Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Lessons of Vietnam: Why Obama’s, McCain’s, and All the Other ISIS Plans will Fail

Listening to Obama’s speech Wednesday outlining his ISIS strategy was deja vu’ all over again.    It regurgitated the same failed strategy to deal with terrorism that Bush first gesticulated; but more importantly it uncomfortably demonstrated yet again the failed lessons of Vietnam that American leaders have yet to learn in the 40 years since that war ended.  His speech, along with the other plans proposed by the neo-cons and warmongers such as John McCain and Graham Lindsay, aptly confirmed one of the greatest lines by Karl Marx who stated once in his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
    In a nutshell, Obama’s strategy is simple and simpleminded–America will drop tons of bombs on ISIS, expand the war to Syria, and rely upon ground troops provided by Iraq and other countries to replace Americans on the ground. It is a military strategy devoid of a political solution, emphasizing that it may take years (and into the next presidency) to succeed.  Obama inherited a failed war and is now passing it onto the next president.
    How much this reminds me of Vietnam, except not Obama is both Johnson and Nixon at the same time. President Johnson inherited a nascent war from Kennedy only to escalate it and then in  the waning year of his presidency to express remorse about its efficacy after the Tet Offense in 1968 where any confidence of US victory was destroyed by a massive North Vietnamese offense in January of that year.  The war cost Johnson a second term as president.  Nixon took over, again escalated it, including expanding the war illegally and secretly with bombings into Cambodia.  When  that did not work, Nixon’s peace plan was the “Vietnamization” of the war–replacing American ground troops with those of the South Vietnamese–hoping that the latter would be able to continue the war and delay America’s indignant and inevitable loss for a few years. 
    Obama’s expansion of the bombings and reliance upon Iraq or other ground troops is just Cambodia and Vietnamization warmed over.  But so was Bush’s response to 9-11, or to the invasion of Iraq in pursuit of the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.  In all these cases the assumption was that American military might will overwhelm the enemy, liberating the people to form their own democratic societies.  It worked really well in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
    Alone the factual parallels to Vietnam should be instructive to why the Obama, McCain, et al plans will fail.  But dig deeper, there are two major lessons or reasons why any of the plans currently proposed are farces.  First, consider Powell Doctrine.  General Colin Powell in 1990 stated that the use of US military force needs to answer several questions, including asking whether there is a vital US interest at stake?  Are there clear objectives for the use of force?  Is there a clear definition of success?  And is there an exit strategy?  On all accounts, what Obama described in his Wednesday speech missed the mark.  About the only real rationale for going back to war is that we failed before  and that now we need to do more of the same to postpone failure even longer.  It is not clear what the US interest is, and even if there is one, we have no benchmarks for success or a strategy for leaving.  Quagmire was the word once used to describe Vietnam–that is the new word now for Iraq.
    But even more profoundly, the failure of Obama’s strategy lies in perhaps the most important lesson of Vietnam–the limits of US military power.  The single greatest book on Vietnam remains  Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam.  In describing the failed war she describes of the US escalation into Vietnam:

    It was entering into a moral and ideological struggle over the form of the state and the goals of the society.  Its success with the chosen contender would depend not merely on US power but on the resources of both the United States and the Saigon government to solve Vietnamese domestic problems in a manner acceptable to the Vietnamese.  But what indeed were Vietnamese problems, and did they even exist in terms in which Americans conceived them?  The unknowns made the whole enterprise, from the most rational and tough-minded point of view, risky in the extreme.   (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972), 6-7.

The tragic failure of Vietnam was that it was really a battle for the hearts and minds of the people–not a war that could be one on the battlefield with bombs.  The US did understand that the problem of Vietnam was not a geopolitical one between communism and democracy, but a more indigenous cultural battle among the people there.  The same is true in Iraq and Syria.  This is not a global battle over terrorism and freedom but a problem that has to be solved by the people in that part of the world.  Dropping bombs does little to resolve the fight, especially if as in Vietnam it hurts  civilians and pushes them to the other side or continues to prevent people from solving their own problem.
    Missing from Obama’s and all the other plans is an asking of the question to why ISIS is so successful in recruiting supporters.  There is no plan to ascertaining why, for example, individuals from the Minnesota Somalian community are joining terrorist groups or why British citizens are becoming ISIS members who are beheading Americans.  Until such time as the focus shifts to asking these questions, to realizing that a strategy in place since Vietnam will not work, the current plans too will fail in farcical ways.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Political lies and the First Amendment: What role should deception have in politics?

My blog today appears in Minnpost.  Please visit it.    The title is "Political lies and the First Amendment: What role should deception have in politics?"  It examines a recent Court of Appeals decision striking down a Minnesota law making it illegal to lie about ballot propositions such as school bond levies.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Amend the Constitution to restore the democracy the Roberts court killed

Please note:  This essay originally appeared in The Hill on August 29, 2013.

Money is not speech. Corporations are not persons. Most of us intuitively understand that. The Supreme Court clearly does not. In Citizens United v. FEC, it ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to expend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. More recently, in McCutcheon v. FEC they struck down the overall caps on how much money wealthy individuals can contribute directly to campaigns and to party committees. The Supreme Court’s decisions are wrong and they deserve to be overruled with a constitutional amendment to restore the First Amendment to its rightful place protecting American democracy, instead of as a tool to suppress speech rather than enhance it.          

Some will object that we should not amend the First Amendment, that it is fine the way it is. However, the Supreme Court's recent decisions have twisted the meaning of that Amendment from supporting democracy to privileging it for the few.  The Supreme Court has been wrong in the past and they have been corrected with constitutional amendments and laws. This is called checks and balances.

A century ago reformers such as Teddy Roosevelt rued the rise of wealthy corporations and individuals corrupting American politics. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis stated:  "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both."  Thus was launched a battle against the undue influence of wealthy special interests that included anti-trust laws, bans on corporate political activities, progressive taxation, and campaign finance reform legislation. The Richard Nixon Watergate abuses produced more reforms, including public financing of elections, disclosure laws, and political contribution and expenditure limits.          

But beginning with the 1976 Supreme Court decision Buckley v. Valeo, wealth fought back.  The Court ruled that limits on how much money candidates, groups, and wealthy persons could spend were unconstitutional.  The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts continued to hack away at efforts such as McCain-Feingold to limit the power of money in politics. Citizens United and McCutcheon are only the most recent examples of how the Court is letting money and privilege entrench itself, preventing the political system from functioning. The gridlock in Congress and rising inequalities across America are the result.          

The First Amendment under the Roberts Court has become a tool to suppress speech rather than enhance it.  The First Amendment free speech clause is not meant to be a right for one or the few but for all. It is recognition that in a society all of us have a right to speak, and to do that, as in any social situation, there are rules of communication that make a conversation possible. There is no way that a rule that says all of us have an unlimited right to shout is viable; at some point, one has to understand that the First Amendment rights of some have to be read or understood in light of the rights of others. The right to free speech cannot be interpreted in such a way that the rights of a few can suppress the free speech rights of others. As philosopher John Rawls once declared:  “[E]ach person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” Rights to free speech must be read within a social context of like liberty for all.  Citizens United, McCutcheon, and its defenders fail to recognize this principle.          

Money should not be a factor determining who holds political power, what bills are passed, and how elections are run. The issue is not only whether money buys influence or corrupts. It should be whether money should at all be the criteria by which political power or influence is allocated, and whether the First Amendment should shield such privilege.          

Justice Rehnquist, dissenting in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, recognized the illegitimate drive of corporations to want to convert their economic resources into political power.  He declared: “It might reasonably be concluded that those properties, so beneficial in the economic sphere, pose special dangers in the political sphere.” And in Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee, the Court quoted the federal government’s brief in that case that the purpose of limiting money in politics was “to ensure that substantial aggregations of wealth amassed by the special advantages which go with the corporate form of organization should not be converted into political ‘war chests’ which could be used to incur political debts from legislators who are aided by the contributions.”           

What these comments from the Supreme Court suggest is a recognition by it at one time that money used for political purposes needs to be limited. Politics in general, and campaigns and elections in particular, may be expensive and money may be necessary to run campaigns and elections, but their costs or funding sources should not undermine democratic values. The problem with Citizens United and McCutcheon is that five Justices radically departed from past precedent and failed to understand how a democratic system derives its legitimacy from political equality. Money and wealth should not rule in American democracy; it should be real people, all the people. Previous Supreme Courts understood this, but not the Roberts Court.  This is why we need a constitutional amendment — to restore democracy to America.