Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Libya: Mission (not yet) accomplished?

This week's award for the most ironic journalistic paragraph goes to Ben Smith of Politico, who opened his 22 August 2011 piece on the Libyan civil war thusly:
The fall of Tripoli is a foreign policy triumph for which President Barack Obama won’t hold a ticker-tape parade: no flight suit, no chest-thumping, no “Mission Accomplished” banner.
While the sentiment would have been ironic regardless of events within Libya (not to mention a tad hypocritical, declaring a "foreign policy triumph" for Barack Obama while delivering yet another implied rebuke of President Bush's theatrics when declaring the end of "major military operations" in Iraq), the irony was compounded by the fact that Tripoli had indeed fallen--but fallen into chaos, confusion, and a very messy urban brawl, as Gadhafi loyalists mounted a counter-attack and retook several portions of the city.

The rebel hand was further weakened when Seif al-Islam el-Gadhafi, the Gadhafi son reported captured by the rebels, hours later made a television appearance to taunt the rebels.

Far from being a "foreign policy triumph", Obama's strategy of "leading from behind" has produced yet another grim reminder that, even in the 21st century, war is a bloody, brutal, murderous undertaking--General Sherman's analysis remains correct, war is still hell. The strategy is serving to remind the world that, while Gadhafi is known to one and all as a thoroughly evil man, the rebel leadership is not really known at all, and that their leadership of the Libyan uprising has been fractious and uneven at best; it offers few, if any, real assurances of a government more enlightened that Gadhafi's. Far from being a "foreign policy triumph", Obama's handling of Libya is still at risk of being an expenditure of American treasure (thankfully, not American blood--yet) with nothing more accomplished than replacing one brutal autocrat with another.

Gadhafi's days of power may be over, but the days of democratic government in Libya are still a long way off. And that is nobody's "foreign policy triumph."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Libya: What has NATO accomplished?

As Libyan rebels consolidated their hold on Tripoli, President Obama attempted to put his stamp of approval on matters by telling the world what it already knew: That Moammar Gadhafi should step down for the good of his people.

No kidding. For the good of humanity Gadhafi should have been overthrown decades ago, or, better yet, never allowed to come to power. Like all dictators (especially dictators with oil-derived wealth), he is not a nice man.

So, for the good of the Libyan people, Gadhafi should bow to fate and surrender to the rebel Transitional National Council, who will of course be far more benign in their rule.

Or will they? Consider for a moment who makes up this group: Their chairman, Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil, has been Gadhafi's Minister of Justice since 2007, having been a judge in the Libyan judicial system since 1978--the system Gahdafi has controlled since seizing power in 1969. While Human Rights Watch did have some kind words for him for his stance on wrongful detention in 2010, he can hardly be called a dissident in the mold of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Nobel Peace laureate and staunch pro-democracy advocate. The other members of the council have all served in various government positions under Gadhafi.

The council members have not been elected by the Libyan people--indeed, their legitimacy seems largely derived from the willingness of other nations to recognize them and not Gadhafi as the "legitimate" government of Libya, and therefore entitled to received arms and other assistance in fighting the Libyan forces loyal to Gadhafi. What historical commitment to democracy and the rule of law do these men actually have?

An even better question might be to ask what history the council has; it did not exist in any form before this past March, when the council, its web site, domain, and Twitter account all magically appeared (is it a real revolution if it isn't "facebook official"?).

While the civilized world may plausibly persuade itself that removing Gadhafi from power is by itself an advancement of freedom in the world, thus far there is little practical proof that those who aim to replace him will be much better--that they were willing to be part of his regime for the better part of their respective careers can hardly be counted as a ringing endorsement of their commitment to democratic government.

Obama says Gadhafi must leave for the sake of the Libyan people. For the sake of the Libyan people, I hope he's right.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Unreasonable Voices (aka Liberal Liars)

I titled my contribution to the blogosphere "A Reasoned Voice" both as a reminder to myself and a suggestion to others--that while discussion and debate should be passionate, even heated, it accomplishes little if it is not firmly grounded in facts, in reality, and in (above all) reason. How reasoned my voice is I leave for others to judge, but I do believe I have largely held to that standard in my occasional offerings herein.

I am therefore reasonably frustrated when I come across commentaries such as that from blogger Matt Yglesias from Think Progress, who takes issue with a Rick Perry comment about Federal Reserve Chairman Benjamin Bernanke.

Governor Perry, speaking in Iowa yesterda (Monday, 15 August 2011), offered up the following opinion of Ben Bernanke and his policies of "quantitative easing"--printing money to stimulate the economy:
If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y’all would do to him in Iowa but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treasonous in my opinion.
Yglesias' opprobrium towards Perry comes from the rather banal observation that treason is a capital offense (and--not mentioned by Yglesias--is the only crime specifically defined in the constitution). Yglesias is correct on that point, and he is well within his rights to be irritated or even outraged at Governor Perry's comment. Where Yglesias departs from fact and his rights is how he promoted that particular blog entry on Twitter:
Rick Perry proposes lynching Ben Bernanke
Merriam-Webster defines the verb "lynch" thusly:
to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal sanction
The Constitution of the United States defines "treason" thusly (Article 3 Section 3):

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.

Federal statute--18 USC §2381--declares treason punishable by death:
Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.
Such, then, are the facts surrounding Governor Perry's comment.

Could quantitative easing be considered "treason" per the Constitution? One could argue--albeit facetiously--that printing money, thus debasing the US Dollar, strengthens adversarial nations such as China and Russia, and would therefore fall under the heading of giving them "aid and comfort." It is a flimsy argument at best, laughable at worst, but it is an argument that can be made.

It is also an argument Governor Perry conspicuously did not make; his condemnation was clear--more quantitative easing was "almost treasonous". Governor Perry's meaning is quite obvious: printing money is not helpful to the United States or the US economy. There is no second plausible interpretation of his words. Those words are a rhetorically forceful but cogent and valid statement of his view of proper fiscal and monetary policy. Those words are not an accusation of any crime, not even treason.

Further, an accusation of a crime, even if that were the import of Governor Perry's words, is not in and of itself a call to vigilante justice. Saying that "...we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas" is colorful, even perhaps provincial, but it does not suggest vigilantism.

Matt Yglesias is quite within his rights to disagree with Governor Perry's opinions. That disagreement deserves to be heard, for it is necessary if there is to be vigorous debate on the issues pressing this country hard. To broadcast via twitter that Governor Perry suggested lynching Ben Bernanke is quite simply libelous, and arguably libel per se--which is defined as follows:
broadcast or written publication of a false statement about another which accuses him/her of a crime, immoral acts, inability to perform his/her profession, having a loathsome disease (like syphilis) or dishonesty in business. Such claims are considered so obviously harmful that malice need not be proved to obtain a judgment for "general damages," and not just specific losses.
I can understand that liberals do not like Governor Perry--I can quite easily fathom why liberal commentators such as Matt Yglesias are intimidated by Governor Perry's uncompromising rhetoric. Governor Perry uses language that is clear and unmistakable to stake out political and even moral/ethical stands that are equally clear and unmistakable; to respond effectively to such language would require an equally clear stance of opposition--something many would prefer to avoid. Yet when one's rhetorical arsenal is nothing but outright lies, surely that only strengthens one's opponent. It surely does not advance or improve the debate at hand.

Matt Yglesias lied about Governor Perry. He lied, and he libeled by lying. Thus does he cede credibility and correctness to Governor Perry.

Matt Yglesias lied about Governor Perry, and the blogosphere is diminished for his lie. The political process is diminished for his lie. Think Progress is diminished for his lie.

Matt Yglesias should stop lying or stop blogging. There is no ethically sound third alternative.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Still a Time for Choosing

Watching Texas Governor Rick Perry announce his candidacy for the 2012 Presidential election, I was struck by the parallels between his remarks and Ronald Reagan's powerful "A Time for Choosing" address to the 1964 Republican Convention, as well as to Reagan's acceptance speech to the 1980 Republican Convention. To illustrate, without reading the texts linked herein, try ascribing the following quotes to either Rick Perry or Ronald Reagan:
Yet anytime you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we're denounced as being against their humanitarian goals. They say we're always "against" things—we're never "for" anything.

One in six work-eligible Americans cannot find a full-time job. That is not a recovery. That is an economic disaster.

The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal, and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership, in the White House and in the Congress, for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us. They tell us they've done the most that could humanly be done. They say that the United States has had it’s day in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith. They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems, that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities.

And what do we say to our children? Y’all figure it out?

This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

No, I do not suggest Rick Perry is another "Great Communicator"--although there is little question that he is far more effective a speaker than Barak Obama. What I do suggest is that Perry's candidacy, much like Reagan's own campaign and subsequent Presidency, is very much a "time for choosing"--choosing not of men but of philosophies of government. I suggest that Perry, much like Reagan in his era, champions a philosophy of small civic government and large civic liberty. I suggest that Perry makes a clear and cogent argument for the virtue of small government, grounded in the success that is the history of the United States of America, and given the mantle of authority by his more than ten years as Governor of Texas.

The debate Rick Perry is championing is a simple one: how much government do we really need? Is government automatically a social good or is it rather more often a social burden? This debate is not new: Thoreau put forward similar questioning in his essay "Civil Disobedience", when he proudly pronounce "that government is best which governs not at all." No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson laid the foundation of that debate, both in his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and again in the Kentucky Resolution of 1798, championing the states' right to nullify federal law.

To be sure, Perry is not alone in his call for small government. Michelle Bachmann has electrified crowds across the country and won the Iowa straw polls with her small government rhetoric, while Ron Paul has, Cassandra-like, warned repeatedly of the inherent unsustainable nature of a large and growing federal government. Still, Perry moreso than Bachmann or Paul lays down the clear philosophical challenge:

You see, as Americans we’re not defined by class, and we will never be told our place. What makes our nation exceptional is that anyone, from any background, can climb the highest of heights. As Americans, we don’t see the role of government as guaranteeing outcomes, but allowing free men and women to flourish based on their own vision, their hard work and their personal responsibility. And as Americans, we realize there is no taxpayer money that wasn’t first earned by the sweat and toil of one of our citizens.

Nor does Perry merely stop with taxes. Again echoing Reagan, Perry put forth a simple assertion of the proper political order in the United States: that government is always subordinate to the will of the people

In America, the people are not subjects of government. The government is subject to the people. And it is up to us, to this present generation of Americans, to take a stand for freedom, to send a message to Washington that we’re taking our future back from the grips of central planners who would control our healthcare, who would spend our treasure, who downgrade our future and micro-manage our lives.

Thus I suggest that, before we consider Perry the candidate, or any contender for the next election to the office of President, we first consider the philosophical gauntlet being laid down--most forcefully by Perry but also by many within the GOP--how much government is too much? How much government is enough?

The coming months and all of 2012 will be filled with paeans and jeremiads for and against all Presidential contenders, Obama included. But before we consider the candidates, we should consider for ourselves how we would answer these questions. As we consider the candidates, we should realize that every election is and will always be a very personal "time for choosing."