Some reflections

Most of the government is shut down today, in an homage to the late President George H.W. Bush.  Americans have been encouraged to reflect on his life.  So I will.  But first, a keen observation by another that mirrors my own thoughts:

It is in no way to insult George H. W. Bush — or any other president, for that matter — to ask whether the retooling of their calendars is an appropriate way for the people of a republic to respond to the death of an elected representative. Tomorrow, the press reports, is to be a “day of mourning” — a day on which the stock market will be closed, on which the federal government will shut down, on which the House of Representatives will begin a week-long break, on which various universities will cancel classes, on which the Postal Service will halt deliveries, on which the Supreme Court will adjourn, and on which major American newspapers will postpone events that they had previously planned to hold. Across the U.S., flags will be flown at half-staff for a month.

Why? Irrespective of whether he was a great man or a poor one, George H. W. Bush was a public employee. He was not a king. He was not a pope. He did not found or save or design the republic. To shut down our civil society for a day in order to mark his peaceful passing is to invert the appropriate relationship between the citizen and the state, and to take yet another step toward the fetishization of an executive branch whose role is supposed to be more bureaucratic than spiritual, but that has come of late to resemble Caesar more than to resemble Coolidge.

Well said, Mr. Cooke.  I’d also add that the current practice of naming $1 billion warships after presidents has the same effect.  (Why not return to naming carriers after famous battles/events in U.S. history?  Honor the many who fought – not the ones who gave the orders from a fortress in D.C.)  Presidents do have an impact on the course of history, and their lives are worth remembering and examining.  But in a Republic, they should not be revered.

So what about Mr. Bush?  Politics aside, I submit his greatest legacy and example is in the 73-year marriage he shared with Barbara — the longest marriage of any president.  This marriage survived the death of a child, issues of depression, and the rough and tumble of political life.  Our nation could use many more such examples of love and commitment.

I have mixed feelings about Bush’s presidential legacy.  Clearly he had a successful foreign policy run.  Desert Storm restored a large measure of faith in the U.S. armed forces that had been missing since Vietnam.  Almost 30 years later, though, one could argue America fell inappropriately in love with its high-tech military, to the point of misapplying it to problems that are not intrinsically solvable by force of arms.  Where Bush’s legacy is likely greatest, though, is in his handling of the end of the Cold War.  As the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the Warsaw Pact empire, it was by no means a foregone conclusion the great transition would be a peaceful one.  The Bush administration navigated a failed coup against Gorbachev, Yeltsin’s populist revolt, and the thorny question of what to do with Germany after the Berlin Wall fell.  It was not an amateur’s hour, and the nation was fortunate to have at the helm what might have been one of the best-prepared presidents for such a time.

Despite such impactful success on the international stage, Bush was unable to translate the political capital from it to impact issues at home.  Exiting the Gulf War with an approval rating of almost 90 percent, within months his inability to articulate “the vision thing” as he put it, cost him support in an America facing economic turmoil and uncertainty in a post-Cold War world.  As the 1992 election cycle began, six words came back to haunt him: “Read my lips.  No new taxes.”  Only 18 months into his presidency, Bush relented on that pledge as part of a deal that was supposed to include spending cuts.  Predictably, the taxes rose.  The cuts never came.  Once again, the Democrats’ Lucy had yanked the ball away from Charlie Brown, and Bush looked foolish for having trusted his political opponents, who gloated over the misstep.  Coupled with his reference to a “new world order” in the wake of the Cold War, the tax issue cost him dearly among fiscal conservatives and those wary of international entanglements.  This opened the door for the challenge by Ross Perot, who pulled enough support away (including, I regret to say, my own vote) that Bill Clinton was elected president.  Comparing the two men’s resumes, it’s laughable to think America would reject Bush in favor of “the man from Hope, Arkansas.”  But as I’ve pointed out on this blog, critical decisions are made more often on emotion than reason, and in this case Clinton connected with people in a way Bush did not.  And so it was that two of the most conniving political creatures America has ever produced — Bubba Bill and Her Hillariness — entered the White House, beginning a three-decade-long spree of influence peddling and assorted other nefarious activities.

It’s worth noting, however, the letter Bubba found in the Oval Office from his predecessor:

Jan 20, 1993
Dear Bill,
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
Good luck — George

That last line should serve as a model in our electoral system, which has devolved into political total war against those who disagree.  Since that transition in 1993, both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty of wanting to see a president from “the other side” fail, seeking political opportunity regardless the cost to the country.  We need to relearn the ability to stand firmly on principle while still extending an open hand to those of good will and honorable intentions.

We also need to regain the discernment to tell those honorable opponents from charlatans and snake oil salesmen.

Politically, I’m even less of a Bush family fan than I was in 1992, in large part due to what I believe to have been wrongheaded policy by Bush the Younger after 9/11.  Despite all that, I offer my humble condolences to that family on the passing of a man who, regardless any political faults, was clearly a devoted husband and father.  May our nation be blessed to have many more such men.  And may we continue to remember that even when they occupy the highest office in the land, they are still just that: men.

One to watch

I tend to agree with this writer’s assessment of Scott Walker.  Of all the declared and semi-declared candidates thus far, he is one of the few — possibly the only — I would seriously consider supporting for President.  One thing voters need to understand, though: even if you support someone with Walker’s philosophy of governance, the President alone cannot rollback all the damage at the Federal level that needs addressing.  (At least, not without acting like King Obama.  Part of the point of reforming government should be a return to the rule of law, not merely electing a lawless candidate whose policies you happen to support.)  In addition to electing a chief executive who will restore more limited government and fiscal sanity, we the voters need to provide that executive with like-minded allies in Congress.

It’s a long way yet till November 2016.  But start doing your homework now, if you’re seeking authentic change and a return to our nation’s roots.

(Note: to the handful of regulars who stop by even when there’s a dearth of posts, thank you.  It’s been a whirlwind of activity the past couple of weeks, and blogging just hasn’t made the cut on the priority list.  I appreciate the vote of confidence your visits represent.  Please be patient, as my goal has always been to post thoughtful content, not merely quantities of it.)

The power of one…

…or, “why America can’t use military force effectively anymore.”  I was recently asked my take on the resumption of airstrikes in Iraq, this time on ISIS forces.  I wish to put my thoughts–such as they are–in a broader context of how we decide to fight.

“The President is right to provide humanitarian relief to the Iraqi civilians stranded on Mount Sinjar and to authorize military strikes against ISIS forces that are threatening them, our Kurdish allies, and our own personnel in northern Iraq. However, these actions are far from sufficient to meet the growing threat that ISIS poses. We need a strategic approach, not just a humanitarian one,” [Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham] said in a statement. ““We need to get beyond a policy of half measures. The President needs to devise a comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS.”

The article quoted above (the entirety of which I recommend for your consideration) points out that even before World War II, presidents committed American forces to a series of “small wars” in many nations.  That doesn’t mean they were right (or had the right) to do so.  Those same ‘small wars’ were the backdrop that drove Marine Major General Smedley Butler, a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, to conclude in 1935 that “war is a racket.”  I would argue that our tendency for overseas meddling has only grown since 1945, as has a highly unconstitutional–and dangerous–deference to the President’s role as “Commander in Chief.”  That role is an executive one, not a legislative one.  No one person should be able to commit the nation to a war of choice.  It is one thing to repel an invasion (something else we seem to be having trouble with these days).  It’s quite another to launch one.  Consider the fact that President Obama is the fourth president in a row to commence a new round of military actions in Iraq!

As currently conducted by the United States, I have to conclude Smedley Butler has a key point about war.  And as much as I highly disdain the tendency of McCain and Graham to cheerlead overseas adventurism they, too, make a point: that America does not pursue long-term strategy.  Instead, we as a nation tend to knee-jerk our way through the violent side of foreign policy, from “firing a $2 million missile at a $10 tent” to “hit a camel in the butt,” to targeted “regime change actions” (Libya, 2011), to full-scale invasions of other countries (Afghanistan, 2001; Iraq, 2003).  In these cases, Congress either stood by or unconstitutionally deferred its powers to the President to commit the nation to force without a solid understanding, much less discussion or public acknowledgement of what is required of the full range of national power in order to achieve sustained results worth the cost in lives, material and national reputation.

In short, we’re really good at “release the hounds.”  We have lost the ability, however, to tie that choice of violence and death to long-term gains in national security.  America has lost much of its moral standing in the world because of this.  The makers of those $2 million missiles, or the enormously expensive platforms used to deliver them, are the real winners in this chaos.  They need not worry about whether the use of their product results in a more just peace.  Quite the opposite — they benefit most when things are kept at a slow boil, requiring a relatively stable demand of such gadgets.  What’s not to like about the business model?  The public gets to cheer at the 6 o’clock news that “America is doing something;” military and civilian leaders get to look “strong;” the defense contractors earn more money, and life goes on.

Except for those who have to live with the realities our policies create.

I’m not an America-hater or a pacifist–in fact, I’m as far from them as one can be.  What I am is extremely distressed by our casual approach to war, as though it were some sort of professional spectator sport that happens to be covered by Fox and CNN instead of ESPN.  Because of that, what I’m about to say next will take a moment to digest.  Stay with me.  It’s simply this:

Commit or quit.

What do I mean by that?  I mean our nation needs to have a serious, broad discussion about what we see as our role in the world and what we’re willing to do to perform it.  And we  need to pay attention to the issues for a longer period than that required by NFL Sunday Ticket.  Stop looking only at the individual instances of marketplaces being shelled (Yugoslavia, 1990s), the constant eruptions of ethnic and religious groups abusing and killing each other, or other emotionally heartbreaking headlines.  These evil events are endemic to the fallen human nature–they have raged since the beginning of time, and will do so until the end of it.  That means any nation has to pick and choose its battles.  What is the desired result of getting involved in a particular issue?  Are we committed to pay the price to see things through to that conclusion?  For instance, did the American people decide for themselves that defending Taiwan against mainland China is worth the potential loss of American cities?  If so, by what process was that decision reached?  Before you say “Congress,” ask yourself: if push comes to shove, will the American people back the defense guarantees “Congress” has handed out like candy to countries around the world?  Many potential adversaries are starting to ask that very question.

This isn’t a game, people.  We spent eight years in Iraq.  Are they better off?  Are we?  It seems we had just enough national will to make both countries miserable, but not enough commitment to see something productive result from that mess.  If we go all “Rolling Thunder” on ISIS now, what will be the impact after the news has turned its attention to whatever Miley Cyrus or the Kardashians are doing these days?  Given our short attention span it’s not unlikely that, after dropping bombs for a couple weeks (and more importantly, ordering replacements), we’ll declare success, go home, and ignore a more slow-motion slaughter of the same people we originally said we’d intervened to protect.  On top of that, what is the long-term outlook for that small percentage of Americans called upon to do the fighting and dying in these situations, for policies that are increasingly incoherent?

Until and unless we as a people decide what is worth killing and dying for, and our leaders devise full visions (including defined end states) for how to pursue those agreed-upon objectives, we need to reign in our trigger-happy fingers.  Given the effects of decades of massive immigration from all over the world, multiculturalism and a dumbing down of the citizenry’s understanding of the world and its history, I’m not sure we can even have that conversation, much less reach a consensus.

Regardless, we definitely need–right now–to constrain the ability of any one person, regardless of their party affiliation, to ‘send in the troops’ first and consult Congress later.

That’s the mark of an Empire, not a Republic.  Sadly, it’s not the only mark evident these days.  And remember, it was the bumbling, colliding ambitions of several Empires–British, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman–that brought on the insanity of the First World War.  Do we really think, only a century later, that we’re so much smarter?