Archive for the ‘Government and public policies’ Category

America Led Astray

Author: Gary Hart

One of the best, indeed quite possibly the best, book on the derailment of U.S. foreign policy in the early 21st century is Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray–and How to Return to Reality.  It was published last year by Ambassador Jack Matlock, one of the finest members of the diplomatic corps of his, or any, generation.

In too brief a word, Ambassador Matlock argues that a misinterpretation, in part a purposeful one, of the end of the Cold War led a group of ideologues, generally identified as neo-conservatives, to the conclusion that America could democratize the world largely through the threat and/or use of force, that what they call “regime change” was an acceptable policy for the U.S., and that strength trumped principle in American foreign policy.

Ambassador Matlock, who served as our ambassador to the Soviet Union under President Reagan and who admired that iconic Republican president, refutes at every point these notions.  Mighty as we are, we cannot govern the world by force or intimidation.  Traditional military power might awe inferior regimes but not insurgents.  And we pay a heavy price in respect when we operate outside our proclaimed principles.

All this would seem self-evident, except the cycles of history suggest that, sooner or later, possibly beyond a second Obama term, the foreign policy of bullying, cloaked again in a phony Wilsonian patina, will re-emerge.  It will do so, that is, if we have figured out a way to keep our own society and economy from collapsing because of the trillions of dollars we have put into unnecessary foreign wars instead of into nation building at home.

[This will be the last appearance of this blog-site under the banner of the University of Colorado.  But it is my hope and intention to maintain Matters of Principle under a new banner.  Please stay tuned and continue to provide those overwhelmingly thoughtful and intelligent comments.]

The Measure of a Republic

Author: Gary Hart
In his magisterial work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, more quoted than read, made this one-of-many interesting observation: “In the commonwealths of Athens and Rome, the modest simplicity of private houses announced the equal condition of freedom; whilst the sovereignty of the people was represented in the majestic edifices designed to the public use.”  The publication of the six volumes of this history (1776-1788) coincided almost exactly with the establishment of the American Republic.
Contrast the situations of republican Athens and Rome with 21st century America where homelessness mounts while the gilded yachts arrive at the docks of magnificent private mansions, where private houses of tens of thousands of square feet are bought and sold while public libraries are closing, where public works deteriorate for lack of investment while investment bankers reward themselves magnificently.
The important factors in Gibbon’s observation were these: first, he was describing the “commonwealths” of Athens and Rome, that is Rome as a republic before it sought empire; second, that wide-spread modest housing was a symbol of equality; and third, the “majestic edifices” were emblematic of the “sovereignty of the people.” 
Twenty-first century America has lost all sense of the commonwealth, what we the people own together.  Conservative ideology does not like the sense of the commonwealth, so central to the nature of a republic.  Grand housing is a symbol of the triumph of wealth, not equality of freedom.  And public edifices for the use of all the people require investment of public revenue, condemned as well by conservative ideology.  
Gibbon would find it difficult to identify America today with those early commonwealths which our Founders sought so diligently to emulate.  Regretably, he would find more in common with the Roman empire whose decline and fall he so brilliantly documented.

As on previous occasions at this site, this is not a rhetorical question.  I don’t know the answer.  And, of course, I don’t mean should the President be a moral person.  The question is whether the ultimate political leader in our democratic system should also be one who focuses our national attention on the shortcomings of our society in humanity and justice.

For example: we have a growing number of homeless children.  Over 90% of the students in a California grade school were homeless according to a recent news story.  One in five American children do not have any health care.  Well over ten percent of employable people cannot find work.  Many elderly people have lost their homes.  My friend Bill Shore’s hunger relief organization Share Our Strength regularly documents the huge number of children who don’t begin to have adequate diets.  Afghan and Iraq veterans are living in public shelters or on the streets.  The evidence is overwhelming of a great gap between what our society ought to be and what it actually is on the moral scale.

Many conservative people accept deprivation as a fact of life and assume private charity (“a thousand points of light”) will take care of the poor and needy.  The more cruel ones believe the poor are poor by choice due to ignorance, sloth, or having an unlucky number in the lottery of life.  Many of the rest of us, liberal or otherwise, take our religious teachings seriously and believe we have a duty as a society to care for each other.

But should the President point out the gap between what is and what ought to be?  And if he or she does, will that be considered the kind of moralistic “preaching” that got leaders like Woodrow Wilson and Jimmie Carter into trouble?  Though he never became President, Robert Kennedy assumed this kind of role in forcing the nation to face poverty in the South and racial discrimination across our society.  He has been respected, even revered, more in death than in life for doing this.

President Obama has walked a fine line on this matter.  Many thought his race, together with his record of social activism, might cause him to be a voice of conscience.  At his finest moments he has done so. But a struggling economy, widespread conflict over the role of government in our society, and a hard right opposition have forced him into the role of bargaining over what is instead of what out to be.

We must hold out the hope that the better angels of his nature will come to rest upon his burdened shoulders and he will lift up a prophetic voice that calls America to the highest standard of social justice and national morality.  Now is the hour, and it is not too late.

For about three and a half centuries wars have been fought principally between and among nation-states or countries.  Military people are paid to prepare for these wars and employ the tools and practices of traditional warfare in doing so.  Now comes the 21st century and the new threats we face are not from the governments of other countries, and they rarely represent a challenge to our survival or the balance of power in the world.  What is a traditional military to do under these circumstances?

What our Pentagon did recently was to try to fit cyber attacks into the traditional military mold.  According to the New York Times, it “plans to issue a new strategy soon declaring that a computer attack from a foreign nation can be considered an act of war that may result in a military response.”  Notice that it does not insist the attack come from a foreign government, just from a “foreign nation.”

Starting some years ago reports of hackers around the world–Russia, China, and elsewhere–penetrating our military and civilian computer systems began to flourish.  Our counter-technology usually traced these to random mischief-makers demonstrating their computer skills.  Rarely have these been traced to a foreign ministry of defense or official source.  So, our Pentagon is going to war with other nations–“a military response”–if some hacker attacks any of our computer systems?  Really?  Are they serious?

Perhaps these geniuses, who are totally adrift in a world where threats do not originate from foreign governments, are trying to intimidate foreign governments, including Russia and China, into policing their own hacker world.  It is a theory, but not a very plausible one.  Instead, it seems like an attempt by traditional military thinkers to fit a world of new realities into an old world of conventional warfare: “Anybody in your country does something bad to us, particularly something bad we’re not prepared to deal with, and we’ll attack you.”

If someone, in this case the Commander-in-chief and the senior civilian command, doesn’t shut down this dangerous kind of thinking soon, we’ll find ourselves in the same situation of Gulliver–tied down by armies of little Lilliputians.  There is nothing more harmful to the survival and success of a great nation than to let itself become irrelevant.

Goodbye to Politics

Author: Gary Hart

Goodby to Politics

Sometime back, doesn’t matter exactly when, politics said goodby to me.  I didn’t say goodby to it.  As an avenue for active citizenship, it fundamentally changed.

There was a time, years ago, for no apparant reason of birth or training I had a keen insight into American politics.  I understood it about as well as anyone and could practice it about as well as anyone.  Then, everything began to change.

Instead of politics as an avenue for service, it became a road to wealth.  Instead of the means to define the national interest, it became a career and a stepping stone to behind the scenes influence.  Instead of a noble ideal, it became a battleground for hard core ideologues looking for a fight.

I am not naive.  There have always been cynics, maneuverers, and hacks in American politics.  But they were no more than hangers-on and bottom-feeders, not the mainstream practitioners.  Even the most Machiavellian manipulators, say the Lyndon Johnson of the old political school, often practiced their art to achieve a noble social cause.  Power is where power goes, he once said.

Then came assassinations, Cold War deceits all around, Watergate, and much more.  And it was as if a kind of Gresham’s law of politics took over.  Bad politics drove out good politics.

Those diminishing few of us who saw ideals more important than careers and the national interest more important than a narrow, vindictive, and mean special agenda, now find it necessary to move on and abandon the field of today’s unproductive politics to those who understand and relish it as a path to a lifetime office-holding career or to great lobbying wealth.

But this thought lingers.  Someday, somehow, America will long for a restoration of its ideals and its nobility and it will once again turn to young women and men who understand politics to be unselfish, a way to serve, and a process for the creation of a better society and world.  May that day come soon.

Does a Nation Have a Soul?

Author: Gary Hart

This is not a rhetorical question to which I have an answer.  I don’t know.  Most political people would laugh and say no.  But, it is worth at least a momentary thought.

It is difficult to imagine that a mass democracy of 300 million could have a soul, because we don’t know exactly what a soul is.  It is usually described with regard to individuals as a consciousness, a sense of ultimate things, a moral conscience, a compass of right and wrong, a longing for immortality.  Hard to imagine all of us Americans having a collective soul. 

But what if we did?  What if there were some Supreme Being or Divine Providence that judged nations, judged them by how they behaved morally and ethically to each other and to people in other nations.  We might be judged by our sense of justice and fairness and humanity and compassion.  Our national soul might be judged by the standard to which we hold ourselves, whether we lived up to the ideals we claim to believe in.  Jesus taught those who followed him that they would be judged not by how they treated their friends, but how they treated their enemies.

This is a subject for graduate classes in theology.  It is certainly well beyond the realm of politics.  But at the very least it intrudes on the delicate, mostly unspoken debate about security and freedom.  How much of our freedom, as individuals and as a nation, are we willing to sacrifice to feel more secure?  This question is central to all nations and to democracies particularly.  But it is also a question of how much of our soul, our proclaimed commitment to liberty and justice for all, to the noble notion that all men and women are created equal, we are willing to trade to the Mephistopheles of history to guarantee that we will be both powerful and secure.

“U.S. Do Something”

Author: Gary Hart


Discussing the tumultuous “Arab spring”, a Sunday morning commentator argued that the North African/Middle East uprisings were a great triumph for Iran and disaster for Israel and the U.S.  And, he said, the U.S. is letting it happen and “not doing a thing.”

Needless to say, he did not mention the menu of options the U.S. has to work with…for the very simple reason that it doesn’t exist.  That is to say, unless he has in mind yet a fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh military intervention.  Even the most powerful nation on earth, with far and away the most extensive military establishment, cannot dictate terms in every circumstance and certainly not in six or eight countries at a time and even more certainly not when engaged in two and a half wars already.

What is it we are supposed to do, I wonder?  Send diplomats, perhaps.  But with whom do they negotiate?  Mobs of demonstrators in huge squares?  The commentators suggested we should have stood more firmly with President Mubarak in Egypt.  Aside from issuing proclamations of support, how should we have done that?  Send troops?  Does anyone believe the Egyptian uprising was waiting for instruction from the U.S.?  And the troops we have are on multiple deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Welcome to the 21st century, a time already characterized by the limits on American power.  People are rising up against oligarchs we have supported for decades.  Some want democracy.  Some want religious rule.  Some want their tribe or clan to rule.  Are we in a position to dictate in multiple countries who should and should not govern?  And even if we could, should we?

Among the many new realities of the 21st century are boundaries on what America can and cannot do.  This is not an argument for isolationism or retreat.  It is an argument for a realistic understanding of what we can and cannot do and should and should not do.  What we should not do is violate the principles contained in our Declaration and our Constitution, the definition of who we are and who we consider ourselves to be. 

The best outcome in this turbulent time is to hope that, by our example and our behavior, as many uprisings as possible will, as in Tiananmen Square some years ago, erect in their public squares some semblance of our Statue of Liberty as their symbol of what they hope to become.

Seal Six

Author: Gary Hart

Seal Six

In the arena of global conflict, there is good news and bad news.  The good news is reflected in the sensational success of the Seals in Pakistan.  The bad news is that there will be a lot more actions like this and they will not always be so successful.

Warfare is changing.  The nature of conflict is reverting to pre-nation-state status.  That is, the “warriors” more resemble criminals; the enemy doesn’t wear uniforms.  There are no final peace treaty ceremonies and victory celebrations.  We made a huge mistake declaring “war on terrorism” because little of our Cold War forces can be used, we are not fighting regular military forces, and there will be no final “victory”, at least until the bin Ladens of the world disappear.  But don’t hold your breath for that.

The one product of advanced warfare that was important in Abbottabad was technology: stealth helicopters, satellite surveillance, night-vision goggles, etc.  But it all got down to kicking down doors and shooting people.  More police work than regular warfare.

All this means is that we have to restructure our forces into smaller, faster, quicker units, such as the Special Forces, equip them with advanced, practical technologies, and find the bad guys.  The bad guys are not warriors.  They are criminals.  They have to be dealt with as such.  They should not be glorified as warriors.  That’s what they want the world to think of them.  They are not.  They are cowards who kill innocent people.  They have to be hunted like criminals and eliminated.  They should have no sanctuary in any nation that calls itself our friend and that received money from American taxpayers.

If we have learned anything in the two Long Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq it is that our overwhelming Cold War military superiority does not guarantee “victory” or success in any traditional sense.  Our leaders claim we intend to establish stable democratic governments friendly to the U.S. in tribal, sectarian nations that have had internal conflicts for centuries.  Good luck with that.  Afghanistan will finally be “free” when Afghan men care enough about their wives and daughters to protect them from barbarian mullahs.  But not before then.

The Legitimacy of Authority

Author: Gary Hart

Starting a few years back, possibly in the 1980s, parts of our society refused to take political legitimacy for granted.  That is to say, they began to question, often repeatedly, whether certain individuals had the right to lead.  The mantra was: “we need to know more about him or her.”  The process by which this questioning is carried out is called “scrutiny” and, once let loose, it rarely ends.

Throughout most of our history candidates for office provided their life stories as an aspect of campaigning.  They told us who they were and, by and large, we took their word for it.  No doubt this benign good faith acceptance let a few fakers, but not many, slip through.  I had some early experience with this.  Though I had known and been known by the journalistic world, including close friendships with very prominent journalists, for at least fifteen years, after I became a serious national candidate the cry went up: “we don’t know who he is.”

President Obama is the most recent example of this.  Though elected by a clear majority of Americans who knew of his background, virtually unique in national political history, he continues to be plagued by forces who seek to deny his legitimacy to lead.  This will not end.  The question is whether the media will continue to take showmen and self-promoters seriously as creating what they call “the news.”  We are told by editors and news people that Donald Trump requires coverage, even live television coverage, because he is “making news.”  Donald Trump doesn’t decide what is newsworthy.  Journalists do.

These are not partisan observations.  George W. Bush’s legitimacy to lead was repeatedly questioned by many Democrats who claimed he did not have the intelligence to be president, but even more significantly that his election in 2000, by what turned out to be one Supreme Court justice, was not legitimate.  Rightly or wrongly, what now seems to be an endless questioning of the legitimacy of national leaders as newsworthy is taking its toll.

We have no way of measuring the impact of this skepticism run amock, this often mindless or even vicious passion to tear people down, on the caliber and quality of those who choose to seek political office and particularly high national office.  We do not know, and probably never will, how many men and women of quality who wish to serve this nation for the most noble of reasons simply decide not to submit themselves to this “scrutiny” in the interest of preserving their dignity and self-respect.

I have no solution, other than serious introspection by citizens and journalists alike, to this problem.  But it is a problem, and a serious one that will not go away on its own.  One thing is obvious.  It is not enough for those who decide what is, and is not, “news”, those who place stories in papers and on national television, to say that they are mere passive bystanders who have no choice but to give the Donald Trumps of the world legitimacy at the expense of the legitimacy of our national leadership.

I’m a republican

Author: Gary Hart

 Those who founded this country spoke the language and upheld the ideals of the republic.  Most of us find that quaint and rarely take the time to ask why.  But it’s a question worth asking.  Why did the Founders want to create a republic and not a democracy?

The Hamiltons, Adamses, and most Federalists were frightened of democracy.  For them it meant mobs in the streets.  They believed in a aristocratic elite that would supply national leaders.  The more radical Jefferson, his close ally Madison, and most of the Republicans embraced democratic principles and thought leaders could come from all social strata and all should participate equally (except, tragically, for slaves).  This led them eventually to form what was called the Republican Democratic party.

But they all wanted to create on these shores a republic, patterned after the ancient Greek and Roman models, albeit on a scale never before realized.  Up to our founding all republics had been small.  Nevertheless, all republics throughout history have shared at least four common denominators: civic virtue (duty to participate); popular sovereignty (power to the people); resistance to corruption (special interest lobbying); and a sense of the commonwealth (we own many things in common that bind us together). 

We have moved to the far end of democracy (my rights above all) at the expense of the republic (responsibility and duties).  We’ve lost sight of the fact that we the people are the sovereign authority.  The lobbyists control government.  And we don’t want to be told we share a common-wealth and the responsibility for it.

If someone comes along to start a classic republican party, it would attract great interest among those of us who still believe in those four basic principles upon which our nation was founded.