Posts Tagged ‘Bush’

The Thinker

Making the nation your fall guy

It’s not often that I get requests for posts, but I actually got one from my daughter the other day. She wants me to write about psychological projection and Donald Trump.

Well, I sort of have been, just not explicitly. I’m sure that it won’t be news to any psychologists reading my blog that Donald Trump has a bad case of psychological projection. But first, let me define it. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.

I have discussed this before, principally in the context of whom we choose to marry. None of us come into life cast from a perfect mold. We stumble and fall repeatedly through life as we try to find what works in the relational chaos around us. We tend to marry people that force us to confront our own inadequacies, who ironically appear under the guise of our soul mate. When it works in addressing our imperfections, it’s good but not much fun. It helps us grow as human beings in ways we otherwise likely would not grow.

The best way to get through these issues is to live an engaged life, where situations periodically force you to tackle your less than admirable spots. What happens though when you grow up in an insular world? Suppose life is presented in a predominantly false way so you never have to learn to deal with people as they actually are? For perhaps the most egregious case possibly ever, I give you Donald J. Trump.

When one of these people is given a lot of power, this warped perspective can be very damaging. Years ago, I opined that this was the problem with our last president, George W. Bush as he was insulated by Poppy from taking the fall for most of his mistakes growing up. George W. though at least had a father somewhat grounded in the real world. Donald J. Trump’s case is much more extreme.

Trump was a child of privilege from birth. His father told him to not feel ashamed of his family wealth. He was told he was naturally better than other people because of his race, ethnicity and family status. He was told he could clear all obstacles in his path to success because that’s what Trumps do. Trump never had to endure a public school. He never had to scrape for a living or know a day of poverty. He got a generous endowment from his father to start out in business. At least once as an adult his father bailed him out when his financial mistakes caught up with him. He grew up believing that more wealth could be acquired through brand, and that came from image. So he projected the image of the person he wanted to be: rich, confident, successful and glamorous even while his behavior made him a wreck of a man to most of us paying attention and many who encountered him.

Obviously many people bought into his projection. Some of them who partnered with him or bought his overpriced products found out that he was happy to screw them out of their money for the illusion that he offered them something special. Others, principally a lot of white people, see something in Trump they admire. They like that he speaks his mind. They see his bullheadedness as a virtue. I call these Powerball people because I see them all the time at the local convenience stores buying reams of lottery tickets. (I saw one working class Joe drop $80 on lottery tickets at a local Pride store just the other day.) They see themselves as temporarily inconvenienced future millionaires and Trump as a model of what is possible, forgetting that he was born into privilege. While waiting for life to reward their talent they hope for unlikely riches by winning at Powerball. They believe that the right uber-male with the golden touch can change a system they feel is rigged against them and favoring the others. Trump is their spokesman and change agent.

In reality Trump has failed many times in life but at least was smart enough to cushion those failures by foisting it on others, including taxpayers like us. When he acquired enough wealth he was also able to throw lawyers at people who gave him grief, like his creditors. This let him develop a reputation of someone not to mess with, so a lot of people didn’t even though he shafted them. He seems to have tacitly conceded that he is not a successful businessman anymore, but he does see himself as a successful brander. He now sells illusion that he has the Midas touch. This part of his career, as well as his ceaseless self-promotion and stomping on those who question it has been successful, at least until now.

Trump’s enormous ego means he believes that he can succeed at anything he puts his mind to, so the presidency became his irresistible lure. The only problem is that he is spectacularly unqualified to actually be president. He never held political office, which requires learning the language of diplomacy, creating coalitions and true leadership. He doesn’t understand how winning campaigns are run and publicly flouted the rules. A wonkish president is good but he simply does not have the ability to absorb information, analyze it and reach logical decisions. He operates on impulse, gut instinct and the unquestioning belief in his own greatness. It’s not surprising then that his campaign never really caught on except for those who shared his perspective, which turned out to be a plurality of Republican primary voters. He doesn’t know how to seal the deal with the rest of us because he has no experience relating to us.

Losing the presidency will be an epic failure for him, but one he cannot acknowledge. It would be to admit his brand is worthless which means he is worthless. But worse, it would mean he would have to confront his own shame. And what is this shame? It’s not that he’s a bully or ran perhaps the most inept campaign ever. It’s the shame that he cannot succeed in selling himself to a majority of American voters.

So it has to be someone else’s fault because if he confronts the awful truth about himself, his house of psychic cards collapses. It would mean that instead of being an uber-male he’s a human being like the rest of us, and not a particularly likable one. It would mean that in spite of his fortune he is a failure because he could not meet his own impossibly high mark.

To keep himself from confronting this awful truth, he will apparently do anything. This is exactly what people with bad cases of psychological projection do simply to mentally survive. And if that means encouraging his followers to harass voters he doesn’t like from voting or by claiming our electoral system is rigged when it isn’t, so be it. If that means breaking our democracy in a fundamental way and causing widespread civil insurrection, he’s good with that. That’s because it means he doesn’t have to confront himself. He never has and this won’t be an exception.

Perhaps by rejecting Trump the country can at least acknowledge its mistake in picking a similar but less-flawed piece of hubris: George W. Bush. Perhaps we are maturing at last. Don’t expect Donald Trump to do so.

The Thinker

Republicans jump off the cliff

National party political conventions happen only every four years. This week’s Republican convention in Cleveland though makes me seriously wonder if Republicans will have one in 2020 at all. I’m not alone. No less than former President George W. Bush is wondering if he is the last Republican president.

If you managed to tune into the convention, it’s hard not to escape the feeling of doom unfolding there. The Republican Party shows every sign that they have careened right off the cliff. It’s being bungled in just about every way a convention can be bungled. In case you haven’t had your nose to the news, here’s a small slice of the craziness going on in Cleveland at their convention:

  • At the start, there was a brief but doomed floor fight when delegates from Iowa tried to call for a vote that would have allowed delegates to vote their consciences. It appeared to have the support of enough states to actually get a vote, but the chair ignored it, thereby cementing Republicans’ reputation for not actually following a parliamentary process.
  • Melania Trump’s speech lifted whole sentences from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech, the sort of plagiarism that if done in school would get you a failing grade. It turns out that Melania admires Michele, a major problem for any true Republican. She said she wrote the speech herself, but later we were told that a speechwriter did, who eventually took the fall.
  • Last night former candidate Texas Senator Ted Cruz spoke, told delegates to vote their consciences and never endorsed Donald Trump, which got him plenty of boos. They let him talk anyhow even though he told them he would not be endorsing Trump. Trump eventually came out to take the spotlight off Cruz and back to where it belongs: on his glorious self. This will likely be mostly what people will talk about for days, rather than Trump’s convention speech but at least it puts the focus on Cruz and 2020. However, if Trump is true to form, his acceptance speech will likely be an incoherent ramble, so maybe not.
  • Less noticed was that House Speaker Paul Ryan also refused to explicitly endorse Trump at his convention speech. Like Cruz, he seems to know the ship is sinking and he wants to be one of the first rats to jump when it is politically safe to do so on November 9.
  • Tuesday was supposed to be a day to talk about how Republicans would fix the economy. Instead it became a day of vitriol where speaker after speaker went on the attack against Hillary Clinton, many calling for her to go to prison. One woman who lost a son in the Benghazi incident held Clinton personally responsible for his death, even though she did not explicitly authorize the ambassador’s trip to Benghazi. A state legislator in West Virginia called for Hillary Clinton to be hung causing United Airlines to suspend him as a pilot.
  • Apparently Ohio governor John Kasich was sounded out to be Trump’s running mate. The offer, apparently from from Trump’s son: you will do the actual management part and my dad will do the “Making America Great Again” part. Strangely, Kasich declined. It appears Trump is bored with the whole manage the country part of the presidency, and wants to outsource it.

Oh, and so much more! Tonight is likely to be equally as memorable as the first three days. Perhaps more memorable than the convention itself is the stunning lack of coherence out of the convention and the epic mismanagement behind the stage. Trump does not know how to delegate. He has a hard time getting people to work for him because he requires non-disclosure agreements and routinely sues employees who he feels have stepped out of line. His roster of speakers is mediocre and often surreal (Scott Baio, really?) and it’s not even clear if he really chose Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate. It appears he had second thoughts and futilely tried to change it at the last moment.

Watching the convention on TV itself is just appalling. There is no way for an impartial viewer not to get the impression that Republicans are passionate and crazy lunatics. Democrats were pretty pissed at George W. Bush at their 2004 convention, but no one suggested that he was a lawbreaker, should be put in jail and hung. It never occurred to Democrats to be this kind of lunatic crazy. But we heard it from speaker after speaker, day after day at this convention. So how can you not escape the conclusion that Republicans are dangerously unhinged?

A convention is normally scripted and carefully stage-managed, but also the organizers think carefully about how they want to present the party to the voters. No one seemed to be doing either parts of this job, bungling the most important part of their sales job prior to the election. Also not going well: fundraising. The typical RNC donors cannot seem to pull out their wallets. Few staff are being hired to go into the field and organize voters. Trump himself seems wholly unconcerned about the party and his campaign’s anemic fundraising, assuming that force of personality will be enough.

The 2012 Republican convention looked like one where Republicans were teetering on the borders of respectability. This is clearly off track, off message and has little of what can be called organization. No wonder George W. Bush is concerned he may be the last Republican president. Republicans seem to be doing everything possible not just to lose, but also to lose epically.

To Democrats, this Republican train wreck has been coming for years. With a few exceptions though today’s Republicans just don’t see what’s coming. But if you want to destroy a party, well, have a party doing so! It feels like this convention will touch all the markers for what not to do. You had best stand aside of the wreckage.

The Thinker

Unwinding the crazy (or why Obama and Mitt Romney need to talk)

So my daughter has been chatting with me on Skype. She wants to know: “Dad, have politics ever this crazy?” She would actually take some comfort in knowing that demagogues like Donald Trump have actually arisen before and have had a stake put through their hearts.

I had to tell her no, not in my lifetime anyhow and not within the United States. There are plenty of demagogues out there all the time, but few come around as Donald Trump has to create cyclones of ill will all for the purpose of acquiring something close to the pinnacle of political power in the world: being president of the United States. I see him getting the Republican nomination; hopes of a brokered convention are just fantasies. There have been deeply evil politicians and presidents. Richard Nixon comes to mind but at least he was trapped by a political system of checks and balances. It’s not clear if Trump becomes president whether the system still has the backbone to deal with someone like him. I’d like to think so, but I am skeptical.

Over the years this blog has been around, I’ve made something of a second career cataloguing these demagogues. Democrats are not entirely clean, with John Edwards leaping to mind. Both sides of the party can be pandered to and inflamed. Mostly though these demagogues have limited appeal. Some of the many I have blogged about include Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. I have read enough history though to know that Donald Trump is not quite unprecedented. Early in our history we had a president arguably as bad as Trump: Andrew Jackson whose portrait mysteriously adorns our ten-dollar bill.

We’ve also had our share of bad presidents but who were not demagogues. Woodrow Wilson was a racist who purged blacks from the government. President Harding dropped his pants for more than one woman not his wife and got embroiled in the Teapot Dome oil scandal. Herbert Hoover and a top-heavy Republican congress ushered in the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson made the Vietnam debacle much worse. And I’ve shown 12 years ago that Ronald Reagan was pretty much a disaster of a president. Then of course there is George W. Bush. Still with the possible exception of Jackson none of these presidents rise to Trump’s level. None had the mentality that the ends justified the means. Trump’s success makes him a singular danger to our democracy.

So sorry daughter, we are living the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. Polls suggest a Trump election win will be quite a stretch, but if anyone could pull it off Trump is demonstrating he has the skills and oratory to do it. Trump though is not unique, but simply the most articulate spokesman for the Republican brand. It’s a brand full of chest thumping, racism, classism and staking out unequivocal positions that have devolved into concerns about the size of Trump’s hands and penis. They are all doing it without qualification, except possibly John Kasich. These candidates will denounce Trump on the one hand but won’t take the next obvious step: saying they will not support him if he wins his party’s nomination.

This is because for all their claims of principle they really don’t have any. It’s not principle that drives them; it’s the lust for power. This puts them ever further on the extreme right as well as makes them back down from taking principled stands like saying they won’t support Trump if he wins their party’s nomination. They are all jockeying for power as best they can by keeping their options open. I was puzzling through Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump shortly after dropping out. Why was he doing this? The easy rationalization is that both are bullies and he identifies with a fellow bully. But the same can be said for most of the Republican candidates. I think Christie is hoping to be nominated as his running mate. I think he is further expecting that if Trump wins office he will eventually be impeached and removed, leaving him as president. It’s a tactic worthy of Frank Underwood; he was just the first to go there. While Christie may admire Trump for being a master bully, I think his real motivation is simply a lust for power.

The larger question is how do you undo something like this? It’s not like we are at the precipice. Lots of people are already jumping off the cliff into the political unknown. It’s time for the grownups not just to speak up but also to take real action. Mitt Romney says he won’t vote for Trump but did not suggest an alternative, which is hardly helpful. Establishment Republicans are trying to persuade voters in keystone states like Florida and Ohio to vote for someone else, but they appear too late to the game to change the dynamics. President Obama recently spoke out, but it was at a fundraiser. Changing the dynamics here though is pretty much impossible when the other party will refuse to even listen to you. Just for starters Republicans in Congress won’t even allow Obama’s budget director to present his budget, the first time this has ever been done. A Republican Senate also refuses to entertain a nominee for the Supreme Court.

We need an elder statesman with mojo and credibility to bring the parties together to tone down the rhetoric and is some marginal way change the conversation and up the civility factor. There is no one such person, unfortunately. Jimmy Carter comes to mind but Republicans would dismiss him.

We urgently need a national timeout. All these key muckrakers need to have a private conclave and hash this out. If I were President Obama I’d be on the phone with Mitt Romney. I’d be penciling in a date in a couple weeks at a private retreat like Camp David and use the power of shame (if it works) to bring all these blowhards together in one place to hash this out. This would include Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress and all the presidential candidates on both sides. It would also include chairs of the Democratic and Republican national committees. I’d include trained facilitators and psychologists to help ensure the meeting moves forward productively The topics would include: setting baselines for acceptable political behavior and setting up a process involving some compromise so that Congress and the President can work together in some minimal fashion through the election.

Would it work? The odds are against my proposal but someone needs to step forward and we need two brave people on both sides of the aisle. I don’t see any others who can play this role.

Sadly, nothing like this is likely to happen, but it needs to happen. Is there a grownup in the room?

The Thinker

State of the presidential race

And we’re off with another of my analyses of the 2016 presidential campaign. We’ve now had a few primaries and caucuses. Super Tuesday is a week away. Its results will clarify a lot of things and may very well show that my analysis today was quite off the mark. So it goes sometimes for us pundits. But these analyses are what people seem to want. I do notice that to the extent that posts get liked or shared, it’s from these posts.

On the Republican side, Jeb Bush has finally dropped out. Perhaps he felt he needed to make one last attempt in South Carolina to minimize family shame. Also gone are Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie. It appears that only three are really in the running now: Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Kasich is hanging in there along with Ben Carson but at this point those two are outliers. My betting is that Trump will be the nominee. I’m actually rooting for Cruz, not because I like him but because he’d be the easiest for a Democratic candidate to beat. He is so nasty. Rubio is the Democrats’ biggest threat. I expect that the Republican establishment will rally around Rubio but like with Jeb it’s probably a lost cause. Simply speaking, the Republican establishment simply doesn’t represent the Republican voters anymore. Republican voters don’t care about conservatism as they do about personalities. (Witness Trump’s recent takedown of George W. Bush on the Iraq War. It hasn’t affected his poll numbers.) They want someone who best channels their fears. Trump seems to do this best and is adroit and fending off competition. There is a slim chance of a brokered convention but such a convention would likely be the death of the Republican Party. Trump will bring the “establishment” in his coattails, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth from them.

On the Democratic side, Martin O’Malley is gone. Clinton showed a little moxie by winning the caucuses in Nevada on Saturday, but only by five points after Sanders predictably shellacked her in the New Hampshire primary. In actual pledged delegates she and Sanders are tied at 55 each, but Clinton claims a huge superdelegate lead. Superdelegates however tend to move toward the people’s choice. Clinton should know this best as she was boasting about this eight years ago. By the time the convention rolled around the superdelegates dutifully got behind Barack Obama, their party’s choice. So don’t pay much attention to the superdelegate buzz. However, Super Tuesday does favor Clinton. Eleven states are in play plus American Samoa and Democrats abroad. My predictions:

  • Clinton wins Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas
  • Sanders wins Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Vermont and Virginia

Of course the system is not winner take all, but the big prize is Texas (222 delegates). My guess is overall it will break 60% for Clinton and 40% for Sanders. Clinton should have some momentum coming out of Super Tuesday, but wins will be primarily a factor of the values in the states and especially the number of African Americans voting in these states. The national and state polls are mixed, but overall Sanders is catching up with Clinton. He must catch up quickly otherwise the delegate math will work against him.

Democrats need Sanders to win the nomination. This is because (like Obama in 2008) Sanders gives Democrats a reason to show up at the polls. Clinton (like Trump) is judged more unfavorably than favorably by voters and it’s unlikely that will change. However, Republicans are highly motivated in this election and they will be most motivated if Trump wins the nomination. So Democrats will need to at least match Republican motivation to win and Clinton is hardly a reason to get enthused. Polls consistently show that Sanders will win against any of the Republican candidates.

Understandably some Democrats are unenthusiastic about a Sanders nomination. Some don’t see him as a true Democrat because he only joined the party recently, having caucused with Democrats in the House and Senate. There are concerns that his socialist platform won’t sell or that he is too idealistic to be a good president, and would be a poor commander in chief. Clinton arguably addresses these concerns, but it comes at the expense of a higher probability of losing the general election. Sanders however is also likelier to have longer coattails and should bring in a new wave of younger and enthusiastic Democrats. You can’t really govern well without Congress behind you. Sanders is betting the farm on Democrats retaking the Senate and with a massive turnout in his favor Democrats could even retake the House.

One wild card is whether former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg runs for president as an independent. Should Clinton win the nomination (and particularly if Trump wins the Republican nomination) then a Bloomberg run is good for Democrats. The worst case is that Americans choose Bloomberg, which negates the worry that Trump would win. The likelier case is a repeat of the 1992 election when Ross Perot’s independent run effectively kept George H.W. Bush from being reelected, and put Bill Clinton in the White House. No independent has ever won the presidency so Bloomberg’s odds are slim at best, even with all his money, something he should know. He would also be effective in taking down Trump. It may take another billionaire to bring down Trump.

Anyhow, that’s how I read the tealeaves at the moment.

The Thinker

Iraq: what now?

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about Iraq. Unfortunately, Iraq is very much in the news, since a Sunni fundamentalist army called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) now occupies most of Western Iraq, not to mention portions of Syria. Recently it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and is now threatening Baghdad itself. The Iraqi Army doesn’t much resemble an army, as it is retreating quickly from combat. Many are concerned that ISIS will capture Baghdad and create a state in fact, not just in name. Life in this fundamentalist Sunni state is likely to be quite fundamental, as in crazy Muslim fundamentalist. Some here in the United States worry that this new state will sponsor international terrorism and bring it to the United States.

In that unfortunate event, well, mission accomplished I guess, since it is principally these same neoconservatives that pushed us to invade Iraq in the first place. (I predicted the debacle from all this back in 2003, as posts like this will attest.) We let this genie out of the bottle. Naturally many of these same neoconservatives are now arguing that we need to put U.S. troops back into Iraq to clean up this mess. Some are castigating President Obama for removing our residual troops in Iraq in the first place.

These people are great at selective memory, such as forgetting that they believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. More to the point though, if they are going to wag their fingers, they might want to wag them at Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who adamantly insisted that all our residual troops had to go since our presence was causing instability and he had a handle on the security situation. More selective memory: it was President Bush who before he left office set 2011 as the date when all our troops would come home. Yeah, whatever, it’s all Obama’s fault.

To his credit, President Obama has already said that U.S. troops will not be going back into Iraq. He has not ruled out other military options to assist the Iraqi government. Airstrikes are one option that Obama is seriously considering. It’s possible airstrikes might stop the advance of ISIS troops, but in the end this is a lost cause. That’s because, as I pointed out in 2006, Iraq is a nation is name only. (I noticed this post has been getting significant hits these last few days.) The Kurds have pretty much declared their own country, but cling to the political fiction that they are a semi-autonomous part of Iraq, mainly because it is easier to be ignored this way. No matter, al-Maliki has no time for the Kurds, who aren’t attacking him and simply want to be left alone. ISIS is his real problem.

The truth is Iraq has mostly always been a state in name only. Created by the British after World War One under a League of Nations mandate, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the British got tired of managing the place and let it run itself. The Ba’ath Party, managed to create a fractured state glued together mostly through tyranny. Its principle despot and tyrant of course was Saddam Hussein, who we imagined was training terrorists and creating stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons to lob at us. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein simply proved what historians already knew: Iraq wasn’t much of an autonomous country.

Curiously, we now seem to be sort of aligned with our enemy Iran at the moment, which is sending advisors to help in the battle against ISIS. Who knows how this will all play out, but if ISIS is smart it will control the Sunni parts of Iraq and stop there. This is because ultimately they have a losing hand trying to make Shi’ites in eastern Iraq follow their version of Islamic law. So most likely after many more battles Iraq will cease to exist as a country, unless the eastern and Shi’ite part of the country decides to go by that name.

There is no point in investing more money and blood to try to change these ethnic and religious dynamics. It’s as futile as building dykes and seawalls will prove to be to stop sea level rise due to climate change. What the United States can and should do is work to isolate whatever new nation emerges. To think though that through military force, or intelligence, or smart bombs we can really change the situation is delusional. Naturally, the neoconservatives promoting these insane ideas are as delusional today as they were eleven years ago when they started this whole mess. Regardless, something like this was bound to happen eventually. The United States turned out to be the catalyst of change, but at some point the Ba’ath Party would have lost control of Iraq anyhow, and something resembling these current problems would have arisen.

My belief is that another Islamic state in this area is inevitable. I also believe the fastest way to get rid of it is to let it come to fruition. I’m not saying the United States should actively help it happen, but that over time this state will go through a political process anyhow, much like Iran’s, most likely. With a few weird exceptions like North Korea or Zimbabwe, oppressive states don’t tend to have much staying power. Today in Iran, pretty much every house that can afford it has a satellite dish picking up illegal channels. The modern world is out there. Attempts to try to repress it won’t work forever. Resistance will eventually build from within and something more progressive will emerge. We can indirectly or covertly assist this process, but we should not risk life or limb to do so.

The truth is that the fundamentalist Islamic revolution sweeping much of the Muslim World is a Muslim problem. Yes, there is some remote possibility that it will result in real danger to our actual national security, which is not our “status” in the world but danger to our homeland and the economic order of the world. Many lives will be lost in these Islamic countries, and huge numbers of people in these countries will be traumatized and/or displaced. I obviously don’t like that this is happening and will continue happening, but I don’t think it can be stopped by external agents like us. I would argue that Israel’s national security is actually enhanced by these conflicts, providing they don’t spill over into Israel itself. Muslims killing Muslims have no time to kill Jews.

The 21st century is likely to be very messy. Most likely we will be occupied by problems closer to home: displacement due to sea level rise due to global change, not to mention the chronic problem of displaced and oppressed people coming into the United States, such as the heartbreaking influx of unaccompanied children escaping kidnapping and death in unstable countries in Central America. Arguably, simply keeping our nation together will be a huge challenge. Red America seems increasingly antagonized by Blue America and visa versa, and there are many in Red America anxious to start a new civil war.

We are fulfilling the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. We sure don’t have to make it more interesting, however, which is why we need to stay as disengaged in Iraq as possible and let this sad sectarian and religious conflict play itself out.

The Thinker

Iraq and Afghanistan: the folly slowly winds down

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors [Iraq and Afghanistan] as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

Occam’s Razor
November 3, 2003

It won’t be like the final episode of M*A*S*H. When the final helicopter with U.S. soldiers flies out of the Green Zone by the end of this month, there will be no “Goodbye” spelled out in rocks on the ground below. For the vast majority of Iraqis, if anything were to be written to express their feelings about our war and occupation, it would be “Good Riddance”. It took us eight long years, at least a trillion dollars in direct costs and likely three trillion or more dollars in final costs, not to mention at least 4,483 casualties just in Iraq to do what exactly? Do we even remember why we invaded Iraq in the first place?

Most Americans have forgotten. We tuned out the Iraq War around 2007 and to the extent we focused on our soldiers overseas, we turned our attention to Afghanistan instead. Just in case you forgot, we had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction that it was getting ready to unleash against our allies and us. You knew it was true because in front of the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to satellite photos of railroad cars that he said contained portable chemical laboratories that made nerve gas and other internationally outlawed chemical agents. Those weapons of mass destruction were right there!

Except of course they were not but once invaded for a mistake we found it inconvenient to quietly leave. We had won an unnecessary war in Iraq, but almost immediately lost the peace. Iraq, held together by Saddam Hussein’s terror, quickly split into its ethnic factions that quickly got back to doing what they used to do when there was no strongman: wage religious and ethnic war on each other. To enforce something resembling peace, we compartmentalized much of Baghdad into ethnic enclaves complete with two story concrete high separation walls and what feels even today like a billion checkpoints. It never stopped the violence. Nothing really did, although it was curious that violence seemed to at least ebb the more our soldiers stayed on base.

Yes, by the end of the month we will be out, except for the 16,000 or so Americans who will be attached to our embassy in the Green Zone. It’s unclear to me why we need 16,000 Americans in the Green Zone, particularly after talking with a former ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s (who happens to be a member of my church) who oversaw what was then the doubling of staff in Iraq, to 32 people.

Supposedly we are leaving behind a peaceful and stable Iraq, but of course this is a lie. Bombings continue regularly, but rarely make the news these days because they have become so routine. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be imitating the dictator we toppled. Security in Baghdad and elsewhere, to the extent it exists, is handled by troops sworn to loyalty to him. al-Maliki also takes after Saddam Hussein because he has no problem with torturing his fellow citizens, although perhaps he is less egregious in it than Hussein was. One major change: al-Maliki is a Shi’ite where Hussein was a Sunni. Just as Hussein found it convenient to keep a few trusted Shi’ites on the staff, al-Maliki seems to have found it convenient to keep some Sunnis on the staff as well. It’s unclear if democracy has really taken hold in Iraq or not, but it there is plenty of evidence, like with recent elections in Russia, that there is mucho ballot stuffing. Maybe this is a sign of progress.

In any case, our American soldiers leave with a whimper, not a bang, and we will be lucky if our last soldiers only have shoes thrown at them as we exit. President Obama can at least take credit for getting us out of Iraq. We leave behind a country still very much at civil war, but with a shell of a democracy and a three trillion dollar price tag.

Over in Afghanistan, things are not that dissimilar. The government of president Hamid Karsi is thoroughly corrupt, and we don’t like it, but largely choose to do nothing about it. Corrupt Afghani governments are as Afghani as apple pies represent the taste of American, so there is not much new here except that the Taliban, at least for the moment, are not in charge, at least not in Kabul. It seems likely that they will be shortly after we make our own Goodbye, Farewell and Amen episode. Thanks to our largess, they might be able to be bought off, at least for a while, buying us a few years of the illusion of leaving Afghanistan as a stable democracy. Most likely the Taliban are more religious than idolaters of American manna. The good news is that the Taliban probably have learned one lesson: don’t let al Qaeda and their affiliates set up shop, or out come our cruise missiles and special forces. Otherwise, we won’t care if they oppress their women and decapitate errant sinners in their public squares again. Well, we will certainly denounce it, but we won’t do anything to stop it. The bottom line: sponsoring terror is okay, just not against our interests or us.

But American troops can’t leave Afghanistan quite yet. Obama first has to wind the conflict down in stages, and leave it just stable enough for us to skedaddle out of there as well without too many mortars hurdled at us as we exit. All bets are off, of course, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2012. Republicans seem pathologically unable not to flex military muscle, except for maybe Ron Paul, which might be a reason to vote for him.

Within a few years we should have wound down both conflicts. The cost of our adventure proved ruinous, as I predicted, but did plenty to keep the defense industry alive. What have we won? Arguably we succeeded in wiping out al Qaeda, now a shadow of its former self. This likely could have been done without invading Afghanistan, and certainly without the folly of invading and occupying Iraq. If we take as a lesson learned to stop invading foreign countries that annoy us, perhaps that will justify the cost in the long run. Our history since Vietnam though suggests we won’t retain our lessons for long, so we are probably doomed to repeat the lesson. Perhaps next time though our creditors will just say no. The perhaps we will learn to make peace instead of war. Here’s hoping.

The Thinker

The virtues and pitfalls of fellowship

Ever notice how people tend to congregate with people who act and behave a lot like them? I am no exception. I live in a middle class suburb, quite similar to the one I grew up in, with people mostly of my race and around my income level. Our weekends are spent on domestic things like mowing grass and trimming hedges.

Why did I seek this lifestyle instead of hanging on to my old lifestyle, which was living in a townhouse in a truly diverse community? In part it was because I got promoted and could afford a single family house. But I also didn’t like the teenager next door persistently sitting on the hood of our Camry while he smoked, who continued even when repeatedly asked to stop. I’d never do that with his car, or turn up the bass on my stereo so his floorboards rattled. I shared similar values with many of my neighbors, but not with some, particularly those renting next door. So when opportunity presented itself, I skedaddled to a community that did share my values. Here typically the only noise I hear from my neighbors is if they turn on their leaf blower. No one sits on my car hood anymore either, because my car is parked on my property, not communal property. I am happier when people that share my values live around me.

It has been remarked that Unitarian Universalists like me are principally a lot of liberal, upper income, predominantly white people. That is true of the UU church that I attend, although we do have a handful of African American members now as well as a few other families from other races and cultures. In our unison affirmation at every service we covenant to “help one another in fellowship.” Now there’s a strange world: fellowship. It’s so archaic that I had to look up the definition:

The condition of sharing similar interests, ideals, or experiences, as by reason of profession, religion, or nationality.

Fellowship is basically enjoying spending time with people a lot like you. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy going to services: not only do I hear great sermons, but services are followed by coffee and conversation: code words for fellowship. There I try not to eat too many carbohydrates while chatting mostly with liberal white guys and ladies and discussing issues near and dear to us, like the building expansion. I also practice fellowship by attending my covenant group meeting at the church once a month: more time to interact with smart white people, share our travails and joys, and to discuss some issue of the heart.

I’m not a Rotarian, Lions Club member, Masonite, or Knights of Columbus member, but they are all principally doing the same thing: practicing fellowship. Fellowship seems a bit unnatural to us liberals, even though we guiltily enjoy it. Surely we should be using our time to help the poor or save the earth or something. Instead, we are busy engaging in fellowship. The actual doing of that other stuff is somewhat harder, at least in person. It’s much easier to give money to charities. If I start handing out food to poor people, I may get grateful looks but some teenager may also decide to sit on the hood of my car. That would not be cool.

It turns out America is all about fellowship, and our fellowship is often fierce and insular. Texas governor Rick Perry represents a certain kind of fellowship: almost exclusively conservative Republican white guys and their spouses from Texas with evangelical roots and humble beginnings. He won’t hang out much with George W. Bush, who is also a conservative Republican, but really only gave lip service to religion and evangelicals, is a faux Texan and never had to worry about bills because Daddy always had his back. No wonder they reputedly don’t get along.

Americans love to self-segregate. We mostly unconsciously surround ourselves by yes men who largely parrot our values. Hear enough of it and when you hear something outside of your bubble your tendency is to be hostile toward it.

Yet we do need to escape our bubbles now and then, because too much fellowship leads toward insular outlooks, warped perspectives and ultimately a false picture of how the world is and what is required to fit inside it. It turns out that’s a pretty hard thing to do that, because it requires an open mind, an open heart and finding the courage within yourself to admit that, hey, maybe I am insular. And maybe it came from too much fellowship.

And yet I have found out that fellowship does have merit. I find enormous satisfaction is simply having a community of fellows: people a lot like me that I can bounce ideas off and know I will get heard. In many cases these people may superficially look like me, but they often have life experiences they can share that are outside my experience. Of course, it tends to be easier to consider these ideas when they come from people you perceive as peers.

One way I step outside my comfort circle is by teaching. I teach a course or two a year at a community college. It gives me some satisfaction, but when I teach I am also deliberately moving into a zone of potential discomfort. I am not a peer, I am a teacher, which makes me something of a leader and judge. And unlike in my congregation, neighborhood or even at work, few white middle class faces stare back at me from across my desk. Instead, I see lots of hues. I see people working two or three jobs and still trying to fit college into their lives. I see more women than men. I see a plurality of people from India and Pakistan. Communicating with them is sometimes a struggle, because we both have to struggle through cultural, language and age barriers. At the end of a class I am frequently wrung out. However, I do return home feeling like I have a truer understanding of the community I live in than if I had stayed home instead. By stepping outside my comfort zone, I have developed empathy for the tough lives that so many people endure for just the chance for real middle class prosperity.

I hope you do something to step outside your comfy circle of fellows, at least semi-regularly. It grounds and centers you. It also makes you appreciate the comfort of fellowship in more measured doses. Last week I traveled all the way to Tacoma, Washington and back. Yet it was like I never left home: the same sorts of people and the same conveniences of modern living were available 2300 miles away, right down to the Starbucks on the corner. For a truly grounding experience, I merely had to drive a dozen miles to campus, stand in front of a room full of students, speak and listen. Last night, as is true of most nights after teaching, I felt that I learned far more than I taught.

The Thinker

bin Gone, and good riddance

Lately my newspaper has seemed obsolete. Anything of importance, I usually learn about online the night before. Today was a happy exception. My Washington Post totally shocked me by being the first to inform me that our special forces had killed Osama bin Laden.

Today as the news ripples across the United States, it is impossible not to feel great joy and catharsis. Anyone age fifteen or older must have the memory of September 11, 2001 seared into our brains. Most of us shared in the experience by watching it unfold on television. Some of us who live in New York City, Washington D.C. or Shanksville, Pennsylvania had a closer encounter with history.

On that date, I was working in Washington D.C. in the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, a building close to the capitol. I first learned of the event when a breathless contractor told me to come to the TV quick where images of a smoldering World Trade Center were projected on a wide screen TV. We stood there open jawed trying to figure out what had happened. After some confusing minutes, we found ourselves outside the building staring out toward the west and seeing plumes of tan smoke rising from the Pentagon. We knew our nation was under attack. Our hearts were all skipping beats as we tried to pull together all the disparate information we were getting, much of it false. (A suicide plane is headed for the Smithsonian castle!) Landlines mostly worked but the cell phone system was overloaded. People were wandering the streets futilely trying to call loved ones on their cell phones. Sirens wailed endlessly. As our vanpool made a premature trip to get us all back home, the smoke from the Pentagon lingered in the air on an otherwise delightfully cloud-free and cool late summer day. We waited for hours in traffic to return to the relative safety of suburbia and embraced spouses and children with real tears in our eyes.

That day was followed by days of silence, not just due to mourning and shock, but also due to the lack of aircraft. We live a few miles from Washington Dulles and the dull roar of airport traffic is constant. The only thing in the air was military fighter jets, relentlessly circling the capital, which were much louder than commercial jets and rattled our windows. Mostly it was surreally quiet. I knew, as all Americans knew, that our national life had been altered fundamentally. I rate only one day in my life of more national significance, and that was when we landed men on the moon for the first time. It is unlikely I will ever be as close to disaster again.

Osama bin Laden’s death certainly does not end the war against al Qaeda, but it does finally release a large national bubble of psychic melancholy that has persisted since that day, which by itself helps in our national healing. Bin Laden’s death is one death that even I can feel happy about. I tend to avoid absolutes, but he was a very evil man. Even if terrorism against us increases as a direct result of his targeted killing, I still will be glad that he is dead, and even gladder that our special forces killed him. Justice was delayed, but nearly a decade later justice was finally meted out.

For a while, maybe a good long while, Americans can feel happy again. It will doubtless be reflected shortly in President Obama’s poll numbers. His high ratings will likely be transitory, although if there are no major crises between now and election day it should probably seal his reelection. The president may not be able to instantly turn around the economy and solve our budget deficit, but unlike George W. Bush, he can capture and kill Public Enemy Number 1. He succeeded by focusing on the problem and making sure our counterterrorism units and special forces had the resources to do the job correctly. Apparently, these things can be accomplished without pompously parading on aircraft carrier decks in a flight suit with a Mission Accomplished banner behind you. Apparently, it takes a sound strategy, executed with viable tactics to kill such an elusive mass murderer, rather than cowboy antics and red state platitudes. It is done through applying intelligence rather than ideology. This would be news to our right wing if they were to absorb it, which they will not.

It turns out our president is one cool and focused dude, much less concerned with pandering to politicians and pundits than working methodically at reaching a goal. I had this impression of him from the start, which is why I voted for him. Maybe America realizes the value of having a strategic president, blessed with intelligence and vision, but especially blessed with dogged tenacity and focus. These qualities eluded George W. Bush.

I hope Americans everywhere today celebrate, and celebrate lustily. There should be no shame in feeling good about killing this man. While the long war on terror will continue, let us justly and unashamedly revel in this symbolic but significant accomplishment.

The Thinker

How Republicans politically manipulate you

Republicans may be wrong on most things, but that certainly does not mean they are stupid. How many poor Republicans do you know? I cannot think of any offhand. Unless you inherit a boatload of money, you don’t get to be rich by being stupid. You get rich by figuring out ways to manipulate people, organizations and markets so that you come out ahead, usually at someone else’s expense. Perhaps the first rule in becoming rich should be to join the Republican Party.

Lately, Republicans have fine-tuned their machine to deliriously new and exciting heights. The Great Recession scared most of us shirtless, but Republicans saw it as an opportunity. They got us into it in the first place. However, when you don’t care about the consequences of your actions as long as it enriches you and your tribe, and when you do not feel remorse, you also won’t suffer from shame and guilt that most normal people would feel.

Yes, their stock portfolios took a tumble just as mine did, but they had eight profitable years under George W. Bush and largely Republican congresses to fatten their cash coffers. They persuaded Congress, which they essentially purchased, to lower capital gains taxes below their income tax rate, far below it, in fact. This means that investing money is now officially valued more than labor, which means the rest of us will pay disproportionately more in taxes. They also pushed the levers of power to lower their income tax rates as well. The cost has been massive deficits and the movement of wealth from middle and lower classes into the elite’s pockets instead. That this happens really doesn’t bother them at all; it makes them happy. If the government has to borrow money to give them tax cuts, like we’re going to do again with the latest compromise, that’s perfectly fine too. All that really matters is the accumulation of more and more wealth through whatever means works. When you cannot grow an economy because of lots of systemic factors, moving wealth from the bottom half to you is more than acceptable.

So unsurprisingly, Republicans dominate the moneyed professions, such as banking, investments, realty and the like. The one exception might be the law profession, simply because Republicans as a class don’t like it when the legal system can be used sue the rich into making them give up some of their wealth. It’s not sporting for a Republican to play Robin Hood, and that’s what a lot of these trial lawyers do, while often collecting a third of the settlement as their reward. So we get disinformation campaigns on so-called lawsuit abuse, for filing civil suits in court that are inherently lawful.

One of the first rules that the rich learn is that if you want to make money, you have to spend money. If you are of modest means like the rest of us, you don’t have a whole lot of discretionary spending. In fact, Republicans are hoping you are up to your eyeballs in debt, because this just makes you more disenfranchised. Whereas if you are rich, spending ten percent of your income to make sure you stay rich or get richer makes a lot of sense.

With the Supreme Court’s blessing in the Citizens United decision, they now no longer have much in the way of constraints. Under the guise of a corporation or a political action committee, they can spend as much as they want on elections. Unsurprisingly, they use their money to dominate the airwaves to make sure their message is heard. They also spend gobs of money on focus groups to figure out what message or phrases are most likely to influence you. Once they find it, they market it relentlessly.

Therefore, you get campaigns that culminate in an odd sort of distinction: PolitiFact’s infamous Lie of the Year 2010, a carefully crafted lie generated by moneyed Republicans designed specifically to appeal to your worst fears. That it was in fact a lie matters not. There is no penalty for lying in political advertising. The only thing that matters is whether you can sustain the lie long enough for it to have a political effect. Oh, the lie? It came from political consultant Frank Luntz who urged GOP leaders to say that health care reform was “government takeover”. How many of you knew it was a lie? How many of you were convinced, like Sarah Palin may actually believe (but probably no other thinking Republicans), that health care reform meant government death panels were imminent? How many of you were uncertain, but it had just enough plausibility in your mind to alter your vote?

Republicans played voters like a well-tuned fiddle this election season. Voters were already dreadfully anxious because while we were technically out of a recession the unemployment rate hovered near ten percent. So thinking like a Republican, you see opportunity and put out messages designed to feed these anxieties. Accuracy is obviously not important, you just have to influence perceptions and feelings. And when you have a lot of money and can afford to do first class market research and saturate the airwaves, you can translate anxiety into votes and gain sixty-three seats in the House of Representatives alone.

Democrats unwittingly aided and abetted Republicans, proving ineffectual at best at countering these messages. This was in part due to the large volume of salvos being hurdled at them. If you are forced into a defensive game, this eventually means that you will lose, because to win you have to score points. With money, it is possible to put the opposition on the defense most of the time. Rest assured that Republican political consultants have prepared poll tested responses in advance for any response they will get from Democrats to one of their many lies and exaggerations. Mainly they know that we voters are simple creatures. We cannot handle too much complexity, so they keep repeating the same talking points relentlessly until they sort of morph into a new conventional wisdom.

Any questions? How to change this dynamic will be the subject of a future post.

The Thinker

Review: W. (2008)

It is hard to find Oliver Stone movies that do not deserve to be on someone’s A List. W., which attempts to chronicle the life of President George W. Bush, may be one of the few from this noted director to deserve to be ranked somewhere between the A and the B List. It is not a B movie, as plenty of money was spent on it and it has overall good directing and acting. Still, it does not measure up. If there is a definitive movie on George W. Bush, it has yet to be filmed. This one, filmed and released while Bush was still president, feels more like a made for TV movie.

I finished W. thinking, “This movie probably misses who George W. Bush is by a fairly wide mark.” As regular readers know, I loathed him as our president. Moreover, his kind (conservative Republicans) tends to give me the hives. The only Bush I know is the one I saw on TV or heard on the radio. Even so, I am plenty skeptical that the George W. Bush played here by Josh Brolin comes close to portraying George W. Bush the actual man.

W. could almost be classified as a satire, because Brolin portrays Bush as someone who is probably even more inept than he actually is. In the movie Stone seems to be using Bush as his little Voodoo doll, pricking it to see if anything will bleed. From the tone of the movie, it is clear that Stone loathes the guy. He has lots of company there. The movie often feels jumbled together, throwing actors who resemble people we know too intimately (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Rove and Powell in particular) into tightly choreographed scenes that collapses the eight years of his presidency. It attempts to explain George W. Bush but left this viewer more confused than ever.

As portrayed by Stone, Bush has serious daddy issues with his father and 41st president of the United States, whom he calls Poppy. Poppy is constantly bailing out junior, who both needs Poppy and wants to be free of him. The movie makes innuendos that I am not sure are backed up by fact, for example that Bush impregnated a woman before marriage and that Poppy arranged for the abortion. The movie also suggests that Bush resumed drinking after the crap in Iraq got too deep. Granted, Bush’s behavior these last few years has gotten more incoherent, but that could be due to other things than picking up the bottle again. Perhaps like Ronald Reagan, these are signs of early Alzheimer’s.

Likely part of my reaction to W. is my wish to forget about the man. Bush himself may be retiring quietly in Dallas, but principles from his administration are still regularly annoying us. Specifically former Vice President Dick Cheney, creepily portrayed in the movie by Richard Dreyfuss and Karl Rove (portrayed by Toby Jones) refused to leave the national stage just because their administration was finally out of power. The last eight years still makes me feel queasy from time to time; so reliving them in this 129-minute movie frequently had me wanting to reach for the Pepto Bismol.

The movie frequently moves back and forth on the timeline. Bush comes across as dangerously naïve and gullible. I could be wrong, but I doubt the man was quite as naïve and gullible as he is portrayed. Stone suggests that Bush’s infatuation with Evangelical Christianity was due to his simpleminded nature and a way to separate himself from Poppy, who adhered to a dry and milquetoast Episcopalianism.

Nor are Brolin and James Cromwell (who play’s Bush’s father) convincing as younger versions of themselves. Trying to emulate W’s fraternity days at Yale, Brolin looks like a 40 something guy pretended to be in his early 20s. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush looks too young. Ellen Bursytn as Barbara Bush looks too thin and seems too nice. Scott Glen as Donald Rumsfeld looks even creepier than the man he portrays (if that is possible). There are many actors in the movie that I suspect exaggerate the people they portray. Not that they necessarily do a bad job with their portrayals. Jeffrey Wright looks a little young to portray Colin Powell, but he carries himself with conviction. Thandie Newton (portraying Condoleeza Rice) portrays Rice as superficial and disengaged.

If the movie is an attempt to explain Bush to the world, then I think the movie leaves the viewer more confused. Bush comes across as someone who does not know who he is or how he fits into his large dysfunctional family. His personal savior is not so much Jesus Christ as Karl Rove, who latches onto Bush early in his career and tries to mold him into the image of someone who can meet the emerging demographics that Republicans need to capture.

Stone must have a fatal attraction to politicians, since he has also made movies about John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Still, overall W is disappointing considering Stone directed landmark films like Wall Street, Platoon and Natural Born Killers. If he had to make the definitive movie about George W. Bush, he should have waited another decade so we could appraise the man more dispassionately.

3.0 on my four-point scale.


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