The Weekly Positioning

If you read the daily columns here eight or ten hours after they’re posted in late evening, Pacific Time, you get the clean version. Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, has sent a list of the typos and odd sentences here and there that just aren’t clear at all, and now and then a note on something that just isn’t so. So it’s another mug of hot black coffee, and another bowl of the Danish pipe tobacco and the final edits. Everyone needs someone to keep them both coherent and minimally honest. And Sundays the Atlanta editor is sometimes a bit late. That’s from watching the Sunday morning talk shows – Meet the Press and This Week and Face the Nation, and Kurtz and Zakaria on CNN. Few people do that – America isn’t a land of political junkies and policy wonks – but he does, probably because he was part of the team that created CNN back in 1980 and was a key player there for a few years, He knows many of these people, or at least their producers and bosses. Heck, he’s worked for Roger Ailes – twice. His interest is not just political, and he also thinks carefully about policy. It’s also professional.

But we disagree about these shows. Some of us are just print people. And of course the Important People who are interviewed on the shows generally offer one-sentence prepackaged short position statements, or zingers mocking the other guy. The host offers probing questions, and the politician ducks and dodges and weaves, and then repeats his or her one-sentence prepackaged short position statement, with a one or two word variation, just for the fun of it, or to avoid seeming dimwitted and truculent. So it’s always a stalemate. Once you get the general idea there really is nothing else there. It’s all political positioning for the coming week. And that’s fascinating in its way, a confirmation of where everyone stands. In sports they’d call it a pregame show.

But this Sunday was a little different. John McCain and Joe Lieberman gave their prepackaged short position statements on CNN’s State of the Union – they’ve been on a regional tour there over the Presidents Day weeklong recess. And they have what some might consider an odd position – the Obama administration should, right now, give “tangible” support to the opposition in Libya – formally recognize the opposition as the legitimate government, arm the opposition, and certainly establish a no-fly zone over the whole country. Of course that would mean flying combat missions over Libya – that’s how you enforce a no-fly zone. And if we pick sides in a civil war, and supply arms to what becomes our side, you probably need to send in technicians and advisors, depending on the nature of the weapons you supply – you know, like we did in Vietnam in the early sixties. McCain did say it probably wasn’t time, yet, to send in massive numbers of combat troops – he’s a reasonable guy and thinks that can wait for a week or two, or something.

This idea, essentially that we need another war over in those parts, was odd, but it was hard to tell if these two senators were serious, or just trying to position themselves politically, in the game of mocking the other guy. That seems to be what’s going on:

“This is a real moment of choice for the international community,” Lieberman said of the bloody crisis in Libya, where dictator Moammar Gadhafi has had forces fire on protesters and deaths are estimated to have exceeded 1,000. “What we’re hearing here in Egypt is the Arab world is watching. Will the world stand by and let a leader like Moammar Gadhafi slaughter his own people?”

The message here is that Obama is a jerk, and these two are the Serious People. Both of them are fine with the unilateral sanctions implemented by Obama at the end of the week, but more needs to be done, and Obama is a fool not to do it:

“Let mercenaries know any acts they commit, they’re going to find themselves in front of a war crimes trial,” McCain said.

“I would provide them with arms,” Lieberman said, adding that he understood “why the administration hesitated at the beginning but frankly I wish we had spoken out much earlier and clearer against the Gadhafi regime.”

McCain said the safety of our citizens in Libya, which the White House gave as a reason for treading carefully here, was a high priority, but “it’s not our only priority.” And then there was the zinger. The Brits and even the cowardly cheese-eating French made Obama, and America, look foolish and timid and cowardly and just plain awful – “The British prime minister and French president were not hesitant and they have citizens in that part of the country. America should lead.”

And of course McCain said Obama should have taken a stronger stand in favor of the protesters with those Iran pro-democracy protests in 2009 – implying Obama is worse than French, without saying it directly. McCain seems to think any protest in that part of the world would go swimmingly if the angry folks in the street could proudly shout out that the United States supports them and funds them and arms them, and is behind all they do. Others think that isn’t exactly the kind of marketing that works well over there. But that sort of depends on whether you believe that the whole world really, really, really loves us and all we do – always has and always will. There seems to be some disagreement, in some circles, with the Republicans and Tea Party patriots who maintain that is so – everyone loves us – and that anyone who doesn’t think that is so hates America. It seems all foreign policy decisions flow from which of those two notions you believe to be true. Political positioning has consequences.

Of course there were reactions to what the two senators said. Kathy Kattenburg at The Moderate Voice asks, in frustration, what could possibly go wrong? And she sees three possibilities here. Lieberman and McCain “are so stupid they don’t understand from past experience what a bad idea it is to support either anti-government rebels OR government forces with weapons and money in a volatile country like Libya.” Or Lieberman and McCain “are insane – as in mentally unbalanced, psychologically impaired, etc. – and so cannot grasp the above point.” Or Lieberman and McCain “are so in love with war, weapons, and violence that they may be very smart men and totally sane but simply don’t care about the consequences.”

And this:

The third possibility, of course, suggests that these two men are evil – which I don’t want to believe, but may very well be true.

Reliapundit at The Astute Bloggers sees it the other way:

At the very least, we ought to be landing ships at the port of Benghazi and off-loading automatic rifles, bullets, and grenade launchers. We ought to be making it a fair fight. And we ought to be offering Gadhafi’s mercenaries money to defect. Obama is either incompetent, a coward or on the other side.

For Reliapundit, the Sunday morning quick political positioning worked. But earlier Andrew Sullivan had offered this:

The second all Americans were safely out of the country, Obama came out with much more forceful language against Libya. Now think about the discipline of this. It represents the polar opposite of a politician’s desire to mouth off in public before fulfilling his more immediate duties to his own employees and citizens. Of course, preening blowhards are already posturing and gasping at the prudence and restraint of this president…

And he cites Leon Wieseltier:

The idea that assistance does not compromise the autonomy of the assisted is in fact one of the central beliefs of liberalism. We invoke it in our social policies all the time. We help people to help themselves. And that is all that is being asked of us by these liberalizing revolutions; no less, but no more. We disappointed Tehran. We disappointed Cairo. Now we are disappointing Tripoli. It is so foolish, and so sad, and so indecent.

Sullivan:

Indecent? That is a very strong word. Would risking hundreds of US citizens to become hostages of a madman be a model of “decency”? And the notion that America would actually serve its own interests by military intervention in Egypt, Iran or Libya is simply blind to the sobering lessons of the last decade. It is a shot almost defined by its cheapness.

And military intervention is never cheap, even if it’s someone else’s son who has to die in combat, and someone else’s tax money, or the money we borrow from the Chinese government, pays for it.

And this may be a local matter, in the truest sense, or so argues Fouad Ajami, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the far right Hoover Institution, and the author of The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs and the Iraqis in Iraq – as in the New York Times he offers How the Arabs Turned Shame into Liberty:

There is no overstating the importance of the fact that these Arab revolutions are the works of the Arabs themselves. No foreign gunboats were coming to the rescue, the cause of their emancipation would stand or fall on its own. Intuitively, these protesters understood that the rulers had been sly, that they had convinced the Western democracies that it was either the tyrants’ writ or the prospect of mayhem and chaos.

So now, emancipated from the prison, they will make their own world and commit their own errors.

As always, it’s the context:

To understand the present, we consider the past. The tumult in Arab politics began in the 1950s and the 1960s, when rulers rose and fell with regularity. They were struck down by assassins or defied by political forces that had their own sources of strength and belief. Monarchs were overthrown with relative ease as new men, from more humble social classes, rose to power through the military and through radical political parties.

By the 1980s, give or take a few years, in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Yemen, a new political creature had taken hold: repressive “national security states” with awesome means of control and terror. The new men were pitiless, they re-ordered the political world, they killed with abandon; a world of cruelty had settled upon the Arabs.

Average men and women made their accommodation with things, retreating into the privacy of their homes. In the public space, there was now the cult of the rulers, the unbounded power of Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi and Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. The traditional restraints on power had been swept away, and no new social contract between ruler and ruled had emerged.

Fear was now the glue of politics, and in the more prosperous states (the ones with oil income) the ruler’s purse did its share in the consolidation of state terror. A huge Arab prison had been constructed, and a once-proud people had been reduced to submission. The prisoners hated their wardens and feared the guards, and on the surface of things, the autocracies were there to stay.

And there was that other factor:

Shame – a great, disciplining force in Arab life of old – quit Arab lands. In Tunisia, a hairdresser-turned-despot’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, now pronounced on all public matters; in Egypt the despot’s son, Gamal Mubarak, brazenly staked a claim to power over 80 million people; in Syria, Hafez al-Assad had pulled off a stunning feat, turning a once-rebellious republic into a monarchy in all but name and bequeathing it to one of his sons. …

These rulers hadn’t descended from the sky. They had emerged out of the Arab world’s sins of omission and commission. Today’s rebellions are animated, above all, by a desire to be cleansed of the stain and the guilt of having given in to the despots for so long.

So this is not our business:

In this tumult, I was struck by the chasm between the incoherence of the rulers and the poise of the many who wanted the outside world to bear witness. A Libyan of early middle age, a professional and a diabetic, was proud to speak on camera, to show his face, in a discussion with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. He was a new man, he said, free of fear for the first time, and he beheld the future with confidence. The precision in his diction was a stark contrast to Colonel Qadaffi’s rambling TV address on Tuesday that blamed the “Arab media” for his ills and called on Libyans to “prepare to defend petrol.”

In the tyrant’s shadow, unknown to him and to the killers and cronies around him, a moral clarity had come to ordinary men and women. They were not worried that a secular tyranny would be replaced by a theocracy; the specter of an “Islamic emirate” invoked by the dictator did not paralyze or terrify them.

And Sullivan clarifies that further:

What will it take for Washington’s elite to understand that this is not about America? Mercifully, perhaps because of his unique background, Obama grasps this. Those trapped in old paradigms – like Wieseltier and Wolfowitz – are doubtless genuine and admirable in their concern about wanton killings by the Libyan dictator. But they do not seem yet to grasp – even after Iraq – that freedom is only freedom when you have won it on your own.

And Sullivan offers a confession:

For years, like many conservatives, I had become convinced that culture truly does matter and that culture would prevent the Arab world from ever developing the kind of democracy that exists in the West. The Persians and Jews and Turks and Kurds were different, I thought. The Arabs? Too tribal; too divided; too religious. Ajami reminds us that this narrative was favored by the Arab tyrants themselves and protected their interest. It was also favored by Israel, as a buttress to its case for open-ended colonialism in its own backyard.

What I failed to grasp is that culture changes, that the younger generation, as in Iran, were increasingly aware, thanks to the new media revolution, of how backward their own societies had become. Culture still matters, mind you; and I am not optimistic about what might end up in power in Libya, and remain wary of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But this is a process – and it may be happening faster now than before. We have surely learned to be humbler in our generalizations.

And Sullivan offers this context:

What took place, after all, in the cradle of democracy, Britain, before it became what it has become? (Sorry, America, but parliamentary democracy, and its core rationale, was born elsewhere). Huge religious conflict, a bloody civil war ending in the execution of the monarch, a fundamentalist dictatorship under Cromwell, another revolution in 1688, followed by three centuries of development and adjustment and war. And this was with the benefit of being on an island, with no standing domestic army and a weak royalty and strong aristocracy going back to the thirteenth century. I remain steeped in this history – and, while acknowledging its share of crimes and atrocities – proud of it. Because it was mine – because I fully identified with its national origins.

We in the West, in other words, are proud of and attached to our liberties because we and our forefathers grasped them for themselves. This mix of patriotism and liberty is vital and necessary. To have freedom imposed is to create chaos and resentment. To have the people grasp it for themselves is to expand the horizons of a stable democracy.

So it comes down to this:

We should do all we can to assist if asked. But this is their moment, not ours, their countries, not ours, and it is time to let go of the neurotic need to control the entire world and to force it into our own ideological templates. It is time to watch and listen and engage and support. It is not time to intervene.

And in the New Yorker, Wendell Stevenson shows that these folks are up to the task:

I caught up with [Sherif Omar, medic to the protesters] and asked him about his group of political activists. They had decided that they would continue to meet and discuss ways in which they could help the country but wouldn’t form a political party. I asked him if he was worried that the Army might take control entirely. He said that there was bound to be chaos in the future and that friends of his had expressed concern. “But I was saying, ‘Guys, look what we have done already. There’s no impossible.'” Many people celebrating said that there could never be another dictator now that the public had found its political voice. “We know the way to Tahrir Square,” one told me.

Lieberman and McCain don’t seem to believe that. They ought to have a little more faith in people, and in that yen for something like democracy, where you get to determine your own fate. But then it was just a Sunday morning talk show, and the usual array of one-sentence prepackaged short position statements and zingers mocking the other guy. The News Guy in Atlanta can keep an eye on such things. But it’s empty stuff. And it really doesn’t matter.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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