Opinion Post

The Midterm Election and the Threat to Our Democracy

 

I write forty days before the midterm election. These half-way points in any president's administration are typically a referendum on that occupant of the White House. Yet, this year's outcome at the polls could determine whether the American republic will survive its greatest challenge since the Civil War. Across the country, candidates for state and Congressional offices include a number of election deniers, who still insist that the 2020 election was fraudulent in spite of zero evidence to support that fiction. If elected, they will mostly be in position to wreak havoc on the next presidential election in 2024. Most of these individuals also have no qualms about messing with other aspects of our political system. The next two years could bring open civil conflict and the loss of the public's confidence in the viability of our Constitution.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano, is a poster boy for such right-wing extremism. A retired career officer in the U.S. Army, a "Christian nationalist," and now a state senator who was deeply involved in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he pushed for an alternative (illegal) slate of electors to cast Pennsylvania's votes for Trump in 2020 in spite of the fact that Biden clearly won the popular vote here. He has received support from Gab, a social platform filled with anti-Semitic commentary. He has argued that women who obtain an abortion after a "fetal heartbeat" is detected are guilty of murder, as are those who provide them, for abortion is "the single most important issue in our lifetime."

 

Not far behind in importance, evidently, are this senator's efforts to prohibit gender transition surgeries for teen-agers and to end "draconian quarantine and vaccination policies" in Pennsylvania, i.e., those that mandate protection against COVID-19.

 

So, if it's clear that these are the issues a Governor Mastriano would make his priorities, it's just as evident that nowhere on his agenda are goals of achieving greater social equity, protection of the environment, improving access to health care, or increasing financial support for public schools and state-supported colleges and universities. Like the most extreme Trumpists throughout the nation, Mastriano's political plalybook is all about overturning what has long been the establishment consensus, thereby to get even with those politicians whose policies supposedly have wronged them. They would get their revenge by first putting theselves in positions of power, even if that meant fiddling with--even undermining--Constitutional norms and requirements. "Quasi-fascist" is what President Biden called the outlook represented here when he warned America from Independence Hall recently of the threats we face from within.

 

Even if Mastriano is one of the most extreme, and therefore dangerous, of the MAGA candidates running for office, the hold of that faction over the Republican Party generally means that once elected, the "policies" I've just ascribed to one candidate will surely dominate many of the others. Pennsylvania's Republican candidate for the Senate, Mehmet Oz, may not be as far to the right as Mastriano, but his campaign has been built around demonizing his Democratic opponent, John Fetterman, as too far on the left. Granted that Fetterman, usually dressed in shorts and hoodies, looks less like a senator than any such candidate in memory. But his record as, first, mayorof a small town, then lieutenant governor, reveal a politician who's clearly in the mainstream. (Dare I note that his opponent is always named, and calls himself,"Dr. Oz," perhaps to avoid using his given name, which is a derivative of "Mohammed" and, thus, conceivably off-putting to some in his base?)

 

This is what we've come to on the eve of what could be a cataclysm.

 

                                                           (October 2022)

 

 

 

 

NATO's New Lease

 

Russia's attack on Ukraine last February quickly united the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in support of the target of Russia's aggression. That was in spite of the fact that Ukraine was not itself a member--if a member-in-waiting--but merely a neighbor of a number of NATO countries. While determined Ukrainian resistance kept the Russians at bay, military and logistical support from NATO nations began to even the playing field, and soon gave the victims a fighting chance of repelling the aggression. 

 

These events quickly led to other remarkable changes for the coalition of Western democracies. Two perennially neutral states, Finland and Sweden, soon applied for NATO membership. Germany announced a considerable increase in its own defense spending, as did other European members. Meanwhile, the European Union brought Ukraine closer to joining their community.

 

Whether or not these events marked the start of a new cold war, as some suggested, they were at least a reminder of what brought NATO into being in 1949. Its original twelve members were united in their opposition to the Soviet Union's further expansion in Europe after World War II. Over the course of the next four decades, that goal was accomplished largely thanks to America's military might and the protection its nuclear umbrella afforded the allies.

 

When, forty-two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, I was among a number of Western observers who supposed that NATO should go out of business. Its goal had been achieved with the end of the Soviet Union itself. But NATO soon began to add new members instead, bringing the total to thirty today. The newest are mostly newly independent states that had recently been part of the Soviet empire. That they wanted to join this U.S.-led alliance of democracies says much about what might be called the spiritual failure of the Soviet system. Yet, several them in addition to Ukraine had been part of the Russian empire before they were made "republics" of the Soviet Union. Putin's desire to restore that empire is what explains his action on Russia's western border since February.

 

Clearly, Putin launched his "special military operation" against Ukraine when he did as a way of pre-empting that country's own bid to join NATO. He no doubt understood full well that, once Ukraine was admitted to membership, the NATO treaty required that such an attack would be regarded as an attack upon all, which would have triggered a full-scale war against Russia from the world's greatest military power and its friends. What he may not have counted on was the substantial support NATO has provided his adversary in spite of the fact that Ukraine was not a member of the alliance. That, after all, has been unprecedented in NATO's history.

 

Six months into the war, what looks most certain is that it will continue to be protracted, its outcome unclear.Those NATO members who have been contributing arms and training may eventually conclude that they have done enough and back away. That would likely lead to ultimate success for Russia, which has more arms and manpower than its opponent. NATO's more expansive vision of its role in Europe would also take a hit. Whether it could then be trusted to take up arms against a Russian attack on a NATO member state, such as Estonia, might also be in question.

 

Yet, if NATO were to give Ukraine the kind of assistance that might let them expel the Russians from all the territory they've seized from their neighbor in recent years, Crimea included, that could trigger the kind of apocalyptic war of the sort that the superpowers--and all humanity--managed to avoid throughout the cold war. That prospect may require us to accept an outcome that no one will regard as ideal. It also may suggest a somewhat less expansive place for NATO in the future.

 

                                                         (September 2022)

 

 

 

 

The Threat to Our Democracy, Continued

 

As I noted in this space last month, the Congressional commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol has done a remarkable job in revealing to the American people the events surrounding that most serious domestic attack on the seat of government in our nation's history. Their work has now progressed to the point that we can see that they are uncovering a conspiracy, with Donald Trump at its center, to overturn the 2020 election. We can also see that the Department of Justice, whose work is always conducted out of public view, is very much focused on investigating those efforts by Trump and his allies. It was recently announced that the January 6 committee will share with the DOJ twenty of the interview transcripts its work has produced. 

 

Neither the January 6 committee nor the DOJ has yet concluded its work. While the public will no doubt hear more damning testimony when the committee resumes in September, its role is only to expose wrong-doing, which it is doing with a vengeance. It is not empowered to prosecute crimes, which is the responsibility of the DOJ.

 

Although some have feared that Attorney General Merrick Garland is too timid to prosecute the former president since such a move would be unprecedented in American history,  Garland hismself has said that, depending upon where the investigation leads, no one is exempt from legal action. Almost daily, new evidence appears in the press pointing to Donald Trump as a conspirator. The kinds of opinion leaders I'd still like to regard as in the mainstream increasingly are arguing that he should be criminally charged.

 

Yes,Trump's prosecution would be higihly fraught, to put it mildly. Certainly, the evidence against him must be watertight.It is hard to imagine that anything could be worse for the nation's political health than for Trump to be charged with a criminal offense and then acquitted, once tried. Such an outcome would not only glorify the behavior of our 45th president in the eyes of his followers, it would also legitimize scurrilous challenges to our elections for years to come.

 

Conversely, although a successful prosecution might rid the nation of Trump, it could also set in motion unknowable changes to the political culture, if not the very constitutional system, that has always made the United States the distinctive democracy it is. One can imagine an eruption of partisanship too poisonous to allow for even the minimal comity and legislative action now still barely possible in Congress. Presidential impeachments might become commonplace. Worse yet, civil conflict could overwhelm the nation. Or--a very different scenario--in order to survive, future presidents would increasingly find it necessary to act as mere heads of state: figureheads, and not leaders of their party and the nation. Where, then, would real political power reside? 

 

Regardless of the possibilities for discord should Trump be indicted and convicted, not to charge him if the evidence against him proves overwhelming would be a far graver outcome. It would lay waste to what has been America's most fundamental claim since its founding as a republic: that we are nation of laws and not of men. The goal of the January 6 committee and the Department of Justice should be, not to fear the negative consequences of trying a former president, but to complete their investigations no matter where they lead. That outcome will tell us whether the threat to our democracy can, with much effort, be well and fully overcome--laying to rest all the scenarios I laid out above--or whether the events connected to January 6 were but a dress rehearsal for worse to come. 

 

                                                        (August 2022)

 

 

 

 

Trump Trouble

 

The Congressional Select Committee to investigate the January 6 riot at the Capitol is doing the job set out for it--and how! Its half dozen televised sessions over the past month have revealed a president utterly fixated on schemes to stay in office in spite of his defeat for re-election in 2020. Trump refused--and still refused--to abandon his claims of election fraud even though they were long ago proved false. He brow-beat his associates to acquiesce in that lie, as has been clear in the testimony of a number of Republican officials.

 

Some of the most shocking testimony came from Cassidy Hutchinson, a young aide to chief of staff Mark Meadows. She provided details on Trump's fury when he was not allowed to join the mob that attacked the Capitol following his speech on January 6 at the Ellipse. Had he done so, in the words of his chief counsel, "we're going to get charged with every crime imaginable."

 

As a result of Hutchinson's testimony, a number of legal experts thought it more likely that the Justice Department would pursue the question of charging Trump himself with a crime. I write on July 1, when Attorney General Merrick Garland has not commented publicly on that possibility. But his agents have clearly been moving the investigation closer to the former president's inner circle. Already, crimes that may be attributable to him seem at least as great as those with which Richard Nixon was charged before he was driven from office. In Liz Cheney's words, Trump is "a domestic threat that we have nevver faced before."

 

Meanwhile, the January 6th committee's investigation continues. Soon we should see whether its revelations have set back Donald Trump's front-runner status for the Republican nomination for president in 2024. So far, those in his base have generally remained loyal, parroting Trump's denunciation of the committee's work as a witch hunt, and no doubt refusing to watch, let alone accept, testimony from the committee's televised hearings. Now the question is whether piling up ever more damaging testimony will eventually persuade Republicans to look to someone else to be their leader, or whether willful blindness will continue to prevail on the part of Republican officials and their electorate regardless of the evidence.

 

It is said that we are a nation of laws, not men. I take that still to be true today, and believe unlawful behavior, even by a former president of the United States, will not go unpunished. But that hope is tied to another, which relates squarely to the politics of this case. There are Republican leaders other than Trump who would like to be president, but who are biding their time in the hope that Trump's days in the spotlight will fade. We may be approaching the moment when some of these individuals will take public note of the bravery of that handful of their fellow Republicans who have stood by their oaths to the Constitution in testifying before the January 6th committee. When they do, they should discover that some who consider themselves loyal Republicans support them in their stance. That could begin real movement in their direction while inspiring other would-be candidates to follow suit.

 

Remember that Richard Nixon had a loyal base of support almost to the day when he resigned from office. Once that happened, reality set in even for those most fervently in his corner. The nation moved on, and so did the Republican Party. Eight years later, Ronald Reagan was elected president. From then until today, Republicans have held the White House for a total of 26 years, more than half of the 48 years that have passed since then. Clearly, Nixon's crimes were not his party's death knell because the party moved on.

 

Are we nearing the moment when Republicans will begin to accept the reality of a Republican Party--and an American future--without Trump? If they do not, the Republican Party may die on the ash-heap of history.

 

                                                            (July 2022)

 

 

 

 

 

Our Second Amendment Fetish

 

Here we are again (and still): in two mass shootings last month, ten mostly black Americans were murdered at a supermarket in Buffalo followed by 21, including 15 children, at a school in Uvalde, Texas. Even while the grief took hold, an all-too-familiar scene was replayed. Calls for stricter gun controls were again shot down (pun intended) by the claim that the Constitution's second amendment guarantees the right of citizens to bear arms. Enshrined as it is in our Bill of Rights, that pledge is sacrosanct. As a result, Americans now own roughly 400 million guns, which means there are millions more guns than  people in this country. It also explains why the U.S. is an outlier among advanced nations when it comes to deaths by gunfire. Last year, more than 45,000 people in America died from gun injuries. The equivalent number of deaths in the world's  other richest countries never rose to more than a small fraction of that. Since the start of this year in my own city of Philadelphia, more than 900 people have been shot, of whom over 200 have died. 44 were shot over the Memorial Day week end. We bemoan the loss then wait for the next round of violence.

 

Yet, I write at a moment when it's conceivable that either local lawmakers or Congress itself might agree to some small steps toward increasing gun safety. They almost certainly won't go so far as to prohibit ownership of assasult weapons, and probably won't do much to close loopholes in requiring background checks for gun purchasers. The latest assassin of children in Texas had no such check when he purchased two assault rifles and high-capacity magazines on his 18th birthday. About the most we can hope for is legislation that would make it harder for the mentally ill to purchase weapons or maybe not allow gun sales to those younger than 21. But if the past is prelude, even such modest measures may be doomed.

 

So, let's have another look at the second amendment. It reads as follows: "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." When these words were written in the 1780s, civilians routinely kept at home the same weapons they would need if called to serve in the militia. A musket would likely have been the household's principal or only firearm. Several steps were required to prepare it for firing. If a man was properly trained in an infantry, he could load and fire four or five rounds in a minute. Doubtless the untrained farmer who kept such a weapon mainly for hunting would have been slower at preparing his musket. What no person so armed could do, of course, was to massacre rooms full of individuals before they could escape. Think for a moment of how our Constitution's creators might react to the mass slaughter that is always close at hand today.

 

As technology for making weapons evolved over the last two centuries, so did the assumption that arming the militia--or today's modern army--meant that its members needed little more than the rifles they had hanging on their chimneys. Soldiers increasingly were equipped with weapons that differed significantly from those thought appropriate for civilian use. As a result, judges in America came to treat the second amendment as something of a dead letter. They did, that is, until 2008, when the Supreme Court invalidated a law for the District of Columbia that forbade nearly all civilians from possessing handguns in the nation's capital. In a five-four decision, the majority ruled, astonishingly, that the second amendment protects a private right of individuals to own arms for their own defense, not a right of the state to maintain a militia. Two years later, in a case brought against the city of Chicago, a similar majority struck down such a ban at the state level.

 

Those decisions opened the floodgates, inundating the country with more and more guns. There is evidently nothing to be done about that, short of abolishing the second amendment. Revolutionary changes in the views of those who sit as federal judges might also do the trick. How confident are you that either will come about before--I dunno--the nation simply collapses in a killing frenzy?

 

                                                        (June 2022)

 

 

 

 

 

After the War in Ukraine: Two Scenarios

 

It's ever clearer that the outcome of the dreadful war now being waged by Russia on Ukraine will do much to define the next era in world politics. From its start, the unprovoked attack seemed a throwback to an era many thought had been largely laid to rest in the aftermath of World War II. That war ended with a clear repudiation of attempts to change the map through overt military conquest of one's neighbors. It also ushered in the nuclear age, which came to threaten the superpowers with mutual suicide, thereby fortifying the norm against aggression of the kind that saw conquering armies march into other states' territories. Any outcome of the Ukraine war that might allow Putin to claim victory would give new life to the view that might makes right, that powerful states are permtted to dominate those around them and control their destinies. Let us call this the aggression succeeds scenario.

 

An alternative vision supposes that the Russian campaign is utterly thwarted. In its rosiest version, not only would Ukraine regain all the territory it held when Russia invaded late in February, it would also take back what had previously been contested pieces of the Donbas territory in Ukraine's east as well as the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014. Such an outcome would strengthen norms surrounding the view that nation-states are self-determined and self-governing, free to choose their own destinies so long as they allow others to do the same. This is the self-governing scenario.

 

These of course are opposing models of possible directions in world politics. In the real world, the shape of whatever peace eventually comes to Ukraine will more likely look like some mix of what these two scenarios depict.

 

In the first weeks of the conflict, Putin's aggression succeeds vision was almost completely routed. Instead of a quick takeover of Ukraine's capital and the creation of a puppet government, the Russian army fell into disarray, Zelensky stood his ground and roused his people, and Western governments united in the effort to help the Ukrainians stave off the enemy. The self-governing scenario got a mighty boost. Yet, Russia didn't admit defeat but instead regrouped and redefined its goal. No longer trying to occupy the whole country, its new aim was to secure the Donbas,where Russian speakers were in the majority. Although that changed strategy evidently gave Russia an advantage, Ukrainian resistance remained strong. What looks most likely today is that the conflict will continue with no early end in sight.

 

My purpose here is not to predict the outcome, but to clarify the implications to the extent the outcome mirrors one or the other of the scenarios I've sketched out here. Should the Donbas fall to Russia, the aggressor will have won enough of a victory to embolden Putin to continue to pursue his effort to regrow a Russian sphere of influence around Russia's periphery. It will also serve as a model for other would-be invaders elsewhere in the world. If, on the other hand, Ukraine, with continued strong support especially from NATO, should succeed in repelling the Russians altogether, then invaders-in-waiting would be made to reconsider their options.

 

Or not. Here's the rub: if the self-governing scenario is to dominate how states behave in the near future, Putin's strategy must be so thoroughly discredited that the Russians themselves turn against him and what he stands for. Russia after Putin would become a real democracy. That is more or less what happened after World War II in post-Nazi Germany and post-imperial Japan. The players and their doctrines that had turned both countries into aggressors were ousted and discredited. If, in contrast, Putin survives a Ukrainian settlement that denies him the Donbas, his revanchist aims will live on with him to fight again another day. A more surgical outcome leading to the same aggression succeeds scenario is also possible: Ukraine agrees to cede some or all of the Donbas to Russia. Then what the world will notice is that might still does make right when the chips are down.

 

Much now hangs on how the chips come down.

 

                                                           (May 2022)

 

 

 

 

 

The War in Ukraine: Prospects and Possibilities

 

Five weeks after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, his troops have not come close to occupying the entire country, let alone replacing the West-facing government of President Volodymyr Zelensky with a pro-Russian puppet. Unexpectedly strong resistance from Ukrainians has produced a stalemate in much of their territory beyond the Donbas, the region bordering Russia which had already been largely under Russian control for the past eight years. Most observers saw a long and grinding war of attrition ahead.

 

Then a moment of hope surfaced late in March. During peace talks in Istanbul, both sides made substantial rhetorical departures from their previous positions. Russian delegates declared that Moscow would significantly draw down military operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv "to increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations." Ukraine laid out a framework committing the nation to neutrality, providing for its security to be guaranteed by a number of other nations. The Russian announcement was greeted with understandable skepticism throughout the West. Sure enough, within two days, bombs and mortar fire again struck both of the named cities. Russian operations also increased in the Donbas.

 

Now, Western experts are concluding that the recent announcement was nothing but a cover to allow time for a complete overhaul of Russia's campaign, not a peace initiative at all. So, the war continues, as does the devastation. More than four million Ukrainian citizens have fled abroad, while millions more are internally displaced. The huge imbalance in the military forces of the two nations means that the Russians can continue to rain down destruction on their smaller neighbor for weeks, months, even years to come regardless of their inability to occupy the country. And occupy it they cannot.

 

So, we still seem to be far from a peaceable outcome. That will only be likely if and when Putin concludes that he can't attain his original goals. A retreat to the Donbas would at least give him an acceptable off-ramp. An assurance of Ukraine's neutrality, giving up its desire to join NATO, could also give the Russian leader an excuse to claim victory. Nor of course would Russia be the only party to win. Ending the Ukrainian bloodletting to allow the nation to rebuild would be the best possible outcome for that beleagured society. And a guarantee of genuine neutrality should be a win for all of us.

 

Yet, even if peace talks become productive, they will face big issues. If "liberating Donbas" is now the Kremlin's main objective, that is not an ending that has been acceptable to Zelensky and, presumably, most Ukrainians. There is also the matter of securing the agreement of a number of third countries--Ukraine has proposed the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey, China, and Poland--to join together to guarantee the nation's neutrality. One must wonder whether such an unprecedented group can credibly create such an arrangement as well as whether Russia might not view it, apart from China's awkward presence, as betraying a decidedly Western bias. Finally, should another Ukrainian proposal come to pass, that talks should take place over fifteen years on the future of Crimea (which Russia seized in 2014), a host of other minefields may lie there.

 

Here, I think, is the bottom line today: Unless the two sides can reach a formal agreement in which each gives up something it has very much desired--reclaiming Ukraine for Putin, membership in NATO for Zelensky--their power imbalance will ultimately favor Russia. That is so in spite of its near disaster of a campaign to date. Moscow can keep up the pressure on Ukraine longer than Ukraine can keep up the pressure on the West to continue to support Ukraine's fight for freedom and democracy. If peace comes soon, many nations can surely be counted on to help Ukraine rebuild. But the longer the war drags on, the more likely that the world may regrettably come to see the Ukraine struggle as a lost cause and leave it to its dreadful fate. World order will also have suffered a terrible defeat.

 

                                                              (April 2022)

 

 

 

 

Russia's Ukraine Invasion and the Future World Order

 

I write when the Russian attack on Ukraine is less than a week old. But it has been clear from the invasion's first moments that its outcome could shatter the world order that was largely set in place in the aftermath of World War II. It was that war more than any other which ended by repudiating naked aggression. Not only have then-new institutions such as the United Nations been tasked with preventing such attacks, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the two new superpowers actually fortified the non-aggression doctrine: if a military attack on one's enemies might lead to Armageddon, such attacks were off the table. The Cold War certainly had its dangers, but we generally understood, following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, that neither superpower would dare to attack a member of its opponent's allliance. However noxious as a moral code, the doctrine of mutual assured destruction helped keep the peace. 

 

For some two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its alliance system, democracies were established throughout much of the former Soviet sphere.The Warsaw Pact was disbanded, but NATO, the West's Cold War alliance, began to grant membership to what had been client states of Russia. I thought at the time that we should have worked instead to create new East-West institutions to maintain peace across the northern hemisphere in this new era (see last month's post). It is very clear today that because we did not, Vladimir Putin's grudge against what he sees as Russia's losses to the West has grown throughout his twenty years in power, leading us to the present moment. 

 

Yes, Putin is a throwback, a latter-day Hitler in the way he has launched this war. The West, sadly, has allowed him to come to this point. But he now must be dealt with on the terms he has laid down. Just as some eighty years ago the world's democracies banded together to crush Hitler, they now must unite to defeat this baldest attempt since World War II to insist that might makes right. To do less, to look the other way while Ukraine is conquered, could only end in hurling the world back to its fraught state in the 1930s, when, after Japan had attacked China, Hitler dismembered Czechoslovakia and then attacked Poland. setting the stage for unimaginable bloodshed across the globe before the world could again be made safe for democratic self-government.

 

So far, there is some cause for optimism. The Ukrainians are forcefully resisting the Russians, slowing  their advance and defending their cities. Their President Zelensky has behaved heroically in remaining in the country to rally his people, even though, as he notes, he is surely the man most targeted by Russian forces. President Biden has successfully led the Europeans, including not just NATO but the European Union, to send military assistance to Ukraine and enact severe economic sanctions on members of Putin's elite and Russian banks. Japan, Australia, and others have now joined in these efforts.

 

There are sure to be costs felt by the public in all these nations, as the price of fuel and some commodities are bound to rise. The challenge for all who want to see world order strengthened is to convince those many millions for whom this war is distant news that their sacrifices are in a just cause, one to secure the right of states to govern themselves and remain free of aggression from abroad. As others have noted, our willingness to undergo pain will reveal our determination to stop Putin.

 

It should be possible to end Putin's war if virtually all the rest of the world opposes it--and without any of Ukraine's friends having to send their own soldiers into the fight. (Were that to happen,it could encourage a nuclear strike from Moscow, a thing already more than hinted at by Putin.)

 

Should Putin fail in his effort to realign Ukraine, that would of course be a win for free and self-governed societies. Then the challenge for world leaders will be to make that outcome the basis for strengthening a global political culture wherein peaceful change is the norm, where win-win solutions to interstate conflicts become the rule. That means helping Putin find an off-ramp from Ukraine, and not rubbing Russia's nose in its failure to change the map by force. Russia, too, must become committed to a world in which it can be seen to prosper only by turning away from military aggression.

 

                                                       (March 2022)

 

 

 

 

 

Ukraine, Russia, and the West

 

The threat of war in Ukraine has dominated the news lately. The Russian government of Vladimir Putin has moved more than 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border while demanding that the United States and the West never admit Ukraine to membership in NATO. The Biden administration's response, which is widely but not universally shared by its NATO allies, is that Russia's behavior is so provocative that the Kiev government must be supplied with new arms and military support. Moscow calls that the provocation. Ukrainian leaders are now bracing for a possible military attack. But even while their President, Volodymyr Zelensky, has expressed his gratitude to the US for its support, he has also criticized the Americans for, as he says, causing panic.

 

What to make of this seemingly three-sided perspective? Ukraine of course was one of the most important constituent states of the USSR until that empire was dissolved in 1991, at which point it became an independent republic. Within a few years, it had established a partnership with NATO and an association with the European Union. Throughout the first decade of this century, Ukrainian politics see-sawed between leaders leaning toward the West and those wanting greater connections to Russia. Then, early in 2014, the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, backed out of those agreements with the West, and was soon removed from office by vote of parliament. Within months, a pro-Western president was elected.

 

In Moscow, an alarmed Putin soon engaged his plan to invade Crimea, which had been made part of Ukraine during the Soviet era. Once that peninsula was brought under Russian control, in March, 2014, a referendum allegedly showed that 97% of the Crimean population wanted to join Russia. Since then, in the rest of Ukraine, public opinion polls have shown steady upward trends favoring EU and NATO membership. The pro-Western Zelensky was elected president in 2019 with 73% of the vote; shortly thereafter, his Servant of the People party won a majority of the vote for parliament, allowing him to govern without a coalition. This government considers Euro-Atlantic integration its primary foreign policy objective even though, in practice, it attempts to balance its relationship with the EU and the US with strong ties to Russia.

 

What we see today is simply the latest in what has been central to Ukraine's history for a thousand years: In spite of its very close ethnic and cultural connections to Russia, Ukrainians have mostlly resisted Russian domination while often being made to submit to it. Today, Putin is a leading avatar of the Realist view which assumes that a great power--which is how he imagines Russia--must surround itself with a sphere of influence in order to enhance its power vis-a-vis perceived opponents. He no doubt views the West's encouragement of a closer relationship with Ukraine as an unacceptable effort by the US to extend its sphere of influence to Russia's very doorstep.

 

Here's a thought experiment: What if, at the end of the Cold War, the members of NATO had decided to dissolve their alliance on grounds that it had accomplished exactly what it was created to accomplish, which was to prevent the world's domination by the Soviet Union? They might then have worked to construct, not a military alliance, but a new structure whose purpose would be to assure peaceful conflict resolution among all the nations that had been in opposing camps throughout the previous half-century.

 

It's true that, as the Cold War was winding down, NATO and Warsaw Pact nations did join to create the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in which they all became members, along with several European states that had not been part of those alliances. But the OSCE operates entirely by consensus, and has mainly served to observe elections in new or would-be democracies. It has certainly not been made a powerful engine of the foreign policy of its leading members, and is largely unknown to the general public. Had it been given a real capability to work for peaceful change throughout the northern hemisphere, one can imagine that the three-sided perspective referred to above could by now have brought non-zero-sum outcomes from which all might have benefitted. The current crisis would not have arisen That it has done so unfortunately reveals regression instead of progress in the way large human communities called nation-states interact. And we must learn to live together in greater harmony if humankind has a future worth celebrating.

 

                                                    (February 2022)

 

 

 

 

 

Can the U.S Survive the G.O.P.?

 

The most troubling fact of American political life throughout 2021 was Donald Trump's continuing hold on the Republican Party. His Big Lie, claiming that he had lost re-election only because of massive voter fraud, became fixed orthodoxy for a majority of Republicans by year's end. That was a stunning fact of our politics, given that such a claim had been repeatedly disproved and dismissed throughout the year by courts as well as official and unofficial recounts across the land.

 

Now we can only conclude that one of the only two parties that really matter in American politics will contest the midterm election in November from a platform whose central plank will be a lie. This has hugely negative implications for the future of our republic, for never before in our history has either of the two major parties sought victory with so fraudulent a campaign. Yes, we've often seen politicians play fast and loose with the truth: in the 1950s, Joe McCarthy claimed that the Democrats "lost" China thanks to Communists in high places in the State Department. More than a century earlier, Vice President John C Calhoun, an ardent supporter of slavery,  which he described as "a positive good," gained followers among southern Democrats with his argument that any state could nullify an act of Congress within its borders. Other examples abound of outrageous efforts to move one party or the other to bend the truth or create its own set of "facts" in the effort to win elections.

 

But here's what's novel about such efforts at the start of 2022: none ever succeeded in capturing a major party as fully as Trump appears to have done with today's Republican Party. Leaders who before Trump were in the Republican mainstream, figures such as Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney, are now virtual outcasts within their own party. Those who "lead" it today regard as illegitimate what was meant to be a bipartisan investigation of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. They challenge mask mandates intended to halt the COVID pandemic, assail those on the Democratic left as traitors, and seek to ban any teaching of the history of institutional racism in this country. In trumpeting these and other such views, they yearn above all for Trump's endorsement. 

 

So, almost nothing is left of the Republican Party today that would be recognizable to those who supported it in the age of Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan. Both those presidents opposed much that Democrats endorsed without demonizing them. But at the same time, they accommodated themselves to much that Democrats stood for. Ike made internationalism part of the mainstream of Republican politics, just as Reagan, the Cold Warrior, helped move his party and the nation toward a post-Cold War era. It's impossible to imagine that the politics of grievance, faux populism, and invented histories that characterize the Trump party of today can ever play such constructive roles in the life of the nation. 

 

And that is exactly what is so troubing about our current situation. In contrast to the fate of other former presidents who've been defeated, Trump not only isn't going away, he's still heading an apparently powerful movement that is both the wreck of a political party and a wrecking ball for our democracy. It's a wrecking ball precisely because it refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of its opponents and, in some quarters, even refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the electoral system itself. When one party seeks to overthrow the very rules of the game, the days in the life or our Constitution are surely numbered.

 

If the Republican Party is still to be reformed at this late date, that may come about only if and when Donald Trump is finally and thoroughly discredited, perhaps in one of the several lawsuits now pending against him. That is not at all a sure bet at this writing. Unless and until such a thing happens, the G.O.P.'s initials now stand for the Grotesque Out-of-control Party.

 

                                                      (January 2022)

 

 

 

 

 

Your Sacred Right to Guns

 

Gun control is clearly a losing cause in the United States. It's been years since a serious effort has been mounted to pass legislation that might begin to rein in the flood of arms across the land. In fact, in 2020, some 39.7 million firearms were sold in the United States, a forty percent increase over the year before, which itself was a bumper year for gun sales. And 2020 ran its course while Donald Trump was still in the White House even though, as every God-fearing gun owner knows, it's the Democrats who will try to take guns away from decent Americans.

 

So, now that Biden is president, we can no doubt expect that, when the data are all in, we'll learn that even more guns made their way into private hands during 2021. Why so many guns? Apart from all those upright Americans who love killing animals for the fun of it, folks buy guns to protect themselves and their families. That, at least, is what they claim. Evidently, they are convinced that they live in a Hobbesian state of nature (whether or not they have ever heard of Hobbes) where the absence of law and order means that every man must protecct himself and his family in a war of all against all.

 

The trouble with this view of the world is that it makes for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Strangely enough, arming ourselves to the teeth doesn't lead to the rational conclusion that I'd better not try to shoot my neighbor lest he shoot me first, which, after all, would be one way to keep the peace. Instead, the increase in gun ownershp correlates pretty clearly with an increase in gun deaths. My own city of Philadelphia witnessed 500 gun homicides by the end of this November, setting a new annual record even before the year was out. Nor was Philadelphia an outlier in a year when gun deaths increased across the nation.

 

You already know the crux of the problem. It's called the Second Amendment, which grants Americans the right to keep and bear arms. Through most of our history, the text of that amendment was read to suggest that it was largely about the right of each state to create and maintain a well-ordered militia. But in 2008, a five/four decision by the Supreme Court struck down a federal law for the District of Columbia, which forbade nearly all citizens from possessing handguns in the nation's capital. Two years later, the same majority struck down a similar ban at the state level.

 

Today, it's estimated that about as many guns are sloshing about the nation as there are residents of the United States, i.e., something over 300 million. And the Supreme Court says that's just fine.

 

Here's my immodest suggestion: Let's amend the Second Amendment. Here's how it has read since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791: "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." 

 

My amendment would merely revise that third phrase so that the entire text reads "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to serve in such Militia shall not be infringed."

 

I think this comes close to what the writers of the amendment had in mind back in 1791. No, I don't suppose that such a common-sense revision to a constitutional amendment will come about anytime soon. But isn't it worth at least thinking about a definitive way to start to fix a problem that makes the United States of America the world's leader in gun violence?

 

                                                     (December 2021)

 

 

 

 

 

America in the World: A New Chapter?

 

It is time for soul-searching and a re-evaluation of the place of America in global order. Many factors now point us there. They include, among others, Trump's flouting of every norm of our foreign policy consensus during his occupation of the White House, growing public disenchantment with the nation's "forever wars," and our shambolic departure from Afghanistan. Add to that the growing economic and military might of China and it is clear that we have moved well beyond the unipolar moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the United States was generally viewed as the single dominant player responsible for world order.

 

There's also this: Americans are now about as divided as they have ever been. So far, those divisions have been focused mostly on our political life at home. But it's only a matter of time before some issue will arise in the world beyond our borders that will cause our tribal strife to spread there, too. In fact, it already has, inasmuch as the whole world now knows that all is not well inside the U.S., and that has consequences for the world. The Chinese government, for one, insists that the United States is in decline, along with the democratic model held up by the West. The only way to refute that charge is to demonstrate our ability to adapt, lead, and cooperate so that together we can meet the distinctive challenges the world faces today. In a moment, I'll suggest one or two examples of what is needed.

 

It may seem that Joe Biden's foreign policy is guided by nothing so much as a desire to restore the nation and the world to what it was in the era of American primacy. That was of course when he earned his foreign policy chops. He's made it clear that he's not Trump, and that he values our allies for their shared contributions to the common good. His immediate goal evidently is to reassure the world of our reliability along with our willingness to take on new challenges. It's the new challenges that should lead us to new initiatives on the world stage.

 

A response to one of those new challenges came days ago when the Group of 20 endorsed a new global minimum tax of 15% aimed at reversing the decades-long decline in tax rates on corporations around the world. The effort was initiated by Biden's Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellin. Nearly 140 countries representing more than 90% of global economic output have voiced their approval of the new tax standard. Now comes the difficult effort to implement that plan. As always in the decentralized political system of the globe, the actions of (especially powerful) individual states are what push others to follow suit. The resulting reciprocal action, when replicated widely, creates the global standard. So, it is up to the United States to take the lead in enacting legislation to make the new tax the law in this country. That will not be easy at a time when corporate interests typically lobby Congress to fend off such legislation. But it should be an important piece of how America leads in the years ahead, a bold initiative to be followed by others relating to the global economy.

 

Similarly, it is imperative for the U.S. to take the lead at the U.N. Climate Change Summit now underway in Glasgow and to ensure that bold action follows. Yes, it would have been immensely helpful if Congress had been able to agree on the full array of climate provisions in the president's Build Back Better legislation. Bold new initiatives in foreign policy can only happen when Congress supports them, which is to say that the kind of new and improved world leadership I'm calling for from the United States will only come about when our internecine divisions at home are overcome or much reduced.

 

So, I grant there's a chicken-and-egg problem here. Domestic divisions are not conducive to foreign policy boldness. But possibly, just possibly, bold foreign policy initiatives that are viewed as constructive of improved world order can begin to bridge our tribalism at home and start to return us to a society in which our shared values are more widely recognized. One can dream!

 

                                                    (November 2021)

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Lie and the Threat to Our Democracy

 

I've now lived for more than four-fifths of a century, and have considered myself a student of American politics for nearly as long. Never in all that time have I been more concerned for the future of our democratic system of government than I am now. Trumpism is at the heart of why that's so. When he was president, it was Trump's constant practice to flout the norms of the office, whether by disdaining those Americans who opposed him, cossetting a right-wing fringe, or insulting the nation's allies.

 

But since his departure from the White House, Trump's influence has become even more baleful. Refusing to concede his loss of the 2020 election, he has turned that refusal into the Big Lie. That is what has produced ongoing investigations in a number of states into alleged cheating in the last election, never mind that it reportedly was the most secure and honest election in the nation's history. The recently concluded, phony "audit" of votes in Maricopa County, Arizona, produced zero evidence of fraud there, and even added a few  dozen votes to Joe Biden's margin of victory. But instead of shutting down the Trumpists, that outcome has only encouraged them to continue to trumpet their bogus charges. Now what we're witnessing throughout the country is a systematic effort to undermine the faith of American voters, not simply in the soundness of last November's outcome, but in the integrity of our election process in the years to come. 

 

That is unprecedented--and an unprecedentedly dangerous omen for the nation's future. Every state in the union underwent audits of the last election in accordance with their own state laws. That was done prior to the certification of each state's electoral votes, during the period when lawsuits filed in many states by Trump and his followers were dismissed in courts as without merit. Then came Congress's certification of Biden's election last January 6, which of course was the very day that a Trump-inspired insurrection at the Capitol threatened the lives of members of Congress as well as Vice President Pence, who, as President of the Senate, was constitutionally responsible for certifying the election.

 

The events of January 6 resembled nothing so much out of American history as they did the days when Hitler was attaining power in Germany through intimidation. In the months since the Capitol was breached, the constant drumbeat of the Big Lie keeps reinforcing the anger of the radical right, setting the stage for more violence against those individuals and institutions committed to our Constitutional order.

 

Today, Donald Trump almost certainly has a lock on the Republican nomination for president in the 2024 election. The way is now being prepared to make the Big Lie the vehicle for either manipulating or overturning the election outcome in a number of states and claim fraud should Trump lose.

 

No, we haven't yet arrived at the point where our democracy is sure to be overthrown. But remember that Hitler came to power "lawfully." By the same token, should Trump return to power in 2024, it will no doubt be through what may still resemble Constitutional means, however much they will have been degraded and manipulated since he was made to leave the White House. A large segment of the Republican Party today is in Trump's thrall. If the events of the past eleven months are any indication, his grip on his followers will likely only strengthen in the years immediately ahead. The consequences for the nation could be catastrophic.

 

                                                       (October 2021)

 

 

*  *  *