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Monday, March 28, 2011

Evaluating the "Three Big Ifs"

In a recent blog I laid out what I continue to believe are three big things that need to happen in order for their to be success in Libya. I said they were:

If the United States Air Force can successfully complete its part of the NATO mission by this weekend,

and If England and France can successfully lead NATO and the Arab League to unite in the next week around an ongoing structure to the ongoing mission in Libya that does not rely on United States military playing a leading role,

and if this structure can lead to an eventual transfer of power from Quadaffi,

A lot of the media attention is missing these three big points. If the president is successful on these three things then the mission in Libya will have been an overall success and the president will be viewed as having led extremely well at a minimum cost to the United States. From my reading of it, points 1 and 2 are proceeding quite well and there is evidence that this could lead to point 3 happening. In other words, as the president prepares to address the country tonight he does so in a much stronger position than I had predicted last week.

This is an extremely fluid story and while I have remaining questions about it, I am open to seeing I initially judged it wrong and misread what the president was doing. To me at least, the more this develops the wiser the president is seeming.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Changing Narrative on Libya

Old Narrative, New Narrative

The Old (as in a couple days old) Narrative from folks like me on the Left:  Whether it is neoconservative hubris or neoliberal hubris--Hubris is Hubris, and Militarism is Militarism.

The New Narrative: Obama is the Crown Prince of Pragmatic Progressivism

As one who voiced the Old Narrative on facebook at the start of the week, I am not yet ready to embrace the New Narrative, but I have to admit that at the very least Obama has saved thousands of lives and given urgency to diplomatic activity in the Africa Union, the Arab League and the European Union aimed at either empowering the opposition or getting Qaddaffi to step down. He has accomplished this in the context of clearly stating his intention to draw down American involvement in a matter of days, an intention that has focused the minds of his African, Arab and European allies. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Obama's Three Enormous Ifs

I have been doing a bunch of reading and listening today, and from what I can piece together the president's plan for victory in Libya relies on some major ifs--things that are not impossible, but each quite risky.

If the United States Air Force can successfully complete its part of the NATO mission by this weekend,

and If England and France can successfully lead NATO and the Arab League to unite in the next week around an ongoing structure to the ongoing mission in Libya that does not rely on United States military playing a leading role,

and if this structure can lead to an eventual transfer of power from Quadaffi,

then President Obama will have achieved three enormous victories:

1.     He will have realigned American strategy in the Arab world and placed it much more clearly on the side of human rights and political reform.
2.     He will have utilized multilateralism to effect a significant foreign policy achievement, thereby strengthening regional and international institutions to play a role in world affairs that allows America’s military spending and footprint to decrease in ways necessary for our fiscal and political sanity.
3.     He will have defeated a decades long enemy of America, proponent of terrorism and supporter of nuclear proliferation without having committed America to another open-ended military occupation of a Muslim country.

President Obama has certainly shown a boldness many doubted he had in him. He is engaged in an extraordinarily delicate balancing act internationally and domestically. If he fails he will have taken what most observers viewed as a likely reelection and turned 2012 into a genuine battle for his political survival, and he will have confirmed doubts about Democrats’ ability to manage foreign policy any better than George W. Bush had. If he fails he will either have been humiliated by Qadaffi or have been forced to engage in another ground war in a Muslim country with all of the moral, strategic and fiscal consequences that we have felt in Iraq. The stakes are high for the people of Libya, for the war weary men and women of our armed forces, for our country, and for the president and his party. Every bit of the president’s intellect, focus and nerve will be called upon in the days and weeks to come.

you talkin' to me??

James Kirchik takes on my side and gives the clearest, most thoughtful defense of the President’s decision in a post he titled “Libya and the Anti-Intervention Left”:

The guiding principle of American foreign policy should be to support freedom overseas, when we can, where we can, and however we can. There are no firm rules by which this principle can be implemented. Libya, however, presented a rather obvious case: a murderous dictator who had the blood of many thousands of innocent people—including American citizens—on his hands, who had fomented instability in his region, and who had for many years been a leading sponsor of international terrorism, was suddenly confronted by a mass domestic insurgency. He reacted violently, in a way that rendered moot whatever economic benefit he was providing to the West. He all but announced his intention to commit genocide against his own people, stating that he would “cleanse Libya house by house,” practically rendering international intervention a legal imperative due to the stipulations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to which the United States is a signatory. Furthermore, from a basic practical standpoint, and unlike in Yemen and Bahrain, Libya is located on the periphery of Europe, meaning that continued strife would have resulted in a mass refugee exodus onto the shores of NATO states. By assisting an indigenous revolt, and not partaking in the dread warfare of the sort that liberals like Robinson so fervently opposed in Iraq, the United States and its allies were given a prime opportunity, the sort of opportunity that arrives once in a blue moon, to overthrow a despicable regime and implement something better in its stead.

Next Steps

As I work my way through feelings of confusion, anger and resignation, I am trying to listen to some folks wiser than me about how this could possibly end well in Libya. I couldn't agree more with Andrew Sullivan's hopes:

The key thing is to avoid leadership in this case. Yes, I just wrote that. If the French and British take ownership of this selfless act of imperial compassion, Obama can claim to be advancing American values but not enmeshing US troops in a third endless war. Many on the right will hate this, but some on the right will see its logic. My own view is that the American conservative public (not the neocons) would love for the allies to take more military responsibility for their own backyard. I have no problems with the EU or France or even Britain pursuing the same kind of self-defeating, fiscally crippling, decade-long wars that the US, under Bush-Cheney, so helpfully innovated. They're sovereign nations. If they want to fight such a proxy war for an unknowable amount of time, let them.

The historian and columnist Anne Applebaum reflects on why Obama was smart to have been relatively silent about Libya in the days leading up to and during the bombing campaign. What I saw as a lack of focus may actually have served a bigger purpose:

Enthusiasm and soaring rhetoric would also now lock the United States and its allies into an implied set of promises. If we’d compared Gaddafi to Hitler we’d have to eliminate him. If democracy were the only solution in Libya, we’d have to stay in Libya until it was democratic. If Obama had been talking about nothing else for the past three weeks, his entire presidency would be on the line. In those circumstances, the Arab League’s withdrawal of support could be interpreted only as a personal affront to Obama.

Judah Grunstein builds on Applebaum’s article and adds that

the absence of such a campaign of demonization now allows for a wider range of political approaches toward Gadhafi's regime than were imaginable in Iraq, to take just one example, where not only did Saddam Hussein need to go, but the military needed to be disbanded and the Baathist party purged from the political arena. Similar to its approach in Egypt, the U.S. can actively pursue a policy of impeachment, as opposed to regime change, in Libya, which opens the door to a political settlement of both the civil war as well as the U.S. and Western intervention in it -- even as that intervention continues.

James Fallows in an aptly titled post “On Libya: ‘What Happens Then’”:

I hope the results are swift, decisive, merciful, and liberating, and that they hasten the spread of the Arab Dawn. But I assert that it is much better to be proven wrong in that way, and to have thought too much about "What happens then?" possibilities -- than to have thought too little about them, which I fear we have done. 

And back to Andrew Sullivan for affirmation of my own instincts on Libya:

What I learned from Iraq and Afghanistan is the extreme difficulty of intervening in countries we do not understand and the limits of even the best military in the world to control events in other people's lands, driven by other peoples' concerns. It also remains a fact - and it wasn't a fact in 2001 - that the US is already involved in two wars and is bankrupt, with no sign of any political will to balance the books, including this president. Hence the skepticism…Every moment in history is different; and what failed last time could succeed now. But I prefer caution after a debacle, rather than pretending that the world began yesterday.

Doubting Obama

I have been wrestling in my heart, mind and soul over the decision to intervene militarily in Libya. Of all the topics I write about related to politics and Obama, those touching on foreign policy are the ones I have the most knowledge and conviction about. I have always read and studied American foreign policy/history, and I had the privilege to do a master’s program at Boston University under the guidance of Andrew Bacevich. I started writing this particular post a number of times over the last few days, but have never been able to finish it. What I have decided to write is what I am coming to understand as Obama’s reasoning behind this decision, and why I think this decision is destined to fail.

From what I have read and heard, the clearest explanation is from Glenn Thrush of Politico in a column entitled “In Search of the ‘Obama Doctrine’”. I highly recommend a complete reading of it. He concludes:

In Libya, Obama’s decision to embrace a military solution was motivated less by hard-and-fast philosophical principles than by answering “yes” to four threshold questions:
First, could the U.S. stop a potential massacre without straining overstretched American military assets?
Second, was Qadhafi vulnerable enough to be seriously impacted by military action?
Third, could the U.S. get out fast?
Lastly, and most important of all, Obama asked if other countries could take the lead, at least publicly – a condition met late last week, only after the fractious Arab League, and then the U.N. Security Council, signed off on a no-fly zone.
In the course of his article, Thrush quotes directly from Obama’s interaction with reporters during his trip to South America:

“We have a huge national interest in making sure that those are successful because if Egypt can make a transition from an autocratic regime to a democracy, if Tunisia can make those same changes, they become models for a peaceful transition that at some point may be adopted by other countries in the region. If on the other hand, they spill into chaos…that could have spillover effects in the entire region. So not only do we have a humanitarian interest, but we also have a very practical interest in making sure that the changes that are sweeping through that region are occurring in a peaceful, nonviolent fashion.”

Now let me just say that I have always appreciated the professorial style of Obama. Maybe it is because my dad is a professor and I have myself been a teacher that I feel comforted by the way in which Obama’s law professor background leads him to think coolly and logically and to communicate steadily and carefully. But I fear that Obama is displaying the two fatal weaknesses of the intellectual engaging in power politics—cluelessness about the “fog of war” and blindness to the realities of our own use of violence. War is not like an argument on a whiteboard at the University of Chicago where you can erase a mistake and start over. The “fog of war” will immediately engulf all who enter it—just as it did yesterday when one of our planes crashed and the pilots were forced to eject over Libya in the middle of the night. The New York Times tells what happened next:
A Marine Corps officer said that the grounded pilot, who was in contact with rescue crews in the air, asked for bombs to be dropped as a precaution before the crews landed to pick him up. “My understanding is he asked for the ordnance to be delivered between where he was located and where he saw people coming toward him,” the officer said, adding that the pilot evidently made the request “to keep what he thought was a force closing in on him from closing in on him.”  In response, two Harrier attack jets that were part of the rescue team dropped two 500-pound bombs before a Marine Osprey helicopter landed to pick up the pilot, at about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday local time. The Marine officer said he did not know if the people approaching the pilot were friendly or hostile or what damage the bombs had caused.
This is war, President Obama. The chaos you fear engulfing the region may well increase as a result of the fog of war. The president seems utterly sincere in his assertion that we are now using tomahawk missiles by the hundreds to insure that “the changes that are sweeping through that region are occurring in a peaceful, nonviolent fashion.” He is wanting to keep the narrative of nonviolent change in the Arab world that has inspired millions around the world, myself included, but seems unable to see that our military intervention is already shifting the narrative. We are becoming the story. Our military is now bombing away to insure that “peaceful, nonviolent” change can happen. You declare yourself a fan of Niebuhr, the great prophet of irony in American history, Mr. President, so how can you not see the bitter irony in “bombing for nonviolent change”? I join Michael Kinsley in asking:
Was there nothing we could have done between sitting on our hands and launching something close to all-out war? Sure there is. It’s what we did for eastern Europe that helped bring victory in the Cold War: verbal support and financial support for dissidents and democrats. Make clear which side we’re on—but without overpromising, as in Hungary, 1957. It sounds like the opposite of “speak softly and carry a big stick,” and in a way, it is. But it worked to defeat Communism, and our track record with bigger ambitions in smaller situations has not been impressive.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Two Home Run Articles

 A couple quotes from new articles by two of my favorite writers. First, EJ Dionne of the Washington Post on the major national significance of the Wisconsin events:

“Here's the key to the Wisconsin battle: For the first time in a long time, blue-collar Republicans - once known as Reagan Democrats - have been encouraged to remember what they think is wrong with conservative ideology. Working-class voters, including many Republicans, want no part of Walker's war…In 2010, working-class whites gave Republicans a 30-point lead over Democrats in House races. That's why the Wisconsin fight is so dangerous to the conservative cause: Many working-class Republicans still have warm feelings toward unions, and Walker has contrived to remind them of this…Wisconsin Democrats have shown that the only way to win arguments is to take risks on behalf of what you believe. Are Washington Democrats prepared to learn this lesson?”

Second, from the always thoughtful LaVonne Neff:

“Wouldn't it be lovely if we could combine conviction with passionate intensity - and still talk peaceably with one another!”

From "ecumenism of the trenches" to "missional ecumenism"

A wonderful step towards true Christian unity over the last thirty years is what has been called the “ecumenism of the trenches” between evangelicals and Catholics. The trenches refers to the culture wars in America, particularly around abortion, and the ecumenism refers to the surprising way that former “enemies” like conservative evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics came to deeper respect and appreciation for each others heritages. Outstanding and enlightening work has flowed from these relationships. In much of the reporting about this welcomed trend, this conservative ecumenism has been contrasted with traditional ecumenical efforts between what are called “liberal Catholics” and “Mainline Protestants”. I found myself ten years ago actively reading work from both these “camps” and I always found these sharp distinctions between ecumenical efforts too simplistic. The liberal/conservative divide seemed like a caricature of the lived reality of America’s religious melting pot. I have been away from these discussions for a number of years and as I reenter it I am glad to see the growing use of the term “missional ecumenism”.

If you have any interest in this at all, a gathering this week in Rome of Protestant and Catholic workers among the poor should be of interest to you. Among the Catholics at the meeting are Deacon John Green of Emmaus Ministries in Chicago and leaders from the fascinating group Sant’Egidio. Among the Protestants attending are the evangelical leader John Armstrong, along with many of the contributors to the IVP book Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of New Friars. “Mainline” Christian leaders participating in the gathering include Dame Mary Tanner, European President of the World Council of Churches, and David and Margie Richardson, Director of the Anglican Centre, liaison from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Vatican.

I will be following reports on it closely.

Attack Libya? How about asking American soldiers first (update)

UPDATE--ADD Wesley Clark to the list of major retired military leaders who cast serious doubt on US military intervention in Libya.

I know that a lot of thoughtful people are urging the president to militarily intervene in Libya, but have you noticed the group of people NOT joining the pack calling for American military intervention in Libya? One of the most underappreciated stories of the post 9-11 era is the increasing resistance by retired and active military to America’s ever widening military footprint in the world. This resistance has been on full display in the discussion surrounding the Libya crisis. A war weary military, facing continuing challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the maintenance of hundreds of military bases around the world in a context of a looming deficit crisis, deserves a hearing. Below are reports on key concerns of the active and veteran military. As you read these, ask how military intervention in Libya would effect these concerns.

Military leaders and the deficit:

Military leaders have been at the forefront of discussions over the threat of America’s deficit. For over a year we have been hearing consistently from our military leaders that runaway deficits are a genuine national security threat. Here is an article from February of 2010 titled “Deficit Balloons into National Security Threat”.

Military leaders and additional wars:

More recently there was Secretary Gates, in a speech at the West Point no less, said this
“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” Gates told the cadets. “As the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely, the Army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size, and cost of its heavy formations,” he added. “The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq — invading, pacifying, and administering a large third-world country — may be low,” he opined, adding that the US government and armed forces should focus on preventing “festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly — and controversial — large-scale American military intervention.

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have taken the lead in calling publicizing the epidemic of suicides in the military.

The organization Veterans for Peace has led the fight against President Obama’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan.

The reason we know about the outrageous effort by the three star Lt. Gen. William Caldwell to use psychological operations against United States politicians visiting Afghanistan is because of the courage and convictions of Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes. “Holmes believed that using his team to target American civilians violated the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which was passed by Congress to prevent the State Department from using Soviet-style propaganda techniques on U.S. citizens. But when Holmes brought his concerns to Col. Gregory Breazile, the spokesperson for the Afghan training mission run by Caldwell, the discussion ended in a screaming match. ‘It’s not illegal if I say it isn’t!’ Holmes recalls Breazile shouting.”

Thanks to Col. Holmes’ whistle blowing, the Pentagon is taking action against Caldwell.

Given the extraordinary strain of the last ten years, it is good to know that Defense Secretary Gates sees the fatal error of our ways. Hopefully he will be listened to in the deliberations over Libya and hopefully he will be listening to the genuine needs and concerns of veterans and active duty soldiers who would bear the brunt of action against Libya.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

This must be OUR MOMENT

The Democratic Party will either wake up to its true historic purpose for existing, or it will wither. We will either return this Party to its roots in defending and respecting and securing the rights of working people or it will wither. We will either seize this moment to restore the legacy of FDR and Kennedy and MLK, or this party will wither. If the passion and commitment and sacrifice of the working class and middle class of this country is not funneled into the spine and the soul of the Democratic Party, then there will not be a middle class in this country. The Republican Party has chosen this moment to try and reach long-desired goals of union-busting and Democratic Party crushing, and if we don’t see it as the launching of class warfare then we will never realize it. If we don't out organize, out work, out fundraise, out march, out mobilize, out picket, out EFFORT the Tea Party/Wall Street warriors, I'm truly afraid we will never have the chance to do it again. 

What about the budget, Governor Walker!!??

After weeks of trying to pass off the lie that Governor Walker needed to strip collective bargaining rights in order to balance the budget, Wisconsin Republicans have just found a way to vote on the bill stripping collective bargaining rights by…….taking it out of the budget/money bill which allows them to vote on it without the Democrats there. In other words, this was not ever about the budget. The budget crisis was an excuse to go after unions. The only way this might not stand is that in order to get this fraud passed through quickly, they clearly broke the law requiring 24 hour notice of a new law. This is the radicalism that I have been talking about. This is why Democrats from the local level on up to the federal level must unite deeply around the core values of our party—standing up for working men and women, whatever their color or creed. This is the reason this blog is called Defending Obama—we have to stand together, linked to the memory of FDR and Kennedy and MLK and resist the extremism aflame in the land.

Great new blog

I’m loving this blog “evangelical crossroads”. Here are some highlights from recent posts there, both related to Christian and Muslim relationships.

“But more importantly, focusing on the weakness of the other is a reflection of a weakness in ourselves. We should all, Christians and Muslims alike, be focused on how we are living and aligning our thoughts and behaviors with our faith, not with collectively establishing our moral superiority over the other.”

“I have frequently said that we should be in regular prayer for Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. While some people are sympathetic to this, my experience is that many American Christians would just as soon wish that they’d all go to hell. That may sound harsh (and it is) but try speaking up on a regular basis for the Muslim world and calling everyone to love them. I think you’ll see that people will respond with apathy and/or resistance to the idea, perhaps labeling it “simple minded” or something that “just won’t work.””

Kennan lives on

Do you know of George Kennan? He is one of the fascinating figures of the 20th century, but those of us who admire his life and work fear that he will be forgotten in this new century. That would be a shame because his insights into the American character still ring true today. In our age of renewed American militarism and distortions of the threat of terrorism, Kennan’s voice needs to be heard anew.

Kennan was most known for being the architect of the “containment doctrine” at the start of the Cold War and then later for his fierce criticism of American foreign policy when it used the fear of communism to justify military expansion worldwide. His was an anticommunism grounded in history, including the ironies of American history.  He lived a long and rich life, dying in 2005 at the age of 101. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been reading the great John Lukacs’ brief book on Kennan. Here are some of the gems from the book. Those in bold are quotes from Kennan himself, the others are Lukacs on Kennan:

“As early as in 1946 there were instances when he [Kennan] warned not only against the then remnant American illusions about the Soviet Union but against the extremes of the ideology of anticommunism…He warned against the militarization of ‘containment’; against the permanent establishment of American military bases in the middle of Europe and elsewhere on the globe…he saw anticommunism becoming identical with American patriotism—or, indeed, substituting or even replacing the latter.” (128)

“[P]rinciples and ideas are not the same. More than one hundred and fifty years ago Metternich wrote in a letter that while an idea is a fixed gun capable of striking error along one fixed line, a principle is like a gun mounted on a revolving platform, capable of striking error in any direction.” (129)

“I tremble when I see this attempt to make a semi-religious cult out of emotional-political currents of the moment…designed to appeal only to men’s capacity for hatred and fear, never to their capacity for forgiveness and charity and understanding.” (130)

“Remember that the ultimate judgments of good and evil are not ours to make: that the wrath of man against his fellow man must always be tempered by the recollection of his weakness and fallibility and by the example of forgiveness and redemption which is the essence of his Christian heritage.” (130)

“[Kennan] was not a patriot and not a nationalist: because patriotism is traditionalist, while nationalism is populist; because patriotism is the love of one’s land and of its history, while nationalism is viscous cement that binds formless masses together. A patriot will be concerned with his nation’s faults.” (132)

“The readiness to use nuclear weapons against other human beings—against people whom we do not know, whom we have never seen, and whose guilt or innocence is not for us to establish—this is nothing less than a presumption, a blasphemy, an indignity—an indignity of monstrous dimensions—offered to God!” (150-151)

“Unlike many Americans, George Kennan did not believe that the United States was A Chosen Nation of God, that its people were A Chosen People, or even the Last Best Hope of Mankind; but he believed that there is something unique in the history of every nation, including his own” (153)

“One day—not now—when in the midst of a world ruled by Mechanism the last vestiges of the old humanism will have vanished, a few, young rather than old, American men or women will stare at [Kennan’s] words and see…that this man was, once, a conscience of America.” (154)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The "fierce urgency" of defending Obama

I have not had a new post for days. We lost internet connection when our basement was being redone after flooding from pipe problems. I also have been reflecting on the purposes of this blog and its direction in the future. I am excited that the blog has received over 1,000 page views and that there are now over 50 posts up on it. I appreciate the thoughtful feedback I have received and I want to take a post to clarify an aspect of this blog that has elicited the most feedback---its name!! Why do I insist on calling the blog “Defending Obama”? This question has come from people who I deeply respect and I want to spend this blog responding to the question.

I recognize that the title can be off putting and that it can indicate a simplistic attitude that is hopefully not true of the perspective at the blog. I also know that it implies a kind of knee-jerk liberalism and overt partisanship that is not in line what many of you know me to believe. This title risks unnecessarily narrowing the audience and influence of the blog. I understand and appreciate all of this, but yet……

The title will remain Defending Obama because these words, as I understand them, embody the gut level passion behind this blog. When I say that this blog is about defending Obama I do not mean a defense of every aspect of his administration or his character. I will argue against many things that are done over the next two or six years of his presidency. But what I mean to say in titling this blog “Defending Obama” is that there are three deeper things going on in the opposition to Obama that I feel I must resist with a “fierce urgency” reflected in the name of the blog.

1.     I see in the extraordinary fact that 62% of Protestant pastors believe Obama is not a Christian a deep disrespect for African American religious expression and a stunning spirit of judgment against the Mainline Christian communities that Obama’s faith springs from. I feel deep in my soul that to fail to defend Obama clearly and consistently on Christian grounds (as well as criticizing  him on those same grounds when necessary) is to give legitimacy to these baseless charges. I have benefited too much from the historic Black churches as well as from mainline denominations to want my own evangelical Catholic background to in any way be seen as participating in these desperate attempts to narrow the meaning and possibility of “being Christian” to those who would exclude believers like Obama from the community of faith. This blog will give voice to those expressions of faith that form the context of Obama’s life and political vision.

2.     I see in the effort to paint Obama as a cultural “other” an attack on the very premises of the “beloved community” that Martin Luther King strived for and gave his life for. I am speaking here of more than just the noxious attempt to question Obama’s citizenship, although I refuse to ignore or treat as minor the fact that 51% of likely Republican primary voters say that they do not think Obama was born in America and another 21%  say they are unsure. I am speaking more broadly of the concerted effort to insinuate that Obama’s biracial parents and his living for a time outside of America somehow diminish his standing as a “true American”. Perhaps it is the fact that I am in a biracial marriage, or that my wife lived in Vietnam until she was age nine, that makes me psychologically need to distance myself clearly and unequivocally from the pernicious race-based roots of these attacks on Obama. I want to defend Obama because I hear echoes in these attacks of a not so distant past in which my marriage would not have been allowed and my wife would not have been welcomed. I see a challenge to multicultural America.

3.     The “socialist smear” is having consequences on policies and individuals just like the Macarthyist attacks of the 50s. While people often comment, with more than a little truth, that the Washington Beltway can be “out of touch” with the real world, it is also true that on some things people out of the daily rough and tumble of DC can miss the chilling consequences of “Heartland” rhetoric. No clearer case can be found than that of Donald Berwick. Here is a man of extraordinary capability. A man who is head and shoulders above anyone else in his understanding of health care in America. And yet, on the basis of what can rightly be called an ideological death squad, this man is on the verge of not being appointed by the Senate. The consequences of the anti-intellectual and militantly anti-government rhetoric are being felt in a profound way in the right-wing takedown of this uniquely gifted public servant. I can not claim an impartiality at this blog.

For these religious, cultural and political reasons I feel that the title Defend Obama best gets at the urgency that I feel at this historical moment. Broad forces of religious intolerance, cultural prejudice and political retrenchment have galvanized around bringing Obama down. I will not fail to criticize or question Obama’s particular policies, but on the broad question of his political survival and success I have clearly staked out my ground and I think the title “Defending Obama” speaks authentically to an underlying motivation behind the blog. I hope you will continue to hear me out and respond along the way.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Signs of Wisconsin Republicans cracking

Great to hear this. Lincoln would be proud!!

Book Time

Here is what is on my reading shelf these days:

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, by David Remnick (new paperback edition).

Definitely the deepest, most comprehensive book on Obama done so far. Remnick is a master weaver of a narrative and the book is a pleasure to read. I have a quoted it a couple times on blogs and am sure to do so as I work my way through the whole book. Besides being comprehensive, the book is also noteworthy for the way it places Obama’s career within the broad stream of civil rights history. Gwen Ifill, the PBS commentator and author, has a spot-on review of some of the book’s major points.

George Kennan: A Study of Character, by John Lukacs. You can’t beat this---my favorite historian not named Noll writing about one of my favorite Americans. Lukacs has taken to writing short essayish books in recent years. I appreciated his Five Days in London: May 1940 and June, 1941: Hitler and Stalin, which both came in under 200 pages. Lukacs on Kennan is interesting because he knew him personally and holds him in high moral esteem.

Mother Teresa: The Private Writings of the ‘Saint of Calcutta’, edited with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C.

I have wanted to read this book ever since this moving review essay of it by Carol Zaleski in First Things seven years ago. If you are not familiar with the book, here is the basic idea: Mother Teresa struggled mightily and had moments, if not years, of the “dark night of the soul.” This book for the first time uses personal reflections from Mother Teresa to weave a fuller picture of her life. As Zaleski said in her essay,

When we consider her life and the ongoing life of her community, the Church seems young again, and everything seems possible. If these days are in any sense a dark night for the Church, then Mother Teresa shows the way forward: faith that we are undergoing a purification rather than a free-fall, and fidelity, in small things as well as big, to the vows that bind in order to set free.

On Having a Kenyan Dad in the '60s

Amidst the lies and innuendo about President Obama’s childhood, something poignant is being lost. I am reading David Remnick’s engrossing biography of Obama in which is found this description of a ten year old Obama entering a new school in Hawaii.

[Obama’s teacher] Mabel Hefty was an earnest traveler. She had spent the previous year in Africa teaching in a village primary school. But when she tried to engage Barry in a high-minded conversation about his Kenyan background (“Do you know what tribe your father is from?”), Obama went silent. One kid made monkey sounds. One classmate asked if his father was a cannibal; another asked if she could touch his hair. He was a curiosity, a source of giddy fascination—the last thing a child wants to be. (pg. 72, paper ed.)

$1.2 Trillion--True yearly total of America's national security spending

I blogged yesterday on the militaristic instinct that had some calling for Obama to consider military action in Libya. It is refreshing to see the National Review, perhaps the leading conservative magazine, editorializing against that idea. It would be a beautiful thing if we could start to see the shared anti intervention tradition of both the Left and the Right make a dent in public policy again. Such a movement is given expression at this website as well as this one. The discussion of the deficit should help forge an anti intervention alliance between Left and Right, especially in light of this report detailing how the true cost of America’s national security is at $1.2 trillion a year. The greatest joy of my master’s work at Boston University was getting to work with Andrew Bacevich in the research of his masterful American Empire. He has gone on to write a number of other brilliant critiques of American militarism, but I still think American Empire is the best primer on why post Cold War America has continued to maintain and expand its global military footprint.

Witness to Wisconsin

One of the true pleasures I had when I worked in publishing was seeing the birth of Books & Culture. If you have never read this magazine, this new post on their blog is a great place to start. It represents the kind of thoughtful prose that we have come to expect from a magazine edited by the brilliant (and hilarious) John Wilson. The writer of this piece, Paul Grant, is from Wisconsin and he does a wonderful job of placing the current controversy there into the rich context of Wisconsin history. I fear that he is right when he says:

In his effort to pass a philosophically purist bill, the governor has turned neighbors against each other. By telling us that our sewer workers and schoolteachers and librarians are lazy and greedy, he has set the terms of the debate in the worst possible way. It is a wound that will outlive his tenure by a long shot.

Huckabee Rides the Tiger and Faces the Consequences (updated)

As much as any single thing, the Right wing attempt to paint President Obama as an “other” is what drove me to start this blog. The phony stories about birth certificates and Muslim upbringing and “palling with terrorists” and not being a Christian—all of these serve the purpose of creating a picture of Obama as an other, as someone “foreign” to the “pure” and “exceptional” America that “we all” know is our “true history”. The willingness of so many conservative Christians to sit back and allow lie after lie to be told, and the damage that such duplicity does to the cause of Christian unity and witness, fueled my desire to start this website.

Now, as the political focus begins to shift from the midterm elections to the presidential campaign, Republicans will be forced to live with the consequences of riding the tiger of prejudice and innuendo. Every time potential Republican candidates grant an interview to a radio host who has propagated these lies they will be forced in plain sight to answer questions loaded with ignorance and hate. They will have a choice to make—stand up to the nonsense or pander to the fear and face the national media derision that comes with being a potential president who travels in the company of lies so thick they would make a John Birch supporter blush. Riding the tiger of a lie-fueled base to victory in local congressional races means trying to control that tiger in the white-hot media light of a presidential campaign.

Mike Huckabee enjoys being the "adult" of the potential Republican candidates. He has made noises about "respecting Obama but disagreeing with his policies." Yet here he is riding the tiger of the lie that "Obama grew up in Kenya" and he hates America because "he had a dad who hated British imperialism." Huckabee is feeling the heat this morning, as well he should be. Mike Huckabee has been bucked off of the tiger. Will he get back on it or will he dare to offend a base that has swallowed conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory? Or will he attempt the third option, as Huckabee is trying to do, of clearly throwing red meat to his base but denying he meant anything by it to the national media? Huckabee is a master at the “aw shucks” approach to American politics. He enjoys the pretense of being a truth-teller, someone who is just a simple preacher and plain shooter, while in reality he is willing to peddle in the same racist, fear-mongering rhetoric and lies of the most vicious operatives on the Right. 

UPDATE: Huckabee has today further clarified his comments in an interview with Bryan Fischer, and it is now clear that Huckabee has decided to get back on the tiger:

"And so I'd like you to comment on that," Fischer continued. "You seem to think that there is some validity to the fact that there may be some fundamental anti-Americanism in this president."
"Well, that's exactly the point that I make in the book," Huckabee responded. "And I don't know why these reporters -- maybe they can't read...I have said many times...publicly, that I do think he has a different worldview and I think it's, in part, molded out of a very different experience. Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Invade Libya--where have I heard this story before?

“We will be greeted as liberators” is the spirit of those urging President Obama to intervene militarily in Libya. Where have I heard those words before? Mmmmm, lets see if I can remember. Oh, that is right, in Iraq…..seven years, thousands of American lives, hundreds of billions of dollars, and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives ago. And where did we not intervene militarily? Mmmmmmm, oh, I’m starting to remember. Yes, Egypt. Of course. We left it to the people of Egypt to have the dignity and pride of their resistance.

Are there things we are doing and should do to help bring down Qaddaffi? Certainly. But it is an extraordinary testament to the militarization of American foreign policy that we would actually be hearing cries about Obama’s failure and moral blindness because he has not shown “leadership” in Libya. Never mind that this is exactly what Qaddaffi wants. It is exactly the narrative that he has fed his people for decades and would be exactly what would lead him to do even worse damage to the civilian population of Libya. It is also exactly what Al Quaeda would love to see us do. It would take away the horrible embarrassment that they have faced in seeing thousands of peaceful Muslims do to autocratic regimes what they claim as their call to do violently if suddenly the “Great Satan” were to interject its “crusader forces” into the affairs of a Muslim country.

It is a sign of the desperation of those urging military answers that they compare Libya to Rwanda during the genocide there. With all due respect, sorrow and sympathy to the innocents in Libya, there is absolutely no evidence that what is happening in Libya is remotely on the scale of genocide.

Thankfully, President Obama is receiving counsel from Robert Gates on this. Gates just the other day said that anyone wanting to repeat the experience of Iraq or Afghanistan should “have his head examined.” I know that people will say that this will be much simpler than those two countries, but unfortunately that is what people said about those two invasions, particularly Iraq. I am with Gates on this.

Thankfully, today’s news is hopeful. The New York Times is reporting that Qaddaffi made “little headway” in his attacks on rebel forces. Lets trust those rebel leaders when they say “the latest attacks by Colonel Qaddafi’s supporters smacked of desperation, and that the failed assault on Zawiyah, a city with important oil resources just 30 miles from the capital, raised questions about the ability of the government to muster a serious challenge to the rebels’ growing power.”

Wall Street Justice?

News coming today of charges against a fairly major player in Wall Street who apparently made “illicit profits and loss avoidance of more than $17 million” at the height of the financial crisis.  Perhaps the lament that leads to the question “Why Isn’t Anyone From Wall Street in Jail?” is being heard.



I agree with the spirit behind the new campaign
by Jim Wallis and others to question the morality of the proposed House budget cuts, but this blog article at Commentary and my own reflection makes me uneasy with the inherently flippant use of Jesus’ name in any campaign like this.

In other words, I share the urge to “shout from the rooftops” that Christianity should not be associated with the draconian nature of the budget cuts, but I fear that it cheapens and weakens the Christian language to use what we Christians consider a name of God in an advertising campaign. It just seems like there could have been a much better headline to use to make the same point. It may not have been “better” in a Madison Avenue way, but I think it would have been better to our humility and “poverty in spirit” to not have implied that we know the Final Answer to a question like this.

Simplistic, market-driven use of religious language is wrong no matter where it comes from, and I regret that in an earlier blog that referred to  this campaign I did not make this point. Probably appropriate that a magazine like Commentary with its Jewish roots should be challenging us on glibly using names for God given the rich tradition in Judaism against that.

Question the budget cuts, challenge them, use religious arguments to shape your thinking—but don’t use slogans that you would find simplistic or potentially faith degrading if used against your positions.

Sports watch

Random musings on the world of sports:

Cardinals nation is in mourning over the prospect of losing Albert Pujols after this year and Adam Wainright for this year. At least Stan Musial got the Presidential Medal of Freedom… 

Bulls fans old enough to remember life before Jordan can’t help but see some comparisons between the lunch-pail work ethic of this year’s bunch and the scrappy teams of the Jerry Sloan/Chet Walker/Norm van Lier days. Derrick Rose is refreshing in his intensity and determination. Watch out Celtics!! You took us out when Rose was a rookie in that amazing series, but we might getcha back this year!

Doesn’t seem right that former Dodger great Mike Scioscia is the Angels manager while former Yankees great Don Mattingly is the Dodgers manager.

I don’t hate pro football or anything, but the year round hyping of it gets nauseating. Isn’t there an offseason for that Mel Kiper dude? And what is with his hair?

I love Albert Pujols and I’m glad he is a Christian and all, but it just seems a bit much to have a spokesman for Jesus angling for a $30 million a year contract…I’m just sayin’

If you are a book fan and a baseball fan, you got to read that Willie Mays biography that came out last year. Great read.

The interview with Bob Costas about it was tremendous as well. 

Moving to Washington, DC looked to be hard on the baseball front, but the Nationals and the Orioles actually have some reason to hope this spring. Definitely glad my man Vladi Guerrero has followed me east!!