HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 21, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Good Riddance
July 15, 2008

It may be that the war on terror is coming to an end, not so much as a change of action but the concept itself. It was always foolish, right from the start.

There was a persuasive column in the Washington Post a couple days ago by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier arguing that McCain and Obama would be wise to step away from grand foreign policy strategies and simply respond to specific situations sensibly. You can't conduct foreign policy through bumper sticker slogans, they said. And the war on terror was just such a slogan.

Then, just yesterday, in the Times, Roger Cohen had a piece about the Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Store, who has been pointing out for some time that the paradigm of the war on terror doesn't get at reality, doesn't actually reflect what's going on around the world. Store thinks the next American president should announce that the war on terror is over. That's not likely to happen, but, still, it's healthy that a world leader should be advising it. He tells us that the concept has isolated the United States and polarized the world.

We would do well to remember that the most intelligent of American presidents, Mr. Lincoln, announced that his policy was to have no policy, whereas the dullest president we've ever had came up with the war on terror. He and his closest advisors appear to have minds that are nothing but collections of bumper stickers, spiced by personal ambition and egotism. If we can somehow escape the quality of thought they have injected into our discourse it would clearly be a day of a new American independence.


Lost Citizens
July 17, 2008

In his book Cruel and Unusual, from 2004, Mark Crispin Miller wrote: "It is because the U.S. press has largely shirked its all-important constitutional duty that we strong believers in American democracy now feel like exiles in this country."

"Exile" may be too strong a word for me, but I certainly don't feel as much at home in the United States as I did before George W. Bush became president. The reason is I'm unsure whether the majority of American citizens understand the nation I once thought we had or want the country that I want.

It is clear to me, though, that quite a few of my fellow citizens share my doubts and worries. When Timothy J. McNulty wrote in the Chicago Tribune a few months ago that comment boards on internet sites were beginning to sound like communities of foul-mouthed bigots, he expressed my own feelings fairly closely.

When I consider the assaults on the U.S. Constitution launched by major figures of government over the past several years. and the overall acceptance of them by both the press and the citizenry, I end up asking myself, where did these people come from? where did they grow up? what were they taught? And then I realize I don't know the answers to any of those questions. And not knowing them, I don't know where I am or where we are going.

Can anyone tell me what sort of person it is who is willing to give up the right of habeas corpus? Or is willing to adopt torture as the basic policy of the nation? Or thinks the government of the United States has the right to kill tens of thousands of people simply because of vague suspicions?

I tell myself, sometimes, that every nation goes through ups and downs and that we are simply in one of our dips and will shortly  begin to raise ourselves. That's what I hope. But I'm not sure of it, and it's that lack of assurance of who were are that at times presents me with feelings of alienation.


A Futile Stretch
July 18, 2008

I hate to tell David Brooks this, but John McCain is no Benjamin Disraeli. Brooks may be the all-time champion of half smart, half stupid columns. That's because he has a childish, romantic infatuation with what he thinks is conservatism but is not.

In his column this morning he astutely lists the five major problems the government of the United States has to address in the coming years if the nation is not to sink to a pathetic condition. That's the smart part. Then he concludes that McCain can accomplish them better than Obama because what's needed in such situations is a person grounded in the traditional qualities who grasps the changes needed to preserve them. That's who Disraeli was; that's who Teddy Roosevelt was. That's who, Brooks says, McCain can be. The latter is the astoundingly stupid part.

McCain has never given any evidence of Disraeli-like intelligence. He's not grounded in anything other than the belief that bombs present us with the principal solution to our problems. He's basically an aging fighter pilot with the same mentality he had when he was twenty-six years old. Some people like to call such duration integrity. In truth, it's an inability to learn anything which leads to boneheadedness.

The kind of conservatism that Brooks continues to idealize doesn't exist in the current Republican Party. And, John McCain is above all things a Republican. It's true that Republicans like to call themselves conservatives, but their version of conservatism has nothing to do with a 19th century reverence for tradition. Republicans have no use for tradition. It gets in the way of tearing down historical buildings in order to erect new shopping centers. If Brooks thinks Disraeli would have found anything to admire in the current Republican Party then he's an abysmally bad student of Victorian politics.

Barack Obama exemplifies the qualities of Disraeli far more than John McCain does. Only in the context of a rabid, neo-liberal lust for money and power, could the leaders of the Democratic Party be seen as radical abstract experimenters, which is how Brooks continues to cast them. He will be forced to acknowledge this sooner or later, but the little boy in him will continue for a time to struggle against it.


Escape
July 20, 2008

This morning on the Chris Matthews Show, Howard Fineman pointed out that a major reason why the Bush administration is working hard to gain the election of John McCain in November is they want to head off Democratic control of the government while the evidence is still fresh. They fear a Democratic attorney general with the power of subpoena.

Fineman is right. And the avidity of leading figures of Bush's team comes from their knowledge of how much there is to find out. Karl Rove is fully aware, for example, that if everything he did while he was a White House figure should come to full public knowledge, he would have a hard time staying out of prison.

I have said before that generally, in politics, it's better to let bygones be bygones. But there are exceptions, and this is one of them. It's important for the future of the nation to establish that this has been a criminal administration and to engrave that fact in history. The contempt that the Bush administration has shown for the Constitution and for the principle of balance of powers should not be allowed to slip undocumented into the past. If it is, it will encourage future would-be autocrats to believe that if they manage to seize the White House, they can with little danger seize the entire nation and use it for their own schemes and benefit.

People like that that need no encouragement. But they do need loud and unmistakable warnings.


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