Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Heavily Armed and Adrift

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

In Drift, Rachel Maddow challenges her readers to an entertaining examination of recent American defense policy. The early chapters, filled with examples of Reagan-era skullduggery and executive overreach, make for easy reading from a liberal's point of view. Tougher chapters for the left cover Clinton's and Obama's tenures in the Oval Office. For example, Maddow tracks the rise in contracted-out conflict to Clinton's engagement in the Balkans, where US military casualties were to be avoided at all costs, and a stew of think tankers, indulged by a Democratic White House, who had interests in defense companies and/or a devotion to private-sector-is-always-better dogma.

Drift leaps over many of the well-covered 2nd Bush administration's aggressive defense policies, and the book is better for it. By then, Maddow has already indicted the extreme wing of presidential-prerogative philosophy in her chapters on Reagan and the 1st Bush administration. She turns instead to the still relatively undisturbed and yet highly disturbing acceleration of unmanned war in the age of Obama. Maddow rightly questions  the scope and constitutionality of our ongoing drone strikes, carried out by secretive commands with little debate and insufficient oversight, often in territories that aren't technically at war with us.

Maddow takes particular aim at the authorities under which such strikes are executed. She doesn't particularly focus on the arguments that might be made to justify a capacity to destroy targets of opportunity (such as Osama bin Laden). Drift centers on the question of congressional responsibility for oversight, and reminds her readers, if not explicitly, that the tolerated actions of a preferred President often turn into the outrageous abuses of a chief executive from an opposing party--see conservatives' denunciation of Obama in Libya and their past support for the far-less-justified assault on Grenada under Reagan (which was denounced at the time by every other member of the UN Security Council, not just Russia and China).

Maddow's arguments don't stop at war's edge. David Petreaus's Counterinsurgency Doctrine catches flack as over-ambitious and quixotic. For all the heat that "COIN" is taking these days, it's still difficult to find an alternative short of ending an engagement as happened in Vietnam. Wisely, Maddow doesn't spend time suggesting alternative strategies, but she also doesn't confront the consequences to innocents in a world without American-led intervention--Libya doesn't make the book, possibly Drift had already gone to print.

At it's core, Drift argues that any war worth fighting should be fought with the approval of Congress, concurrent funding through bonds or taxes, and the legitimate investment of the American people--not just the one percent who have served in the armed forces in recent decades and their families. These are all worthy goals, but few Presidents will take accept their costs voluntarily if less strenuous, however dubious, alternatives are available.

Drift isn't dry, far from it. A host of compelling and often entertaining quotes and historical anecdotes carry Maddow's argument farther than a straight-up polemic ever could. A prime example is a letter from John Wayne, which accused Reagan of either “misinforming people” or being “damned obtuse when it comes to reading the English language," as Reagan harangued audiences about the betrayal entailed in returning the Panama Canal to Panama.

From citing well-founded fears of the founding fathers to a devastating critique of America's nuclear arsenal and black-box campaigns, Rachel Maddow offers every American good reasons to request a return to a reigned in armed forces and a strictly supervised Commander in Chief. “America’s structural disinclination to declare war is not a sign that something’s gone wrong,” she writes. “It’s not a bug in the system. It is the system.” It's up to us to ask how that system can be repaired and elect the men and women who are willing to do so.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Quirks and Qualities of Modern Internet Exchange

I recently registered a copy of Die Rückkehr des Königs (The Return of the King) that I had found earlier in the year, deliberately laid in an alcove along a staircase inside a building on campus. This book, a card taped on its first page proclaimed, had not been lost or forgotten; rather, it had been "released into the wild" in conjunction with BookCrossing.com. I happily took the book, a welcome excuse to return to old favorites in learning a new language, and placed it on my shelves for eventual reading and export to the States.

Only months later did I create an account on BookCrossings and openly state who'd found the book and what I intended to do with it. I read a message from the book's previous owner and his account of releasing the book. Presumably, he would eventually read my plans for his book, as well. This vicarious relationship--two strangers brought together by appreciation of a single book--raises questions about this book and a sense of responsibility not often found in bound literature.

Would my benefactor approve of my use of his book? Would its departure from the land where he lived and its language was spoken arouse regret in him that Germans and Paderborn wouldn't benefit from his generosity? I hoped that my message would offer hope of something more than a simple read, that he could enjoy knowing that his charity would improve cultural exchange, offer Americans a look inside another language, and broaden their horizons of what a book might look like inside.

I find myself on this modern Internet of ours, in countless interactions with the familiar and the strange, wondering whether and how I should engage with someone, how I should behave in a relationship spawned online and then carried into the real world, and where and whom to avoid in the interest of saved time and sanity on all sides. With the infinite made accessible at one's keyboard, it really matters where and when one flits on the web. Over the coming month, I'd like to look at a few spaces and tubes that have connected me to people and information in a particularly heart-warming or mind-blowing manner.

I've got my own small clutch of sources and sages to whom I apply myself when in doubt about the world around me. I've found friends in many countries who've joined a community grounded in the free exchange of culture and companionship. I place my trust in the collective wisdom of complete and anonymous strangers to tell me how a particular country works, how protein is digested, and what causes diabetes. Whether I choose to cite them remains another matter.

Please post comments of your own emotional jolts as you found yourself in an unfamiliar setting thanks to online activity that either stayed on the screen or spilled into real life. With so much changing in communication, social networking, and personal identification, it's always worthwhile to leave a few pitons in the rock face as we climb towards tomorrow. For an example of online culture from years past, I heartily recommend a This American Life episode, Tales from the Net, which was originally broadcast in 1997 and now, like so much else, finds itself at home in the cloud of our human experience.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Coming Together

David Brooks’ Friday column attempts to discredit the belief that our world has grown closer thanks to technology, trade, and international institutions. He cites as evidence: the polarization of American politics, reports that 95% of Americans’ news is domestically produced, and the statistic that only 2% of Europeans have left their homelands to live in another country on the continent. In addition these numbers, Brooks offers survey data that reveals differing emphases placed upon work and family life among various EU nations. He deploys all this data to suggest that the European project is an unpopular failure.

Al Smith under the Pope's influence
Political polarization makes a worthy target, but growing divides between parties differ greatly from what has taken place between peoples. Ideas matter far more than identities in our modern political discourse. There are, to be sure, numerous news stories about political candidates’ ethnic and religious identities, but we are nowhere near the uproar that greeted the first Catholic to run for the Oval Office on a major party platform, Al Smith. Today the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, belongs to a church that represents only .019% of Americans, but it is his ideas, not his faith that inspire most of his critics. President Obama, meanwhile, belongs to the 12.6% African American community, but his ideas and identity extend far beyond his own race. Despite the occasional shrill cry from fringe figures, the vast majority of Americans respect the humanity of minorities in ways that were foreign just half a century ago. Prejudices and biases remain, to be sure, but they have less to do with ethnic or racial origins than with the economic and cultural characteristics that sometimes accompany traits such as skin color and ethnicity, which once provided sufficient justification in themselves for exclusion.

One statistic cited by Brooks belies his claim that nationalities haven’t found greater common ground in the past half-century. Brooks calls Angela Merkel, “[t]he most popular major European politician,” and goes on, “[s]he has 80 percent approval in Germany, 66 percent approval in Britain and 76 percent approval in France.” Can anyone imagine, much less recall, a German politician who was broadly popular in Britain and France before 1945? Prior to the late 20th century, successful foreign leaders were to be feared as potential conquerors, not admired as talented statesmen. Brooks misses the forest for the trees when he cites the 25% greater preference for work amongst the French as compared to the Danes and neglects to remind readers that the countries share a currency, have no visa requirements, and lack frontier posts, let alone armies, on any of the borders between them.

Integration, peace, and cooperation do not require cultural uniformity. Diverse social preferences and national characters were never the intended victims of internationalism. Rather, political solidarity and shared prosperity helped exorcise the old European poltergeist of nationalism. Rivalries once tested in blood are now tried on the football pitch, the European Athletics  Championships, and even the Eurovision Song Contest. Despite the recent advances of far-right parties during hard economic times, national hatreds remain buried beneath half a century’s progress away from the bloodshed of centuries past. Far more important and relevant to this discussion is the reality of a Europe that stands committed to commonly held principles of human rights, shared security, open borders, and cultural exchange.

The “unification of mankind” that Brooks discounts is not equally distributed throughout the world. Many borders remain hostile, many cultures alien, many peoples jingoistic. Apart from these hotspots, though, the past sixty years are characterized by the greatest expansion of international trade and intercultural communication in human history. Although most Americans may watch the local news rather than Al Jazeera Arabic, millions of Arabs enjoy Hollywood films. Never have more works of literature, art, and music been translated, shared, and embraced by people around the world. Surely this global flowering cannot wholly be the “illusions” of liberal humanists.

Our ever-thickening web of connective technologies make communication and shared experience the norm rather than the exception. Witnessing the struggles of citizens in Cairo, Moscow, and Wukan, China, is no longer the sole preserve of foreign correspondents and international aid workers. Today, civilians around the world can tune in and reach out, through the phones and cameras of local activists, to the human rights movements of our age.

European unification has come a long way since the Third Reich.
Brooks is wrong to say that, “Europe continues to suffer from the same problem that has plagued it for the past half-millennium. There are too many nations in too small a space. There are no historical trends or technocratic schemes that are altering that basic flaw.” To be sure, Europe has problems that are complicated by its dense fabric of different nationalities, but Brooks’ problem has changed dramatically since the early 20th century. There are no dictatorships in modern Europe, no pogroms, no wars. When violence or authoritarianism most recently broke out, in Milosevic's Serbia, the rest of the continent joined to extinguish it and to preserve the peace that emerged.

The Social Animal, Brooks’ 2011 bestseller, belies his column’s narrow focus on pessimistic statistics. Before he condemns European unity to the dustbin of history, he should return to his own assessment of what he labeled, "the urge to merge." Europe faces immense challenges to its political and economic institutions in the months and years to come. But Brooks is wrong to associate these challenges with half a century’s growing “segmentation.” In doing so he ignores the immense convergence in democratic and economic institutions that took place in the past half century. Going forward, leaders would do well to scrutinize apparent similarities, but beneath these differences they can take comfort in the common foundations that have been built since the end of the last World War.