In the Wake of Atrocities is Moderation Possible

November 28, 2015

In the wake of murders like those in Paris, is it possible to talk about moderation? The impulse to kill is very strong. I know I’d feel it if it came close. And yet we know that many innocent men are put to death. And if an innocent person is executed, the killer, or killers, are still alive. And kangaroo courts or lynch law threaten everyone. The circle of murder can widen, as it did with the infamous Hatfields and McCoys. I’ve taught a descendent of the McCoys, actually a lovely young woman in West Virginia. But a murder turned into a war and decimated the families. Was that worth it – all the innocent lives. We are taught that two wrongs don’t make a right, but in the aftermath, do we have the strength to see that?

It was very difficult to oppose the war in Iraq. We know now it was a mistake, and one that did a great deal of damage, in the lives of innocent men and women, in destabilizing the region, in creating the opportunity for Daesh to thrive.

I’m terrified of the political pressure behind the hawks now. So-called collateral damage can cause a reaction that engulfs the world in flames. Our own reactions to the Paris bombing demonstrate the fact. Yet Daesh clearly hopes that we in turn will cause so much collateral damage that it will pull all the Muslims that oppose Daesh now into the fray to defend an Islam that seems under attack.

We should have learned by now that what matters in war is not what we think is justified, but what our actions produce. Lincoln understood that, calculating carefully how and when he used the slavery issue in the Civil War. Vietnam should have brought home to us that what people think matters. But the atrocities of some both in the Administration and carrying the flag in Iraq showed that the lessons of Vietnam didn’t reach everyone. Iraq continues to be a problem for us not only because it destabilized the region but also because the crude things that some people did in the name of America continue to inflame many people about us. It’s not about appeasement; it’s about pacification. It’s about keeping conflicts as small as possible. Every conflict isn’t about Hitler in 1938; sometimes the right analogy is to Versailles at the end of World War I when the victorious allies imposed punishments that radicalized the German people. Notice how differently the end of World War II came out, when the allies reaffirmed the rule of law and found constructive ways forward, not only for us but for the German people, not only the Marshall Plan but also the European Union which gave Germany both an important role and an important stake in the future of a united Europe.

That’s hard. That takes real statesmanship. Vice-president Biden’s comments Saturday impressed me. He started by identifying Daesh’s goals and then pointed out that we should not play into their hands by widening the war against Islam. Think of Daesh as holding a match and trying to start a fire or a detonator and trying to set off an explosion. Daesh by itself is infuriating. One commentator compared them to pirates. But without sparking that wider war, they cannot defeat us or any significant country. In this conflict, we have to respond with our heads, not our hearts. Like forest fighters, we have to contain the blaze before we can put it out. President Obama’s talk about containment was absolutely right. Thank heaven that we have a president who uses his head. The question is whether the American people can rise to the challenge of supporting a policy that’s based on intelligent calculations instead of emotional displays of power.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 24, 2015.

An NRA Foreign Policy

November 3, 2015


Think about the NRA position that guns don’t kill people, people do, and therefore that we should protect the rights of gun ownership. Just think about the contribution that the NRA could make to the discussion of foreign affairs. The NRA position reveals that it is a big mistake to control arms trafficking. They’re spot on – we should just arm everyone, friend and foe, all the contending parties in Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaeda? Their guns don’t kill, they do. No problem. ISIS? No problem. But we can learn from the NRA that the biggest mistake is the nuclear deal with Iran! After all, if everyone had nukes, no one would use them. Peace on earth. Goodwill toward men and women. Solved that one. Thanks to the NRA.

There is the problem of identifying perpetrators. NRA’s got that solved too – tracing weapons is not allowed because it might lead to regulation and prohibition which would undermine everything they stand for. No, we’ll just have to guess who bombed whom. But the perpetrators will be scared because we might guess right among the hundreds of nations and many more terrorist groups. Peace reigns.

But the real threat is from folks who don’t have any apparent weapons – they’re hiding it. So just like Trayvon Martin and all those other souls who got what the NRA reserved for them, we have to be ready to shoot first and ask questions later. There is a chance that someone might have evil intent, especially if they don’t look right. Kill, kill, kill. Oh scratch that, Arlo used that phrase in Alice’s restaurant. Let’s say, historicize them. Remember Dick Cheney’s idea about Iraq – there was a chance they’d turn out bad, so let’s just make a mess of their place first, and let the whirlwind blow where it may – even if it whirls back on us.

Try that in Libya and Syria. Let everyone have guns, mortars, grenades and landmines. We can imagine them blowing each other’s brains out until they have depopulated the area and removed any threat to us. They already blame the U.S. anyway. Of course the weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists who will use them to fleece the people and turn the profits against new targets in America or among Americans. But then the American arms industry will really get going and we can have all-out war – now that’s a heroic future.

Now just think of the environmental advantages. China has ended its one-child policy. What to do? Nukes. How many nukes would it take to lower the earth’s population to about 3 billion? Of course radiation from that many nukes might lower the population to zero. But we could end the release of carbon and methane into the atmosphere. That way we could gain some control over global warming. The place might actually be livable again for a new race of people who emerge from the sea and the apes into homo sapiens in another two billion years. Think of that, the NRA could save the planet.

Oh my heavens where is my tongue. In my cheek? Or is it deadly accurate?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 3, 2015.


Good soldiers know how to play chess

October 20, 2015

I’d like to start by stating my pride in WAMC and admiration of you, the listeners and members, who not only raised funds to keep the station on the air but also raised funds during the pledge break for the food bank, to help refugees and to retire pollution from the environment. That’s a lot to be proud of.

Turning to the Middle East, Russia wants to beef up Assad in Syria. And Putin seems to have confronted us with a fait accompli as it conducts bombing raids. No one wants war with Russia. So what to do?

Lots of people have their eyes focused on the Middle East, on Syria and its immediate neighbors. I think that reveals inexperience. Foreign affairs is a chess game. Chess was invented to train the mind for combat.

Now I’m no champion chess player. Oh I like to brag that I once beat someone who beat Bobby Fisher, which is true, but my friend hadn’t played in years and I have no idea how old Fisher was when my friend beat him. But just the same I do understand some things about chess. And one of them is that if the other guy attacks one of my pieces where it’s hard to defend, I can look for ways to take advantage of the position somewhere else on the board. Sometimes that forces my opponent to release his grip while dealing with my counter threat, or provide me with a counter-balancing advantage. Chess is often described as a game of position, but rarely is it all about one square or even one piece.

So I’m wondering what candidates you might have for places to put pressure on Russia? Ukraine anyone? Or posting troops in Poland? And how about recalculating the effects of Putin’s moves? The EU has been falling apart but a resurgent Russian bear may help put the EU back together. Arab anger has been directed against home grown Sunni regimes and against the U.S., but a resurgent Russian bear may put them in a war with ISIS and could inflame Muslims within Russia. Conservatives want America to be a player in world politics. But being a player is hardly a purpose. I’m more focused on the consequences.

People who only keep their eyes on one spot may be experts on that spot, or just naïve. But real foreign policy is global. Russia is not invincible. Putin is not a magician. The games he has been playing have answers. Keep cool.

But don’t look for lots of loud talk back. Real warriors don’t scream their intentions. Intentions become known after the fact. That’s what I expect from Obama or any president who is competent in foreign policy and not a big gasbag. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, we need to speak softly and carry a big stick. But it’s also important to remember that big sticks aren’t best wielded in frontal attacks – Picket’s charge lost at Gettysburg. Grant, by contrast, was happy to lay siege at Vicksburg and Richmond, and the soldiers under Sherman rarely fired a shot through a long campaign across Tennessee and then Georgia – except when Jefferson Davis replaced one of his best generals and his replacement immediately attacked the portion of Sherman’s Army he had left behind at Chattanooga. The Confederate Army was then promply defeated by that half of Sherman’s Army.

Good soldiers know how to play chess.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 20, 2015.

Canadian Comparative Religion Case

May 19, 2015

I’d like to tell you about a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada regarding religious education.[1] Quebec has a “mandatory core curriculum” which includes a Program on Ethics and Religious Culture, to teach “about the beliefs and ethics of different world religions from a neutral and objective perspective” as the Court described it. It “requires teachers to be objective and impartial” and “to foster awareness of diverse values, beliefs and cultures.” The court decided that freedom of religion required Quebec to allow a Catholic school, to teach about Catholicism from a Catholic perspective, but the Court held that the school nevertheless needed to present other faiths in a neutral way, a position that the school largely accepted.

I understand the problems with the case. I understand that there will be difficulties interpreting and enforcing the decision and the law on which it is based, and in balancing the rights of the schools and the students. But it’s also very interesting.

It has always been legal to teach comparative religion or the history of religion in public schools in the United States. The so-called “wall of separation” has always been about fairness toward all the students, denying government the power to promote any religious viewpoint over others. It has not been about total exclusion from the classroom. Here’s what our Supreme Court wrote:

While study of religions and of the Bible from a literary and historic viewpoint, presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, need not collide with the First Amendment’s prohibition, the State may not adopt programs or practices in its public schools or colleges which “aid or oppose” any religion. [2]

We perceive “exclusion” from public places and programs because litigants typically want to promote a specific religion or doctrine rather than treat us to a display of inter-faith brotherly love. Multi-faith displays aren’t generally a problem – except for the promoters. Most Americans support that kind of basic fairness. And there is much to admire in what Quebec has tried to do.

Some congregations themselves teach their young people about the differences in the ways people pray, taking them as a group on tours of other houses of worship. Sometimes the little congregation where I pray plays host to such groups, a practice I admire very much.

I’ve felt lucky over the years to spend time at Chautauqua where religious lectures and services are programmed into the Amphitheatre, so even if you don’t plan on attending you may be mesmerized just passing by, as I was a few years ago hearing thousands of people in the Amphitheatre in this historically Protestant religious community reciting a prayer in Arabic as part of what they called their Abrahamic initiative, exploring the different faiths that have roots in the religious world of the patriarch Abraham and the ancient Hebrews. They explored it by including clerics from each of those traditions.

My college experience was similar – we had to go to services, regardless of whose, and programming in the main university chapel was ecumenical – so I heard some of the world’s finest theologians of the era, regardless of faith.

I came to appreciate the fact that the finest minds of most faiths understand the similarity of their religious worlds, and the identity of unanswerable questions with which we all struggle. Most of all I appreciate what unites us and the import of that unity for us all.

Given the rise of religious war and cruelty in many parts of the world, I can’t bring myself to take brotherhood for granted. It is the hard won prize of our America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 19, 2015.

[1] Loyola High School v. Quebec, 2015 SCC 12 (2015), available at

[2] Epperson v. Ark., 393 U.S. 97, 106 (U.S. 1968) quoting McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 225 (1948).

Reactions to the Charlie Hebdo bombings – Was it just about France?

January 13, 2015

In what other country do world leaders march with arms linked against terrorism? Terrorism goes on in every continent but we mourn and gather in Europe. Terrorism happens in Haifa, Jerusalem and the West Bank – in both directions – but we mourn and gather in Europe. Do we stand for a principle or is France the principle – that France cannot be touched? Or that France is in danger? But other places are in danger. For all my criticisms of Israeli reactions, they are in considerable danger as the Palestinians have been able to use Israeli reactions to the devastation caused by their own terrorism to unite much of the world against Israel. Or is there good and bad terrorism? Were the Communists right, that’s it’s all about whose terrorists are freedom fighters?

So does this lead anywhere? Is the world standing together in Paris a prelude to a principle? But where do principles lead? To more pious declarations? Pious declarations can help lead to forms of action. If the free countries of the world really wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they clearly could put the screws on both sides and make a two-state solution actually happen. It’s too late to just back off and say it’s their fight and take no sides. But death there is just politics, who we stand with, not what we stand against. Letting it go on when that fight could be stopped is all about being able to use the conflict for politics, even though it is clearly spiraling out of control and enveloping us all. The conflict does no one any good except that pious declarations allowed the French to appear as friends of oppressed people without doing anything about it.

Of course we have been misplaying the Middle East for decades. We were hostile to a group of Middle Eastern leaders with real popular support because we didn’t like their domestic policies. So their peoples, or many of them, have been drawing the obvious conclusion – that their fight is international. The West doesn’t help. It just supports extractive industries and kleptocratic leaders while letting the problems of the people of the Middle East fester. Why do we expect to be free of terrorism in the West when we have a policy of supporting strong men who protect American and western business while raping their peoples and otherwise blessing all the nonsense they commit at home?

I find myself continually drawn to Pogo’s remark, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” All over the globe we have fought against peoples and leaders who try to take care of their own people. Leaders who try to provide for their own. We have had a part in displacing liberal leaders in Latin America, Africa and Asia because they really tried to make things better for their countrymen.

We who grandly tell the world about the virtues of self-government, and tell the world that our internal policies are none of their business, because we govern ourselves, do the reverse because we have the muscle.

I was struck by a statement by Chris Giannou on Alternative Radio who remarked that the world, including the Muslim world, “love you for your values. They hate you for your hypocrisy.”

Values are powerful until we compromise them with war, torture and indiscriminate killing as if the peoples of the Middle East are just there for us to play with.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 13, 2015.

Misunderstanding Iran

August 12, 2014

For the last few days my wife and I attended the semi-annual meeting of the International Society for Iranian Studies. It was held in Montreal this time. Several panels were devoted to Iranian foreign policy. At one of them, scholars outlined Iran’s strategic isolation and the limited choices available to it.

The fourth panelist then launched into a comparison of what she called contextual cultures and textual cultures. I found myself thinking about the textualism of Justice Scalia and the contextualism of his more liberal colleagues. But this speaker’s point was that Iran was a contextual country in which it was the listener’s job to figure out the speaker’s meaning from surrounding circumstances. By contrast, she said, America was a textualist country, where, quoting an old saying, we “say what we mean and mean what we say.” Given that contrast, it was no wonder that we find the Iranians inscrutable and untrustworthy. Read the rest of this entry »

A Blessing on Both Their Houses

July 29, 2014

Listeners and readers of my commentary know that I have spoken out against what I believe is Israeli misbehavior. So I get flooded with one-sided petitions condemning Israeli behavior. To make myself completely clear, I see merit and fault on both sides. I will not sign one-sided petitions.

I am reminded of my conversation with a Palestinian student who argued with me that Palestinians have the right to kill Israelis, any Israelis, military or civilian, and they have no right to shoot back, only to accept their fate. I questioned him to make sure I was hearing him accurately. What he was making clear was the attitude, or brain-washing, that dehumanized the other side. That is the attitude we have to fight against. Read the rest of this entry »


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