In which an older and wiser yet terminally earnest former liberal struggles to come to grips with the cynicism, hatred, and paranoia that plague both sides of the American political spectrum. "Can we all get along?"
"The use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again: and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered."
Edmund Burke, 2nd speech on conciliation with America, Mar. 22, 1775 (Bartlett's 16th ed., p. 331)
Mrs. Powel: "Well, Dr. Franklin, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?"
Benjamin Franklin: "A republic, if you can keep it."
After Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Sept. 18, 1787. (Bartlett's 16th ed.)
"As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other, and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves."
James Madison ("Publius"), The Federalist Papers No. 10 (1787)
"Of the three forms of sovereignty [autocracy, aristocracy, and democracy], democracy, in the truest sense of the word, is necessarily a despotism because it establishes an executive power through which all the citizens may make decisions about (and indeed against) the individual without his consent..."
Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795)
"To act successfully, that is, according to the rules of the political art, is political wisdom. To know with despair that the political act is inevitably evil, and to act nevertheless, is moral courage. To choose among several expedient actions the least evil one is moral judgment. In the combination of political wisdom, moral courage, and moral judgment, man reconciles his political nature with his moral destiny."
Hans Morgenthau, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics (1946), p. 203
"Thus, whenever a concrete threat to peace develops, war is opposed not by a world public opinion but by the public opinions of those nations whose interests are threatened by that war."
Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations 6th ed., rev. by Kenneth Thompson (1985), p. 288
"The texture of international politics remains highly constant, patterns recur, and events repeat themselves endlessly."
Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (1979), p. 66
"Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalizations, only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen."
H. A. L. Fisher, History of Europe (1935), p. vii [Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (1991), p. 80]
"Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favour."
Robert Frost, 'Black Cottage' North of Boston (1914), [Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (1991), p. 86]
"My thoughts encompass divinity, therefore divinity is. The divinity that my thoughts encompass is associated with the order that arises out of chaos... As we expand our knowledge of this realm, we ... see it in terms of one sublime order that awaits full realization."
Louis J. Halle, Out of Chaos (1977), p. 646
"Here, then, is the complexity, the fascination, and the tragedy of all political life. Politics are made up of two elements -- utopia and reality -- belonging to two different planes which can never meet."
E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939 2nd ed. (1946), p. 93.
"My biggest blunder in life was attempt to seek common ground with Keynesians, based on the naive thought that by putting my ideas in Keynesian language that I would make any dent on the Keynesians."
Milton Friedman, New York Times, July 4, 1999
"War made the state and the state made war."
Charles Tilly, The Formation of National States in Western Europe (1975), p. 42
"Americans like to mock Kuwaitis as rich and pampered and lazy and decadent, which is exactly what the rest of the world says about Americans. Actually, we shouldn't mock Kuwait at all. It represents the hopes and dreams of Americans of all political persuasions. For liberals, it's a generous welfare state with guaranteed employment and a huge government bureaucracy. For conservatives, it's a country with no taxes and plenty of cheap maids who aren't allowed to vote."
Peter Carlson, "Castles in the Sand," Washington Post Magazine Jan. 14, 1996, p. 32-33
"[Bill Clinton's] greatest strength is his insincerity... I've decided Bill Clinton is at his most genuine when he's the most phony... We know he doesn't mean what he says."
Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman, in a speech in Indiana quoted by Howard Kurtz, Washington Post Apr. 27, 1996
"Whatever one thinks of Bill Clinton, his opponents [*] must be thwarted. They are enemies of democracy and of the Constitution that insures its possibility. We long ago lost the luxury of choosing our allies. This is war."
* (referred to elsewhere in this piece as "mad dogs bent on political annihilation")
Eric Alterman, "Democracy Disappears" The Nation, Jan. 11-18, 1998
"There are no enemies in science, professor. Only phenomena to study."
From the movie The Thing, 1951 (a Cold War sci-fi allegory)
Julia Roberts: "Can you prove any of this?"
Mel Gibson: "No... A good conspiracy is unprovable. If you can prove it, someone must have screwed up somewhere along the way."
From the movie Conspiracy Theory
THE 16 WORDS: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Pres. George W. Bush, State of the Union address, Jan. 2003
Today's Washington Post reported that 47 Republican senators wrote a letter to Iran concerning the Obama administration's ongoing negotiations with that country. Basically, it served notice to Iran that any deal that is reached over Iran's nuclear development program would only be an "executive agreement" and therefore subject to cancellation by a future president. Coming on the heels of the recent awkward appearance by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint session of Congress, it reaffirmed that idea that nothing less than total compliance will be acceptable to the Senate. That's not a realistic goal, so in essence it's saying "no deal," period.
So, of course this set the stage for another volley of polemical tirades between pro-Obama and anti-Obama forces. Democratic leaders such as Vice President Joe Biden were shocked -- shocked! -- at the unseemly display of partisanship on a sensitive matter of national security. Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Zavad Zirif (educated in the U.S.) took the occasion to lecture Senate Republicans on international law and the U.S. Constitution. He called that letter a "propaganda ploy," which is rather ironic coming from a repressive theocratic regime. It is, most certainly, an upside-down world we are living in.
Some Democrats have suggested that the Republicans' letter was a violation of the Logan Act, which forbids U.S. citizens from interferring in American diplomacy. Ironically, some Republicans have made similar criticisms of Democrats in years past. For example, Rep. Nancy Pelosi met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2007, an act of freelance diplomacy that undercut the Bush administration. Now the shoe is on the other foot. As Michael Crowley wrote in politico.com, the GOP letter to Iran was the latest spat in a long-running feud between the parties over control of U.S. foreign policy. Its unusual nature merely reflects the current poisoned atmosphere in Washington, where the opposite ends of Pennsylvania [Avenue] hold each other in mutual contempt.
Battles between the executive and legislative branches over foreign policy date back to the Vietnam War, when we learned the sorrowful consequences of pursuing international goals without a solid domestic consensus. The War Powers Resolution (1973) was one such battle, and the Reagan administration's support of the "Contra" rebels fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was another. This much is certain: The power of the presidency has expanded far beyond what the framers of the U.S. Constitution had intended, and our continued status as a republic (as opposed to an empire) rests to a large extent on whether Congress will be able to rein in presidents. Say what you will about Sen. Tom Cotton [(R-AR)], the author of the letter, or the other Senate Republicans who signed that letter, but they are duly elected government officials -- just as President Obama is.
Presidents need a certain amount of leeway in the conduct of diplomacy, and the GOP letter is a blunt (and in my view, unwarranted) attempt to deny the president any such leeway. It may make the world more dangerous by killing any chance at a peaceful resolution of the basic dispute. As for the administration's claim that the President has the authority to reach executive agreements without approval from Congress, that is certainly true of smaller-scale agreements of a technical nature, such as carrying out weapons inspection. But it would be rash and imprudent to make an agreement of such great importance as the prospective deal with Iran without substantial input from Congress. That is why, viewed from a different perspective, is quite appropriate to make a bold assertion of the Senate's constitutional duty to give "advice and consent" to the president in making treaties. Are those who are skeptical of Iran's intentions supposed to just stand idly aside? No. I just wish they had expressed their views in a more proper, respectful manner.
In a real sense, President Obama invited this showdown by his habit of making major policy decisions entirely on his own, such as the suspended enforcement of certain immigration laws which he announced in November. But even if the senators had a valid concern and had no ulterior political motivatations, the letter was still needlessly embarrassing and potentially disruptive to negotiations -- for whatever they may be worth. Instead of declaring their position to the American people, to whom they are accountable, they stooped to the President's level in a childish, tit-for-tat game of one-upsmanship. That is not the way to do block executive branch usurpations. As Joe Scarborough lamented on MS-NBC this morning, "Really? Really?" It's not that he was opposed to what the Republicans were doing, but was simply exasperated by the tactless way they did it. Almost everything Obama does these days is aimed at enraging his opponents, and the Republicans need to refrain from taking his bait. In sum, the letter to Iran was regrettable -- and quite understandable.
As background for this blog piece, I referred to a book from my graduate school days, The President, the Congress, and Foreign Policy, ed. by Edmund S. Muskie, Kenneth Rush, and Kenneth W. Thompson (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986).