALONG WITH BABE RUTH, DEREK JETER WILL BE SEEN AS THE CONSUMMATE NEW YORK YANKEE. On Sept. 11 Jeter passed Lou Gehrig for the most hits (2722) ever as a Yankee, and the hard-working shortstop “plays the game the right way.”

SEPTEMBER’S UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY WAS GOOD FOR SOME LAUGHS. As Jay Leno joked: “Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi-duck, this moron, was at the U.N. today. He talked forever. He talked on Israel and the swine flu and the JFK assassination. Where was Kanye West to grab the microphone away?”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM THE MAN FROM INDEPENDENCE, PRESIDENT HARRY S. TRUMAN (1884-1972): “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

June 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama’s Afghan war-by-drone, Sanford as tabloid delight, and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

IT’S BECOMING CLEAR THAT PRESIDENT OBAMA INTENDS TO FIGHT THE CONFLICT IN AFGHANISTAN ON THE CHEAP, with bare-minimum American troops levels and drone strikes on suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders substituting for the more substantial commitment many counterinsurgency experts believe is needed. But will this limited-resource strategy (war-by-drone), coupled with political reforms and a build-up of Afghan troops, work in establishing a stable Afghanistan?

The odds of war-by-drone succeeding are long. Despite the introduction of additional ground troops in June, the level of NATO forces in Afghanistan aren’t adequate for the mission of nation-building. The subtext of U.S. Afghan commander David McKiernan’s replacement by Stan McChrystal is that McKiernan wanted more troops than the Obama Administration was prepared to furnish. Already there are signs that force levels aren’t sufficient for a “clear and hold strategy”: the complaints by Allied field commanders in the Helmand River valley that Afghan military support is lacking illustrates one disconnect between strategy and resources. The substitution of air power for ground troops has also led to counterproductive bombing raids on Afghan villages.

Obama has dramatically expanded the drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is some irony that this tactic—of questionable legality under international law—has been embraced by an Administration concerned that harsh interrogation tactics are war crimes. Would an international court consider drone attacks an acceptable military tactic, or would they be regarded as illegal assassinations? What about the loss of civilian life when drones launch missiles at residential compounds thought to house Taliban and al Qaeda leaders? What about Pakistani sovereignty?

Obama campaigned on the idea that Afghanistan should be the chosen battlefield in confronting America’s Islamist adversaries. Convinced that the situation on the ground in early 2009 was rapidly deteriorating, Obama chose incremental escalation, a more politically palatable course, but one that ignores the lessons of Vietnam (encapsulated in the Weinberger Doctrine) by failing to bring overwhelming force to bear and by finessing the exit option. Will it buy enough time for the recruitment, training, and deployment of an indigenous Afghan military? What will Obama do when “clear and hold” requires much higher troop levels and the Afghan government and military can’t deliver? Will he endorse further escalation and pay the political price at home with the left wing of the Democratic Party? Or will Afghanistan in 2010 look like pre-surge Iraq in 2006-2007?

The strategy Obama is adopting may allow for a temporary, and fragile, stability in Afghanistan, but it will mean American ground troops must remain in the country for a much longer period of time. A true surge could accomplish more, produce fewer civilian casualties by lessening the need for airpower, and allow for a faster NATO exit.

THE PHILANDERING OF SOUTH CAROLINA’S GOVERNOR MARK SANFORD HAS BEEN A DELIGHT FOR TABLOID NEWSPAPERS. Sanford’s affair with an Argentine woman and his public disclosure of his messy emotional state inspired editors at the New York Daily News to produce this memorable front-page headline (wood): “BUENOS AIRHEAD.”

ANOTHER HOLE IN THE “BUSH LIED, PEOPLE DIED” MEME, COURTESY OF SADDAM HUSSEIN, FROM THE GRAVE. Before his execution, Iraq’s former ruler told his American interrogator that he refused U.N inspection and let the world believe that he had weapons of mass destruction because he didn’t want Iraq to appear weak in the eyes of his Iranian adversaries. This approach, of course, convinced Western intelligence agencies that Saddam was continuing to pursue WMDs.

Further debunking of the “Bush Lied” allegation: Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post (“‘Bush Lied?’ If Only It Was That Simple.”) notes that in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report released by Sen. Jay Rockefeller in June that Bush’s pre-war claims about the threat from Hussein were generally substantiated by intelligence information. The report found that the consensus in the intelligence community supported Bush’s claims about Iraq’s biological weapons, chemical weapons, its nuclear weapons program and it links to terrorist groups. Yes, the intelligence was later proved to be flawed in the extreme—but until Bush’s critics can show that the president knew that what he was hearing from the CIA, and other Western intelligence agencies, was faulty, he can’t be accused of lying.

WHILE IT’S A FUNCTIONAL AND PRETTY PLACE, THE RECENTLY OPENED CITI FIELD, HOME OF THE NEW YORK METS, has a decidedly artificial feel to it. By choosing to build an “instant classic” ballpark with red-brick facades and wrought-iron gates, the Mets are fabricating a tradition that doesn’t exist. That’s evident with the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, which celebrates the legendary African-American pioneer who broke the color bar in major league baseball, but who played for the Dodgers and has the flimsiest of historical connections with the Mets, as noted by the Los Angeles Times.

RECOMMENDED READING: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS’ ABILITY TO ENTERTAIN AND ENLIGHTEN is evident in his Atlantic Monthly reminiscence of an obscure British author, Edward Upward, “The Captive Mind.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM BRITISH SCIENTIST AND PHYSICIAN SIR THOMAS BROWNE (1605-1682): “Men live by intervals of reason under the sovereignty of humor and passion.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

September 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama: Electoral College winner, popular vote loser?, Why Palin’s policy cram course isn’t working, Ageless athletes, and other observations

With a tip of the hat to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WILL SEN. BARACK OBAMA WIN THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE VOTE, AND THUS THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY, but lose the popular vote on Election Day 2008? It’s not an entirely implausible scenario. The Democratic presidential nominee leads Republican candidate John McCain in the national polls (as can be seen in RealClearPolitics’ poll compilation), and has moved ahead, narrowly, in a series of polls in several key battleground states won by George W. Bush in 2004: Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia, and North Carolina. Based on the polls, Obama’s Electoral College lead has begun to expand.

But it’s more than likely the national polls will tighten again, and the race will remain very close on a state-by-state basis. McCain’s relative vote-garnering strength in blue states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and New Jersey suggests that he will keep the contests there closer than George Bush did (and Bush won the 2004 election by some 3 million votes over Democrat John Kerry). Further, if McCain can improve on Bush’s 2004 showing in populous California (where Kerry won by 9.9%) and New York (Kerry by 18.3%), and stay close to the Bush 2004 vote totals in the rest of the country, McCain could very well top Obama nationally when all ballots are tallied, while still losing in the Electoral College because of a few key battleground states switching to the Democrat.

Take New York state, for example: if McCain can increase his vote share to 45% (not an impossible level, considering that Bush reached 40% in 2004), it would represent an additional 300,000-400,000 votes for the Arizona Republican versus Bush’s totals. Prior to the Wall Street bailout crisis, McCain had pulled within 5-8 percentage points of Obama in New York, and it’s likely he can stay within 10 points of the Democrat.

Yes, Obama may win a number of formerly red states, with victories in New Mexico, Colorado, and Iowa, appearing likely, but they will be narrow wins, and his net vote gain won’t offset McCain’s likely improvement over 2004 in the Northeast and industrial Midwest.

If this scenario plays out—where Obama triumphs in the Electoral College, and McCain wins the popular vote—will the Illinois Senator’s legitimacy be challenged (as Bush’s was in 2000)? Will Republicans suddenly decide that it’s time to abandon the Electoral College? If this happens, it wouldn’t be the first role reversal in Campaign 2008.

THERE’S A REASON WHY SARAH PALIN’S FRANTIC CRAM COURSE IN FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC POLICY IS FAILING, as could be seen in her one-on-one interviews with Katie Couric—you can’t cram for context. Gov. Palin’s inability to discuss any Supreme Court rulings she disagreed with other than Roe v. Wade, or to cite any of John McCain’s regulatory achievements, or to provide a coherent defense of her foreign policy bona fides, proves that you can’t manufacture a personal body of knowledge in politics and American government overnight.

It is, of course, possible for a candidate to memorize a list of policy positions, but the problems surface on follow-up questions that go beyond the campaign briefing book. If you haven’t followed the American civic debate closely over the years (and the Alaska governor was vague about what she reads and where she gets her information when questioned about it by Couric), you’re not going to be able to answer in depth.

Palin’s struggles bring to mind the educator E. D. Hirsch’s views on cultural literacy, that students need a common core of knowledge to make sense of what they encounter in the classroom. It is not enough for students to decode the literal words in a text, Hirsch argues, if they don’t understand their meaning and context. It appears that Palin does not have a baseline understanding of constitutional government, or of many of the key issues in American foreign policy, and making up that knowledge deficit during a contested political campaign is problematic, to say the least.

CAMPAIGN 2008 HAS PROVOKED A NUMBER OF “OVER THE TOP” PRONOUNCEMENTS. Two quick examples from the Right: Tony Blankley’s bizarre column “Media Campaigns Hard for Obama,” in which he tries to link mainstream journalists who he claims favor Obama to Nazi propagandists; and Archbishop Raymond Burke’s argument that the Democratic Party risks becoming “the party of death” because of its support of abortion.

TWO SEEMINGLY AGELESS ATHLETES set personal records on the last Sunday of September, proving that peak performances can come late in a career! New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, 39 years old, won his 20th game of the season (a 6-2 win over the Red Sox) for the first time in his long major league career. And New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre, who is about to turn 39, threw six touchdown passes, a personal best, in the Jets’ 56-35 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Fittingly, Favre was wearing a New York Titans throwback jersey.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM PHILOSOPHER JOHN STUART MILL (1806-1873): “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind..”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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October 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

Waterboarding kabuki, truth to power, and other observations…

With a tip of the fedora to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

YOU DON’T HAVE TO AGREE (AS I DO) WITH JOHN MCCAIN AND THE MILITARY’S LEGAL ESTABLISHMENT that waterboarding is torture, or to believe that the United States should never engage in torture (as I do), to recognize the elements of kabuki theater in the recent Washington back-and-forth over the question of harsh interrogation tactics.

Senate Democrats, who know that Attorney General designee Michael B. Mukasey won’t publicly characterize waterboarding as torture, are looking to wring the most symbolic, and political, value out of his awkward situation. Mukasey recognizes that such a concession might trigger lawsuits against the government or even potential war crimes prosecutions; further, it would directly challenge the Bush Administration’s long-held position that it has not practiced torture.

The entire question of “War on Terror” interrogation techniques and torture is more complex than the stylized drama in Washington suggests. The Democratic presidential front-runners, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, have all been careful to say they renounce the use of torture as a policy of the U.S., but have been less clearcut on whether they would endorse its practice in the Al Qaeda terrorist-with-the-ticking-atomic-bomb hypothetical ( a favorite presidential primary debate question this campaign season). Indeed, former President Bill Clinton endorsed harsh interrogation tactics in such cases (as NBC newsman Tim Russert pointed out at the Democratic debate in September); and there is Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz’s controversial idea of “torture warrants” issued by a judge to “obtain immediate information in order to save lives coupled with probable cause that the suspect had such information and is unwilling to reveal it.”

STEPHEN COLBERT PROVED HIS ON-AIR HUMOR can translate to newsprint when Maureen Dowd turned her New York Times op-ed column over to him (“A Mock Columnist, Amok). Colbert’s comic two-sentence recap of a typical Frank Rich NYT column is a classic:

Bad things are happening in countries you shouldn’t have to think about. It’s all George Bush’s fault, the vice president is Satan, and God is gay.

TIME TO BREAK UP THE BOSTON RED SOX? Two World Series wins in four years and there is talk in the Athens of America of a potential baseball dynasty in the making. Good pitching beats good hitting (one diamond truism that holds up in practice), and since the Red Sox can send Josh Beckett, Dice-K, and Jonathan Papelbon to the mound, you have to like the club’s long-term prospects.

JUSTIN CURRIE, FORMER LEAD SINGER OF DEL AMITRI, has released his first solo album, “What is Love For,” eleven well-crafted, haunting songs. Currie sings about yearning for the Other (“Only Love”), about loss (“Not so Sentimental”; “Still in Love,”), and about his vision of the bleak 21st century landscape of materialism, apathy, and anxiety (“No, Surrender”). Del Amitri fans will not be disappointed.

HOW ABOUT AN INFORMAL BAN ON THE USE OF THE PHRASE “SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER?” A quick Google search of recent news stories and editorial columns reveals a bizarre list of those said to be “speaking truth to power” including Cindy Sheehan, Ron Paul, the young Hillary Clinton, Lawrence Summers, Ward Churchill, Dan Rather, Al Franken, Director of Intelligence Mike McConnell, J.K. Rowling, Anita Hill (her book was entitled “Speaking Truth to Power”), Mother Teresa, and, my favorite, the former TV psychic, Miss Cleo. (Miss Cleo does her “speaking truth,” we are told, on her recently released rap CD).

(If you’ve noticed a left-ward tilt to the list, that’s because the phrase has been a favorite for many “progressives” since Quaker anti-nuclear activists first began using the slogan in the 1950s.)

But what does the phrase really mean? That the speaker is courageously “telling it like it is?” Yet, as Canadian journalist David Warren has noted, this “speaking truth to power” is often performed by “people who have taken very few risks in their lives, and take no risk in speaking publicly.”

That icon of the American left, Noam Chomsky, rejects the slogan, regarding it as “self-indulgent.” His explanation deserves to be quoted:

…First of all, power already knows the truth. They don’t need to hear it from us. Secondly, it’s a waste of time. Furthermore, it’s the wrong audience. You have to speak truth to the people who will dismantle and overthrow and constrain power. Furthermore, I don’t like the phrase “speak truth to.” We don’t know the truth. At least I don’t.

Chomsky has (some of) it right: employing the phrase reflects a holier-than-thou sanctimony more often than not, and skepticism about those who claim to have found “the truth” is well warranted.

WORTH READING: RYAN LIZZA’S NEW YORKER piece, “The Mission,” on Mitt Romney’s life story and its impact on his presidential candidacy; Kay S. Hymowitz in City Journal on “The New Girl Order” about the spread of the “Sex in the City” lifestyle globally; ’s witty review of Beantown-based movies, “Ben Affleck’s Boston,” from Slate.

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, lyric poet, provides this month’s quotation: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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July 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

The subprime mortgage mess, elite “do as I say” social engineering, and other stories of note…

With a tip of the ballcap to legendary New York newspaperman Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

EXHIBIT “A” FOR HOW GREED MAKES RATIONAL PEOPLE DO IRRATIONAL THINGS: the subprime mortgage mess. It has become a growing crisis, roiling financial markets in America and elsewhere and threatening hedge funds with large holdings in the risky investments. Mortgage lenders, investment banks, due diligence firms, credit rating agencies, and investors played a game of high-stakes financial musical chairs over the past several years with subprime mortgages; it’s becoming apparent that many of the players knew that there were major problems with the home loans extended to low-credit borrowers, but were too greedy to act responsibly and end or exit the game.

A worrisome development is, as Business Week reports, the potential for the subprime crisis to spread:

Through the rest of this year and into next, a raft of adjustable-rate mortgages will begin adjusting to higher interest rates. The higher monthly payments could squeeze even borrowers with good credit histories, leading to a new round of mortgage defaults.

At the heart of this crisis: an easy credit boom (or bubble) with far too many mortgage brokers writing adjustable loans (ARMs) for unsuspecting borrowers with poor credit histories or limited income, and far too many investment banks and investors “securitizing” these shaky mortgages. The consequences: delinquencies, defaults and foreclosures in the U.S. housing market and concerns now about global credit markets.

AN EXAMPLE OF ELITIST “DO AS I SAY” ON DISPLAY IN Massachusetts, as white parents in the People’s Republic of Cambridge shy away from public schools with “too many minorities,” according to a story in the Boston Globe. Cambridge has tried to keep its’ schools racially integrated by a system that uses family income, not race, but the Globe reports: “the efforts to diversify schools have only been able to go so far because Cambridge allows parents to choose from all city schools.”

And when Cambridge’s upper income white parents (mostly Democratic and liberal), who are generally in favor of social engineering in theory, are given the choice, they have voted with their feet—slighting schools with higher levels of blacks and other minorities. One parent commented to the Globe: “If you’re not teaching these kids at a young age not to discriminate and if their parents are saying, ‘I don’t want my children to go to school with your children,’ what happens when they grow up and become in positions of power in politics?”

SWEET LAND IS A QUIET LITTLE LOVE STORY set in the Upper Midwest, made by independent director Ali Selim in 2005, and just now available on DVD. The film focuses on a 1920’s Minnesota farming community and the conflicts that arise when an undocumented German woman (played by the luminous Elizabeth Reaser), arrives to marry a Norwegian-American farmer (Tim Guinee). Based on a short story by Will Weaver “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” Selim’s minimalist directing and David Tumblety’s evocative cinematography makes Sweet Land a memorable consideration of love, family and identity in small-town America.

THREE CHEERS FOR ONE-TIME JIHADIST MANSOUR AL-NOGAIDAN, now a moderate Muslim who writes for the Bahraini newspaper Al-Waqt, and his courageous call for Islamic religious reform. Ignoring death threats, al-Nogaidan has publicly argued that Islam needs a Martin Luther figure to lead an overdue Reformation. He wrote recently in the Washington Post (in an opinion piece entitled “Losing My Jihadism“):

Muslims are too rigid in our adherence to old, literal interpretations of the Koran. It’s time for many verses — especially those having to do with relations between Islam and other religions — to be reinterpreted in favor of a more modern Islam. It’s time to accept that God loves the faithful of all religions. It’s time for Muslims to question our leaders and their strict teachings, to reach our own understanding of the prophet’s words and to call for a bold renewal of our faith as a faith of goodwill, of peace and of light.

What caused al-Nogaidan to abandon extremism? He cites two books (one by a Palestinian scholar, the other by a Moroccan philosopher) that encouraged him to re-examine the rigid theology he had embraced. It raises this question: would encouraging cultural and intellectual engagement between the West and moderate Islamists prove a better-long term strategy than one focused on military and diplomatic levers?

THERE IS SOME IRONY TO BE FOUND IN THE REASONS FOR JOHN McCAIN’S failure to catch fire in the 2008 presidential campaign. Lauded in 2000 by the news media for his “straight talk,” McCain’s candor hasn’t been as appreciated by many of his former admirers when it has been exercised in defense of the American occupation of Iraq. And yet, it can be argued, McCain is just displaying the very maverick qualities that many journalists found appealing when he was pushing for campaign finance reform or battling the Christian Right.

CONSIDER THE CARPENTERS UNION CLUELESS WHEN IT COMES TO PR, based on the Washington Post story entitled “Outsourcing the Picket Line; Carpenters Union Hires Homeless to Stage Protests.” The Post reporter, Keith L. Alexander, explains that a local of the The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America has been employing non-union “hired feet” to walk the picket line in Washington, D.C. Alexander quotes another union official, who doesn’t like the practice, to explain why it isn’t a great idea (at least if you are sympathetic to organized labor):

“If I was a member of the general public, and I asked someone picketing why they were there, and they said they don’t work for the union and they were just hired to stand there, that wouldn’t create a very positive impression on me, nor would it create a very sympathetic position,” said Wayne Ranick, spokesman for the United Steelworkers of America.

Ranick gets it (loud and clear); why don’t the leaders of the Carpenters Union, who ducked calls from the Post, understand how damaging paid picketers are to the image of the labor movement?

NEITHER RED NOR BLUE HAS ATTRACTED ATTENTION FROM VARIED QUARTERS OF LATE. In, Jaime Weinman quoted from NRNB’s “Campaign songs and the candidate” in his piece entitled “You and I: Clinton, Dion in 2008!“; a website dedicated to Whittaker Chambers, the conservative anti-Communist icon of the 1950s, linked to “Wilder Foote and ‘The Mystery of Ales’“; and the Foundation for Critical Thinking alerted its visitors to “Clear Thinking, Clear Writing.” Perhaps the Internet does create strange Web fellows…

AMERICAN TRANSCENDENTALIST RALPH WALDO EMERSON is author of this month’s words of wisdom: “Put the argument into a concrete shape, into an image, some hard phrase, round and solid as a ball, which they can see and handle and carry home with them, and the cause is half won.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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