Making America Irrelevant Again

There was a time when the United States of America was an irrelevant nation, a loose collection of colonies bordered by a geographic and psychological ocean on one side and an unforgiving and foreboding wilderness on every other. It had beaten a world power with the aid of another in one of history’s many lessons on imperial overreach, but it remained virtually ungoverned, deeply in debt, and in no way meaningful to almost any other nation. Things are starting to look very similar to those times again.

The U.S. pulled out of the international agreement that had stopped Iran from enriching uranium and making fissile material that could be used in nuclear weapons. It did so in favor of reenacting a sanctions regime similar to the one in place—but lacking the force of the world’s will—when Iran came so far along the nuclear path as to cause alarm. It’s important to understand these statements. Before this agreement and for decades after the revolution that ousted a monarch and brought on a terroristic theocracy, much of the developed world supported sanctions on Iran that crippled its economy. Under the most recent sanctions regime that included Russia and China, Iran was still able to engineer or acquire tens of thousands of centrifuges, gain access to nuclear material, and create enough enriched uranium that many thought Iran was only several months to a few years away from its first nuclear test. As a means of inhibiting nuclear activity, the sanctions were an abject failure. Iran’s nuclear program was stopped in its tracks by a diplomatic agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. The plan restricts Iranian nuclear activities to peaceful uses. It has an inspection regime overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s foremost authority on nuclear inspections. It has compliance timelines out to 25 years (you’ve no doubt heard fewer) and requires Iran to unequivocally state that it will never pursue nuclear weapons. It has not been read by almost anyone who claims to understand it as “the worst deal in history.” It is—was—an agreement between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and the EU. It is now—still—a plan between all of those save one, the increasingly irrelevant nation called the United States of America.

Our country is in retreat on the world stage, and all of those who complained bitterly about that perception during the previous administration are strangely silent about the mounting evidence of the reality now. It is entirely possible that the willingness of this administration to follow through with campaign promises tested only on applause meters at rallies is based on the lack of reaction from the rest of the world on early administration decisions. It is probable that lack of response is simply apathy for what the United States now says and represents.

Policy wonks on the left and right made dire warnings about various causes this administration has pursued. Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Trade partnership is anti-free-trade and would cede vast economic territory to a near-peer competitor; it would have catastrophic impacts on access to a market larger than the EU. Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord would cede the moral high ground of the world’s largest and most dynamic economy leading other large and developing economies to pursue growth at the expense of considered resource expenditure and without regard for the future peril of climate change already manifest among many populations. Announcing intent to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would cause a break down in the tenuous Middle East Peace Process and would affect western nations’ relations with the Muslim world. Those warnings would have been accurate in a world that relied upon U.S. leadership, but that is no longer the context of America’s place in the community of nations.

World leaders are on record saying they ignore the president’s favored form of communication. The TPP is a sealed deal at the exclusion of the U.S. and on terms more favorable to China. Other nations recommitted themselves to the Paris Accords and were heartened by many U.S. state and local governments who rejected the administration position and began efforts to meet accord milestones on their own. The Middle East shrugged at the notion of an embassy in Jerusalem (after this was initially written, violence broke out in protests leading to the deaths of approximately 60 Palestinians by the Israeli military). No one with a degree of rationality has any hope for a solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The peace process is at an impasse and has been for decades as Palestinians continue to allow terrorism to foment in their territories and the Israelis continue the policy of annexation through settlements that is tantamount to benign ethnic cleansing. Mexico and Canada do not seem particularly concerned as they eye the future of trade in North America and are exhibiting absolutely no fear of the “great negotiator.” That both are also in the TPP probably adds to their sense of ease in the matter. What the administration and its cheerleaders miss is that this lack of world reaction to these pronouncements is not a failure of the policy establishment that predicted cacophony. It is not evidence of “elites” and “experts”—now pejorative terms amid the din of right-wing media—being out of step with “real Americans.” It is not evidence of the unilateral dominance of the world’s only remaining superpower. It isevidence of a world that no longer cares what the United States says or does. This once great power is now the boy who takes his ball home in the absence of getting his way only to find, as he sits looking out the window wistfully, that lots of others also had a ball, and the neighborhood games function just as well—perhaps better—without him.

Tehran could not have been given a bigger gift. The Iranians now get to welcome other members of the Joint Committee as those diplomats plead to determine what it will take for Iran to stay in the agreement. The Islamic Republic is now in a position of dictating more desirable terms as prerequisite to honoring the agreement, as the rest of the world would very much like them to do. Certainly, there will be consequences as the unconfirmed former UN ambassador and current National Security Advisor along with cabinet officials work to rebuild the sanctions regime. They should look to recent history to determine the probable efficacy of such actions. First is the aforementioned fact that Iran’s nuclear program came into being under near world-wide consensus on economic sanctions. Second is the experience of the U.S. and Britain in attempts to control Saddam Hussein’s Iraq between the first Gulf War and the second.

The world signed on to constraining the actions of Saddam’s militarism in the aftermath of Desert Storm and then the gassing of Kurds and slaughter of the “Marsh Arabs.” Economic sanctions preceded military actions in the form of two “no-fly zones” meant to keep the Iraqi armed forces from moving equipment into protected areas. Multiple—eleven by the end of 1999—UN resolutions restricted Iraqi actions and placed limits on economic activity. By the year 2000, only two nations remained— the U.S. and the UK. No other military forces enforced the no-fly zones and even French oil companies eventually had contracts on Iraqi oil fields. The sanctions, still fully in effect, were defunct in reality. Saddam ignored most démarches throughout the long engagement and moved military equipment at will under the ever-present eye of U.S. and British forces. He did so under one Democratic and two Republican administrations. When others are willing to pursue economic gain and opportunity, not even the largest economy on earth can exert the force required to compel compliance. That is the lesson no one in this administration or its backers care to acknowledge.

The U.S. can go it alone on many things, but it cannot inflict harm on economies of other nations when there are multiple outlets for economic activity and the rest of the world is willing to trade under the nose of U.S. institutions and law. Certainly, there is power in U.S. influence over financial markets and its favored status in holding the world’s reserve currency. The U.S. will have power to seize assets and create financial hardship on those entities who trade through U.S.-controlled institutions and in U.S. dollars. For this reason, there is a great deal of uncertainty on what this withdrawal does to certain companies. Boeing and its 140,000 workers worldwide just lost out on $19 billion in aircraft sales. That will not play well in Seattle or Chicago where Boeing airplanes are built and headquartered. Airbus, the European conglomerate aircraft maker, also had lucrative contracts with Iran following the implementation of the JCPOA. Total, the French oil and gas giant, did so as well. Both have a U.S. presence as do several other affected companies. Some Airbus aircraft are built in Alabama. This is bad for those workers too, but these are problems corporations will solve (though Alabama’s airplane builders will not be a part of the solution). Airbus will create a subsidiary that has no ties to U.S. markets and that trades in currencies other than the dollar. Perhaps Dubai or Singapore exchanges will handle the coming enormous deals. The Euro will rise in value and esteem because of this and other ill-thought U.S. actions on trade. London’s seat as one of the world’s financial centers will become more secure, even as it attempts sticky negotiations with the EU on “Brexit.” The Pound Sterling will likely rebound over the next year in reaction to this news and other Republican protectionist policies. China has long sought to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency in favor of the Renminbi. As mothers of invention go, the necessity of creating avenues to avoid U.S. law and sanctions is a pretty good motivator for countries to begin to consider a financial system outside the U.S.’s realm of influence. To be sure, some of these manifestations are long off, but many will be almost immediate.

These inevitabilities highlight Administration disciples’ strange view of American leadership. Leadership is not simply doing whatever the hell it is the voters of Michigan think they like. Leadership is exerting influence on others to make them willfullyact in a manner that is most beneficial for the maximum number of entities. When others understand that you do not have any influence to exert, that you are no longer credible in communicating the path of maximum benefit, then you have lost the ability to lead. You can no longer act as a positive role model, and you can certainly no longer compel others to bend to your will…except through the use of brutal force. And then you have done nothing to alter their mentality or values; you have succeeded only in making them act—temporarily—against their will. These are now the two paths open to the United States. First, irrelevancy caused by bluster masquerading as decisiveness. Then the intoxicating fallacy of brutality disguised as justice, an act that may bring acquiescence but only of the kind cloaked in hate. One must hope the latter does not inevitably follow the former.

Before Jefferson sent warships to Tripoli to take on the Barbary Pirates, no one thought much of the U.S. as a world power. Fifty years after settling its own internal affairs with cannon and musket, our country took its first steps into what would come to be called the American Century. Doughboys cemented a revolutionary legacy of self-determination. Only a quarter century later the U.S. built the international order on those principles and assumed its place as the “indispensable nation.” Washington and Adams did not have Jefferson’s luxury. The country was incapable of acting on the world stage. All three would be in awe of what we became, and they would recognize where we are headed once again. I think they would be saddened. They would recognize this decline is not a hand dealt from the deck of history. It is choice. A choice borne of a deep misunderstanding about the nature of leadership, the power of example, and the recognition of sovereignty beyond our own shores. They would recognize its cause as something they were deeply concerned about and warned us of from across the centuries—the fundamental idea that good governance requires extraordinary depth of character, understanding, and contemplation by leaders willing to put the country before self.

Make America Irrelevant Again. It doesn’t look very good on a hat, but it was always the inevitable consequence of governing by slogan pretending to be policy.

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Principle and the Politicization of the American Classroom

March 14, 2018 is likely to usher in a new landscape in American discourse, a possible sea change in the way we engage on certain issues. But the change is not that our youth have found their voice or that they are finally the ones who may change the national conversation on gun violence or that there is some slim hope that we can crawl out from under the overbearing boot of the gun lobby. It is not that perhaps rational humans can discuss the intricacies of a Constitutional phrase the avowed “originalist” justice threw out to suit his own view of a personal right. It is not that we may be ready to address the rationale for ordinary citizens to own weapons originally and solely designed for war. No, these are not the coming change in the tide of community activism. All of these could have come about without what is planned for this day by high school students across the country. The sea change, cheered on by the left and tacitly approved by numerous institutions of higher learning that will not allow attendance records for this act to blemish would-be candidates’ admission prospects, is none other than the politicization of the American classroom. Forgive them all, for they know not what they do.

Certainly, it is heartening to watch a segment of our population, often looked down upon for their supposed self-indulgence, roundly and loudly disproving all of that. It is heartening to know that a new generation, most of whom cannot even vote, are willing to step into the breach where so many cowardly adults—the great concentration of whom are in DC and state capitols across the country—have failed in a sworn duty to uphold public safety. I am in awe of some of the students who have spoken in intelligent and coherent ways about what can and should be done to address our nearly unique problem in the developed world. Leaders are being made, as they so often are, in the midst of a crisis. Those leaders, based on what we see now, are poised to solve issues our current set of leaders have simply given up on. What should give us all hope is that their chances of success are aided immeasurably by the fact that they will outlive all of the failed generations that came before. Yet the actions planned for March 14th should strike fear in the heart of anyone committed to principle and precedent.

When thousands or millions of high school students walk out of classrooms for 17 minutes tomorrow—in remembrance of 17 innocent lives and in support of public safety policy to mitigate the threat of future school shootings—they will walk back into a classroom where there can no longer be any expectation of education separated from ideology, politics, or the “strongly held beliefs” of their peers or those placed in positions of authority over them. They will have said, in a most public way, that school classrooms are places for political activism and should no longer be sanctuaries of objective fact and critical thought. The giddiness of those on the left so cheering this action by an apparently awakened youth have not considered the consequences of this act or their support for it. That is a shame, but it is not surprising in a country more respectful of the concept of ends justifying means than of a logically consistent and deliberately considered life.

I have recently engaged with school administrators about a middle school Social Studies teacher displaying a “Make America Great Again” hat in his classroom. Soon to be discussed with the same administrators is the playing of Christian “praise music” during class. These are preposterous actions perpetrated by teachers on unsuspecting students of diverse backgrounds and beliefs who deserve far better treatment. There are ethical issues with both and perhaps Constitutional issues with either. But if it is appropriate for students, on school time and property, to protest a lack of support for the sanctity of their near-adult lives, is it not also appropriate for them to take school time and protest in support of the sanctity of what some may consider unborn lives? If it is proper for students to demand legislation on weapons limitations from the school grounds, then it is equally proper for those who feel threatened by what they consider to be a lifestyle choice to protest the position of authority an LGBTQ teacher has over them in that same environment. What constraints can there possibly be for a teacher who decides to explicitly state his support for the campaign and the man—not the office—of the eventual president? What of a student whose deeply held beliefs compel her to audibly and publicly pray during each class, unwillingly conscripting her peers into religious theater and trampling on others’ freedom of conscience? The answer, of course, is that there can be no constraint, once the precedent is set, until the Supreme Court hears the multitude of cases that will surely propagate from this seemingly justifiable and “inherently good” act.

There are spaces in our shared lives that we should reasonably expect to be apolitical. Our military is so both because of law and because of the deep professionalism and cherished sense of commitment to the principles most eloquently described by Samuel Huntington in his seminal work, The Soldier and the State. Public venues where there is limited choice in companionship, such as the pressurized tube of an airplane or cramped public transportation, are places where one should not be subjected to the loudly professed views of others. Church sanctuaries should be similar spaces, though increasingly they stray far from the noble concept the term “sanctuary” once described in more brutal yet chivalrous times. And public schools should also be places where young citizens of every different creed, color, and orientation should not have to face the politics of others except as they relate to the objective study of the complex histories of our multi-faceted nation.

Do not misunderstand. These are places where everyone should be able to discuss, in the Socratic way, the issues of our times in an effort to understand the country as it was and as it is. I make no case for the supposed “safe spaces” cropping up across campuses nationwide; they are no friend to our sacred rights so clearly enumerated in the 1st Amendment. A learning environment is by necessity a place where beliefs are questioned and uncomfortable topics lead to a deeper understanding of our human condition. These laudable goals are not the point of focused political activity, particularly those expressions framed as protest and activism. No student—right, left, or otherwise—should have to be exposed to the purely political rantings of whoever speaks loudest or for this singular moment has captured the national conversation. No student should have to endure a one-sided display from an authority figure of a dark and often disturbing presidential campaign. They should not be forced to listen to praise music. And they should not protest on school property and during school time what some will believe is support for curtailing other, equally enumerated Constitutional rights. This protest flings wide the school doors for all manner of protests based on all manner of ideologies. That is good for no side and for no one at all. If the first casualty of war is truth, surely the first casualty of blind activism is principle. You, your students, and the country will surely suffer the consequences.

The Long Shadow

This is the United States of America, and the year is 2018. It could just as easily be Argentina in 1947. That was the year that laid the groundwork for Juan Perón to dismiss three judges on the Argentine Supreme Court and replace them with others more sympathetic to his ideology. So far no one is planning on impeaching US Supreme Court justices, though Governor Mike Huckabee and Senator Ted Cruz—both staunch Constitutional “originalists,” supposedly—have expressed disdain for a few of their Constitutionally mandated life terms. However, other institutions critical to the rule of law and the concept of blind justice are under extraordinary attack in the country founded on those very principles.

The Deputy Director of the FBI has retired after withering attacks by the President of the United States, both in person and on his favorite policy projection instrument, Twitter. The president, again of these United States—it bears saying because it is hard to believe such behavior from the occupant of that office—reportedly called the deputy director after the president fired his boss and told him he should talk to his wife about what it feels like to be “a loser.” That was an apparent reference to her defeat in a Virginia political race the year before. Agent McCabe is said to have replied, “yes, sir” just before the president hung up on him. This is in addition to the president asking during a sit-down in the Oval who the agent had voted for and expressing anger over the campaign donations she received from a PAC affiliated with Virginia’s Democratic governor. Of course, the president did the aforementioned firing of a Democrat-appointed Republican FBI director after said director refused to swear fealty to the man instead of the office of the president. He then called into question the former director’s mental state in conversations with the Russian ambassador before unilaterally releasing classified information to the ranking official of greatest threat to US security. The description of the ambassador’s country comes from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president also reacted with rage and mounted a Twitter campaign to oust his Attorney General who had the good sense to recuse himself from the Russia investigation after it came to light during his confirmation hearings that he was less than truthful about his Russian contacts. The president has intimated that the man who appointed the special counsel investigating his campaign’s connections to Russia and gave the “justification” for firing the FBI director, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, should be let go. And this week we learned that the president actually tried to fire that special counsel only to be talked down—though perhaps more accurately, simply ignored—by the White House Counsel, who threatened to quit instead.

These are not small issues, or “nothing burgers” in the vernacular of a former Press Secretary. Make no mistake. These are clear attacks on the independence of the nation’s leading law enforcement agency, the office of the Attorney General, and the special counsel, the latter seemingly the only entity in Washington, D.C. who appears to care that America was attacked in 2016 by a highly sophisticated (dis)information operation led by the prime threat the general named above. The fate of our system of government apparently has already relied on the good judgment of a very few lawyers. That is not a viable plan for Constitutional sustainability.

In any other administration, in any other time in our history, in any chamber of our legislature filled with any other Republicans than the ones we are shackled to at this particular instant in time, this would be viewed as the Constitutional crisis—the clear and present danger to our governance and the rule of law—that it is. It should go without saying (it cannot) that if these events played out at the end of the Obama administration in relation to the Benghazi probe, the server issue, the missing emails, Solyndra, the indiscretions of the flawed man married to Secretary Clinton’s closest advisor, or the infamous “meeting on the tarmac,” imagine the furor from the right. Or this: the fact that FBI agents in New York City opened the investigation into the Clinton Foundation based on a book backed by the man who led a vile propaganda organization he described as the “voice of the alt right,” the same man who would eventually chair the Trump campaign. It is exactly the sort of partisan beginning to an investigation the House Intelligence Committee is now accusing the Department of Justice of in relation to the Russia investigation. The House Intelligence Committee and the Republican establishment are silent on that prior issue. The clear message is that partisan attacks from law enforcement are fine as long as they are against your political opponents. That reality was repeatedly given voice on the campaign stage by the man who now holds enormous power and by the Pavlovian mob mentality giving rise to the choruses of “lock her up” perpetrated by those who could not be bothered to consider the deeper issue of governance they were fomenting.

Yesterday, the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a memo they say sheds light on partisan actions by certain members of the FBI. The memo revolves around a FISA warrant to wiretap a member of the Trump campaign. The House Intelligence Committee did not allow the FBI or other members of the Intelligence Community (IC) to review the memo before floating the idea of releasing it. An Assistant Attorney General called releasing the memo “extraordinarily reckless.”  He casts enormous doubt on the authenticity of any information in the memo saying it “purports to be based on classified source materials that neither you nor most of them [committee members] have seen.” He went on to say, “Indeed, we do not understand why the Committee would possibly seek to disclose classified and sensitive law enforcement information without first consulting with the relevant members of the Intelligence Community.” Why would the chair of the committee even consider doing such a thing? For that, you have to be able to recall something Republicans would rather have you forget.

In April of last year, Devin Nunes recused himself in his committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the election and their possible ties to the Trump campaign after the House Ethics Committee decided to investigate his handling of classified information. Recall, it was Nunes who rushed to the president’s aid when the president falsely (this word should forever be extraneous in descriptions of the president’s speech) claimed President Obama had ordered wire-tapping of Trump Tower. He held a press conference on the White House lawn, without informing his committee, saying his committee had come into information proving the president’s [extraneous] claims. It turns out, Nunes received that information from the White House itself in what could be described as the rhetorical equivalent of the vulgar act “The Mooch,” during his two-week stint as White House Communications Director, accused Steve Bannon of practicing. That information was also false. Later Nunes, while still recused, signed off on subpoenas relating to the Russia investigation. He then later claimed he never recused himself. So, there exists a very clear picture of both the basic untrustworthiness of Nunes the man and of his penchant to try to protect the president at all costs, through deceit and the callous disregard for the aptitude or memory of the public he supposedly serves.

It is not surprising then, except that it is so historically shocking, that the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has led the assault, backed either explicitly or tacitly by his fellow congressional Republicans, on the institutions that secure those items laid down in the Bill of Rights and under the Constitution as a whole. In order to cast aspersions on the good citizens working every day to protect us from all manner of threats and in the face of the coming revelations about our president, his campaign, and the attempt by a hostile power to hack the voice of liberty, elected leaders sworn to “protect and defend” the Supreme Law of the Land are seeking to undermine it instead. And as if that is not enough, they are seeking to harm our national security structure at the same time. Their actions are indeed “extraordinarily reckless.” They are also extraordinarily hypocritical.

Those supposedly so concerned with what may have leaked from a personal server used by the former Secretary of State apparently have no qualms about releasing a memo that may reveal sources and methods used by the IC in gathering intelligence that protects American lives. Those so concerned with the debunked theory that a rescue was declined and that this action that never occurred sealed the fate of four Americans in the field are placid about the consequences of exposing other Americans still lurking in shadow and doing the clandestine work of the US government. They see no need to even have their selectively edited memo reviewed by those responsible agencies. They do not shudder when considering releasing a memo claimed to be based on information they have not read, as long as it puts those attempting to find the truth about collusion with Russia in a bad light. Those who supposedly are from the “law and order” party obviously have no problem trashing the reputation of the world’s premiere law enforcement agency and cheering on the president when he does the same, often immediately after accusing this or that congresswoman of being “weak on crime.” Those who supposedly are so concerned about the security of the United States that they want to wall us all in or fix a military “in shambles” (the president’s words for the force he now commands) have no issue calling into question the unanimous opinion of the IC that the Russians interfered with our elections. To be clear, this is not some Pentagon exercise in future thinking. It happened. Already. And it will happen again. The president’s own appointed CIA Director expressed such concern just this week. So where are the national security hawks on this issue? They are looking the other way, excusing the bad behavior of the president, ignoring the possible obstructive behavior of that same president, and pursuing conspiracy theories about the “deep state” and “secret societies” in the law enforcement and intelligence communities. You cannot make this stuff up. It may be too far-fetched for even the best fiction writers, but it is right in the wheelhouse of this crop of Republican lawmakers. It is hard to explain just how far this crew’s credibility has fallen on virtually every issue that matters.

Juan Perón’s actions in the late 1940s made a joke of the independent judiciary. It robbed Argentinians of a justice system free from political influence. Perón’s actions were forceful and explicit, and they affected Argentinian society for decades. He set a precedent that allowed every successor up through the late 1980s to fill the courts with loyalists, dedicated not to the law or to principle, but to partisanship and ideology. We are not yet to that point. Not yet.

The President of the United States, thankfully in this regard, is a horrid and ineffective leader without the intellect or desire to understand the workings of the government he now heads. Those in congress, who have hitched their future success to this want-to-be authoritarian, respecter of the world’s despots and demander of loyalty from those he believes to be his minions, are far more dangerous. They have consciously decided to smear law enforcement and our intelligence agencies, they have coldly calculated that their constituents will not remember their actions, words, and deeds relating to their alleged support for citizen security, and they have blatantly elected to disregard any sense of principle where the president’s actions are concerned. Their actions, and their utter apathy toward those of the president, are harming the republic.

In his letter to Congressman Nunes, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said this, “The rule of law depends on the confidence of the American people that our prosecutors and investigators apply the law fairly and without bias or regard for political influence.” Indeed, it does. The congressman, his ilk, and the President of the United States are damaging that confidence. That is dereliction of duty and completely counter to the fundamentals of the Founding. One hopes those around the president—there is no evidence the president himself has the capacity—will someday feel shame in it. Saving that, one hopes “the people” will do their duty and remove this cancer from the mechanisms of our secularly sacred institutions. If we do not, we may very well find ourselves living in the long shadow, cast from the darker days before the middle of the last century, of Juan Perón’s attack on the foundation of just society. Were that to occur, the “American Century” would have been for naught, and its namesake’s future would be in grave doubt.