Is there a Future for Democracy in America?

February 4, 2020

I’ve been writing about gerrymandering and election law since I was in law school, long enough to feel very discouraged. When Anthony Kennedy didn’t take advantage of his last crack at gerrymandering while still on the U.S. Supreme Court, after having teased us for years about his willingness to deal with it, I was sad to the core of my being. Ezra Klein’s “Polarization and the Parties” which came out a week ago in the Sunday Times galvanized my thinking, if not my hopes.

Klein made it clear that the combination of gerrymandering, the allocation of Senate seats and the electoral college would soon leave 70% of America represented by 30% of senators and vice versa, and the electoral college will continue to “elect” presidents who have lost the popular vote. With the Supreme Court continuing to be shaped by those disproportionate advantages in the Senate and the executive, Republicans will continue to be able to stave off a more equitable representation in the House of Representatives. In other words, democracy will be a memory replaced by institutionalized minority rule.

Can we do anything about it? Klein points out that with their power resting firmly on these legal impediments, the Republicans will continue to fight fiercely against anything resembling democracy. Flipping control of the White House and Congress would certainly make a difference but would not change the electoral college, the Senate’s skew toward the least populous states or its grip on Supreme Court appointments.

There’s much talk about amending the Constitution, but that requires three-fourths of the states with the same unrepresentative dynamics to approve. So fat chance fixing the Constitution, whether by amendment or a convention as spelled out in Article V of the Constitution.

Then what? Our Constitution was adopted “illegally” by the terms of the Articles of Confederation. Could we do the same, create a new Constitution and specify, as the Founders did, how it should be ratified. That’s been tried on the state level but met an unreceptive Supreme Court. Could we expect better from this Court? And who’d count the votes? The existing and affected states or some nonpartisan entity? By what method or machine?  And who’d pay? Perhaps we should hire five thirty-eight.com to gather private polls. But we’d be mired in questions of polling methods and ethics.

Maybe we should have let the Confederacy go? Chucking Texas alone would make a big difference – although Texas is changing. Or maybe the coasts should secede. Those alternatives would leave us a smaller, weaker, country, subject to alliances with foreign powers against each other – the biggest fear and reason for action of the people who wrote and ratified our Constitution. Would such a split be like the former Czechoslovakia or the former Yugoslavia, which is to say a peaceful split or a bloodbath? Trump’s “base,” by the way, has been arming itself for that bloodbath for years.

Or maybe some of the 70% of us need to resettle with the 30% and change the country from the bottom up. But on that too, as we’d have said in Brooklyn, fat chance. I think that means that the more we care about the results, the more radical our views, the more we have to roll up our sleeves and work together that much harder on the elections, no matter which candidate becomes our standard bearer.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 4, 2020.


What are Americans that God is mindful of us?

January 14, 2020

Lots of people believe their countries are best. We do too. Caring for one’s country is good. Economic objections to admitting refugees don’t justify brutality. Strategic disagreements about Iran’s objectives don’t require going to war. But demonizing people changes the stakes. Treating them as nothing but vandals and killers, unworthy of concern, drives the ugliest parts of both the refugee and Iran crises, and threatens everyone in a chorus of hate.

Trump’s African-American predecessor created a path to peace in the Middle East. Obama was hardly the first African-American with diplomatic skills. Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche negotiated the 1949 Armistice Agreements. Powell and Rice are more recent. But Trump can’t recognize Obama’s achievements. So he shredded the path to peace, revived animosities that made it useless for the US to stay in Iraq, and demonized Iranians and Mexicans, while too many of his supporters murder those they demonize.

Insistence that other peoples are unworthy of concern is like throwing a hand grenade at our common Biblical, Judeo-Christian and Muslim heritage, for the Bible, and the Abrahamic tradition it embodies, is the common heritage to which so many of us in America cling.

The Bible asks in the Book of Psalms: “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”

Must we, too, be mindful of others?

Or do we think that we’re only a little lower than the angels, entitled to rule over God’s other peoples, to disparage, demean and vilify refugees and entire countries?

America’s strength comes from protecting human rights and supporting international law. We, not just a statue in New York harbor, have been a torch of freedom throughout the world.

Our Declaration of Independence became a landmark in the development of universal human rights by showing “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” and proclaiming that all of us “are created equal … endowed by … [our] Creator with … unalienable Rights … [to] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Our Constitution guarantees rights to all. The Bill of Rights speaks to “the people,” every “person,” and any “accused.”

The 14th Amendment defined citizenship so that it could not be denied to African-Americans or any other race – red, brown, yellow, whatever. These are among the commitments in that torch of freedom.

When we refuse visas or reentry to refugees, returning citizens, residents or visitors simply because of ancestry or faith, we not only violate the Constitution, we dim and tarnish our torch.

For centuries, we’ve been devoted to a world of rules and mutual obligations as the best path to peace. America wrote the rules of international order after World War II for a grateful world. No one forced NATO, the UN, regional and world financial organizations on us. When this country dishonors our obligations, to Iran, to NATO, the EU, or to refugees, who’ll trust us? If we’ve become a rogue state, whose interests align with ours?

God rescued the ancient Israelites from Egypt. But the Lord reminded them, in Amos 9-7, that God also rescued other very different peoples. If God pays attention to America, it’s not so we can celebrate or claim to be #1, the best or most powerful. It is because we have a job to do for all humankind.


Trump’s wrong approach to Iran

January 7, 2020

What’s wrong with Trump’s approach to Iran? Let me count the ways.

First, Trump’s claims about stopping Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s plans make little sense. What had been planned can take place with or without him. Iranian strikes are more, not less, likely now.  This is too similar to the prelude to the war in Iraq except that Trump isn’t taking the time to try to convince anyone. We just have unsubstantiable and probably false claims as a basis for very costly decisions.

Second, the timing is suspicious. War threats blew impeachment out of the news. In other words, everything is PR.

Third, Trump’s stated policy is tit for tat. But where does it end? If we need to have the last strike, why don’t they? Most important he has crushed any diplomatic path to peace as a way out.

Fourth, this was totally unnecessary. President Obama created a path to peace in the Middle East. Only Trump thought the Iranians weren’t obeying the nuclear agreement – those who actually went and looked agreed the deal was working.  But Trump shredded the existing path to peace, revived animosities that made it useless to stay in Iraq, provoked Iran by increasing sanctions after destroying the legal basis for sanctions and is now delivering the Middle East to other foreign powers like Russia and China. Iran has been measured and restrained by comparison.

Fifth, the military is not united on this. Trump has found people in the military who will work with him while other high-ranking and responsible brass react that his missions are not properly vetted and do more harm than good. Disagreement is fine but the possibility that Trump is reshaping the Army so that it can’t threaten a Trump takeover scares me most. Then we are all in the sewers, concentration camps or gas chambers. If you think that’s not possible, that’s exactly what does make it possible. We have to stop him, not ignore him.

Sixth, it is now much more likely that we are headed for war. Trump has managed to move the Iranian people from blaming their own government for their troubles to blaming the U.S. So the political pressures in Iran are now all on the side of action again the U.S.

Seventh, Iran does have the capability to react. They are well-organized for asymmetrical or unconventional warfare. American power is based on throw weight and mass destruction; Iranian power is based on secrecy and guerilla tactics. Military conflict with Iran will be very costly, a view strongly held within the military. Taking them on militarily makes little sense when there are better ways of managing conflict.

The real problem is to find someone who behaves like an adult in the White House. That makes the impeachment process more urgent and important. And by the way, the Constitution demands a trial. Trials in America are based on testimony under oath. Trial without witnesses is an oxymoron, another way Senate leaders insist on ignoring the Constitution – because they know testimony would be very damning to Trump.

For those interested, here is a link to expert commentators and the views of the organization of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Iran.


Disloyalty if not Treason

November 12, 2019

The U.S. was the world’s most powerful country when Trump took office. Though we couldn’t control everything, we influenced outcomes all over the world. Then Trump pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving China the dominant player in the Pacific. He withdrew from the multi-power nuclear agreement with Iran, leaving Iran to reorganize its nuclear ambitions to meet its new security situation. Bizarrely he keeps claiming Iran must abide by the agreement even as the founders of our country would have explained to him that breach by one party to an agreement terminates the other’s obligations to it. He withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, not only undermining the international effort to limit global warming, but undermining other countries’ willingness to count on American promises. And he withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, inviting Russia to restart the nuclear arms race.

He publicly questioned the value of the two major institutions formed to keep the Russians in check – the European Union which strengthened and unified Europe as a counterforce to Russia, and NATO, the military alliance between the U.S. and the European countries outside the Russian orbit, famously dubbed the “Iron Curtain” by Winston Churchill. He urged letting Russia back into the economic organization of major economies despite having been kicked out because of the Russian invasion of Crimea. He pushes Putin’s proposal that Ukraine virtually give Russia back its eastern provinces, the ones Russia had invaded until the West pushed back. And he has just invited the Russians back into Syria and a major role in the Middle East. In reality, Trump is being impeached because he keeps helping Russia.

I know there are people who call themselves super patriots who believe the US would be better off able to make its own independent decisions. What that means, of course, is that we will no longer have the trust and confidence of other countries who will no longer see us as reliable allies. When we do our best to isolate Iran, we think of it as a punishment, but when we do it to ourselves, it’s supposed to be a great advantage.

Yes, we think of ourselves as a superpower, but how much of the world can we take on alone? We didn’t win World War II alone. We certainly had the major role in the Pacific but those of us who lived through or studied the War, know that Russia did most of the fighting in Europe. So there is a large cost to isolating ourselves and convincing our allies that they can’t rely on us. If they can’t rely on us, then they can’t be reliable for us. They have to seek their own advantage.

In sum, Trump has enormously weakened America. It’s bad enough if he did it out of stupidity. But it’s disloyal if he did it for his own advantage. And since Russia can clearly be described as an enemy of the US, even though we’re not now making war against each other, we would be justified in calling that treason.

Let me suggest that you read and think about Art. III, sec. 3, of the Constitution:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

Whether or not it fits the definition of treason, weakening America for the advantage of Russia and China is certainly disloyal. As Hamilton explained in The Federalist, the basis for impeachment is “the abuse or violation of some public trust.”[1] No abuse of public trust can be more serious than disloyalty to America for the benefit of a foreign power.

  • Broadcast on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio on Nov. 12, 2019

[1] Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, The Federalist, No. 65 (Hamilton) at 396 (Clinton Rossiter ed., New American Library 1961); and see Peter Charles Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, Impeachment in America, 1635-1805 chronicling the development of impeachment from English precedents through the Founding Era in America (Yale U. Press 1984).

 


Sa’adi’s Iranian Poetry and International Order

October 29, 2019

This could be called a tale of two birthdays. While celebrating my wife’s birthday at a restaurant, she got an email in response to her request that the writer handle some things at an upcoming national conference.

Early American presidents ended their letters by declaring themselves “Your most humble and obedient servant.” They believed in humility and public service. Persians express humility differently. Like my wife and myself, the writer of the email she opened had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. His note reflected Iranian hyperbole and the Persian system of manners which they call Ta’arof: “I am your sacrifice,” he wrote, “you may walk on my eyes.” That was not a complaint, but, in context, much like Jefferson’s expression of humility and willingness.  The Persian reference to injuring eyes preserves painful memories, like many nursery rhymes we sing unsuspectingly. The Persian reference is to Mongol rulers, descendants of Genghis Khan, who cut out their opponents’ eyes. Knowing it’s meaning, I’ve never been able to use that expression. But both his and Jefferson’s reflect a culturally rooted sense of civility.

My dad visited me while I was in the Peace Corps and I threw him a party for his 70th birthday. While there, he gave me a book of Persian poetry as a gift, the Gulestan or Rose Garden, by Sa’adi, a much loved thirteenth century Persian poet, and the pride of the city where I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Poetry is very important to the Persians. There were monuments in Shiraz to Sa’adi and Hafez who wrote just a few years after Sa’adi died. Two centuries earlier, Ferdowsi wrote his Shahnameh or Book of Kings, a beautifully poetic attempt to remember the pre-Islamic past of Iran.

This Administration, and some of its predecessors, have tried to force Iran into submission with painful restrictions on trade. This and other countries have also tried to isolate Iran among dangerous regional regimes that have threatened Iran in the past, most notably Russia and the Soviet Union.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, of which my wife is president, was invited to make a presentation at the Kennedy Center. As part of that presentation, John Limbert, himself both a former ambassador and hostage, responded to the policy of penalizing and isolating Iran with a reference to the poetry of Sa’adi.[1] Many Persians know Sa’adi’s poetry by heart. In fact, when I called a friend to ask him about the language Ambassador Limbert had recited, I heard my friend’s father start reciting the entire poem in the background.  Here is the couplet Limbert recited – in both Persian and English translation:

نمیبینی که چون گربه عاجز شور

به چنگال در آرد چشم پلنگ

Nemibini ke chun gorbeh ‘aajez shavad,

be changaal dar avarad, cheshm-e-palang?

Have you not seen the cornered cat,

whose tiny claws will tear out the eyes of a leopard?

The implication is that they don’t want to fight but can and will to save their country.

It is a mistake to think of Iran in stereotypical terms as a bunch of brutes. Like all peoples, they can overreact, especially during a revolution, and international politics often brings out the worst instincts of nations. Nevertheless, I experienced Iranians as a very decent, cultured and friendly people, but a people who love their country and expect to be treated with respect. It’s funny, but showing respect is, at once, one of the easiest and most difficult things to do. Often, it’s little more than the language that reflects each other’s humanity and accomplishments. But it’s so difficult when we fight about who’s number 1.

[1] The Gulistan or Rose Garden of Sa’di , 85-86 (George Allen & Unwin, ltd. Edward Rehatsek, trans., W.G. Archer, ed. 1964) (in the eighth story in the first chapter).


The irony of excluding Iran

September 4, 2019

Paul Barker sent me a wonderful note about the latest Iran-related news:

“And in the irony of ironies, via Khalilzad [an Afghani-American diplomat and Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the State Department ] the Trump administration is effectively negotiating terms of surrender with the Taliban — and it is the US that is surrendering.  Yet Trump wants the flexibility of the 2001 AUMF to justify totally unrelated action against Iran which is a natural enemy of the Taliban, al-Qa’eda and ISIS

“If Trump wanted a responsible way out of Afghanistan, he’d find a way to work with Iran.”

Absolutely right. Yet another cost of isolating Iran.


What’s up with Iran?

September 3, 2019

This Administration continues to try to inflame the relationship between the US and Iran. So let’s look at how we got here, for which we have to go back to about 1981. We could start earlier but that’s about the US and Iran screaming about which was worse and which was justified – our deposing their Prime Minister and installing the Shah in 1953, or their seizure of the Embassy and holding Americans hostage in 1979. Both sides are equally convinced they win that argument. So let’s start with 1981.

Iran tried several times since 1981 to meet, discuss, and work out our differences with everything on the table, calling one such effort a “dialogue of civilizations.” We largely refused or scuttled their efforts. More than refused, we did our best to isolate Iran, to leave them out of any and all discussions about the future of the Middle East. Finally Obama sat down with them and got to a deal which not only restricted their enrichment of nuclear fuel, but also created a platform for confidence building between us and them, only to have his successor rip it up – actually rip up our obligations while trying to leave theirs intact!

What is Iran supposed to do? For all but a few of those 40 years there have been no meetings, discussions or deals, and when we and they reached an agreement, the US dishonored it. What are they supposed to do?

Trump seems to think they should role over and say “Uncle” but why shouldn’t they expect the Eric Garner treatment: Iran, “I can’t breathe”; US, “OK, die.” The very idea of unconditional surrender is not one they could trust or accept, not one the Iranian public would trust or accept, and not one that any reasonable Iranian could believe was a good idea. In other words we have spent most of 40 years teaching them that they have no option but to push back.

We are not their only problem – a Shia nation in a sea of Sunni countries, they need allies. Israel is helpful because a number of countries in that area hate the Israeli occupation of lands the Palestinians owned. By arming guerrilla armies, Iran makes itself look like a shining white knight among Islamic countries, and it also makes clear that Iran is not powerless and has to be taken into account, at least about affairs of that region. The US hasn’t gotten that point but we’ve been stung anyway – to cheers, open or muffled, of others in the Islamic world.

Scholars and diplomats, understand the problem, by the way, and have been writing about the effect of isolating Iran. But American prejudices don’t allow realism about the Middle East.

So asking what Iran should do puts the focus on the wrong country. Iran was willing to work with us. There is a lot of latent fondness and admiration for this country among the Iranian people. Iran has in fact worked with Israel – until we upset the Middle Eastern balance of power by crushing and eliminating Iraq from the calculus. Indeed American diplomats were stunned when Iran and Israel pulled apart after the US crushed Iraq.

The real problem is that since 1981, American policy toward the Middle East has been governed by prejudice rather than intelligent analysis and careful calculation. In other words, America, know thyself.

Full disclosure, Professor Gottlieb’s wife is now president of the Peace Corps Iran Association, and he is a member of its Advocacy Committee.

 


%d bloggers like this: