05 May 2014

Against Timid Politics

One of the defining aspects of President Obama's campaign in 2008 was how inspiring his speeches were.  The same could be said for many of our current incumbents in office.  As we head into the 2014 primary season, I don't feel that anymore, from anyone.

The fiery rhetoric seems reduced to weary croaks.  Everyone, the President, members of Congress, Senators, candidates and incumbents alike, just sound so tired.  They are tired of their own rhetoric.  They are tried of stalemate.  They have no new ideas.  And, timid politics only favor Republicans.  Democrats are the party of hope.  Republicans are the party that believes government can't do anything right.  The gird lock and gross irresponsibility of Republicans playing chicken with the national debt that they have created only serves to help them and hurt Democrats in the new elections.  People who think Congress is screwing up want to throw the bums out, even when many of those bums are crucial to setting things right.

Often alarming developments abroad, like the civil wars in Ukraine, the war crime filled civil war in Syria, and the kidnapping of hundreds of school girls by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria would galvanize the country into action.  Instead, our leaders and leaders of developed countries in Europe and Asia, are confounded.  We want to avoid World War III, which an open conventional war involving both the United States and Russia could easily become.  On the other hand, we have let a country that we were treaty bound to protect the integrity and sovereignty of in Ukraine be dismembered with scarcely a peep, we have taken the mildest of possible responses to the use of chemical weapons and bombing of civilians with aircraft in Syria after taking a much more bold stances that led on Syrian rebels in Libya, and while we have a variety of low profile military and intelligence involvements across war torn parts of Africa we have kept them off of the media radar screen when we could have taken decisive action.

Ukraine and Syria may put the U.S. at risk of Wold War III, if we play our hand too strongly.  We also have to be careful of what we wish for.  While sovereignty is a fine principle in Ukraine, a rump Ukraine with Crimea and some Eastern Ukrainian territory would be a more politically stable regime that was more pro-Western in the long term.  While the Syrian regime is led by ruthless war criminals, a rebel victory might create a new Islamic fundamentalist state and led to mass ethnic cleansing and segregation like that seen in Iraq.

But, deployment of military force in aid of Northern Nigeria is another story, our military opponent would have no international patron with real military clout, and a victory there would clearly lead to an outcome that the U.S. would prefer.  Intervention in that conflict would show the minorities in the Democratic political base, that the U.S. gives a damn about people whose skin is not white.  Conservatives would be pleased to see the U.S. intervene to help Christians, and also moderate Muslims, who are being slaughtered and raped and kidnapped, resist fundamentalist Muslims who want to create new theocracies and provide a villain as good as any that central casting in Hollywood could provide.  Nigeria is one of the few sources of oil, natural gas, and uranium, all critical to our energy future, that is controlled by Western aligned democratically elected politicians and is the most populous country in sub-Saharan African.  It is in our interest both economically, and from the perspective our of national values to back them militarily.  And, after more than a dozen years fighting counterinsurgency actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have never been better positioned to fight another such action against less militarily capable forces in Northern Nigeria, and we have never had combat tried military leaders more able to distinguish between fundamentalist Muslim foes and moderate Muslim allies.  To the extent that Boko Haram can be linked to al-Qaeda, the intervention could even be justified as part of an ongoing "long war" on terrorism justified by the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), originally in Afghanistan.  Of course, such bold military action would also draw attention away from stale, political sideshows and bring attention front and center to the conflict which patriotic, pro-military, interventionist, religious and morally driven foreign policy thinkers in conservative political circles would be hard pressed to oppose very seriously.  A nation at war always strengthens an incumbent President's hand.  A focus on this conflict would also discourage American politicians from rising to the bait of sword rattling in Asia, something that can only end badly.

In part it is this failure to take bold action elsewhere, that has allowed Republicans to beat the dead horse of decisions made a level or two below the pay grades of the President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as part of a military and diplomatic campaign in Libya that was a foreign policy success still echo through the media vacuum, together with another controversy over a low level decision about allegedly politically motivated audits of conservative non-profits that were mostly crossing the line of what the law permitted them to do.  The President and the Courts and Congress continue to wrangle over continuing efforts to stay the course of a handful of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, many of whom are low level foot soldiers (if guilty at all of anything prior to their detentions), and a handful of military trials that have proved to be far from the decisive and swift tools for meting out justice to terrorists that their proponents claimed - despite the notion that military trials are a forum that ought to give the President more power, rather than less.

President Obama's unwillingness to seriously change course on misguided military, intelligence and anti-terrorism policies of George W. Bush that he campaigned against is puzzling.

The President has taken a very deliberate pace in addressing a sea change in public opinion towards the decriminalization of marijuana and the war on drugs, but with new changes in the sentencing guidelines, crack cocaine sentencing reforms, a set of new more lenient (although still muddled) policies for U.S. attorneys towards the drug war, and rumors of a major new batch of pardons for excessively sentenced drug offenders being considered, this may simply be a matter of political timing - saving a hot button issue for after the midterm elections at moments in the two year Congressional election cycle where there is the slightest political fallout.

Some of the dearth of political ideas is a product of political deadlock in Washington.  But, wouldn't a vibrant, common sense agenda that could advance if only the people denied Republicans their majority in the House of Representatives and increased the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate by a few seats mobilize the public to vote on partisan lines to achieve that agenda, rather than based on dissatisfaction with the existing deadlock or based on personalities rather than parties?

Why can't Democrats, unified by President Obama, united around their version of a Contract with America and turn the 2014 elections into a national referendum?  Their policies are profoundly more in touch with the view of the public, as revealed in opinion polls, than those of the GOP.  Even if the push only leads to break even results or mitigates the usual setback of an incumbent in a midterm election, the effort would reveal how out of touch the Republican party is with the beliefs of ordinary Americans and win the political identity war with the demographics that a growing, while the elderly, white, Southerners who are at the core of the GOP are diluted.

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