Archive for the ‘Politics’ category

Intelligence Is Overrated

October 29, 2009

The Coen Brothers, a multi-Oscar winning pair of neurotic and irreverent Hollywood filmmakers, made a so-so film in 2008 called “Burn After Reading” where the tagline was “Intelligence is Relative.”

The film deals with a CIA agent played by John Malkovich whose personal memoirs contained in a disk are accidentally discovered by two dimwitted gym trainers played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt. Though the film itself lacks the usual panache we have come to expect from Joel and Ethan Coen, the story is supposed to satirize the U.S. intelligence community and how everyday idiots can become bigger threats to national security than terrorists.

This film and Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film “The Informant!” are both spoofs of the ineptitude of government agents and the people who are in power in our country. One would think the smartest people in our society would be the ones in power, but that is not always the case.

The general American public would argue that our previous president, George W. Bush, was not the brightest bulb in the drawer despite reaching the office of President of the United States. He only became Commander in Chief because of his family name (his pappy was once the Prez as well) and the very nice Supreme Court who ruled controversial ballots in his favor over his challenger, Al Gore.

In our current administration, several Obama cabinet and lower cabinet members had trouble paying their taxes. This is especially ironic considering Democrats are traditionally the ones who favor higher taxes over lower ones. This goes to show that everyone is capable of either being stupid or ignoring the law.

But indeed it does make one wonder who really is in charge of our country. Do we actually have the smartest people in high public offices; or do we have bumbling idiots whom enough folks were gullible enough to vote for?

Then again, sometimes you had no choice who to vote for. I don’t think too many Americans were enthusiastic about either Bush or Gore, or even John Kerry for that matter. This past election, where we had a choice between a charismatic African American and a well-respected Vietnam War veteran, was one of the first elections in a while where the person, not the party, counted more.

All this shows that perhaps the best people aren’t the ones who are in positions of power. Politics and the art of governing a country are often times two very different monsters. Politics is show, theatre, intrigue, social networking. Governing a country is an intellectual task that requires knowledge of history, economics, mathematics, political theory, and multi-cultural understanding.

Those who want to enter politics are often in it for a variety of reasons. Some want to genuinely change the country (or city, or county, or state) for the better, others are in it for the fame/money/reputation, and some people might be in it for no other reason other than it seems like the right thing to do.

Those who get elected aren’t necessarily the ones with the best ideas. They are the ones who seem the most trustworthy, kind, patriotic, charismatic, and/or partisan. If you live in a hardcore red or blue state, you better feed the base or you will have no chance of collecting votes.

I have always believed that the real people who are qualified to be president, or senator, or any high public office, are usually in academia. They are law professors, college professors, or political scientists working for a think tank. They could even be journalists who have studied politics for a long length of time. Either way, people who understand politics, international relations, and history at a deeper level.

This is not to say that our current elected leaders do not have that expertise. Barack Obama was a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Most of our other leaders have university degrees in political science, international studies, or law. I am not implying that Washington D.C. is full of nothing but power hungry dunderheads, though sometimes that assumption is tempting to make.

But there is somewhat of a backlash against intellectualism. Obama and Hillary Clinton were accused of being “elitists” who couldn’t relate to the everyday working man or woman. This explains why Obama tried to go bowling (and failed miserably) and Hillary was seen at a tavern chasing down brewskis. Republicans already have the “good old boy” reputation down solid, so it’s the Dems who need “work” in that area.

Some people think politicians who are overtly smart and intelligent are prone to ignore the everyday “Joe Six Pack” and their common problems. Others feel we need the best and brightest running our country, not those who can best identify with the little people.

Intelligence may be relative, but there will always be a place for smart people. Smart people assist in improving technology, science, medicine, the arts, and any other kind of research that helps society become better. When it comes to running a country, that might be a whole other story.

How much of politics is scientific and how much of it is an art? That might come down to whether you value book or street smarts more. There might be something said for the classic debate between intelligence and wisdom. A wise person is not necessarily the smartest one in the room. They are the ones with the most insight, sensitivity, life experience, and observational power. Intelligence is something that cannot be learned.

But can wisdom be learned? Or does it come more natural to some people compared to others? We assume that wise people make the best decisions in life, but what about intelligent folks? How, for example, did the Kennedy administration get us into the colossal blunder that was the Vietnam War when everyday military grunts on the ground knew all along this would be a mistake? There must be something said for proximity to the problem.

 All these questions can boggle the mind. Maybe we need intelligent people to answer them.

Every Writer Needs an Editor, Every Actor Needs a Director, Every President Needs a Critic

October 20, 2009

What is the best way to criticize our government?

If it is true that in order for a successful democracy to function, the people must always question the actions of the government, how exactly does one go about doing that?

I say this because we have a president now who is popular with a certain portion of the population and unpopular with the other. Barack Obama, elected under promises of “hope” and “change,” enjoys support from liberals and moderates and hostility from those on the right. These are rough generalizations, of course, and there are plenty of exceptions all around.

Those on the left hope Obama will increase the size of the federal government as a way to combat our nation’s problems. Universal healthcare (or something resembling that), bailouts of failing banks, federal stimulus packages, and increasing federal funding for several programs including alternative energy are all ways Democrats hope to better serve the nation.

There are plenty of voices on the right, both in Congress and in the media, who disagree with this style of governance. They don’t just disagree with it, they hate it. They hate it so much they will call our president anything from “Hitler” to a “socialist” to a “Communist.” Communist?  That’s an insult that was thought to be as extinct as McCarthyism.

But name calling aside; there are other voices other than Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity who have issues with the current administration’s way of handling both domestic and foreign affairs.

But those voices are never talked about amid the screaming and shouting of those in talk radio, right-leaning blogs, and the infamous Fox News. They seem to be getting all the press these days. A year after the exciting election of America’s first African American president has seen nothing but hate, disdain, and bitterness from those on both sides of the aisle.

But why? Why are the media (especially the liberal media) giving these loud mouthed blowhards so much free publicity? Why is Bill O’Reilly’s face currently on the front page of Slate.com? Why are so many liberal commentators like Leonard Pitts, Jr. and Keith Olbermann spending almost all their precious time complaining about neo-conservatives when they are no longer in any positions of power?

For our supposed new era of “Hope and Change,” we are seeing a significant amount of bitterness from the left. They are right to be upset at how loud and obnoxious far right conservatives are being right now. But don’t they have the smarts to know that if they keep on battling with them night after night; America may soon get disenfranchised with them too?

But that is a whole other discussion. For now, people in the “loyal opposition” need to know the best way to criticize their government, which brings us to the original question. Is screaming at your opponents and calling them derogatory names going to make much of a difference? So far, it has, and it has not.

There were enough folks convinced about “death panels” and all other sorts of horror stories regarding Obama’s health reform proposals. Those series of disastrous town hall meetings held over the summer became shouting matches instead of intelligent discussions. This was caused by fear-baiting instigated by right winged media figures who want nothing more than to see Obama fail. The spiteful name “Obamacare” should be a good indication of that attitude.

So it seems that for those on the right, the right way to criticize your government is to be civil about it and learn as much as you can about the actual issues being discussed, not talking points established by voices on the radio. No one will even consider talking to you if all you do is shout, scream, and wildly flail your arms in the air.

But what about those on the left? How should they take criticism? There are a couple of answers to this. The first is to realize that not every critic of Obama is a gun-toting, Bible-thumping, homophobic, racist, fascist right winger. There are those on the left who feel that Obama is not taking reform far enough and fear our current woes could come back later in the future unless more rigid regulations are placed on certain businesses.

There are liberals like The New York Times’ Paul Krugman who feels that Obama needs to spend more money, not less, to get us out of the recession. One round of stimulus spending is not sufficient to combat unemployment and the collapsed financial system. More spending should be on the way, regardless of what it does to the federal deficit.

And there are intelligent conservatives like David Brooks and George Will who are far from fear mongering “birthers” and bigots. They hold on to conservative principals without becoming too militaristic or angry. Unlike Rush or Bill O, they argue from logic, reason, and facts instead of emotion, half truths, and flat out lies. They are the type of oppositional voices that President Obama and our current Congress need, not fringe lunatics.

One should not forget about the millions of Americans (and for that matter, those around the world) who fell in love with Obama and think he can do no wrong. Monsieur Barack had plenty of fans who loved his charisma, promises, and personal story that carried him to election victory over the old and unflattering John McCain.

Those who think Obama is one step below Jesus need to realize that criticism is necessary in order for a presidency to succeed. Abraham Lincoln, arguably one of our greatest presidents ever, famously appointed a “team of rivals” to his cabinet. Lincoln appointed William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates to his cabinet despite all of them being former opponents for the Republican nomination in 1860. Despite disharmony, internal fighting, and contempt for their boss, these men helped Lincoln reunite a fragmented America and end the inhumane institution of slavery.

This is why Obama fanatics should not be scared about criticisms heaped upon their political savior. In fact, GOP input in writing up the healthcare bills have made them stronger and more likely to pass both the House and Senate.

The best way to criticize our government, you may ask? Beside civility and intelligence, humility should also be added to our list. No one is perfect, and we should be willing to acknowledge that. If the right can clean up their act and treat everyone as adults (including themselves), the left should respond by welcoming oppositional ideas and taking them seriously. If the Bush team had done that 8 years ago, do you think we would be in the messes that we are now?

Not everyone who criticizes our president is a racist who “cannot stand seeing a black man in the White House,” a phrase used by many Obama supporters to counter the harsh treatment from the right. At the end of the day, sometimes politics is more important than race. And sometimes we see racist smears where none exist (I may not may not be talking about Jimmy Carter).

Playing the race card does nothing to get foes to the negotiating table. Neither does bigotry, name calling, and paying attention to half the truth. But all these ideas have been shared before by many other people in previous times. But I think we should all be reminded of this every once in a while.

Is It Time to Finally Pull the Plug on Afghanistan?

October 8, 2009
U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal is only one of several voices President Obama is listening to.
U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal is only one of several voices President Obama is listening to.

Does anyone really understand what is happening in Afghanistan anymore? With President Obama in the midst of deciding what to do with this challenging, upsetting, and mind-numbing 8-year-old war, the American public should think hard about what this war has meant to us.

We invaded Afghanistan in December of 2001 in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Everyone knows this. We were not there for oil, to stop nuclear proliferation, or to topple an unpopular dictator. We were there for reasons of vengeance, pure and simple.

Of course, America justified the invasion by saying we were there to liberate the Afghan people from the Taliban regime; a group of Islamic fundamentalists who oppressed women, murdered anyone who did not adhere to their strict doctrine, and prevented any economic, political, or social progress from blooming. These people were bad news. And of course, it did not help that they harbored al Qaeda, the terrorist network who killed nearly 3,000 Americans one fateful September morning.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has publicly advocated for President Obama to send additional troops to stamp out the insurgency once and for all. Usually a military general does not publicly announce such opinions, but that is beside the point. That is one voice that our president is hearing. Other voices are calling for him to pull out of Afghanistan completely. What makes this perspective unusual is its bipartisanship nature. Critics both on the right and the left think America should do this. When you have a mixture of conservatives and liberals agreeing on a major political issue, that means something significant.

Then again, there are plenty of voices in the media who believe Obama should stay the course and hope the Afghan government can get their act together. The August 20th presidential election in Afghanistan was wrought with allegations of fraud. President Hamid Karzai won a disputed election that international critics are decrying. Allegedly, government forces arrested anti-Karzai protesters, beat supporters of Karzai’s main opponent (the aptly named Abdullah Abdullah), stuffed ballots, and generally intimidated anyone who stood in his way of winning reelection.

Do any of these tactics sound familiar? Oh yeah, they sound like tactics the Taliban would use had they been into pseudo-democracy. It sounds like despotism has not completely left Afghanistan, even after 8 years of war. This proves that some things never change.

But this should not come as a surprise to anyone. If you know anything about Afghanistan’s history, there has not been a stable government in power there in quite a while. From the Soviet occupation of the 1980s to the current U.S.-led occupation, foreign powers have come in and tried to install their rule on the Afghan people. And all of these efforts have failed. Will this spell doom for the United States and NATO? One can only hope not.

McChrystal might be right in wanting to send more troops. Candidate Obama promised to send nearly 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in order to stamp out the Taliban, bring the last remnants of al Qaeda to justice, and make sure that Central Asian country is never again a breeding ground for terrorism (or is it “man-made disasters?”). All of these are ambitious goals; but are they achievable?

Critics of George W. Bush (and God knows there are plenty of them out there) argue he did not do enough to secure Afghanistan from chaos after the initial invasion. There is a lot of credibility to that argument. Bush seemed too bent on invading Iraq than he did on finishing the job in the country where the 9/11 attacks were conceived and planned. It seems reasonable to believe that Bush should have poured all his military efforts to secure Afghanistan, prevent Pakistan from becoming a hide-out place for al Qaeda, and encourage the international community to assist in nation-building.

But all that seems like a distant memory. The international community is rightfully hesitant to getting involved in Afghanistan because of all the instability that is going on over there. How are they to know that their money, effort, and manpower will not go to waste within 10 or so years? No one can know for sure. Just look at Somalia. How much money has the U.N. invested in that tiny African country? I don’t know for sure, but it’s more than what they are getting in return.

I am shifting my position on Afghanistan. I will continue to keep an open mind, but it might be time to pull the plug there. U.S. military casualties are soaring at record heights. More servicemen and women are being killed there than Iraq. Historians are calling Afghanistan a doomed mission, in line with Vietnam. The parallels between those two wars are striking. And of course, look at recent history. If the Soviets could not impose their will there, why can we?

But maybe imposing our freedom loving, secular democratic will is not possible. Afghanistan’s long and troubling history makes it almost impossible for real positive change to occur there anytime in the near future. The same goes with Iraq and Kosovo. Kosovo might be an independent country now, but they are far from secure. Trouble is brewing in that spot of the world as well.

President Obama says he wants clear, attainable, and achievable objectives spelled out before he makes a final decision. That is a smart move on his part. With millions of lives at stake, you do not want to rush into anything that you might regret later. Our military is exhausted from fighting two long bloody wars. If we’re going to expand the war in Afghanistan, we better have a clear strategy.

Obama is smart and I am sure he will make a smart decision. But then again, President Kennedy’s team was comprised of the Best and the Brightest, and look at what they did in Southeast Asia. So this means even the smartest people in the world can still make foolish decisions.

But then again, to be perfectly honest, maybe there is no clear cut best solution to fixing this mess. Maybe only time will tell. Perhaps this is one of those decisions where we have to make an executive decision, carry it out, and pray it goes well. It’s like being a quarterback in a football game: you just throw the ball and hope somebody catches it; preferably someone on your own team, of course.

So to answer the original question, does anyone really understand the ground situation in Afghanistan? It is quite possible even the Afghan government, as corrupt as they are, have no clue what will happen five years from now. Maybe that is why they are using so much violence to keep power. If they lose it, they could lose their country. Or maybe they are no better than the Taliban, who still hold significant power in neighboring Pakistan.

These are reasons why I am glad that I am not in a position to have to make these decisions. And I think I speak for plenty of other people as well.

The Summer of 2009 Was Never Short on Drama

October 7, 2009

            Yes, I am aware that it has been forever since I last blogged. It’s not that I haven’t had the time. I’m currently between jobs. Sometimes I get burnt out writing all the time. If I got paid writing a blog, I’d definitely do it more often.

            A lot has happened this summer. Senator Ted Kennedy passed away. Healthcare has become the latest huge issue facing our country. Afghanistan is spinning out of control. Football season is now upon us. The list is endless.

            Much has been written about Obama’s push for insuring the uninsured. Should there be a public option? Should we even have universal healthcare? How are the systems in England and Canada really like? Are people lining up in the streets waiting to see a doctor (as Republicans would like you to believe), or is the system all rosy like Democrats would want you to think?

            I don’t really have a good answer to that, nor should I even attempt to answer that. I think it is safe to say that if you want to get good information about the healthcare debate, I am not the place to go for that. Check out other sources. They are much more informed than I am.

            I will admit that I have not paid attention to the healthcare debate as closely as I should. It seems like too much to handle. On one hand, it is wrong that millions of people are without health insurance in our country. We are a wealthy country (recession or no recession) and should have the capability to care for our poor.

            And a lot has been said about all those series of disastrous “town hall meetings” designed to let public officials and the public meet to discuss healthcare reform. And by discussion, I really mean shouting matches. Because that’s exactly what happened. Whatever happened to civility in our society? Maybe it never existed.

            As we move into fall and the upcoming winter, there will be a lot on our plate. The showdown over healthcare will happen sooner or later. President Obama will have to make a decision about how to move forward in Afghanistan. And whatever happened to Iraq? Should we stay, leave, or a little bit of both?

            All this is happening while I still look for a permanent job. Trust me, I have tried. But no matter how many jobs I apply for, there are at least twenty or thirty others who are just as, if not more qualified than I am. That makes for a difficult job hunting extravaganza.

            Nevertheless, I hope our government solves the issue of healthcare sooner than later. The longer this drags out, the wearier the public will become and the angrier our elected officials will be. If there is a way to provide health insurance to those who need it while not making too much of a significant dent in the national debt, I would be all for it. But until that happens, it looks as though leaders on both sides of the aisle will never come to an agreement that will make a genuine impact in our country.

            Or maybe they will. And the president can sign it into law. We’ll see.

Sins of Foreign Policy Are Always Clearer in Hindsight

July 11, 2009
Robert S. McNamara remains one of the most controversial political figures in U.S. history.

Robert S. McNamara remains one of the most controversial political figures in U.S. history.

Things are always easier in hindsight. Ask George W. Bush. Ask FDR. Ask John F. Kennedy. Ask former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Decisions that seemed so right at the time can later be proven to be so gravely wrong. And you’ll never figure this out until it’s all over. What a shame.

McNamara’s recent death has brought about a rebirth of decades-old debates about foreign policy, the Cold War, and the disastrous American adventure in Vietnam. One cannot help but to think about Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney when McNamara’s name is mentioned. All three men were hated in their day. They misled the American people, lied to them, and told them their decisions would protect them from evil. One lie followed another.

The Kennedy White House believed in the “Domino Theory,” a theoretical prediction that if one nation were to fall to Communism, their neighbors would do the same. If South Vietnam were to fall under Soviet influence; Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, South Korea, and Japan would soon follow. Then Greece, France, West Germany, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. Then eventually the whole Western world. Then us.

Historians have debated whether the Domino Theory was a plausible reality or just a product of irrational fear of losing American hegemony. And even if all of Southeast Asia were to fall to Communism, what would happen then? Would tyranny, poverty, despotism, and institutionalized atheism overcome our way of life? Would our national security come into serious jeopardy? All these possibilities were considered by the Kennedy administration.

But it is unfair to paint Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, McNamara, and Dean Rusk as the only ones who thought this way. The infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy thought the infiltration of Communism onto American soil wasn’t just a theory, but reality. His Communist witch hunts of the 1950s destroyed many people’s lives and blinded us to believing that the enemies were at our gates, when such fears proved to be nothing but just that: fear.

Much talk has come up about how such smart, intelligent, and enlightened men like Kennedy, McNamara, and Rusk got us so close to nuclear war and later architected a war in Vietnam that would take the lives of 58,000 U.S. troops and close to 2 million Vietnamese. People have argued that they were nothing but a bunch of liberal fascists, much like how Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice are considered right winged fascists.

But maybe all these accusations are a little off. Consider the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that I believe played a very significant role in beginning the Vietnam War. For thirteen days in October of 1962, the Soviet Union and United States went on the brink of total annihilation. Thanks to “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD for short, both sides had the ability and will to completely obliterate the other side. If one side launched their missiles and destroyed most of their enemy’s homeland, that side had the ability to return the favor. Thanks to B-52 bombers and nuclear submarines, this can happen.

Then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev didn’t think Kennedy had the guts to kill more people than Adolph Hitler. Hitler had a whole war to slaughter millions. Kennedy just had one simple phone call to make. I hope you shudder when you think about this.

Kennedy later estimated that there was a 33%, or a one in three, chance of nuclear war breaking out at that moment. Rusk believed the odds were much lower. Either way, it was close. The presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba was intolerable. Fidel Castro could not have been trusted to not use them. The Soviets didn’t like our missiles in Turkey, a country just in their backyard. We compromised, mutually agreed to remove our missiles from both sites, and total annihilation was averted. Whew.

But we should not forget the impact of the Cuban Missile Crisis on the thinking of McNamara and Lyndon Johnson, who would later become president after Kennedy’s assassination. If the Domino Theory were to actually happen and all of East Asia were to fall to the Communist bloc, who is to say all of Asia wouldn’t become nuclear? Who is to say mass slaughter like what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime wouldn’t become the norm? No one could know for sure.

Let’s now wind the clock ahead forty years and think about 9/11 and the “War on Terror.” Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the catastrophic 9/11 that never happened. Political analysts have said that our country has changed its opinion on national defense and foreign policy ever since the Sept. 11 attacks. That might be true to some extent. Bush administration officials have defended their questionable practices of torture, invading two Middle Eastern countries, and domestic spying that these measures are necessary to protect our country from our enemies. Similar measures were done in the 1960s and 70s (and during World War II, the so-called “Good War”) under similar justifications.

I am in no way excusing Bush and his team for approving of torture, the horrors at Guantanamo Bay, and invading Iraq. These were decisions that were motivated by anger, greed, revenge, and pride. But then again, we said the same about Nixon when he increased bombing campaigns over North Vietnam and Cambodia. We said this when President Johnson increased our troop presence in a war that was “unwinnable.” Times might change, but mistakes do not.

But this is all easy to say in hindsight. They say hindsight is 20/20 because we know the outcomes and can accurately judge the wisdom of our decisions. But let us consider the fact that we were this close to total destruction in October 1962. Let us consider that from the comfort of our armchairs in the safety of our living rooms, politics and history seem like a piece of cake. Decisions are simple. Don’t escalate the Vietnam War. Don’t bomb Cambodia. Don’t support Saddam Hussein in his fight against Iran. Don’t approve of the Patriot Act. Don’t allow U.S. interrogators to use waterboarding to get information out of terror suspects. These decisions might seem easy and very straightforward 40 years after the fact, but they did not at the moment.

Robert S. McNamara came from a business background, as he was in charge of the Ford Motor Company before becoming Secretary of Defense. In his world, he was a number cruncher. His world was based on facts, figures, theories, and already proven models of success. That is how the business world operates. In foreign policy, there are also rules. We had just defeated fascism in Europe and the Pacific and were now moving on to defeat the Soviet empire. If it worked before, why can’t it work again?

That is why McNamara thought sending hundreds of thousands of more troops to Vietnam would win the war. That is how we defeated Hitler. The D-Day invasion was a large ground assault that aimed at pushing back our enemies till they gave up. Nixon thought bombing the Viet Cong would force them to surrender. That much ridiculed strategy made sense in Japan, when heavy bombing campaigns, ending in the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, broke their will to fight and made them accept unconditional surrender. Nixon and Johnson thought if it worked in the 1940s, why couldn’t it work in the 1960s?

Bush might have thought the same when he invaded Iraq in 2003. He probably figured it would be a short war and that military occupation wouldn’t be such a big deal. We occupied West Germany and Japan after WWII and look at where they are now. They are now first world democracies. Iraq could have a similar future if they would just get their act together.

President Obama is being criticized by his own supporters of not doing enough to reverse Bush-era policies relating to anti-terrorism. Instead of drawing back our forces in the Middle East, he is increasing them by sending 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The scheduled June 30 pullout of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities was a timetable agreed to by Bush, not Obama. Had McCain won the election, that pullout would have still happened.

Obama has not been the anti-war president that many of his peace loving liberal supporters have hoped for. He will completely withdraw from Iraq on the Iraqi government’s terms, not his own. He will increase our troop strength in Afghanistan, a country that is becoming very weary of our continued presence there. Meanwhile, back at home, people are getting tired of war. We voted for Obama to change things, not for them to remain the same. I suppose that’s how politics work. They make promises, and they later break them.

But Obama isn’t completely breaking his lofty campaign promises. He is shutting down Guantanamo Bay, but it’s moving a lot slower than some people expected. He promised to shut down military tribunals of terrorist suspects, but he has recently re-approved of them. What does this all mean? Simply put, the world is a lot simpler from the campaign trail. Once you get to the White House, read those daily memos, listen to important people in the Joint Chiefs, Pentagon, CIA, and State Department, the world becomes a little more complex. Just ask Kennedy, or McNamara, or even Bill Clinton.

Our current president is realizing that the world is a little more difficult to handle than he had previously thought. He criticized Bush for making bad decisions that further endangered the American people, but now he realizes that you can’t solve the world’s problems with a push of a button. You have to make tough decisions. Even decisions that are unpopular.

I am not saying that Bush did the right thing to protect us from further terrorist attacks. I am not saying that Robert S. McNamara shouldn’t be critiqued for getting us involved in Vietnam when we had no business of being there. Nor am I saying that Henry Kissinger’s “Realpolitik” Cold War strategy was a good idea. Killing others to save others is never that easy of a concept. We should never consider a war to be our only option to solve our problems. We should be more pragmatic in our approach and realize that our actions do have consequences, despite what we may think at the time.

But, regardless, we should not stick our nose at them and believe we wouldn’t make the same choices if we were in their position. If you had a 50-50 chance of destroying your country and other people’s countries, if falling dominoes were more of a reality than a theory, if your country were just attacked by 19 hijackers, your perspective would change. You wouldn’t look at the world the same way. If you had the weight of the world on your shoulders, those so-called “easy decisions” to do the right thing suddenly becomes much more difficult.

This is not to say that people cannot make the right choice. What one can say is that we should be careful to play the accusatory card before really understanding the circumstances behind the decisions made by important people. We should judge their actions, but we should do it in a spirit of humility, perceptiveness, and intelligence. Without that, we become full of “retrospective snobbery,” where we feel free to condemn the sins of the past before thinking about whether we would truly have done things differently.

We may never get the chance to start a war, but we can certainly talk about what we would do if we could. But we should do this remembering that all actions, both horrible and honorable, are a product of its time. And those of us with the gift of knowing how the future unfolds should always keep in mind that years from now, maybe after we’re dead, our actions will be judged by later generations. If we weren’t too kind to our predecessors, who is to say ours will be kind to us?

America Can Teach Iran a Thing or Two About Hoping for “Change”

June 18, 2009
Iranians are taking it the streets to protest controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory over challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Iranians are taking it the streets to protest controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory over challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi.

In 2008, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain all promised America that they would bring change to America if they are elected President of the United States. Obama, as many of his young and enthusiastic followers know, sort of trademarked “change” as the main focus of his campaign.

He won the election fair and square that November, which got plenty of Americans excited for this “change” that was promised. And now we are in 2009. Whether he has delivered on that campaign promise or not, Americans will be debating that for years to come. But if there is another group of young people eager for a new political leader to bring about change in a struggling country, you can find them in the unlikeliest of places: Iran.

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Persian nation of Iran has been a hotspot for political repression and violence in the historically tumultuous Middle East. The overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah in favor of a fundamentalist Islamic government forever strained Iran’s relationship with the West. The holding of 52 American hostages for 444 days from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981 at the U.S. Embassy did not help matters.

Since the so-called “revolution,” Iran has seen itself decline into political isolation and international ridicule. United Nations sanctions has significantly hurt the Iranian economy in recent years. A devastating war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq lasted from 1980 to 1988. Controversies over its nuclear enrichment program has made Iran a grave enemy to Israel and many Western countries. The economy is suffering despite rich amounts of oil and other natural resources. Things are not looking good right now.

But the recently disputed election between hard line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, demonstrates that people are finally bold enough to show their frustration toward the theocratic regime. Protests following Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory have extensively ensued. People have been protesting on the streets and on rooftops, shouting revolution-era slogans and cries of “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is Great.”

These protests are significant enough that Iran’s state-run media are trying to censor any international coverage of them. The government is doing all that they can to make sure people don’t see fellow Iranians protesting the regime or the election results. After all, in a nation run by the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, who is a truly great man of God, how can things go wrong?

The regime obviously doesn’t think anything can go wrong. If God wills Ahmadinejad to win re-election, then so be it. He may be a controversial figure who has denied the Holocaust and has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, but he is right for Iran’s future. Their future, of course, consisting of going to war with the West once their nuclear program becomes serious. That is a future that the regime wants. But not the people.

The fact that people are courageous enough to protest means something. Iran is a nation where a “moral police” roams the streets to enforce Islamic law (commonly referred to as “Sharia”) on the people. They are not afraid to beat, torture, or kill anyone who breaks these strict rules. That includes any man, woman, or child. Ahmadinejad’s government is accused of secretly supporting these Gestapo-like police forces. He denies it. Of course he would.

Women in Iran who speak out for women’s rights are put in jail and tortured. Women who show too much skin in public, like their face or legs, are beaten on the spot. The regime is not afraid to use violence to suppress peaceful protests. They censor voices that disagree with them. They provoke the West in hopes to weaken Israel. They support terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, who recruit poor young men to kill people for a living. They send agents into Iraq to cause chaos and kill coalition forces. The list is endless.

Iranians feel connected to each other because of the revolutionary spirit that has lasted since the late 70s. Like Cuba, Iran feels proud of their history of defying the West and creating a better society than anywhere else on earth. At least, this is what they would like to think. The brave Iranians who are protesting right now prove that not everyone is happy about the way things are going. They are willing to endure beatings by police officers and attacks by tear gas if that means making their voices heard.

Student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 resulted in the Chinese military killing an unknown number of people in order to silence the crowds. Best known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, this is an example of a repressive regime using horrendous acts of violence to silence their critics. Who is to say that Iran wouldn’t do the same thing? Somehow many experts doubt it, but one can never underestimate what a violent regime will do to maintain its grip on power.

Under these dangerous circumstances are these people protesting. They face the possibilities of violent repression, incarceration, and many other unspeakable punishments. A significant number of protesters are young people. Mousavi is known as a more liberal politician who wants to open dialogue with the West instead of shun them. He wants to make amends with the United States, not taunt them with nuclear proliferation. This sounds like the kind of guy who needs to lead this troubled nation.

Ahmadinejad is a fundamentalist hard liner who only wants to defy the West and spite the U.S. and its allies. Though the Ayatollah holds the real power in that country, the Iranian president is the face of the nation on the international stage. Whoever holds this office is in a position to change Iran’s reputation in global politics. Maintaining Ahmadinejad’s regime will only sour matters further. A new voice is necessary for Iran to make peace with the world. Does any of this sound vaguely familiar?

Of course! The 2008 U.S. presidential election. Then-Senator Obama was seen as America’s savior to get us out of the funk the unpopular George W. Bush got us into. Bush invaded two Middle Eastern countries, neglected Hurricane Katrina victims, increased the national debt, authorized for controversial interrogation techniques of terror suspects, allowed for unwarranted domestic wiretapping, failed to stop the subprime mortgage fiasco before the housing bubble burst, and many other things that people have ranted about over the years. Of course America was ready for a “change.” And voters got really excited.

A good portion of those who did vote for Obama, the alleged radical Muslim Arab, may not have been completely aware of his political beliefs or how much of the anti-Bush he really is. Obama, as it turns out, has not overturned as many Bush-era policies as we might have hoped for. Military tribunals of terror suspects are still going on. We are still in Iraq. North Korea is still testing nuclear weapons. What about healthcare reform? The TARP bailout plan, or the Troubled Assets Relief Program, was signed by Bush in his last month in office. It promised banks $700 billion in federal money to help liquidate the banks’ toxic assets. Obama has continued this program. So much for Obama being the anti-Bush.

But that is neither here nor there. Mousavi may not be the anti-Ahmadinejad either. He may be just another puppet for the Ayatollah and his council of yes-men. As many skeptical Americans are wondering if Obama can follow through on all his grand campaign promises, Iranians should wonder if Mousavi will end Iran’s counterproductive domestic and foreign policies. Even if Mousavi doesn’t become president, these series of protests should at least signal to the regime that people want change.

It is conceivable that the enthusiasm America felt for electing its first African American president may be spilling over across the world. Just as we were excited for the new era of hope and change under Jesus, excuse me, rather “Barack,” Iranians are feeling excited for getting rid of Ahmadinejad and his cowboy politics and replacing him with someone cooler and hipper. One can only hope.

I will admit that I voted for Obama. I felt McCain could not get enough people excited for the future. I respect McCain, but I feel he was not the right man at the right time. I would much rather have seen McCain win the 2000 election, as he would have made a better president than either Bush or former Vice President Al Gore. America needed someone that they can like. Barack seemed like that man.

I have no delusions about politics. I am just as cynical about the political system than anyone else. As a journalist, I am supposed to be suspicious of our elected leaders. I should never give anyone a free pass, regardless of their status, popularity, or past history. Everyone should be held accountable. That is why I did not jump on the Obama bandwagon like many of my fellow young people did. I did not look forward to “Hope and Change” like many of my friends. I realize that one man cannot do that by himself. Instead, I figured that if he can follow through on 25% of his promises, then I will consider that a good accomplishment.

This same cynicism should be going through the minds of Iranians as they continue to protest for civil liberties and political transparency. Mousavi may not bring about the change that he promises. Though he should be better than Ahmadinejad, one cannot hope for too much. One must keep their expectations realistic at all times. Being too optimistic allows you to miss important developments that you may not have had you kept a level head.

So please, Iranians everywhere, keep on sticking it to the Man. Keep on putting pressure on the government to reverse its controversial policies. Make the regime sweat. It may actually bring about desirable results. Or it may not. Either way, if you believe in change, it will come. Real change comes from the bottom up, not from the top to the bottom. The people change the course of history, not just the leaders. The leaders will eventually follow the will of the masses once the masses become strong enough. When the masses are making the right decisions, everyone benefits.

I hope those of us in America are learning that, too.

Sonia Sotomayor, Racism, and the Problems with Liberals and Conservatives in America

June 11, 2009
Sonia Sotomayor has unfairly become a rallying cry for race-related debate by liberals and conservatives.

Sonia Sotomayor has unfairly become a rallying cry for race-related debate by liberals and conservatives.

There’s that dreaded subject again. Race. Race, racism, racial progress, racial prejudice, racial tolerance, it all boils down to one thing: controversy.

Race is a painful, taboo topic of discussion that always seems to turn its ugly head again and again. Especially in these United States, with our long history of racial injustice, talking about race can be an activity that makes people either run away or hide under their desks. That was true fifty years ago, it’s still true today.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency last fall seemed like a step in the right direction. America had finally elected its first African American president. A country with a long history of slavery, race-inspired lynching, and segregation can partially bury its demons from the past with this historic election. Race will still be a problem in this country, but one memorable election certainly couldn’t hurt.

But the recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court by President Obama has stirred race-related discussions that expose two hard hitting facts about race in America: Some people cannot let go of the past and some people cannot embrace a new future.

Supporters of Sotomayor argue it is important for the Supreme Court to have a Latino woman on the bench. The Supreme Court, historically dominated by old white men, is the highest court in the nation. They determine the supreme law of the land. They decide how Americans can and cannot live. This is indeed a big deal.

Most of the discussion surrounding Sotomayor has nothing to do with her judicial beliefs or legal philosophy. Seen by a few Constitutional law experts as a center-left justice cut from the same cloth as the soon-to-retire David Souter, if confirmed, she will most likely make decisions that appease Obama’s liberal base while occasionally deciding in favor of conservatives.

Instead, talk about Sotomayor in the media mostly revolves around her ethnicity and a controversial statement she made on a few occasions, but most famously at a 2001 speech to the University of California, Berkley, School of Law entitled “A Latina Judge’s Voice.” Her quote is as follows:

“First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Conservatives argue this line of thinking implies that her ethnicity and cultural background alone qualifies her to serve on the bench. They fear her rulings will be biased toward racial minorities and that she will marginalized Caucasians if a race-related case comes before the Court. They also argue this statement is “reverse racist” because she implies her race and background is superior to that of a white man.

Former Speaker of the House and possible 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and outspoken radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh both called this statement racist and called Sotomayor a racist. Interestingly, Gingrich has since apologized for his condemnation of Sotomayor while Limbaugh has said he may support her confirmation. This proves one’s gut reaction should not be said publicly until you’ve had time to talk about it.

Ideally, a judge should be impartial, unbiased, and completely fair toward all people in court. In Harper Lee’s famous 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch tells Scout that “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow.” Liberals argue Sotomayor’s Latina background will give her a better perspective when dealing with cases involving the common people, minorities, and women. Conservatives argue that that’s the problem. Her perspective should be objective and removed from outside influences, not unapologetically formulated by it.

What this debate illustrates is that liberals, or at least politically-minded liberals, cannot let go of the past. To them, every sin of the past must be made up by progressives of the present and future. Remember segregation? We must elect a black man to the presidency to cleanse us of those sins. Remember how we denied women the right to vote, have an abortion, and get paid equally to men in the workplace? We need to support a woman to join the Supreme Court if we are to let go of that dreadful past.

This, of course, is not how all liberals feel. Just those who have this perception that they have some guilt to relieve. Liberal bloggers and political pundits see the negative reaction to Sotomayor’s statement as signs that racism still exists in this country. Indeed it does, but perhaps they are ignoring the larger picture of equality. The fact that Sotomayor’s past life is coming back to haunt her is proof that women, to a certain degree, have made huge strides in becoming equal to men.

All politicians have dirt on them. All lawyers have dirt on them (there are a million lawyer jokes to back me up on this). When John Roberts and Samuel Alito were being confirmed to the Court during the Bush era, liberals were harsh on them and grilled them for hours before a congressional confirmation panel. Every memo, every paper, every legal statement they made were put under a microscope and analyzed to death. This happens when you are deciding whether to confirm someone to a life long appointment on the nation’s highest bench.

Liberals should not be surprised that such a statement would be considered controversial. Even a few left-leaning political columnists agree that she may have been a tad unwise to say something so controversial. Saying anything about “a white male who hasn’t lived that life” is guaranteed to turn heads. If Sotomayor had known she would later in life to considered for the Supreme Court, it can be guaranteed that she would have said something different.

However, the anger pouring out against her is proof that even though she is a minority woman, she will not get a free pass at attaining high positions of power. She will have to earn it. And in order to earn it, she has to explain herself and justify her beliefs. Roberts and Alito had to justify their beliefs before a skeptical congressional panel. The fact that Sotomayor has to do the same thing proves a certain degree of equality has been attained.

Assuming every attack on Sotomayor, or even skeptical remark, is fueled by racism is a way to silence critics and assure her confirmation. Not everything is related to race. Maybe I am less perceptive than other people, but most white Americans in 21st century America don’t look at a minority as just a minority. That might be part of their internal social mental description, but that is certainly not everything. Not everything is about race.

Conservatives become defensive about race because they feel liberals hark on them about it all the time. Conservatives and Republicans definitely did not help in ending slavery or Jim Crow laws. Ultra-right winged radicals were the ones who lynched blacks in the South and most recently murdered abortionist doctor George Tiller. While this is all true, conservatives fear threatened that every time they criticize someone of color, they will automatically be branded a racist. This is why Republicans are cautious to criticize Obama’s policies. They don’t want to be known as a “hater” and be voted out in the next election.

One of the reasons why racism still exists is because there are people who refuse to let it go. They dwell in the past instead of living in the present. I believe that every schoolchild should learn about America’s horrific past with racism. The history of slavery, abolitionism, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement should be taught to every child in the United States. But after that, we should learn from the past so that we don’t commit the same crimes in the future. Continuously returning to the past and unburying the skeletons in the closet will only further alienate people from the discussion and make them bitter. Real progress cannot happen if people insist on dwelling on the sins of those long gone.

Conservatives, on the other hand, fear for the future. They are guilty of fearing what a diverse and egalitarian America will look like. They fear that having women in positions of power will strip down the “old boys club” and make it that their wives, girlfriends, mothers, and daughters can have authority over them. Such a horrible thought.

It is no mystery that conservatives value tradition and keeping things the way they are. Hence, they want to “conserve” the status quo. But if that means maintaining a system where rich white men have all the control, then we have a problem. Women and minorities deserve a chance at making it big. They deserve to have their voices heard and their needs considered. That is why we live in a democratic system. We are government of the people, for the people, and by the people. And women and minorities are people.

Perhaps conservatives fear that a pseudo “melting pot” America will destroy what it means to be “American.” Instead of having a clean cut white Christian family be the face of America, it might be a black Muslim family. Or a Buddhist Chinese family. Or an atheistic Latino family. Or a gay family. Such thoughts keep conservatives up at night.

Once again, I say “conservatives” to mean those who are far to the right, like a Rush Limbaugh or a Bill O’Reilly. Most normal or moderate conservatives have no fear of white men sharing power. They just fear Big Government and socialized healthcare. But that is a whole other sack of potatoes.

For conservatives, talking about “race” is all about how evil conservatism is and how Big Government should be authorized to tell people how to live, work, and interact. What they don’t understand is that most moderate liberals think of race in terms of improving society, not demonizing the white man. Only the radicals are bent on destroying the system. Moderates/pragmatists just want to live in peace.

In short, this is the conclusions one can make regarding how race is discussed and viewed in America. One can go on for hours about the little nuances of race-related issues, but that is for later. What Sonia Sotomayor represents is a larger discussion about how women and minorities are treated in this country. And that is not fair to her. She is an individual who should be treated as an individual. She is smart, independent, and her own woman. Framing her as “a sign of progress” dehumanizes her and makes her a symbol of “equality.”

If I can fault both liberals and conservatives about one thing, it’s that most of this discussion should be about Sotomayor’s qualifications as a judge, not her race or gender. For liberals to make her a rallying point for egalitarianism and for conservatives to make her an example of “reverse racial discrimination” devalues her as a human being and forces her to be a battleground for an age old war that she does not deserve to be a part of.

Please, those on the left and right, focus on her judicial philosophy and not your own race-related social agenda. This should be about deciding who gets to determine our country’s laws, not about your own personal biases. Sonia Sotomayor, though she is a Latina woman, should be treated as a human being, not a political symbol.

If you cannot do that, then you should take a long look at yourself in the mirror and reconsider what you really value in life.