Tag Archives: war

A Liberal View of Intervention

Trump has taken liberals’ no-endless-war rhetoric and gone somewhere ugly with it. How do we take it back?


Like many liberals, I was wrong-footed by President Trump’s abrupt decision to wash his hands of Syria. On the one hand, it sure looks like a dishonorable move that has led to an embarrassing defeat and opened the door to a humanitarian catastrophe.

On the other hand, I also want to see America stop policing the world. I was against invading Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place, and I don’t see any achievable goal in Afghanistan that is worth our continued involvement. In general, I want to see American troops come home from war zones far from our borders. So what was my plan exactly for Syria?

I feel like Trump has stolen my own rhetoric about “endless war” and abused it. But what is the right use of it? And if I’m against Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds, is the only alternative to side with interventionists like Mitch McConnell?

I can’t promise a complete answer here, but let’s try to sort this out as best we can.

Betrayal and surrender. Let’s start with the Kurds , who are among the most persistently short-changed people on Earth. Something like 30-40 million of them live in a more-or-less definable area, but somehow the self-determination wave that swept the world after World War I passed them by. Bulgarians and Czechs got their own states, and by now even Croatia and Azerbaijan are countries, but the Kurds are still divided up among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

And now we’ve screwed them over again. We enlisted them into our fight against the Islamic State, and something like 11,000 of them died in that war. They had managed to carve out an autonomous zone in northeastern Syria, one in which women played an unusually active role, but the connections between that zone and a sometimes-violent Kurdish independence movement in Turkey threatened the authoritarian Erdogan government, which has wanted for years to cross into Syria and crush the Kurdish forces.

What had been stopping them was the presence of a small number of US troops in the area, and the threat of American air power. The Kurds may not be a military match for the second-largest army in NATO, but they are real soldiers, and with control of the skies they could make Turkey pay an unacceptable price. After all, this wasn’t some kind of asymmetric guerilla war, it was an invasion — exactly the kind of thing the American military was built to stop.

And then Trump decided to stand aside. We don’t know for sure what happened on that Trump/Erdogan phone call, but I picture it the way Mitt Romney does: “Turkey may have called America’s bluff.” I imagine Erdogan saying: “We’re coming whether you like it or not” and Trump being cowed into submission.

Trump tried to spin his “ceasefire agreement” (Turkey refuses to call it that) into a victory:

I’m happy to report tremendous success with respect to Turkey. This is an amazing outcome. This is an outcome, regardless of how the press would like to damp it down, this was something they were trying to get for 10 years.

But Trump’s “tremendous success” looks a lot like surrender. The agreement calls for Turkish forces to remain in the territory they have captured, and for our Kurdish allies to turn over their heavy weapons, dismantle their fortifications, and remove their forces from the 20-mile buffer zone Turkey has claimed. The United States will remove its forces from Syria entirely and impose no sanctions on Turkey. So Turkey gets what it wants and pays no price. Turkey may have been trying to get to this point for ten years, but that’s not what the Kurds wanted — or us for that matter.

I also doubt that any of the American troops waiting to be evacuated from Syrian feel victorious. Russians have already occupied one of the bases they left behind, and we destroyed another one with an air strike. Those are the kinds of things that happen when you flee in desperation, not when you win.

McConnell’s internationalist critique.  Friday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took the unusual step of publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post to denounce Trump’s Syria policy. Before looking at the content of his article, it’s worth considering what its mere existence tells us: McConnell doesn’t think Trump is listening to him. An influential player like McConnell doesn’t make a public argument if the President is taking his calls and paying attention. For McConnell, going public like this is a last resort, and points to feelings of both frustration and helplessness.

He’s also taking out insurance. If bad things happen because of Trump’s surrender, he doesn’t want to share the blame. So his article is a public marker that says, “I warned everybody.”

Also worth noting: He’s doing his best not to attack the President personally. In fact, the name “Trump” doesn’t appear (though “Obama” does). He focuses on the decision, not the man who made it.

Now to the content. First he makes an abstract defense of America’s military role abroad: Recalling 9/11, he predicts that the threat of ISIS or similar terrorist groups will not stay in the Middle East, and lays out a strategy where America provides strategic leadership, but has allies and so does not have to do all the fighting itself.

Then he assesses the current situation:

The combination of a U.S. pullback and the escalating Turkish-Kurdish hostilities is creating a strategic nightmare for our country. Even if the five-day cease-fire announced Thursday holds, events of the past week have set back the United States’ campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorists. Unless halted, our retreat will invite the brutal Assad regime in Syria and its Iranian backers to expand their influence. And we are ignoring Russia’s efforts to leverage its increasingly dominant position in Syria to amass power and influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.

And his prescription:

We need to use both sticks and carrots to bring Turkey back in line while respecting its own legitimate security concerns. In addition to limiting Turkey’s incursion and encouraging an enduring cease-fire, we should create conditions for the reintroduction of U.S. troops and move Turkey away from Russia and back into the NATO fold.

Finally, he worries that Trump’s desire to pull the US out of “endless wars” will strike next in Afghanistan.

We saw humanitarian disaster and a terrorist free-for-all after we abandoned Afghanistan in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for 9/11. We saw the Islamic State flourish in Iraq after President Barack Obama’s retreat. We will see these things anew in Syria and Afghanistan if we abandon our partners and retreat from these conflicts before they are won.

He closes with “America’s wars will be ‘endless’ only if America refuses to win them.”

In essence, McConnell is restating what has been the conventional wisdom in American foreign policy since World War II. (It lapsed a bit after Vietnam but came back after 9/11.): The world will never leave us alone, so we can’t leave it alone. Threats can arise anywhere, and we need to be ready to oppose them while they’re small and tractable, rather than wait for them to get large enough to strike at our homeland.

My anti-war record. I’d like to stay in an objective-journalist role and quote other people making the case for bringing our troops home from overseas — maybe Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, as Atlantic’s Peter Beinart does — but that would be disingenuous: I’ve been making that case myself for years, and I can’t disown it now.

Back in 2005, when I was blogging on Daily Kos under the pseudonym Pericles, I wrote a piece called “Cut and Run” about pulling out of Iraq. At the time, even people who realized that invading Iraq had been a mistake were falling for Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Doctrine”: We broke Iraq, so now we had a responsibility to fix it before we left. They admitted that we needed to get out, but in six months or maybe a year or two, after we had stabilized the situation.

The case I made in “Cut and Run” was that we weren’t fixing anything by staying.

What are we fixing? What do we expect to get better if we stay for another year or five years or ten years? I do not intend that question to be rhetorical. If “we are making progress, “as President Bush claimed this week, we ought to be able to measure that progress somehow.

Elsewhere (the link has since died; I need to repost somewhere) I argued that the stay-a-little-longer caucus would never be satisfied: Whenever we left, disaster would ensue, and they would claim vindication. And that is what happened. We stayed another six years, but McConnell (and others) blame Obama’s withdrawal for the rise of ISIS. (If only we’d stayed seven or eight more years rather than six.)

That’s why I’m not satisfied by McConnell’s assurance that he doesn’t want to stay in Afghanistan forever, just until we “win”. I have the same fundamental objection I had many years ago: What does “winning” even mean? If someone would offer a compelling vision of a post-victory Afghanistan, and then describe a path for getting there, reasonable people could argue about whether the outcome is worth the cost.

Instead, we always get the same dystopian vision: If we leave now, something terrible will happen. So when can we leave? Sometime, maybe, but not now. So how many “not nows” make a “forever”?

Is it possible to thread this needle? On the one hand, I am disgusted by what I’m seeing in Syria. On the other, I still don’t want to join McConnell and most of the rest of the foreign-policy establishment in the post-World-War-II intervention consensus.

Looking back, I also find that I’m not against all interventions. I like what President Clinton did in Bosnia: We ended a genocide. And while we (but mostly our European allies) ended up with troops in the area for many years afterward, it was a peace-keeping mission rather than a war-fighting mission. Casualties were minimal.

I regret that we didn’t find some similar way to end the genocide in Rwanda. And I don’t know what to think about Libya. Things haven’t turned out well there, but I can’t feel bad about stopping Qaddafi from killing civilians by the tens of thousands.

So what kind of policy do I want exactly?

I warned you I wouldn’t have a complete answer. I don’t have a doctrine that spells out precisely when the US should or shouldn’t get involved in some distant conflict. (Senator Warren: If you have a plan for that, this would be a good time to reveal it.) All I can offer are some intuitions that I still trust, in spite of it all. Mostly they revolve around coming to a proper understanding of the scope of American power: Being the most powerful nation on Earth gives us some responsibilities. But at the same time we need to be realistic: There are things our military — or military power in general — can’t accomplish. If we try we’ll only make bad situations worse.

So here’s what I think:

We can’t end tyranny in the world, but we should try to prevent genocide. The world is full of bad governments, and sometimes overthrowing them just gets you a worse government, or a failed state that can’t fulfill the responsibilities of a government at all. You can’t create a good government at gunpoint.

What you can do at gunpoint, though, is stop one group of people from slaughtering another. Sometimes the mass murder is a mania that will pass if you can just interrupt it. Some groups will see that — as much as they still hate some other group — the world is not going to stand for a genocide, so they need to come up with some other plan. Other situations may require a longer occupation. But stopping genocide doesn’t require you to rule over people or teach them to govern themselves, just to put limits on them.

There’s hope for a peacekeeping mission, but nation-building hardly ever works. An amazing number of the world’s problem areas, particularly in the Middle East, are “nations” that were created by colonial powers drawing arbitrary lines on a map.

The people in those regions often feel no sense of national loyalty to each other, and the only way they have ever held together as “nations” is under the dominance of some strongman. You can’t turn such places into constitutional democracies just by writing a constitution and having elections.

Don’t misinterpret that: It’s not that some kinds of people aren’t ready for democracy as individuals. When they emigrate to the US or Western Europe, they often make fine citizens. The problem is that democracy requires a sense of mutual loyalty that the residents of places like Iraq and Afghanistan have never developed. And that’s something else you can’t instill at gunpoint.

What you can do at gunpoint, though, is stop them from killing each other.

We can’t kid ourselves about our good intentions. One mistake American interventionists often make is to whitewash our motives. We didn’t go into Iraq and Afghanistan because we wanted to bestow democracy on these oppressed peoples. We invaded Iraq for the oil and Afghanistan because we wanted to get Bin Laden. Building democracy was a story we told ourselves to salve our consciences.

Nothing is as doomed to failure as a mission you didn’t really believe in from the start.

If we examine our real motives before we start an intervention, usually we’ll either realize that we shouldn’t do this at all, or see that the scope of our mission should be much smaller than taking over the whole country.

So what about the Kurds? Our troops in Syria got there because they were fighting ISIS. Once the territory of ISIS had all been retaken, there were two reasons to keep them there: to keep ISIS from reforming, and to prevent either the Turks or the Syrians from attacking the Kurds.

Both of those were peace-keeping missions. We weren’t trying to teach the Kurds how to be a people; they knew that already. They were building their own nation.

One way you can tell the mission was peace-keeping is that war broke out as soon as Trump ordered our troops to stand down.

The Kurds believe that the Turks intend an ethnic cleansing of the area or even a genocide. Trump thinks not, but I guess we’ll see.

Planning. One final note: Even if you believe that our mission in Syria wasn’t worth the cost any more, there’s no excuse for the way Trump handled it.

When we do decide to pull out of a country, we need a withdrawal plan rather than just a tweet announcing our departure. First, we need a plan to get our own people out of the country safely. And second, we need to do right by the people who have helped us, and who will likely be targeted for death after we leave. If nothing else, that means doing something Trump hates to do: welcoming refugees to the United States.

Backstabbing the Kurds is Just Trump Being Trump

Who could have predicted that the founder of Trump University would betray people who had faith in him?
Just about anybody who’s been paying attention.


Ever since he came down the escalator and announced his crusade to protect American womenfolk from Mexican rapists, the Donald’s Republican defenders have been singing the same song: You’ve got to let Trump be Trump.

If he says or does something racist, stands up for the poor mistreated Nazis of Charlottesville, slanders federal law enforcement institutions, sides with Putin over US intelligence services, says dozens of things each week that have no basis in reality, is nicer to enemy dictators than to our democratic allies, calls members of Congress traitors or says that they should go back where they came from … well, that’s just who he is. You need to roll with it.

But strangely, they forgot their own advice this week after Trump ordered our troops in Syria to stand aside and let Turkey attack the Kurds. Kurdish troops bore the majority of the burden in the war against ISIS in Syria, whose success Trump has often crowed about. [1] They lost something like 11,000 soldiers while we lost six fighters and two civilians.

But now that Trump believes the battle against ISIS is won [2], what good are they? Turkey’s authoritarian ruler Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — one of those dictators Trump admires — wants to clear them away from his border, where they give hope to his own oppressed Kurdish minority. And Erdoğan doesn’t just have the second-largest army in NATO going for him, he also has Trump Tower Istanbul, and countless future opportunities for ambitious businessmen who play ball. What’s loyalty to our brothers-in-arms compared to that?

Trump Tower Istanbul

But for some reason, Republicans are upset this time. Lindsey Graham, who has been Trump’s biggest sycophant through all his other betrayals, found this one shocking. The Kurds, he said in outrage, had been “shamelessly abandoned”, as if he thinks Trump’s shamelessness is a new development. Liz Cheney found it “impossible to understand why [Trump] is leaving America’s allies to be slaughtered.”

Well, Liz, I can explain it for you: This is who Trump is and who he’s always been. Betraying people who have trusted him is just Trump being Trump.

A trust-is-for-suckers theme runs through Trump’s entire life. Look at Trump University: People who admired his business acumen believed him when he said he could teach them his secrets. He took advantage of their admiration with a fraud that he needed $25 million to settle. In addition to that betrayal of trust, there’s his long history of stiffing the contractors who build his buildings, scamming the taxman, profiting from buildings that never got built, cooking the books at his hotels, refusing to repay bank loans, cheating on all three of his wives, and on and on.

Why would anyone expect him to stand by people who (in his view) have already done everything for him that they’re going to do? In his eyes, that’s a loser move. He’s never shown that kind of loyalty before, so why would he start now?

So here’s what I have to say to Lindsey, Liz, and all the other Republicans who are shocked by Trump’s faithlessness, as if it came out of the blue: One of Trump’s favorite ways to bash immigrants is to recite part of a poem in which a woman saves a poisonous snake, who then bites her. When she asks why, the snake explains:

Oh, shut up, silly woman, said the reptile with a grin.
You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.

Maybe when you heard that recitation, you thought he was warning you about MS-13 gangsters. You should have realized that he was telling you about himself.


[1] One of the many good things Trump inherited from President Obama was a strategy for beating the Islamic State. Obama saw that the American people had no appetite for another ground war in the Middle East, and yet the spread of the Islamic State not only destabilized Syria, but threatened everything the US had tried to accomplish in Iraq.

So the Obama administration came up with a plan (announced September 20, 2014) in which we would provide air power, material support, and a relatively small number of troops on the ground, while local groups — most prominently the Kurds — would do the bulk of the killing and dying. The public might not like the idea of having troops in harm’s way in yet another Middle Eastern nation, but as long as not too many of them came home in body bags, the war would stay off the front pages and most of the country would forget it was happening.

By the time Trump started measuring drapes for the Oval Office, three things were clear:

  • Obama’s strategy was working.
  • Trump was going to continue what Obama started, because Obama’s reasoning was still sound: Americans didn’t want a major new war, but they also didn’t want to turn large chunks of Iraq and Syria over to an Islamist caliphate.
  • When Obama’s strategy eventually succeeded, Trump was going to hog all the credit.

Here’s what I wrote two weeks after the 2016 election:

ISIS has been losing territory for some while now. Mosul, its last stronghold in Iraq, is cut off and likely to fall in the next few months. Its de facto capital of Raqqa is under attack in Syria. If events continue on their current path, sometime in 2017 President Trump will be able to declare victory in the territorial struggle, though ISIS will continue to be a significant underground movement. That victory will be the result of Obama’s strategy, but I expect Trump to crow about how “America is winning again.”

It took a little longer than I expected, but played out exactly that way. Here’s what our resident stable genius tweeted in January of this year:

When I became President, ISIS was out of control in Syria & running rampant. Since then tremendous progress made, especially over last 5 weeks. Caliphate will soon be destroyed, unthinkable two years ago.

I know this outcome was not “unthinkable” when Trump took office, because I was thinking it and so were a lot of other people.

[2] It isn’t. The Islamic State has lost its territory, but it still continues as the “significant underground movement” that I and everybody else predicted.

The Atlantic’s national security correspondent Mike Giglio summarizes:

For much of America’s war against the so-called ISIS caliphate, it was clear that the extremist proto-state that ISIS created across Syria and Iraq didn’t stand much chance of lasting. The militants had no way to counter the relentless U.S. air-strike campaign and faced a committed enemy in the U.S.-backed local soldiers who did the bulk of the ground fighting. ISIS, a successor to the al-Qaeda militants who battled U.S. troops during the Iraq War, would one day return to its insurgent roots and go underground. It would ultimately be left to America’s local partners to keep up the pressure and ensure the group’s lasting defeat.

These local soldiers—the Kurds in Syria, the Iraqi military, and various other forces—have already suffered many thousands of casualties. Once the territorial caliphate was defeated, America could have focused on rebuilding them as well as the heavily bombed areas where they are now charged with keeping the peace. As The New York Times reported this summer, ISIS still has as many as 18,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria, many of them organized into sleeper cells and hit teams who carry out ambushes, kidnappings, and assassinations across both countries.

Remember: Al Qaeda never did control territory, but managed to be a quite a nuisance anyway.

Is this any way to run a superpower?

It’s not crazy to want U.S. troops to come home from Syria and Afghanistan. It is crazy for a superpower’s global strategy to shift from one tweet to the next.


When I heard that Trump had tweeted the withdrawal of America’s 2,000 troops from Syria, and then heard reports that he would soon pull half of our 14,000 troops out of Afghanistan, my initial reaction was: “What’s wrong with that?”

I’m not a pacifist, but I judge an American intervention in a foreign war by a few simple criteria.

  1. Are we fighting on the right side?
  2. Do our soldiers have a clear mission with an achievable goal?
  3. Are the resources we’re committing sufficient to achieve that goal?
  4. Do Congress and the American people believe that the goal is worth the cost, and understand the risks involved?

Weighing Syria and Afghanistan. The Syria commitment could pass that test only as long as the goal was narrowly defined: to make ISIS a stateless state again by driving it out of all its territory. Given the nature of ISIS, which is as much an idea as a caliphate, that probably won’t kill it. But it should make it less of a focal point for global Muslim discontent.

What’s more, the strategy laid out by President Obama was working: ISIS had lost the majority of its territory by the end of the Obama administration, and Trump more or less continued what Obama had been doing, until now ISIS has been driven back to a few small enclaves. (The claim that we had not been beating ISIS under Obama but started “winning” under Trump is the usual Trumpian bullshit.) If those enclaves were about to fall, then it was time to think about declaring victory and getting out.

The longer we stay in Syria, though, the more secondary goals the mission picks up. We’re supporting rebels against the brutal Assad government that Iran and Russia back. We’re protecting the Kurdish forces (who have been doing most of the fighting against ISIS) from attack by Turkey (which has its own Kurdish region and fears Kurdish nationalism).

Those might be fine things to wish for, but they don’t fare well against my criteria. In particular, if we’re going to be players in the Syrian civil war, we’ll need a lot more than 2,000 soldiers. I don’t think the American people are ready to back that kind of commitment, and I don’t see how it is supposed to end.

Our Afghan commitment is harder to justify. Originally, we sent forces to Afghanistan in response to 9-11. The goal, which had close to universal support from the public at the time, was to capture or kill the people who attacked us and establish an Afghan government that wouldn’t let Al Qaeda operate freely within its borders. But 17 years later, Bin Laden is long dead and our effort to stand up an effective pro-American government in Kabul has failed. It’s hard to estimate a troop level that could truly pacify the country — Obama couldn’t do it with 100,000 — but whatever it is, the American people aren’t willing to underwrite it.

So yes, we should be trying to disengage. But here’s an idea the Master of the Deal might want to consider: Couldn’t we negotiate some concessions from the people who want to see our forces gone? Why just make an announcement and start pulling out?

And here’s my real problem with Trump’s decision: Disengagement requires a plan just as much as engagement does. Maybe I have things to do and I’m sick of standing here plugging a hole in this dike with my finger. But predictable things will happen if I pull my finger out, and how do I intend to respond when they do?

ISIS isn’t defeated yet. The premise of Trump’s Syria tweet was clear:

We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.

But as he so often does, Trump is claiming credit for something that hasn’t happened yet. (Despite his claims, North Korea isn’t denuclearized yet either, and probably won’t be in the foreseeable future. And the trade deal with China he announced still hasn’t been worked out.) ISIS still controls a small amount of territory, it still has fighting forces, and it has squirreled away a considerable amount of money to fund future operations.

So the job isn’t done, but the US withdrawal will begin immediately. (Although Sunday’s tweet described the pullout as “slow & highly coordinated”.) Trump himself seemed to acknowledge this in a subsequent contradictory tweet that also happens to be false. (Russia loves that we’re leaving Syria.)

Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.

So the first predictable thing that might happen is that ISIS stages a comeback and starts gaining territory again. What’s the plan for that scenario? Accept it? Send our troops back in? Ask our Russian friends or our buddy Bashar al-Assad to handle it for us? (No, wait! Turkey will do it, according to last night’s tweet. Turkish troops going deeper into Syria, which they used to rule back in the Ottoman days, where they might come into conflict with Assad, Hezbollah, and Russian forces … what could possibly go wrong? “We also discussed heavily expanded Trade.”)

What’s the new mission in Afghanistan? I can’t find any explanation for the 7,000 figure: What is the mission of the 7,000 that will remain, and why do they no longer need the help of the 7,000 who are leaving? My intuition says that there is no new mission. “Pull out half of them” just comes from Trump’s gut, and isn’t based on anything.

What about the Kurds? The reason American casualties in Syria have been so low is that Kurdish militias are doing most of the actual fighting against ISIS.

The Kurds and their Syrian allies paid a severe price: They have suffered about 4,000 dead and 10,000 wounded since 2014. Over that same period, the United States lost only three soldiers in Syria, according to a U.S. military spokesperson.

Trump seems not to know these facts. “Time for someone else to fight,” he tweeted, as if Americans were battling ISIS alone.

Turkey is worried about Kurdish militias operating in its own territory, which it sees as terrorism. According to AP, a December 14 phone conversation between Trump and Turkish autocrat Erdogan sparked the withdrawal decision.

Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, two U.S. officials and a Turkish official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press.

The Dec. 14 call came a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed to have the two presidents discuss Erdogan’s threats to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria, where American forces are based. The NSC then set up the call.

Pompeo, Mattis and other members of the national security team prepared a list of talking points for Trump to tell Erdogan to back off, the officials said.

But the officials said Trump, who had previously accepted such advice and convinced the Turkish leader not to attack the Kurds and put U.S. troops at risk, ignored the script. Instead, the president sided with Erdogan.

The obvious implication is that if Erdogan wants to attack the people we’ve been relying on to push ISIS back, he should just have at it. We’ll get out of his way.

Erdogan isn’t the only one likely to attack after we leave. To the Assad government, the Kurds are just one more set of rebels. What if the Kurdish region of Syria (green on the map) collapses and our former allies start getting slaughtered? What are the implications of that in other conflicts where the US wants to find local allies?

Sometimes, superpowers have to make such betrayals. We left a number of Vietnamese allies in the lurch when we exited the Vietnam War, but few Americans would want us still to be fighting there. I just wish I could believe Trump (or anyone involved in his decision process) had thought these questions out and was making these decisions strategically.

What generals and diplomats are for. There’s a way that major policy changes are supposed to happen: The National Security Council meets and the various departments involved weigh in: Pentagon people talk about military implications, State Department people anticipate how our allies will react, and regional experts from the intelligence services outline the most likely scenarios. They all make their recommendations and then the President announces a decision. The advisors whose advice wasn’t taken then try to talk him out of it. If the President stands firm, though, they have to yield.

Next, all the principals return to their departments with the message: This is where we’re going; make plans. The plans go back to the NSC, where they get accepted or rejected. (Sometimes the President has to say one more time, “No, I really meant it. This plan doesn’t do what I asked for.”) Allies get consulted. Political types design a messaging strategy to explain the new policy to the American people as well as the rest of the world. Then, when all the ducks are in a row, an announcement is made and the whole government moves in unison. If things are working well, our allies move with us.

There’s a reason for doing things that way: A global superpower is much bigger than the kind of family business Trump is used to running. There’s more to know and more to figure out. (As an analogy, consider the different medical specialists who might get together before a particularly complicated surgery. It’s not just a question of where to cut, but whether last week’s infection is under control, whether the patient’s heart will stand the stress, how the patient tolerates anesthesia, what kind of recovery plan is needed, and dozens of other considerations.) The various departments are in the meeting not just to protect their turf, but because they represent different kinds of expertise. You consult with the generals and diplomats because that’s what they’re there for. They know stuff.

Hardly any of the usual process seems to have happened in this case. The only advisor Trump seems to have listened to before making his decision is Erdogan, a foreign autocrat. (He’s also the former client of Michael Flynn, for what that’s worth.) The messaging strategy was for Trump to write a tweet; everybody else had to adjust on the fly.

The result is that most of the interested parties, both within our government and among our allies, were taken by surprise. As they carry out the withdrawal, no one involved can possibly have confidence that all the relevant factors were considered and all the risks foreseen.

Mattis and McGurk. Two major officials, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Special Envoy Brett McGurk, resigned in protest. Historian Michael Beschloss claims no defense secretary has ever done this before.

Mattis’ resignation letter explains his decision in terms of worldview. In Mattis’ world, American power depends on its alliances, but Trump sees our allies as parasites.

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships…. [W]e must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances.

Mattis mentions Russia and China as examples of the kind of “malign actors and strategic competitors” that we and our allies need “common defense” against, because they “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model”.

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

I can’t help believing, though, that it’s as much Trump’s process as his policy that makes it impossible for Mattis to keep working with him. If a decision as important as withdrawing from a war can be made off the cuff while talking to a foreign dictator (Turkey may not be a threat as large as Russia or China, but it also a country run on an “authoritarian model”.), by a President who doesn’t read memos or listen to briefings, then it’s not clear what role there is for people who know things.

The Return of the Chicken Hawks

When Donald Trump started staffing his administration, many of us worried about the number of generals he put in high positions: Michael Flynn, John Kelly, Jim Mattis. Chief Strategist Steve Bannon had never made it to general, but his seven years as an officer in the Navy was a key part of his self-image. So many of the other members of the administration were lightweights who had little-to-no knowledge or experience relevant to their jobs: Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Rick Perry, Jared Kushner, Ivanka, and Trump himself. It seemed obvious that in a crisis, everybody would be looking for the generals to tell them what to do.

In a country founded on civilian control of the military, pundits wondered, wasn’t that dangerous?

Subsequently, Flynn was fired and replaced by another general, H.R. McMaster. Bannon left. John Kelly moved up from Secretary of Homeland Security to Chief of Staff. When the press referred to “the grown-ups” in the Trump administration, they meant the generals, plus a few other people like Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn.

In the latest reshuffle, Cohn has been replaced by Larry Kudlow, another lightweight without any real credentials relevant to his job. (He played an economist on TV, but really isn’t one.) Tillerson is gone, replaced by Mike Pompeo. McMaster has been replaced by John Bolton. Kelly’s (always limited) ability to control Trump is fading, and his job either is or isn’t secure, depending on the hour and who you talk to.

In short, the Day of the General seems to be waning, and we are being reminded that there are people more dangerous than generals: chicken hawks.

What is a chicken hawk? A chicken hawk is somebody full of warlike rhetoric who somehow never gets around to experiencing war first-hand. [1] His (they’re not all men, but great majority are) lack of experience doesn’t make him cautious, it insulates his thinking against consequences. He sees the uses of war and dreams of being a Churchill who maneuvers forces on a global scale, but has never understood the real costs of war. He has never learned that a mistake that starts a war is the worst kind of mistake a statesman can make.

At The Week, Joel Mathis points out the danger of having a chicken-hawk president:

The problem with Trump’s pugnaciousness? He’s never had to face consequences for it. There have always been bone spurs, or security guys, or the fact that professional wrestling isn’t real. As far as we know, he’s never started a fight and gotten his nose bloodied for the trouble. Anybody who has experienced that lesson never forgets it. It’s best not learned on the international stage.

A general is a priest of War who has seen what can happen when he calls down the wrath of his god. A chicken hawk has heard glory-filled stories of that god, watched the priests with envy, and longs to unleash that kind of power.

Bush era chicken hawks. The George W. Bush administration was full of chicken hawks, most notably Vice President Dick Cheney, who engineered the Iraq War after artfully maneuvering to avoid the draft during the Vietnam era. (As he told a reporter, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”) Other notable Iraq War hawks — Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith — were also blissfully devoid of military experience. (As Colin Powell’s top assistant Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson put it: “None of these guys ever heard a bullet go by their ears in combat.“)

Some of the loudest Iraq War hawks outside the Bush administration were similarly uninterested in actual fighting, like Bill Kristol, and any number of gung-ho College Republicans who were of the right age to volunteer for the Iraq War, but chose to leave that honor to someone else. (It’s debatable whether Iraq-invasion-promoting columnist Thomas Friedman qualified as a chicken hawk. He never served in the military, but he probably did hear bullets whiz past his ear when he was reporting in Beirut.)

Bush himself avoided Vietnam by somehow getting a coveted spot in a National Guard unit that was never called up (and maybe, depending on who you believe, he just stopped showing up at some point). His military experience was zipping through the clear skies of Texas in a supersonic fighter jet, and he relived that excitement by landing on the USS Lincoln near San Diego so that he could give his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech declaring victory in Iraq.

By contrast, the top general in the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, while consistently loyal to administration policy, was not so eager to invade. He was the one who coined what he called the Pottery Barn Rule: “If you break it, you own it.” He also was subsequently more open than most Bush officials about what went wrong and what might be learned from it. Colonel Wilkerson became a critic of the war.

The once and future chicken hawk. Like George W. Bush, John Bolton used the National Guard to avoid Vietnam, a war he supported. Wikipedia fleshes out his subsequent account of his decision:

He wrote in his Yale 25th reunion book “I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.” In an interview, Bolton discussed his comment in the reunion book, explaining that he decided to avoid service in Vietnam because “by the time I was about to graduate in 1970, it was clear to me that opponents of the Vietnam War had made it certain we could not prevail, and that I had no great interest in going there to have Teddy Kennedy give it back to the people I might die to take it away from.”

But his turning away from personally serving in Vietnam was not part of a more general turning away from war. Bolton was not just part of the crew that maneuvered the country into the Iraq War, he also worked to expand that war.  In “The Untold Story of John Bolton’s Campaign for War with Iran“, The American Conservative charges:

Bolton’s high-profile advocacy of war with Iran is well known. What is not at all well known is that, when he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security, he executed a complex and devious strategy aimed at creating the justification for a U.S. attack on Iran. Bolton sought to convict the Islamic Republic in the court of international public opinion of having a covert nuclear weapons program using a combination of diplomatic pressure, crude propaganda, and fabricated evidence.

Despite the fact that Bolton was technically under the supervision of Secretary of State Colin Powell, his actual boss in devising and carrying out that strategy was Vice President Dick Cheney.

Most of the other Iraq War chicken hawks are in history’s trash can by now. Whether they learned anything from that blunder or not, no one is listening to them any more. But Bolton has now returned to influence, emphatically has not learned a lesson, and does not even admit that invading Iraq was a mistake.

Preventive War. The Iraq War was premised not just on manufactured reports about Saddam’s weaponry, but also on a doctrine of preventive war: If we think a country is developing a threat to us, we should attack it before that threat materializes. [2] Bolton still believes that doctrine. Here’s what he wrote in the WSJ at the end of February:

It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.

In other words, North Korea is developing weapons that could strike us, so we should treat that as if it were a plan to strike us, and strike them first. Our strike could result in a retaliatory nuclear strike against Seoul or Tokyo, or just a devastating bombardment of Seoul (a city of 25 million) by conventional artillery. But hey, collateral damage. It’s better that cities of our Asian allies get destroyed than our own cities.

In 2015, he advocated a preventive strike against Iran, and scoffed at the possibility of resolving the nuclear issue peacefully.

The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.

When Obama got the deal Bolton said was impossible, Bolton denounced it, and has urged Trump to pull out of it. That, of course, takes us back to Square One with regard to Iran’s nuclear program: Either we accept the reality of Iran getting nuclear weapons (as President Bush did with North Korea) or we attack them.

In The Daily Beast, Mark Leon Goldberg characterizes Bolton’s tenure as UN Ambassador in 2005-2006:

The memoir he wrote of his experience at the UN was titled “Surrender is Not an Option.” But Bolton’s time at the UN suggests that, to him, the natural give and take of diplomacy is akin to “surrender” and must be avoided at all costs. Understanding how he performed his job at the UN gives us big clues as to how he might approach the job as National Security Advisor to which he has just been named.

At the United Nations, Bolton demonstrated a profoundly zero-sum view of international relations. Other countries’ gains — no matter how insignificant —  were ipso-facto America’s losses.

In other words, he will reinforce one of Trump’s greatest weaknesses: his inability to see the win/win nature of good diplomacy.

Leading the chorus for war with Iran. As National Security Advisor, Bolton will not have any planes or troops under his direct command. Nor will he have a staff capable of generating attack plans without cooperation from the Pentagon. He chairs the National Security Council; his job is to consolidate the advice of the military, foreign policy, and intelligence establishments and package it for the President. His power rests entirely in his ability to influence the President’s decisions.

That job is particularly important when the President has no expertise or experience of his own. (Dwight Eisenhower, who had already managed half of a global war before he became president, changed NSAs almost every year. It didn’t make a huge difference.) As a tough-talking chicken hawk himself, Trump needs to be surrounded by people who understand the reality of war. Initially, he was, but that is becoming less and less true.

With the possibility of a Trump/Kim summit meeting — I’m still not convinced that’s really going to happen — North Korea is the challenge most people are focused on right now. But another deadline on Iran is also looming: U.S. sanctions on Iran were not repealed after the 2015 agreement; instead (according to the Corker-Cardin law) the President must waive them every 90 days. The current waiver runs out on May 12. If the sanctions on Iran are resumed, the deal that stopped Iran’s march to nuclear weapons will start to unravel.

Trump didn’t want to issue the previous waivers, but he let Tillerson and McMaster push him into doing so. Back in January, he warned that he wanted major changes in the agreement, which during the campaign he had called “one of the most incompetently drawn deals I’ve ever seen“. So far, these demands have led to no additional concessions from the Iranians. [3]

This time around, Tillerson and McMaster are gone. Like Bolton, new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is an Iran hawk. So is UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. [4] Along with Trump’s own inclinations, this chorus virtually guarantees that the next waiver will not be granted, sanctions will be reimposed, and Iran stop complying with the nuclear deal.

The next question is: What then? During the campaign, Trump’s “America First” slogan seemed to point away from foreign adventurism. [5] He was almost unique among Republican presidential candidates in clearly declaring the Iraq War a mistake. [6] But with no brakes on Iran’s nuclear program, and with Bolton leading the chorus of Pompeo and Haley, war with Iran will be a constantly available option, waiting for the moment when Trump is in a war-making mood.


[1] It’s worth pointing out that I also have never served in the military, observed combat, or even been shot at in civilian life. But I am also cautious about committing someone else to fight on my behalf. When military people tell me that war is hell, and that the outcome is never as predictable as you think, I believe them.

[2] There’s an important distinction between preventive war and preemptive war. Both are examples of striking first, but a preemptive war is much less controversial than a preventive one, because it makes fewer assumptions about an enemy’s intentions. A preemptive strike disrupts a specific imminent attack, while a preventive strike intends to eliminate the possibility that an enemy might eventually attack at some indefinite time and place.

An example helps here: If the U.S. had struck the Japanese fleet just as it got within range of Pearl Harbor, that would have been preemptive: A specific attack was in the works, and our attack would have disrupted theirs. But the Japanese attack itself was preventive. At the time the U.S. had no specific plan to attack Japan. But the Japanese anticipated that the U.S. would eventually go to war to stop Japanese expansion, so they crippled the fleet that would spearhead that war.

When you start a preventive war, you turn your back on the possibility that the attack you claim to be preventing could have been averted in some peaceful way. A key example there is the Cold War: Various American military figures in the 1950s and 60s advocated for a preventive nuclear strike against the USSR. But we didn’t strike that preventive blow, and the nuclear war those men were anticipating never happened anyway.

[3] That’s typical. Trump dislikes all our international agreements and believes he can negotiate better ones, but so far he has not produced any significant new deals. (Wait: Something with South Korea was announced this morning.)

[4] Experts seem to agree that Iran is fulfilling its end of the agreement, so Haley has been moving the goalposts.

The question of Iranian compliance is not as straightforward as many people believe. It’s not just about the technical terms of the nuclear agreement. It requires a much more thorough look.

[5] In an address to Congress a little over a year ago, he implicitly criticized the expense of the Iraq War: “America has spent approximately six trillion dollars in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With this six trillion dollars we could have rebuilt our country –- twice.”

[6] He considered it such a mistake that he had to rewrite history to portray himself as a war critic from the beginning.

Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military

Would we have troops in dangerous places the American public has never heard of, if everyone’s child were at risk to be sent there? Would we respond the same way when some of those Americans died?


When I first heard that four American soldiers had died in Niger on October 4, I had to ask two embarrassing questions:

  • Where the hell is Niger?
  • Do we really have troops there?

So I’ll assume that at least a few of you are as ignorant as I was and start there. Niger (I’m hearing it pronounced either NAI-jer or nee-JAIR — sometimes both ways by the same TV anchor in one broadcast) is in the northern half of Africa, close to the center of the wide part. It’s landlocked, and sits just to the north of Nigeria [1], between the equally unknown (to me) countries of Mali and Chad. Here’s a map.

Apparently, we have about 800 troops in Niger. They are part of our attempt to deal with the region’s multi-faceted Islamic insurgency: Boko Haram in Nigeria; a number of groups in Mali that recently united under Al Qaeda; and ISIS in the Greater Sahara, which the Pentagon believes is responsible for this attack.

Since Islamic jihad is more of a global vision than a national one, it’s not surprising that the conflicts spill over into neighboring countries. So the governments in the region are all working together against these groups. They’re backed by France, which used to consider the whole area French West Africa (except for Nigeria, which was a British colony). So far, Americans play a secondary role, mainly training local troops and flying drones.

The attack is being described as an ambush in an area where the Americans did not expect to run into trouble. (After all, they’re not supposed to be on a combat mission.) So far, our government has released very little about how this all happened, and the president has said nothing at all. This is bothering Senate Foreign Relations Chair John McCain to the point that he’s threatening a subpoena. [2]

This incident ought to raise another question in your mind: Where else does the U.S. have troops? Politico published this helpful map of U.S. military bases around the world.

Not all of those dots are danger zones, of course. (I don’t worry much about the one in Canada.) But a lot of them are near places where people are shooting at each other.

How many of those dots are in countries you could name? For how many of them could you explain why American troops are there, what local problems they are trying to solve, and what level of danger they face? How would you feel if you or your child or someone else you care about might be sent there at any moment?

The condolence distraction. When Americans are dying by the dozens week after week, as they did in Iraq, the President typically says little or nothing in public about individual deaths. But deaths of American troops or other government officials in a surprising place or manner usually calls for some public acknowledgment. For example: President Obama, flanked by Secretary Clinton, read a solemn five-minute statement in the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack in Libya. (“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”)

So the day after the Niger attack, the NSC staff drafted a statement for President Trump, but for unexplained reasons he didn’t use it, or say anything at all. Last Monday, nearly two weeks after the attack, at an event about something else entirely [3], a reporter asked him:

Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?

That question was not at all about the soldiers’ families. Trump was asked why he hadn’t made any statement to the public about the soldiers, their sacrifice, or their mission. (“Why haven’t we heard … “) The second question “what do you have to say about that?” gave him an opening to fix his apparent oversight.

But instead, Trump started talking about his private communications with the families, and opened a can of worms by lying about how President Obama and other previous presidents had treated them.

if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls.

When challenged on the truth of this, he said, “I don’t know. That’s what I was told.” It’s as if he had been gossiping over the back fence, rather than speaking on the record as the President of the United States.

That claim touched off the whole week-long media firestorm, which never would have happened if Trump had simply answered the question he was asked, rather than distract everyone with his hot-button lie about Obama. Is that what he meant to do? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to argue with the result: Rather than question why we’re in Niger, we’ve been rehashing the endless argument about whether Trump is a crappy human being.

Sgt. Johnson’s family and Congresswoman Wilson. Trump’s claim that he treats the families of fallen soldiers better than previous presidents pulled those families into a political controversy — something that to the best of my knowledge had never happened before. [4] Respect for the families’ grief had always been a shared value, not something to claim an advantage from.

The press, naturally, tried to determine whether Trump’s claim was true. In the course of that collective investigation, someone talked to Rep. Fredrica Wilson of Florida, who was a friend of the family of one of the four men killed in Niger, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson. Wilson had been in a car with Johnson’s widow and his mother when the President’s call came, and she heard it because the widow, Myeshia Johnson, put it on speaker phone. Wilson recalls Trump saying that Johnson “knew what he signed up for”, a statement that she found insensitive and claimed that the family was offended by.

Trump went ballistic about this, accusing Wilson of making it all up. Even after her account had been verified by Johnson’s mother, and indirectly verified by his own Chief of Staff John Kelly [5], Trump continued to label Wilson’s version a “total lie“. It would follow that the grieving mother is a liar too. (This morning the widow gave her own account, saying she was very angry at Trump “stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name”. Trump immediately went to Twitter to argue with her. In her interview, Myeshia Johnson asked the obvious question: “Why would we fabricate something like that?”)

Kelly and Sanders. What Kelly said in Trump’s defense is interesting on its own. It starts with his own experience when his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. [6] I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

Kelly then pressed his attack on Rep. Wilson by giving a false account of a speech she made in 2015, citing her as an example of the saying that “empty barrels make the most noise”. [7] He took a few questions, but only from reporters who “know a Gold Star parent or sibling”. Apparently, General Kelly believes he is not answerable to anyone else. As long as Trump hides behind Kelly, he’s not answerable to anyone else either.

When Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was confronted by the fact that Kelly had lied about Wilson [8], she at first tried to dodge, and then made this astounding claim:

If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.

Four-star Marine generals — even retired ones who are doing Reince Preibus’ old job — are not to be questioned on the lies they tell.

The professional military. It’s striking how many of this week’s events are related in one way or another to the post-Vietnam professionalization of the American military. The United States’ armed forces have always been centered on a small core of career military officers, and in times of crisis many Americans have volunteered to fight for their country. But from Lexington to Saigon, we have relied on involuntary citizen-soldiers in times of war. Early on, they formed the militias. [9] From the Civil War to Vietnam, they were draftees. Military service was not their career choice, a way to raise money for college, or part of any other personal strategy. It was their duty to the country. The country, in turn, had a duty to use their service wisely.

That all changed after Vietnam, where the government learned how difficult it was to fight an unpopular war with citizen-soldiers. “What are we doing in Vietnam?” is a much more immediate question if members of your own family — and members of everyone’s families — face the risk of dying there. The movement against the Vietnam War had a much greater urgency than the subsequent efforts to end the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. Conversely, many fewer people had the luxury of being apathetic.

Consider how many facts about the Niger attack and its aftermath would be different if most of the soldiers stationed in those far-flung bases were draftees rather than volunteers.

  • Parents with draft-age children would know where American soldiers were being sent, and would have opinions about whether they should be there.
  • Before sending troops into a hotspot, presidents would feel a stronger obligation to make a case to the American people.
  • Voters would expect their representatives in Congress to be asking the hard questions, and would not tolerate Congress ducking its responsibility to authorize or not authorize military commitments.
  • Neither Trump nor Kelly nor any of the rest of us could comfort ourselves by saying that a fallen soldier “knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted”. We would bear responsibility for interrupting people’s lives, making them soldiers, and sending them into danger. Even those who enlisted would have done so under the threat of being drafted.

And there is a fifth point that is more subtle: The country’s relationship to the military would be different. The all-volunteer Army has a relationship with fewer people, but that relationship is more intense. “Military family” has become a stronger identity.

The danger a professionalized military poses to democracy is that soldiers may come to think of themselves as a breed apart, with more loyalty to the Pentagon than to Congress or to the electorate (which has remained oblivious to them, no matter where they’ve been sent or what risks they’ve faced). Generals who commanded citizen-soldiers always had an ambiguous relationship with them; command, like the whole soldiering experience, was temporary. But generals leading professional soldiers may come to see them as their constituency and to count on their personal loyalty.

American voters have often looked favorably on successful generals, from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower. Political careers on both sides of the aisle — from John McCain to Tammy Duckworth — still arise out of military service. But in many other countries, soldiers develop a less healthy attitude towards government: They feel that their military service entitles them to rule. Such countries are often subject to military coups.

We are not there yet, but the signs are bad. The Trump administration devalues every non-military public institution: the civilian agencies (“bureaucrats!”), the press (“fake news!”), scientists, courts (“unelected judges”), Congress, and even the electorate, which it falsely portrays as corrupted by the fraudulent votes of non-citizens. The administration is full of generals, including in posts where generals are not supposed to serve, like Secretary of Defense. Trump’s own behavior has made the presidency so untrustworthy that liberals and conservatives alike are hoping that his generals (Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster) “manage” him. The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer was already discussing this in August:

Democracy does not work with a power vacuum for a president. As Trump makes a mockery of his office, he has left America to drift in two fundamentally anti-democratic directions, with the military exercising ever greater power as neo-Nazi street protesters form militias of their own. People of good faith around the country may be trying desperately to counter both, but this is fundamentally a political crisis that has to have a political solution. The president is unfit to serve, and until Congress comes to its senses and remembers its constitutional powers, this is what we can expect: a weakened president subservient to the military egging on armed fascists as they take to the streets.

The Founders worried about this. Both at the Constitutional Convention and in the First Congress (which wrote and passed the Bill of Rights), the Founders argued about how the new nation would defend itself. Having just fought a revolution, George Washington in particular recognized the importance of a well-drilled army that follows orders and isn’t tempted to head for home when the fields are ready to harvest.

But many others also feared such an army. An army that follows orders too easily can be sent places that a citizen militia would refuse to go. It might fight imperial wars rather than wars of national defense. “A standing army,” quipped Elbridge Gerry, “is like a standing member [i.e., penis] — an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

Worst of all, it might install its own leader as ruler of the country. The original point of the Second Amendment was not that armed citizens might overthrow a tyrannical central government (as the NRA has it now), but that through local and state militias, the People might defend themselves, obviating the need for a standing federal army under all but emergency circumstances. A well-regulated militia is “essential to the security of a free state” because a large standing army is a threat to that freedom. [10]

Ships have sailed. Few Americans want to go back to the Jefferson-era system of militias. We don’t want to be Minutemen, ready to grab our muskets and assemble on the Green in case of invasion or Indian raid or pirate attack. We don’t want to disband the U.S. Army or our local police departments. We are also happy to be able to plan our careers without worrying that our draft numbers might come up and send us to God-knows-where.

What’s more, nobody’s too sure how any other system would work in this era. You can’t just take random people off the street, train them for a few weeks, hand them 21st-century weapons, and expect good things to happen. Even if we could all agree that we wanted the United States to get out of its current role in the global balance of power, those commitments would need to be carefully unwound, not just abandoned. We would need to re-envision the global mission of the United States, or else we’ll lurch back and forth between “What are we doing in Africa?” when our troops get ambushed, but then “Why aren’t we doing anything?” the next time Boko Haram kidnaps a few hundred Nigerian girls.

So for now and possibly for a long time into the future, we have a professional military spread all over the world. That fact creates risks for our democracy, risks that have been recognized for hundreds of years. If we can’t change the fact — at least not immediately — we should at the very least keep our eyes on those risks.

That means:

  • Paying attention to where our troops go and why, even if we don’t know any of them.
  • Pushing back against efforts to demean civilian institutions of government, and demanding that the people in charge of those institutions do their jobs rather than yield to the military.
  • Refusing to be cowed by military authorities, or to let them off the hook when they behave dishonorably.

And in the long run, we need to look for ways out of this situation. The Rome of Cicero’s era tried to be a republic at home and a military empire abroad. They failed, and eventually we will too.


[1] Both countries get their names from the Niger River, which they share.

[2] When the government says little or nothing, other voices fill the silence. Thursday night, Rachel Maddow did some speculative-but-plausible dot-connecting:

  1. For reasons that don’t quite add up, Chad wound up on the Trump administration’s latest travel-ban list, which was announced on September 24.
  2. Chad has one of the more effective anti-terrorist forces in the area. Shortly after the travel-ban insult, Chad began withdrawing its troops from Niger.
  3. On October 4, four Americans were ambushed ISIS fighters in a region of Niger previously believed to be safe.

“If I were president,” she suggested, “I might not want to talk about this either.”

[3] He was making a joint appearance with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an effort to show that “We have the same agenda.”

[4] It also set off a race at the White House to get condolence letters out before the press could report their absence.

The full back-and-forth of this has been covered extensively elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it in detail. One the crazier stories, unrelated to any point I’m making here, concerns the $25,000 Trump promised to a soldier’s father in June, apparently forgot about, and then made good on after The Washington Post reported the story this week.

[5] Kelly explained why Trump might have said something like that and what he meant by it. He pointedly did not deny that Trump said it.

[6] It’s not clear why either Trump or Kelly thought that a pregnant widow would be comforted by the same thoughts that comforted a general about his son’s death, because some of the issues are very different. In addition to all the other reasons a young man or woman might enlist, a general’s son might be trying to follow in his father’s footsteps or win his father’s respect. In effect, Dunford was reassuring Kelly that his son’s death wasn’t his fault; it was the result of choices the son made for himself.

By contrast, I would expect a wife to want to believe that her husband’s last thoughts were of her, and not that his military comrades were “exactly the people he wanted to be with” as he died.

[7] It’s striking how many of Kelly’s criticisms of Wilson actually apply much better to Trump: He has politicized dead soldiers; he grandstands; he makes a lot of noise about things he doesn’t understand; instead of respecting those who deserve respect, he makes everything about himself and his own accomplishments. Obviously, Kelly doesn’t say any of that to Trump. So it’s no wonder he grabbed a chance to unleash those bottled-up feelings on a different target.

[8] A Kelly defender might say that he simply remembered the incident wrong. And that would be a valid defense if he had responded off-the-cuff to a question about something that happened two years ago. But it was Kelly who brought the incident up, in a setting where he had time to prepare. He had both the opportunity and the responsibility to get it right, but he chose not to.

[9] The militias of the early American Republic were not voluntary. All men of appropriate age and ability were required by law to arm themselves and show up periodically for training and drills.

[10] For a detailed account of this, see The Second Amendment, a biography by Michael Waldman. That’s also where I found the Gerry quote.

Taking Hostages

In one setting after another — DACA, Iran, ObamaCare — Trump has set a clock ticking towards disaster in hopes of getting concessions from Congress.


During the Obama years, I frequently found it necessary to explain the difference between negotiating and hostage-taking. If we’re negotiating, I push for what I want, you push for what you want, and we hope to meet somewhere in the middle. But if I demand that you give me what I want, under the threat that otherwise I’ll send us into a scenario that NO ONE wants, that’s hostage-taking. The defining mark of a hostage-taker is that the demand for cooperation unaccompanied by any positive offer: My proposed “compromise” isn’t that you’ll get some of what you want, but that I’ll remove a threat of my own making. “Do what I say and nobody gets hurt.”

The clearest examples of hostage-taking in recent American politics have been the debt-ceiling confrontations of 2011 and 2013, as well as the occasional posturing over the debt ceiling we still see from time to time. If Congress ever actually does refuse to raise the ceiling on the national debt, the country will be thrown into both a constitutional and an economic crisis that will benefit no one (possibly not even our enemies, who might get caught in the global economic downturn likely to follow the market’s loss of faith in U.S. bonds). In 2011 and 2013, Republicans wanted President Obama to agree to deep spending cuts and the end of ObamaCare. What they offered in exchange was nothing, beyond dropping their threat to set off a global crisis.

Recently, the Trump administration has brought us something I don’t think the U.S. has ever seen before: presidential hostage taking. American presidents usually assume that they’ll be blamed for whatever goes wrong, so they have nothing to gain from taking hostages; any catastrophe that spins out of the confrontation will ultimately be charged against them. But Trump has an unfortunate combination of character flaws that we’ve never seen in a president before:

  • He seems not to feel empathy for the people his policies might hurt.
  • He is convinced that no bad outcome can ever be his fault. If he sets up a confrontation that results in disaster, that just demonstrates that his enemies should have given in to him.

The failure of brute force. In the first half-year or so of his administration, Trump believed he didn’t need Democratic cooperation. With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, he thought he could ignore Democratic resistance and win by brute force. In his first confrontation, that strategy worked: Nominating Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court gave Trump’s base what it wanted without offering Democrats any hint of compromise. A Democratic filibuster was defeated not by convincing any Democrats to support Gorsuch, but by eliminating the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations. Take that, Democrats!

But from spring into summer, right up to the September 30 reconciliation deadline, repeated attempts to win a brute-force victory on healthcare failed. Offered nothing, Democrats stayed united. But Republicans didn’t, so the small Republican majorities in both houses weren’t enough to push a bill through.

Trump’s current policy push, a tax-reform package centered on a major cut in corporate taxes, seems headed for a similar outcome. A proposal that reduces government revenue mainly by cutting taxes on corporations and the rich contains no provisions that a Democrat can take to his or her voters and say, “We got what we could out of the deal.” So Democrats will stay united. Republicans — each of whom represents a somewhat different configuration of interests — probably won’t.

Each of those efforts assumed the once-a-year reconciliation process that circumvents the filibuster in the Senate. Trump has urged the Senate to do away with the filibuster altogether, but there are enough traditionalists in the Republican Senate caucus to defeat that effort. For every other piece of legislation, Trump needs 60 votes in the Senate and only has 52 Republicans.

In short, Trump has already reached the limits of brute force in Congress. This is unlikely to change as the 2018 elections get closer, and if Republican majorities shrink (as seems likely, at least in the House), brute force is even less like to succeed in 2019 and beyond. So if Trump wants to get anything through Congress, he needs at least a small amount of Democratic cooperation. How to get it?

Start the time-bombs ticking. In the last couple of months we’ve seen a new tactic from Trump: Rather than propose even a framework of a policy and seek congressional approval, Trump unilaterally sets a clock ticking towards some outcome that hardly anybody wants. Congress is expected to do something to avert the looming disaster, though precisely what Trump wants it to do is usually unclear. This sets up the following possibilities.

  • If Congress does something popular, Trump can claim credit.
  • If Congress does something unpopular, Trump can save the country from it with a veto and/or a clock reset.
  • If Congress does nothing, he can denounce Congress for obstructing the “agenda” that he never actually proposed.

We’ve seen this set-up three times already in a fairly short time-period: DACA, ObamaCare, and Iran.

DACA. It’s not true that no one wants to deport the so-called Dreamers (the name derives from the DREAM Act — Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, which Congress never passed; that’s what motivated Obama’s DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — executive order), but they are the most popular of America’s undocumented immigrants. A poll in September found that 58% of Americans want Dreamers to have a path to citizenship. Another 18% would let them be permanent residents without citizenship. Only 15% want them deported.

In the face of that public opinion, even Republicans say nice things about the Dreamers. Orrin Hatch, for example:

I’ve long advocated for tougher enforcement of our existing immigration laws. But we also need a workable, permanent solution for individuals who entered our country unlawfully as children through no fault of their own and who have built their lives here.

But on September 5, Trump started a clock running.

Under the plan, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration will stop considering new applications for legal status dated after Tuesday, but will allow any DACA recipients with a permit set to expire before March 5, 2018, the opportunity to apply for a two-year renewal if they apply by October 5.

So after March 5, Dreamers will start becoming subject to deportation. And they’ll be easy to find, because the DACA program required them to register with the government.

At first, Trump himself seemed to share the public’s sympathy for the Dreamers, tweeting “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” His problem seemed to be mainly that DACA was established by executive order rather than by an act of Congress. Democrats briefly thought they had reached a deal with him to fix that. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer released a joint statement after a meeting with Trump:

We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides.

At the time, Trump seemed to endorse the Democrats’ version:

“DACA now, and the wall very soon,” Trump told reporters on the south lawn of the White House in mid-September. “But the wall will happen.”

But this week he disavowed any such deal, and issued his ransom note of 70 demands. Not only did it include funding for his border wall, but it also had one giant poison pill: It criminalizes millions of immigrants who (under current law) have only committed the civil infraction of overstaying their visas.

Of the 11 million unauthorized aliens in the country, about two million are DREAMers [1] and 4.5 million are visa overstays who entered the country legally but whose visas expired (the rest entered the country without proper papers). Currently, these latter folks are guilty of a civil infraction akin to an unpaid parking ticket. They can be deported for it but can’t be thrown in jail.

Many of them are eligible for a visa renewal or for refugee status, but haven’t been able to navigate our byzantine process. [2]

But Trump’s proposals (according to the Cato Institute)

would create a new misdemeanor offense for overstaying a visa. Immigration fraud is already a crime. This would criminalize the technical violation, regardless of the reason.

If, for example, your application gets lost in the mail, or vanishes into some bureaucrat’s files, you become a criminal. But there’s more:

It would also create new criminal penalties for filing “baseless” asylum applications and increase penalties for those who recross the border after a deportation.

So if you are in danger in your home country, be sure you thoroughly document your situation and bring the paperwork with you when you run for your life. Otherwise you may go to jail in the U.S. for filing a baseless asylum application.

In short, Trump’s price for giving the Dreamers legal status (he still hasn’t said what kind) isn’t just to build a wall, but to criminalize at least twice as many people as he legalizes. “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” he asks. But he’ll start doing it on March 5 unless his demands are met.

ObamaCare. The Constitution says that a primary duty of the President is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”. It doesn’t say “unless they were passed under your predecessor and you don’t like them”. But that’s the spin Trump has been putting on the Affordable Care Act since he took office.

The initial sabotage was low-level and seemed like the grousing of teen-agers who complain about going to school as they go to school. For example, HHS took some of the money appropriated to publicize the program and used it to create videos that criticized ObamaCare instead. Somewhat more seriously, the Trump administration has also made it harder to sign up by cutting the open enrollment period.

But this week he made two direct attempts at sabotage: He ordered HHS to expand the role of interstate association healthcare plans, which provides a way to siphon off healthier, younger people into cheaper plans, leaving older, sicker people behind in a more expensive risk pool that is in greater danger of collapsing. And he announced that he will cut off the cost-sharing-reduction payments that help people just above the poverty line cover their deductibles and make co-payments.

It’s important to realize that this is not the main ObamaCare subsidy, the one that helps people pay their premiums. (If people get the impression that all ObamaCare subsidies have been eliminated, that will sabotage sign-ups beyond what the actual situation implies.) Eliminating it will actually not help anybody.

If the payments are stopped, insurers would still be required to give low-income consumers plans with small deductibles and co-payments. But insurers would no longer be able to get financial help for the costs they are bearing.

Some insurance companies would likely decide that it was no longer worth selling health plans on the marketplaces. Others might conclude that they have to raise premiums across-the-board to cover the additional losses.

Insurance regulators predict that premiums nationwide will go up an average of 12% to 15% because of Trump’s decision. But the increase in some areas could be much larger.

Many of the people hurt worst will be Trump voters.

An estimated 4 million people were benefiting from the cost-sharing payments in the 30 states Trump carried, according to an analysis of 2017 enrollment data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of the 10 states with the highest percentage of consumers benefiting from cost-sharing, all but one — Massachusetts — went for Trump.

It won’t even save the government money. Increasing premiums increases the primary ObamaCare subsidies, which will cost the government money.The point of all this, then, isn’t to improve anything for anybody. (It’s worth pointing out that Trump still hasn’t put forward any healthcare plan at all. The Republican plans Congress has rejected were all constructed in Congress. So far, there is no reason to believe that Trump has any ideas for improving healthcare.) It’s to fulfill his promise to “let ObamaCare implode” so that Democrats will have to give in to a repeal-and-replace plan that throws millions of people out of the health-insurance system.

In other words: Agree to hurt a bunch of people, or I’ll hurt even more people.

Iran. The people in the Trump administration who are supposed to understand such things tell us that Iran is fulfilling the terms of the 2015 deal that keeps them from pursuing nuclear weapons. But Friday, Trump “decertified” the agreement.

When you first hear that, it sounds like the deal is kaput. But actually decertification just starts another clock running. Presidential certification actually isn’t part of the international agreement, it’s just part of an American law, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

The immediate consequence of this is not that sanctions snap back into effect. Rather, it’s that the issue gets kicked back to Congress — giving them a 60-day window to reimpose Iran sanctions suspended by the deal using a special, extremely fast process.

The sanctions are part of the agreement, so if they go back into effect, we are in violation, even though Iran is not. So Congress has a special opportunity (again avoiding the Senate filibuster) to kill the deal.

Trump’s stated reasons for decertifying are that Iran continues to do bad things the deal doesn’t cover, like aiding Hezbollah and propping up the Assad regime in Syria. (Russia is also propping up the Assad regime, but Trump can’t criticize Russia.) Also, they are developing ballistic missiles (which the deal doesn’t cover). So they are violating “the spirit” of the agreement.

Trump wants Congress to do something (it’s not clear exactly what) that will re-open negotiations on the deal, not just with Iran, but with the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany, who are also part of the agreement.  None of the other countries have expressed an interest in renegotiating, or in reimposing the sanctions that pushed Iran to make concessions. But

in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated. It is under continuous review, and our participation can be cancelled by me, as President, at any time.

Several administration officials say we want to remain in the deal. Just blowing it up sets Iran back on the path to nuclear weapons and the United States on the path to war. No one benefits. But Trump says he’ll blow it up if his demands aren’t met.

So far, no one is giving in. There’s no indication that Democrats will pay ransom for DACA or ObamaCare, or that Iran and the other signers of the Iran nuclear deal will pay ransom to preserve the agreement. Like any terrorist, Trump will have to shoot some hostages before his enemies start taking his threats seriously. What remains to be seen is what Trump supporters, both in Congress and in the general public, will do once they understand that the hostages include people they care about.


[1] You’ll see a fairly wide range of estimates of the number of Dreamers, with this one on the high end. The number of people who have registered for DACA is usually estimated between 700K and 800K. I’m assuming that two million represents a guess at the number of undocumented immigrants who qualify in the vaguest sense: They came to this country as children and so could apply for DACA. An undocumented family might have any number of reasons not to call attention to itself by registering its DACA-eligible child.

[2] The goal of the sanctuary movement in liberal American churches isn’t to shelter forever people who can’t legally stay in this country, but to prevent the government from deporting people who would be eligible to stay if some neutral court could examine their cases. Such people are given temporary sanctuary so that the bureaucratic process has time to work.

On Memorial Day we ought to remember the dead, not celebrate the Empire.

I grew up in the era of the draft. Young men by the hundreds of thousands were remanded into the military under penalty of law. They were not sent to defend their homes and families against an invader, but to Vietnam to fight a war whose significance was hard to explain. (In retrospect, we lost and American life went on more-or-less as before. So what was that all about?)

Tens of thousands died there. Others came back alive, but left arms or legs behind. Some came back whole, but said little about their experiences afterwards. Some avoided the draft, either legally through student deferments (or whatever other loopholes were available when their names came up), or illegally, by going to Canada or Sweden, or (like Muhammad Ali) to prison.

I imagine that some must have had the kinds of positive experiences I liked to read about in formulaic World War II novels: They came of age. They discovered inside themselves a strength and courage that they had not previously been aware of. They bonded with other young men they probably would not have met any other way, and found friends for life.

This is all speculative for me, because I was never drafted. The draft wound down just in time to miss my age cohort: We had to register, and they held a lottery that told us what order we would have been drafted in, but no draft was held. So whether I would have died, lost a limb, locked the whole experience away in a dark corner of my mind, escaped to Toronto, gone or jail, or found myself — who can say? I was there for the beginning of the all-volunteer army, and I didn’t volunteer.

While I am personally grateful to have had the chance to make that choice, I am ambivalent about the policy that allowed me to do so. I sympathize with the Jeffersonian vision expressed in the opening of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State …”. Jefferson and Madison pictured a militia-based military, where ordinary people defended their towns and farms, rather than a standing army that could be sent on imperial missions, or maybe could develop its own interests, separate from the rest of the country. When soldiering becomes a profession, they realized, military and civilian cultures can start to go in different directions. And that’s dangerous “to the security of a free State”.

That divergence has been happening, slowly but steadily, for almost half a century now. It hurts America in two different ways. On the one hand, we get chicken hawks: neo-conservative intellectuals or tough-talking radio hosts, who know that neither they nor their sons or daughters will ever be called on to back up their geopolitical theories or their jingoistic rhetoric. If anyone ends up getting shot it, it will be the rural kid whose college fund vanished after Dad lost his factory job, or the ghetto kid who sees no other way out than to sign away a few years of his life and take a chance on losing all of it.

On the other hand, families who maintain a military tradition without financial necessity may come to see themselves not as representatives of America, but as a breed apart from it — a better, braver breed that has been forced to deal with violent reality in a way that the rest of us avoid, and who therefore deserve to rule. If a fascist takeover ever succeeds in this country, it will be due not just to some Trump-like clown at the top, but also to warriors up and down the line who no longer respect civilian America.

These thoughts come to me on Memorial Day, because I have no one in particular to remember: Not only have I never been shot at, but no one close to me has died in war. Our soldiers continue to serve in war zones in Afghanistan and in parts of Iraq and Syria, but no one I know is in danger. I care about those wars only to the extent that I choose to care. If I ignore them, they will not slap me in the face by claiming someone important to me.

Memorial Day didn’t used to be like this. It began after the Civil War, a conflict that killed about 2% of the population, and is still responsible for nearly half of the total of Americans who have ever died in battle. It began, in other words, at a time when nearly everyone had someone to remember.

I picture the early Memorial Days as bittersweet holidays, full of personal anecdotes about the dead, respect, regret, and a touch of gratitude for the chance to be living in peace. You might take your children to the cemetery to tell them stories about a father or uncle they remembered either dimly or not at all, while silently you hoped that you would never have to visit their graves on a some future Memorial Day. If you prayed, it was not for the greater glory of the United States, but for peace.

For many, perhaps most of us, particularly those in the educated or managerial classes, that personal connection has been lost. We have no graves to visit, and we never seriously worry about our children going to war, because that’s not their job. They’re destined for colleges and offices and the exciting digital future. Bullets and bombs are for the lower classes to deal with.

What replaces the personal is pageantry. Rather than a reminder of the cost of war, this holiday has become either a content-free weekend marking the start of summer, or a celebration of the military. Friday night, I saw on television an example that was simultaneously trivial and ridiculous: The Boston Red Sox played the Seattle Mariners, and both teams marked the Memorial Day weekend by wearing caps of Army green with camouflage visors. (The caps are being marketed; yesterday on a sidewalk, I passed a young man wearing one.)

The changes in Memorial Day are part of a larger growth of nationalistic ritual and worship of things military. I have always been uncomfortable singing the national anthem at baseball games (a practice that began during World War I, in the 1918 World Series; perhaps this misappropriation was the true origin of the curse that prevented both teams — Red Sox and Cubs — from winning a world championship for the rest of the 20th century), because I don’t see what is patriotic about playing or watching baseball. By now, of course, that practice extends to virtually all sports events, to the point that football quarterback Colin Kaepernick could create a national controversy simply by kneeling down.

After 9-11, many teams started putting a second patriotic song (“God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful”) somewhere else in the program, like during the 7th inning stretch. Last summer, the college-summer-league team in my town began including a moment where all veterans in the house were asked to stand and be applauded by the rest of us; not just on a particular day, but every game.

This Thursday, I was at the graduation ceremony of a nearby community college. It also began with the national anthem, included “God Bless America” later in the program, and had a moment when all graduating veterans stood to be applauded. Again, nationalism and militarism seemed pasted onto this event. Why not, for example, the state song or the college song? We were told that graduates came from many different nations: Why were they required to participate in an American patriotic ritual? (Why, for that matter, are baseball players, many of whom come from Latin American countries that have no cause to remember us or our soldiers kindly?) Trump’s planners even looked into the possibility of military vehicles adding spectacle to his inaugural parade, as they did to the old Soviet Mayday celebrations.

As actual soldiers become more and more distant, we are offered the Soldier and the Veteran as symbols. They are to be honored and worshiped, not empathized with, or even taken care of. (They are, in essence, getting the Jesus treatment: Worship Him as Lord, but pay no attention to the actual person. Ignore that liberal Sermon on the Mount, or much of anything else He said.) We are offered the Nation and the Military as objects of veneration, and encouraged to take an imperial pride in their world-bestriding power.

I find myself missing the bittersweet holiday Memorial Day started out to be. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to have a day where we appreciate the huge difference in scale between the Nation’s ambitions and the costs that will filter down into our own lives? Or, perhaps, to recognize the ways that we have been insulated from those costs, which have not vanished, but are borne by someone else instead?

Memorial Day itself is becoming something to mourn for. Once a bittersweet recognition of the toll assessed by military power, it now too often becomes a celebration of that power.

Where Did That Come From?

The attack on Syria reverses what little we thought we knew about Trump’s foreign policy.


In his campaign and the early days of his administration, Trump did not lay out a detailed vision of foreign policy. But he did have a slogan:

From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first  America first.

No longer would we spend “trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” We weren’t going to commit our blood and treasure for sentimental reasons, or to uphold abstract global principles, or perhaps not even to defend our allies. Our military would be used to promote our interests, and nobody else’s.

The administration’s early moves followed that course: His proposed budget sharply cuts foreign aid. By some accounts, he presented German’s Angela Merkel with a printed bill for Germany’s share of NATO’s defense expenses.

He particularly applied this view to Syria. Such troops and air strikes as we committed to Syria were to fight ISIS, and not to play any role in helping rebels oust the Assad regime. Not only did he want to reverse President Obama’s commitment to taking in Syrian refugees, he didn’t want anyone at all to come here from there, not even as tourists. Just 11 days ago, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were saying that we no longer were going to “focus on getting Assad out“.

Then Tuesday came Assad’s gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens of civilians and producing horrifying video. Trump’s initial reaction was to blame Obama for not taking military action against Assad after a previous chemical attack in 2013 — inaction that Trump demanded at the time. Then he made a semi-coherent statement expressing personal horror at the videos, blaming Assad, and praising himself in advance for his “flexibility”, i.e. not being bound by anything he had said in the past.

Thursday, he shot 59 Tomahawk missiles at the airbase the gas attack came from. The attack was mostly symbolic, since the base reportedly was back in operation quickly, and further airstrikes were made against the same rebel-held area, though apparently no chemical attacks.

So what’s the United States’ foreign policy now? No one seems to know.

What should we do? Before I get too far along in criticizing Trump, let me state for the record that I don’t know what to do about Syria either. Neither do you and neither does anybody else.

Revolutions and civil wars can have happy endings when there is a popular will or national identity that the current ruler is thwarting. In such a case, if you just get that ruler out of the way, things can take their natural course. Being conquered did wonders for Japan and Germany (at least in the west) because the people in those countries had a strong notion of what it meant to be Japanese or German. Given a benevolent conqueror, democratic institutions could be established and a popular government elected.

But while democracy can empower a popular consensus, it can’t create one from nothing. That’s what we’ve seen in Iraq. An occupying power can hold elections, but if the winning and losing sides still want to kill each other, the elected government can’t represent them both. When there is no popular will for democracy to bring to power, no consensus notion of what the country is or how it should be run, then there is no obvious happy ending to aim for. Any outside power that intervenes is looking at a menu of dismal outcomes, all of which will leave its people asking: “We killed and died for this?”

That’s Syria. There isn’t a popular resistance, there are a dozen or so of them, none of which gets along with the others.

Talking past each other. If I can’t give a just-do-this answer, I can at least try to disentangle some of the public discussion. A lot of the commentary on Syria consists of people talking past each other, and the main reason seems to be that “caring about Syria” can mean you care about a lot of different things. Here’s an incomplete list of what your concerns might be:

  • the Syrian people
  • the political stability of the region
  • the rivalries of great powers as they express themselves in the region
  • international law, particular as it concerns chemical weapons

For example, many have pointed out that the Syrian people probably don’t much care whether Assad kills them with gas or with explosives. But to others, the limited use of chemical weapons since World War I is one of the great successes of international diplomacy, and it would be a shame for that to fall apart, even if preserving it doesn’t help any Syrians.

Conversely, accepting more Syrian refugees doesn’t address any of the concerns of the international-law folks.

The limited menu. Whoever was president this week would have had the same three immediate military options:

  • Don’t respond. Let the civil war continue with its endless death. And let the world’s malefactors infer that (for practical purposes) chemical weapons are OK now.
  • Launch an attack to bring Assad down. Either we’d take over Syria with our own troops, or we’d cripple Assad’s military so badly from the air that some group of rebels could win. The risks are endless quagmire for our troops, a larger war with Russia and/or Iran, the possibility that the winning anti-Assad faction will be even worse, or that even after Assad is gone, the war between the other factions will continue and be just as bad.
  • Launch a symbolic attack that won’t affect the outcome of the war. Such an attack won’t help the Syrian people, but Russia and Iran will probably accept it, and it will preserve (to some extent) the international stigma on chemical weapons.

Trump made the third choice, which probably is pretty close to what Hillary Clinton would have done.

The question is whether there is any follow-up — Clinton probably would have had something in mind — and so far it appears that the answer is no. On the Sunday talk shows, Nikki Haley said regime change in Syria is “something that we think is going to happen”, but National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster strongly implied the ball was in Russia’s court, not ours.

We are not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change [in the Assad regime]. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, what are we doing here?

So we’re waiting to see what Russia does, and so far they’re not backing away from Assad.

A few more points worth making:

Obama is getting a bad rap. Numerous commentators are giving Trump credit for “doing something”, compared to Obama who “did nothing” after Assad’s chemical attacks in 2013.

That’s only true if “something” has to be a military attack. What Obama did was get Russia to oversee the removal of large stockpiles of chemical weapons from Syria, which resulted in no chemical attacks for the rest of his administration. Given the either bad or negligible consequences of the military choices (which Trump is facing now), finding something off the menu was a pretty good move.

Don’t forget the climate change angle. The “Climate Wars” episode of Years of Living Dangerously features Thomas Friedman in Syria, exploring the role an exceptional drought played in starting the civil war.

What if Trump’s reaction really was spontaneous? One explanation of Trump’s missile attack is that he was so affected by images of the victims of the chemical attack that he felt a spontaneous desire to strike back, even if it contradicted all his previous positions.

Here’s the analogous story that popped into my mind: In 1952, bank robber Willie Sutton was caught because amateur detective Arnold Schuster spotted him on a New York subway. Schuster was then murdered, which was a mysterious development, since Sutton had never been that kind of criminal.

One explanation that eventually came out was that mob boss Albert Anastasia, who had no connection to Sutton and who was getting increasingly unstable as his power grew, saw Schuster tell his story on TV and spontaneously told his men “I can’t stand squealers! Hit that guy!”

An unstable guy with too much power has a violent-but-fleeting reaction to something he sees on TV, and people wind up dead. I think I’d rather believe a conspiracy theory.

ISIS is losing, but what happens next?

When people do something that doesn’t fit their self-image, they often have a hard time remembering it. “Me? No, I couldn’t have done that. It just doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Collectively, the American people are that way about fear. We see ourselves as a courageous country, so if you give us a good scare, and then the thing we were afraid of doesn’t happen, the whole episode has a way of slipping our minds. And if somebody deserves credit for avoiding what we were panicking about, well, too bad for them, because … us? afraid? What are you talking about?

President Obama has suffered from this kind of public amnesia before. The day before he was elected in 2008, USA Today ran a reassuring article telling people that a Second Great Depression was “unlikely”, even if things sort of looked that way.

Failed banks. Panicked markets. Rising unemployment. For students of history, or people of a certain age, it all has an all-too-familiar ring. Is this another Great Depression? Not yet.

By any measure, our current economic suffering pales in comparison with what the nation endured from 1929 through 1939. Still, most economists are predicting a long, difficult period ahead. Could it eventually become a depression? It’s possible — but not likely.

That’s what a calm, reasonable voice sounded like in November, 2008: Total catastrophe might happen, but it probably won’t, unless it does. At least it hasn’t happened yet.

But who remembers? If we discuss Obama’s economic record at all now, we probably talk about how anemic the recovery has been. Wages should be higher, poverty lower. “What’s wrong with this guy? Depression? I never worried about a Depression. That doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Something similar has happened with regard to the Islamic State. When ISIS first burst into the public consciousness in the spring of 2014, we weren’t afraid of handfuls of terrorists slipping across borders to carry out operations like the Paris attack last November. Nor did we worry about American individuals giving ISIS the credit for killing sprees like San Bernardino or Orlando (which without the credit to ISIS would be hard to distinguish from secular non-ideological killing sprees like Sandy Hook or Aurora).

In the spring and early summer of 2014, the question was on a different scale: whether Baghdad would fall, leading to the complete collapse of Iraq as a country. Maybe the restored Caliphate, the one Bin Laden had dreamed about but never expected to see, was happening right before our eyes.

In a widely discussed Atlantic article in the spring of 2015 (which I critiqued here), Graeme Wood told us what made ISIS different and far more dangerous that Al Qaeda had been: Large chunks of sharia describe a Muslim’s duties towards the Caliphate, and have been moot since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” … In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.

By controlling territory and declaring himself Caliph there, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was filling a role that an underground leader like Osama bin Laden never could. His advancing forces stirred memories of Muhammad’s armies improbably exploding out of Medina to capture the entire Arabian peninsula, then his successors continuing that rapid expansion until their empire was the largest in the world. The Emperor in Constantinople hadn’t been able to stop the armies of Allah; maybe the President in Washington couldn’t either.

So that was the challenge Obama faced two years ago when he formulated his anti-ISIS strategy: Stop al-Baghdadi’s advance and throw his forces back. But a new American invasion of Iraq (plus Syria) wasn’t a good idea because it would simultaneously

  • play into al-Baghdadi’s end-times fantasies
  • support ISIS’ narrative that it represents all of Islam in a Muslim/Christian holy war
  • cost fabulous amounts of money
  • get lots of American troops killed
  • not be supported by the American people
  • involve us in a new occupation that in the long run would probably be as counter-productive as the last one.

So Obama opted for a slow-strangulation approach instead: Use air power to prevent ISIS from advancing with a massed force, and also to kill its leaders and degrade its territory’s economic resources; aid local anti-ISIS forces like the patched-back-together Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and whatever bands of Syrian rebels seem remotely trustworthy; together with our allies, prevent new recruits from emigrating to the Caliphate; and use our economic power to cut off ISIS’ sources of foreign funding.

He doesn’t get much credit for it, but it’s been working. By January, 2015, ISIS’ forward momentum had ground to a halt, robbing it of its greatest propaganda weapon. Since then, it has slowly but inexorably been losing territory: Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Manbij, and maybe soon Mosul and even the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa. Turkey has intervened in northern Syria, reducing the Islamic State’s ability to shift forces between Syria and Iraq.

One measure of how well the strangulation strategy has been working is that (no matter how often they proclaimed Obama’s ISIS policy a failure) none of the candidates in the Republican primaries offered a real alternative. Any detailed policy they offered was more-or-less what Obama is already doing, perhaps seasoned with some additional macho rhetoric like “carpet bombing” that they didn’t mean literally.

So now it is possible to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when ISIS no longer holds territory, and is only a caliphate in some vague metaphorical sense. Al-Baghdadi himself may go down with the ship, or he may survive as a Bin-Ladin-style underground leader, but his mythic status as a caliph will be gone. Then what happens?

An article by Mark Jurgensmeyer in the The Cairo Review of Global Affairs tries to answer that question. In his view, ISIS is really three things:

  • a local Sunni empowerment movement
  • a global jihadist movement
  • an apocalyptic cult

The end of the al-Baghdadi caliphate, Jurgensmeyer thinks, will unbundle those three aspects, and each will have its own future.

Local Sunnis. No matter what happens to ISIS or al-Baghdadi, a lot of Sunnis will still live in eastern Syria and western Iraq, and they still will feel no loyalty to either the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus or the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Eventually, and probably before too long, some political and/or military force will represent their interests again.

The three possibilities are: (1) Baghdad and Damascus re-assert control, but manage to give Sunnis enough respect and local autonomy to keep them happy, (2) Baghdad and Damascus decide they’re glad to be rid of those troublesome provinces and allow the creation of a non-jihadist Sunni state that covers most of the territory ISIS controlled, or (3) the region becomes a failed-state territory, nominally under government control but in practice ruled by warlords of one sort or another. Jurgensmeyer sees some combination of (2) and (3) as the most likely scenario:

In the Sunni heartland of eastern Syria and western Iraq, the Sunni tribal leaders will continue to maintain order, however, the way they always have done. There will be a de facto Sunnistan though not one officially proclaimed.

Global jihadists. For young Muslims who feel alienated from the Western or Western-dominated society where they live (and from the local mosque that attempts to fit into that society), ISIS has been a symbol, a brand, an identity, and a virtual community accessed via the internet. (TPM recently had a more detailed article on ISIS’ use of the internet.) The actual territory of ISIS is a place of aspiration, but most never go there. Recently, the Islamic State has been encouraging sympathizers in the U.S. and Europe to carry out attacks at home.

When Raqqa falls, it will be a huge blow to ISIS’ propaganda, and some recruits may see the err of their ways. But like the Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, they will still be alienated. They will still be searching for an identity as Muslims, and the online jihadist community will be there to welcome them.

The pictures show the ISIS brotherhood together in physical space, but the sense of community appears to be almost as strong in the connections provided through the media of cyberspace.

For this reason, the cyber community of ISIS will likely persist long after the physical control of territory in Syria and Iraq has been abandoned. The digital apparatus of websites, cybermagazines, video uploads, Twitter communications, and dark web locations has been well established and though it may be interrupted by ISIS’s territorial defeat, it likely will be maintained in some form somewhere in the world other than in the ISIS-controlled cities of Raqqah and Mosul. There is no reason to think that they will be entirely dismantled.

… This branding of autonomous terrorist attacks may be part of the dark future of the ISIS global jihadist network. The encouragement of ISIS for individuals to take up bombs against secular and non-supportive Muslim societies leaves room for a plethora of acts of terrorism undertaken for mixed motives but given the legitimization of ISIS ideology through ISIS-branding. Individuals can be comforted by the fact that even though their horrible actions are condemned by most people, including most Muslims, around the globe, their comrades in the online communities forged through Internet connections will digitally applaud their crimes.

In other words: Capturing Raqqa or killing al-Baghdadi won’t stop the next Orlando attack.

This is one reason why American Islamophobia is so counter-productive. Anyone who proclaims that we are at war with Islam is telling our Muslim youth that they have no place in the West and never will. So why shouldn’t they try to burn it all down?

Cultists. One achievement of Wood’s Atlantic article was to introduce the American public to the apocalyptic vision of ISIS’ inner circle. Al-Baghdadi sees himself leading not just a liberation movement, but moving towards a long-prophesied battle of cosmic significance. Jurgensmeyer also emphasizes the importance of this belief:

The reason why some of the foreign fighters are so passionate about the ISIS enterprise is that they are convinced that it is at the leading edge of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will usher in the last days of the planet and signal the arrival of the Islamic savior, the Mahdi. Though only some of the fighters are propelled by this belief, and few Sunnis in ISIS-controlled territory share it, this is a dominant motive of the inner circle of the movement.

This Islamic Armageddon is supposed to happen at Dabiq, a town within ISIS’ control that also provides the name of its online magazine.

When Dabiq falls and the world keeps on spinning, the cultists will have suffered a major blow. Likewise, when al-Baghdadi’s forces splinter into underground bands of rebel fighters and can no longer be called an army in any meaningful sense, the final battle may start to seem very far away.

However, apocalyptic thinking pops up in almost all religions, and never completely goes away. Jurgensmeyer sees this aspect of ISIS surviving in small groups, many of which will be benign because they will lack the means to carry out their visions. However, the ability of small groups of extremists to occasionally do horrible things should not be forgotten.

Summing up. For a time, al-Baghdadi assembled religion, propaganda, territorial control, and military force into a threat to the Western-dominated world order that went far beyond anything Bin Laden wielded. President Obama’s strategy has addressed that threat without over-reacting. It has not given us the falling-Saddam-statue moments many would like, but it has been effective. Soon, probably during his successor’s term, that special threat will be broken.

But when it is, the Bin-Laden-style terror-attack threat will continue, and the political problems of Sunnis in Iraq/Syria will remain. The wellspring of violence is not charismatic leadership or clever propaganda, it is an alienated populace. That’s something you can’t solve with air power or the conquest of cities.

In times of hysteria

Six things ordinary people can do to restore sanity.


One of the most difficult experiences of democracy is to watch your country going crazy, and feel responsible. In a dictatorship you could just zone out: The Powers That Be will do what they do, and your opinion doesn’t matter anyway. Your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers — their opinions don’t matter either, so there’s no point in arguing with them, or even letting them know you disagree. You might as well just binge-watch something light on TV, and wait for the wave to pass.

In a democracy it’s different: We are the wave. Politicians really do respond to certain kinds of public opinion, sometimes to our shame. So, for example, my Democratic governor (Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who I have voted for, given money to, and was planning to support for the Senate) called for a halt on admitting Syrian refugees. (She later reduced it to a “pause“, “until intelligence and defense officials can assure that the process for vetting all refugees is as strong as possible to ensure public safety.” But the damage was done: Any governor who wants to come out against refugees can claim bipartisan support.) My representative (Annie Kuster of NH-2, who I have also voted for and given money to) voted Yes on the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, which at a minimum would delay any new refugee resettlements by 2 or 3 months, and might snafu the process altogether. [1] (Check your representative’s vote here.)

If my side has been characterized by politicians timidly letting the panic sweep them away, on the other side it’s been bedlam. Ben Carson is openly dehumanizing refugees with metaphors about “rabid dogs”. Donald Trump is talking about closing mosques, because “we’re going to have no choice”. He has advocated forcing American Muslims to register with the government, so that they can be tracked in a database. Marco Rubio expanded Trump’s proposal to call for shutting down “anyplace where radicals are being inspired”. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush want a religious test for refugees: We should accept Christians, but not Muslims. John Kasich wants to create a government agency to promote “Judeo-Christian values” around the world. [2]

Chris Christie says we shouldn’t even let in little kids. Like, say, this Syrian girl, who mistook the photographer’s camera for a gun and tried to surrender.

And remember this Syrian boy? His photo evoked international compassion a couple months ago, but that never lasts, does it?

When Governor Jay Nixon didn’t try to block Syrian refugees, state Rep. Mike Moon called for a special session of the legislature to stop “the potential Islamization of Missouri“. But the bull goose loony (to borrow Ken Kesey’s phrase) was a Democrat: Roanoke Mayor David Bowers, who justified his refusal to cooperate with resettling refugees by citing FDR’s Japanese internment camps during World War II. That national disgrace is now a precedent. (Who knows? Maybe slavery or the Native American genocide will become precedents too.)

I had never heard of Rep. Moon or Mayor Bowers before, but none of the Republican presidential candidates seemed this insane when they started campaigning. So I suspect they’re just saying what they think will appeal to their voters. They may be pandering to the public fear, attempting to benefit from it, and playing their role in spreading it, but they didn’t start it.

We did that. Ordinary people like us. Our friends, our relatives, our co-workers, the people we know through social media. And so I suspect it’s up to us to stop it.

I have to confess I didn’t see this coming. After the Paris attacks, I expected a push to hit ISIS harder, maybe even to re-invade Iraq and add Syria to the occupation zone. (Jeb Bush recently joined Ben Carson, John Kasich, and Lindsey Graham in calling for ground troops, though he was vague about how many.) I didn’t foresee an Ebola-level panic [3] focused on the refugees who are running from the same people we want to fight, much less the yellow-starring of American citizens who practice an unpopular religion.

But OK, here we are. Our country is going crazy and we are right in the middle of it. What do we do now?

1. Don’t make it worse. In particular, don’t be the guy hysterically running around and yelling at other people not to panic. Sanity begins within. You have to find it in yourself before you can transmit it to other people.

So: calm down. If you need help, seek out other calm voices. The needed attitude is a firm determination to slow this panic down, not a mad urge to turn the mob around and run it in the opposite direction.

Once you start to feel that determination, you’re ready to engage: Participate in conversations (both face-to-face and in social media). Write letters to the editor. Write to your representatives in government.

Don’t yell. Don’t humiliate. Just spread calm, facts, and rationality. When engagement starts to make you crazy, back away. Calm down again. Repeat.

2. Disrupt the spread of rumors. Panics feed on fantasies and rumors. Fantasies tell people that horrible things could happen. Rumors assert that they already are happening.

Social media is the ideal rumor-spreading medium, so it takes a lot of us to slow a rumor down. But you don’t have to be a rhetorical genius to play your part. Simple comments like “I don’t think this is real” or “That’s been debunked” are often sufficient, especially if you have the right link to somebody who has checked it out. The debunking site Snopes.com has tags devoted to Paris attack claims and Syrian refugees.

Here are a couple of the false rumors I’ve run into lately:

Current Syrian refugees resettled in America are not “missing”. I heard this one during a Trump interview with Sean Hannity. Trump refers to “people” who are missing — with the implication that they have gone off the grid and joined some kind of underground. Hannity corrected to “one person … in New Orleans”. (Think about that: It’s gotten so bad that Sean Hannity has to tone stuff down.) But Catholic Charities has debunked that story: They resettled the guy in Louisiana, and then he moved. He’s not missing. (The source of this rumor was probably the desperate David Vitter campaign for governor, which tried to ride the refugee panic to a comeback victory. It didn’t work.)

No, lying to further the cause of Islam is not a thing. Under the doctrine of taqiya, a Muslim may lie about his faith to escape serious persecution or death. Anti-Muslim propagandists have tried to turn this into a sweeping principle that justifies any lie to an unbeliever — and consequently justifies non-Muslims in disbelieving anything Muslims say. But it doesn’t work that way. Now, I’m sure ISIS has undercover operatives (just like we do) and that Muslim leaders lie (just like leaders of other faiths). But there’s no special reason to think Muslims are less truthful than the rest of us.

I won’t try to predict what further rumors will arise. But when you run into one, check Snopes, google around a little, and see if somebody has already done the hard work of checking it out.

As you participate, remember: In social media, you’re not just talking to the person you’re responding to (who might be hopeless), you’re also talking to his or her friends. Some of those friends might have been ready to like or share the rumor until they saw your debunking comment. You’ll never know who they are, but their hesitation is your accomplishment.

3. Make fantasies confront reality. Fearful fantasies work best when they’re vague and open-ended. For example: Terrorists are going to sneak in as refugees and kill us!

Think about that: A terrorist is going to submit to a one-or-two-year screening process, establish a life in this country, and then drop off the grid, strap on a suicide vest, and blow himself up in some crowded place.

Does that scenario make any sense? Wouldn’t it be simpler to come as a tourist? An aspiring terrorist could get in much faster with less scrutiny, spend a few weeks visiting Disney World or hiking the Grand Canyon, and then start killing us, while his fake-refugee brothers-in-arms are still tangled in red tape.

Sometimes the most devastating response to a nightmare fantasy is the simple question: “How does that work, exactly?” If you can get a person to admit “I don’t know”, you’ve restored a little sanity to the world.

4. Call out distractions. The Slacktivist blog makes this point so well that I barely need to elaborate.

As a general rule with very few exceptions, whenever you encounter someone arguing that “We [America] shouldn’t be doing X to help those people over there until we fix Y over here for our own people,” then you have also just encountered someone who doesn’t really give a flying fig about actually doing anything to fix Y over here.

So if somebody says we shouldn’t be taking in Syrian refugees while there are still homeless children or veterans or whatever in this country, the right response is to ask what they’re currently doing to help the people they say are more deserving. Odds are: nothing. Their interest in homeless American vets begins and ends with the vets’ value as a distraction from helping refugees.

Once you grasp this tactic, you’ll see it everywhere. So: “All those resources you want to devote to fighting climate change would be better spent helping the poor.” “OK, then, what’s your plan for using those resources to help the poor? Can I count on your vote when that comes up?” Silence.

When people argue that there’s a limited amount of good in the world, so we shouldn’t waste it on anybody but the most deserving, ultimately they’re going to end up arguing that they should keep the limited amount of good they have, and not use it help anybody but themselves.

5. Make sensible points. If you can capture somebody’s attention long enough to make a point of your own, try to teach them something true, rather than just mirror the kind of bile they’re spreading. This is far from a complete list, but in case you’re stuck I have a few sensible points to suggest:

The process for vetting refugees is already serious. Time explains it here, and Vox has an actual refugee’s account of how she got here.

America needs mosques. Research on terrorism (not to mention common sense) tells us that the people to worry about aren’t the ones who are pillars of their communities. The young men most likely to become terrorists are not those who feel at home in their local houses of worship, but the loners, or the ones have only a handful of equally alienated friends. (That’s not just true for Muslims like the Tsarnaev brothers, but also white Christian terrorists like Dylann Roof.) When you can’t connect face-to-face, that’s when you start looking around online for other radical outcasts you can identify with.

So it would be bad if American mosques just magically went away, as if they had never existed. But it would be infinitely worse for the government to start closing them. What could be more alienating to precisely the young men that ISIS wants to recruit?

Religious institutions aide assimilation. Imagine what would have happened if we had closed Italian Catholic churches to fight the Mafia, or Irish Catholic churches for fear of the IRA, or Southern Baptist churches that had too many KKK members.

The Founders envisioned American religious freedom extending to Muslims. As Ben Franklin wrote:

Even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.

We seldom look back with pride on decisions made in a panic. This is where the Japanese internment precedent should be quoted: That’s the kind of stuff we do when we get caught up in a wave of fear and anger. So should our refusal to take in Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. The Red Scare is another precedent. More recently: Everybody who jumped from 9-11 to “Invade Iraq!” or “We need to torture people!” — are you proud of that now?

6. Look for unlikely allies, and quote them. Listening to Trump, Cruz, and the rest, it’s easy to imagine that everybody in the conservative base is part of the problem. But that’s not true. Here are a few places you may not realize you have allies.

Christians. I know: The self-serving Christians [4] so dominate the public conversation that sometimes it’s hard to remember the existence of actual American Christians, i.e., people trying to shape their lives around the example and teachings of Jesus. But if you screen out the clamor of “Christians” focused on the competition between their tribe and the rival tribe of Muslims, you will hear people who are trying to figure out what the Good Samaritan would do.

And I’m not just talking about liberal Christians from the mainstream sects. Lots of evangelical Christian churches have been involved in resettling refugees in their local areas. They know exactly how bad it is for refugees, and can put faces on the issue. They’re not happy with the people who are trying to demonize Jamaal and Abeela and their three kids.

The Mormon community retains its collective memory of being outcasts. [5] So Utah stands out as a red state whose governor has not rejected settling Syrian refugees.

Ryan Dueck sums up:

as Christians, there are certain things that we just don’t get to do.

We don’t get to hunt around for excuses for why we don’t need to include “those people” in the category of “neighbour.”

We don’t get to look for justifications for why it’s better to build a wall than open a door.

We don’t get to label people in convenient and self-serving ways in order to convince ourselves that we don’t have to care for them.

We don’t get to speak and act as if fear is a more pragmatic and useful response than love.

We don’t get to complain that other people aren’t doing the things that we don’t want to do.

We don’t get to reduce the gospel of peace and life and hope to a business-as-usual kind of political pragmatism with a bit of individual salvation on top.

We don’t get to ask, as our default question, “How can I protect myself and my way of life?” but “How does the love of Christ constrain and liberate me in this particular situation?”

And all of this is, of course, for the simple reason that as Christians, we are convinced that ultimately evil is not overcome by greater force or mightier weapons or higher walls or more entrenched divisions between “good people” and “bad people,” but by costly, self-sacrificial love. The kind of love that God displayed for his friends and his enemies on a Roman cross.

If you read the comments on that post, or look at this rejoinder from National Review, you’ll see that Dueck’s point of view is not universal among people who think of themselves as Christians. But it’s out there.

Libertarians. Some parts of the libertarian right understand that oppression is unlikely to stop with Muslims. So Wednesday the Cato Institute posted its analysis: “Syrian Refugees Don’t Pose a Serious Security Threat“. Conservatives who won’t believe you or Mother Jones might take Cato more seriously.

Scattered Republican politicans. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but here’s at least one Republican trying to slow the hysteria down: Oklahoma Congressman Steve Russell. He said this on the floor of the House:

America protects her liberty and defends her shores not by punishing those who would be free. She does it by guarding liberty with her life. Americans need to sacrifice and wake up. We must not become them. They win if we give up who we are and even more-so without a fight.

Russell eventually knuckled under to the pressure and voted for the SAFE Act, but says that he got something in return from the Republican leadership: the promise of a seat at the table in the subsequent negotiations with the Senate and the White House. We’ll see if that makes a difference.

 

These next few days, I think it’s particularly important for sensible people to make their voices heard, and to stand up for the courageous American values that make us proud, rather than the fear and paranoia that quake at the sight of orphan children.

Every time you stick your neck out — even just a little — you make it easier for your neighbor to do the same. Little by little, one person at a time, we can turn this around.


[1] What disturbs me most about the supporters of the SAFE Act is that they’re not calling for any specific changes in the way refugees are screened, they just want more of it. I suspect most of the congresspeople who voted for the act have no idea how refugees are vetted now, much less an idea for improving that process.

As we have seen in the discussion of border security, more is one of those desires that can never be satisfied. If this becomes law and in 2-3 months the administration comes out with its new refugee-screening process, we will once again face the cries of “More!”, along with the same nightmare fantasies about killer refugees.

[2] Actually, the main thing wrong with Kasich’s proposal is that he sticks an inappropriate religious label on the values he wants to promote: “the values of human rights, the values of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association.” Russian dissident (and former chess champion) Garry Kasparov has a better term for these: modern values.

In the West, these values were championed by Enlightenment philosophers, many of whom were denounced as heretics and atheists by the Christian and Jewish authorities of their era. So no, these are not Judeo-Christian values.

[3] The two panics have a number of similarities, as John McQuaid points out. In each case “a terrifying and poorly-understood risk has stirred up apocalyptic fantasies and brought out the worst in the political system.”

If you want a paradigm for fear-mongering, you can’t beat this Donald Trump quote, which combines the appearance of factuality with no actual content whatsoever:

Some really bad things are happening, and they’re happening fast. I think they’re happening a lot faster than anybody understands.

One similarity between the two panics is noteworthy: Both times Republicans attributed President Obama’s sane and measured response to his lack of loyalty to the United States. During Ebola, Jodi Ernst said Obama hadn’t demonstrated that he cares about the American people, and recently, Ted Cruz said Obama “does not wish to defend this country.”

Strangely, though, over-reacting during a panic seems to carry no political cost, because everyone forgets your excesses while they are forgetting their own. In a sane world, Chris Christie’s over-the-top response to Ebola would disqualify him from further leadership positions — especially since it turned out that the CDC was right and he was wrong. But no one remembers, so he is not discouraged from flipping his wig now as well.

[4] You know who I mean: The ones who find the Bible crystal clear when it justifies their condemnation of somebody they didn’t like anyway, but nearly impenetrable when it tells them to do something inconvenient. So the barely coherent rant of Romans 1 represents God’s complete rejection of any kind of homosexual relationship, but “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” is so profoundly mysterious that it defies interpretation.

[5] My hometown of Quincy, Illinois took in a bunch of them after they were expelled from Missouri in 1838. That event has its own little nook in the local history museum, because generous decisions are the ones descendants are proud of.

BTW, you read that right: The Mormons were expelled from Missouri. Just as pre-Civil-War states could establish slavery, they could also drive out unpopular religious groups. Didn’t hear about that in U.S. History class, did you?