What we don’t know, can hurt us

Thanks to Carl Cannon, Washington Bureau Chief of Real Clear Politics (@carlcannon) for helping me find a voice to help me write about the survival of democracy abroad and here at home. His January 18 Morning Note continued his previous day’s look at what Washington, Eisenhower, and JFK said during their transitions in and out of office. It has great relevance today.

Overseas, the regression in democratic governance in the Middle East, North Africa, and Africa is daunting. Presidents-for-life, fragile and failing states, civil strife, security concerns trumping human rights, and growing polarization and wealth inequality are some of the more obvious trends making regional stability and security precarious. What then are the consequences if America does not promote nation-building, if it is content to let bilateral relations with Russia and China shape the interests of many countries, and if our foreign relations can be reduced to transactions and zero-sum calculations?

It is also interesting that those critical of the new Administration’s perceived tolerance if not preference for strong leaders abroad, gloss over the support that America has given to authoritarian leaders throughout our modern history to promote security and trade relations. More troubling is not examining the potential erosion of constitutional checks and balances when Congress, the Executive, and the Supreme Court are controlled by a single political party, headed by someone who takes umbrage at those who disagree with him.

As one of the “Western” democracies, we have institutions that are guarantors of America’s national democratic values including human rights, justice, equality before the law, access to basic social and educational services, protection of minorities, and relatively open participation in the country’s political space, values built on collaboration and tolerance (although I would prefer respect…). I’m not sure that anyone can define these anymore to the satisfaction of all Americans.

During the campaign, I described Mr. Trump’s foreign policy statements as chauvinistic, for “displaying aggressive or exaggerated patriotism.” Whatever the topic, he knew instinctively that he could rally and attract supporters by strong and often provocative statements.

On the other hand, reading Carl Cannon made me think about evocative statements that call us to higher standards of thinking and behavior, which seem to be absent in the incoming Administration.

JFK said, “”Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” No weaknesses in that vow, as Kennedy concluded: “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

Cannon notes that today, “Benefiting from half-a-century’s worth of hindsight, however, most presidential scholars now consider Eisenhower’s farewell address more substantive than Kennedy’s speech.”

General Eisenhower and Prime Minister Churchill at the Rhine. Image from Shapshooter46

Looking back at the wars in the 20th century, Eisenhower said, “Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”

He went on, “Throughout America’s adventure in free government, such basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among peoples and among nations…To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people.”

Eisenhower laid down a challenge saying, “Any failure traceable to arrogance or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us a grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.” He spoke of the need to find balance in our political sensibilities. “Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

He concluded, “We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

For a warrior turned public servant, wise words borne of a life of deep experiences that evoke us to a higher ground.


Image of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy from FinnCamera

What’s not working in the World Economic Order

I just spent three months working in Jordan and two weeks in Lebanon. Watching the spectacle of the US presidential politics from a distance has had a sobering effect on my usual quick retorts to questions about US politics even though I’ve been at it for several decades in this part of the world. Arabs of all political stripes are alarmed by both presidential candidates, one because she is well-known and carries a great deal of baggage, and the other because his posturing is both alarming and invigorating as there is still a mystical glow around hard-charging leaders in this part of the world, as elsewhere.

It shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose. The chaos that now engulfs the MENA region has much of its origins in the upheaval of autocratic regimes that once provided stability so prized by international investors and Western leadership. The irony is that today, many in society long for the law and order days of the old regimes, as long as they aren’t the targets of repression and human rights violations. And there is symmetry in their yearning in the populist rumblings across Europe and the US.

Indicative of the seismic shifts that are going on are challenges to the ‘economic order’ that has guided free market policies since the heydays of Reagan and Thatcher. Rob Rowden writes in Foreign Policy about a article by an IMF economist that takes direct aim at two cherished principles of its Washington consensus for countries in financial crisis: the need fiscal austerity during economic slowdowns and the deregulation of financial markets.

Commonly referred to by its critics as ‘neoliberalism,’ the IMF author criticizes these tenets for not achieving higher growth rates as promised, in fact, Rowden points out, “fiscal austerity and increased financial openness have often exacerbated economic inequality, which itself could become a drag on future economic growth rates.”

To be fair, the IMF article also notes that other principles promoted by the IMF have been more successful in addressing issues of growth, stability, and capital fluctuations. Rowden writes, “Most strikingly, the article infers that three policy prescriptions long advocated by the IMF’s critics — regulation of some capital flows, Keynesian fiscal stimulus policies, and effective economic redistribution — all have more merit than the IMF has long contended.”

An especially relevant point in the article for developed economies is that the financial crisis of 2008 demonstrated the weaknesses in the IMF’s prescriptions in dealing with economic inequality, stabilizing financial markets, and reviving economic growth. Most levels of GDP growth are still failing to measure up to levels before the crisis, hence the stagnation that is feeding the middle class angst among Europeans and Americans, benefiting non-traditional political candidates like Donald Trump.

As the FP article notes, “Today, in a time when Thomas Piketty’s critique of worsening economic inequality is a best-seller, leading U.S. presidential candidates rail against free trade deals, right-wing anti-immigrant parties win elections across Europe, and even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development calls on its members to put the brakes on austerity, it’s clear that the political center, which has favored neoliberal policies for the last 30 years, is no longer holding.”

For the US, the challenges of addressing economic inequality, lower growth rates, and the resulting depression in job quality and compensation, have brought out a strong anti-establishment fervor among the fast-fading white majority as well as conservative ethnic groups who see their share of the economic pie turning sour. Globalization, represented by the IMF’s Washington Consensus, is a convenient target for those who want to return to or move towards a new golden age. The lack of logical discussions in this age of turbulence has resulted in pithy pitches to damn trade deals, erect barriers, punish corporations, and target immigrants. It is hardly a basis for sustainable policies but nevertheless the reality being faced in the US and abroad as the current world order has failed to deliver its promises.

As the Foreign Policy article concluded, “The cynics who provide comfort for those delusions are as dangerous as the extremists.” It is a rough road ahead that will not be mended easily.

Muslims Battered on both Sides of the Atlantic

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.                                                         W.B. Yeats The Second Coming

There are plenty of interpretations of this poem, written by Yeats after WWI, and its memorable lines have inspired many novel and film titles. It is especially appropriate today as we see the failure of the center to hold against the tide of radicalism from the left and right.

Attempts to reason against the illogic of blaming all Muslims for the acts of a very few fall on deaf ears among skinheads, Trump/Cruz supporters, or other too ready to blame “the other.” The center cannot hold because it has little capacity to counter extremism, which would require more awareness of Islam and Muslims than most are willing to engage.

Muslims themselves are torn between justifying acts of reasonable opposition to autocratic regimes and pointing fingers at those whose horrific acts undercut every word of compassion uttered by their communities. It is ironic that the vast majority of extremists call themselves Sunnis, salafists, jihadists, while Shiites, whose excesses of past decades in Lebanon and obdurate policies emanating from Iran, are tarred with the same brush as al-Qai’da franchises and Daesh, Inc. Despite 1400+ years of separation, in the end, they are, in fact, all Muslims, all guilty.

To non-Muslims, Muslims are equally culpable for a multitude of sins stretching from Indonesia to Nigeria to Europe and even North America. To most Americans, Muslims are predominately Arabs, as are Iranians, because “what’s the difference?” They all share the tenets of Islam, a religion of hate and submission we are told by the Trump/Cruz apologists on talk radio. Muslims, they claim, are unwilling to live in peace with the rest of humanity (read Christians) because of religious precepts.

Far be it for these supporters to actually shake hands and converse with a Muslim although they may have been doing it for years without contamination. Enlightened statements by President Obama, leading military and intellectual leaders, and well-intentioned political leaders have not impacted those who fervently believe that Muslims are somehow a lower form of humanity that won’t rest until the apocalypse has come – strangely similar to most Christian evangelicals.

My concern is both broad and deep for my country and for the lack of civility that characterizes public life. I have worked and lived with Muslim communities my entire professional life, here in the U.S. and in many Arab countries, and Iran, which I know is not Arab. I have always thought it a blessing (baraka you could say) that my parents taught me compassion, inclusiveness, and openness, especially to that which I did not understand or feared.

While mine was a mostly normal American childhood, bigotry was somehow always lurking around, in remarks, insinuations, teasing. My sister/poet Elmaz writes of the pain of discrimination and marginalization…I guess it’s harder for some. Mine was more cerebral, since I was fortified by not giving a damn.

I am a Christian Arab American; we are the majority of Arabs in the U.S. We weathered the Palestinian and Lebanese conflicts as highly political rather than theological conflicts. So much is different today. We hear from varied sources about the persecution of Christians by Daesh. Lost in the hateful news is that the tyranny of Daesh, acting in the name of Islam, has been responsible for far more Muslim deaths. Daesh and its comrades are enemies of humanity, not just of religions.

The same drumbeat of deprecation is rising even louder in Europe as tides of immigrants and horrific violent acts deprive the centre of a stable platform for engaging doomsayers, bigots, and racists of all stripes. In our naïve caricature of the region, we want clarity about friend and foe. This is no easy task. It is somehow lost in translation that we are in a generational identity struggle among ourselves and with those “not like us.” It is a struggle that we cannot, each in our own way, avoid confronting.

Just think for a moment, why are refugees headed for Europe and beyond? Is it because they hate the West, its civilization, and its society? Is it because they are hiding terrorists cells within their numbers waiting to strike? Or is it because, like us, they just want to wake up each day to the tedium of jobs, families, children, and traffic?

It is this normalcy that is under attack and must be forcefully countered. We are certainly in a clash of civilizations – humanity against the beasts who deny us choice.

lead photo from