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“Our New Isolationism”: Sometimes, You Have To Put Some Spine In Your Diplomacy

The United States has just spent thousands of American lives in a distant land for a victory that now seems hollow, if indeed it can be called a victory at all. Our own country, moreover, is emerging from a recession, dispirited and self-absorbed, worried about the fragility of the recovery and the state of our democracy. Idealism is in short supply. So, as another far-off war worsens, Americans are loath to take sides, even against a merciless dictator, even to the extent of sending weapons. The voices opposed to getting involved range from the pacifist left to the populist right. The president, fearful that foreign conflict will undermine his domestic agenda, vacillates.

This is the United States in 1940. Sound a little familiar?

I’ve been reading two engrossing new histories of that time — “Those Angry Days” by Lynne Olson and “1940” by Susan Dunn — both focused on the ferocious and now largely forgotten resistance Franklin D. Roosevelt had to navigate in order to stand with our allies against Hitler.

Of course, 2013 is not 1940. The Middle East is not Europe. President Obama is not F.D.R. But America is again in a deep isolationist mood. As a wary Congress returns from its summer recess to debate Syria, as President Obama prepares to address the nation, it is instructive to throw the two periods up on the screen and examine them for lessons. How does a president sell foreign engagement to a public that wants none of it?

The cliché of the season is that Americans are war-weary from our long slogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is true, but not the whole story. To be sure, nothing has done more to discredit an activist foreign policy than the blind missionary arrogance of the Bush administration. But the isolationist temper is not just about the legacy of Iraq. Economic troubles and political dysfunction have contributed to a loss of confidence. Add to the mix a surge of xenophobia, with its calls for higher fences and big-brotherly attention to the danger within. (These anxieties also helped give rise to the expanding surveillance state, just as nativism in that earlier period gave license to J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive eavesdropping.)

Isolationism is strong in the Tea Party, where mistrust of executive power is profound and where being able to see Russia from your front yard counts as mastery of international affairs. But sophisticated readers of The New York Times are not immune, or so it seems from the comments that arrive when I write in defense of a more assertive foreign policy. (In recent columns I’ve advocated calibrated intervention to shift the balance in Syria’s civil war and using foreign aid to encourage democracy in Egypt.) Not our problems, many readers tell me.

Isolationism is not just an aversion to war, which is an altogether healthy instinct. It is a broader reluctance to engage, to assert responsibility, to commit. Isolationism tends to be pessimistic (we will get it wrong, we will make it worse) and amoral (it is none of our business unless it threatens us directly) and inward-looking (foreign aid is a waste of money better spent at home).

“We are not the world’s policeman, nor its judge and jury,” proclaimed Representative Alan Grayson, a progressive Florida Democrat, reciting favorite isolationist excuses for doing nothing. “Our own needs in America are great, and they come first.”

At the margins, at least, isolationists suspect that our foreign policy is being manipulated by outside forces. In 1940, as Olson’s book documents, anti-interventionists deplored the cunning British “plutocrats” and “imperialists,” who had lured us into the blood bath of World War I and now wanted to goad us into another one. In 2013, it is supposedly the Israelis duping us into fighting their battles.

Many pro-Israel and Jewish groups last week endorsed an attack on Syria, but only after agonizing about a likely backlash. And, sure enough, the first comment posted on The Washington Post version of this story was, “So how many Americans will die for Israel this time around?” This is tame stuff compared with 1940, when isolationism was shot through with shockingly overt anti-Semitism, not least in the rhetoric of the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Both Lynne Olson and Susan Dunn, in interviews, were wary of pushing the analogy too far. The Middle East, they point out, is far murkier, far less familiar.

“In 1940 everything was black and white — there was no gray,” Dunn told me. “On one side, Adolf Hitler and ruthless, barbaric warfare; on the other side, democracy, humanism, morality and world civilization itself.” Yes, at least so it seems in hindsight, but the choice was not so clear in 1940. Both books offer copious examples of serious, thoughtful people who had real doubts about whether Hitler was a threat worth fighting: cabinet members and generals, newspaper publishers and business leaders. At Yale, Dunn reports, an antiwar student movement that included such future luminaries as Gerald Ford, Potter Stewart and Sargent Shriver drafted a petition demanding “that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat.”

Olson told me she was startled to hear Secretary of State John Kerry inveighing against “armchair isolationism” last week in his testimony on Syria. “I think to be skeptical now does not mean you’re an isolationist,” said Olson, who is herself skeptical about taking sides in Syria. “It’s become a dirty word.”

Fair enough. But can we dial down the fears and defeatist slogans of knee-jerk isolationism and conduct a serious discussion of our interests and our alternatives in Syria and the tumultuous region around it?

The event that ultimately swept the earlier isolationists off the board was, of course, Pearl Harbor. But even before the Japanese attack the public reluctance was gradually giving way, allowing the delivery of destroyers to the British, the Lend-Lease program, a precautionary weapons buildup and the beginning of military conscription.

One factor that moved public opinion toward intervention was the brazenness of Hitler’s menace; Americans who had never given a thought to the Sudetenland were stunned to see Nazis parading into Paris.

Another was a robust debate across the country that ultimately transcended partisanship and prejudice.

Most historians and popular memory credit Roosevelt’s leadership for the country’s change of heart, but Olson points out that for much of that period Roosevelt was — to borrow a contemporary phrase — leading from behind. He campaigned in 1936 on a pledge to “shun political commitments which might entangle us in foreign wars” and to seek to “isolate ourselves completely from war.” It was a vow he renewed repeatedly as Hitler conquered country after country: there would be no American boots on the ground.

Olson argues that while Roosevelt resolved early to send aid to Britain, it is not at all clear that he would have taken America into the war if it had not been forced upon him by Pearl Harbor. But by December 1941, she writes, “the American people had been thoroughly educated about the pros and cons of their country’s entry into the conflict and were far less opposed to the idea of going to war than conventional wisdom has it.”

“Obviously we got into it because of Pearl Harbor, but that debate made a crucial difference,” Olson told me. “And I think that is what’s called for now.”

Congress in recent years has not won much respect as an arena of policy debate, but it was heartening last week to hear leaders of both parties moving a little beyond petty obstructionism and bitter partisanship and inviting a serious discussion.

I hope that Congress can elicit from the president this week a clear and candid statement of America’s vital interests in Syria, and a strategy that looks beyond the moment. I hope the president can persuade Congress that the U.S. still has an important role to play in the world, and that sometimes you have to put some spine in your diplomacy. And I hope Americans will listen with an open mind.

 

By: Bill Keller, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 8, 2013

September 9, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Congress Lacks Courage And Vision”: FDR Put Humanity First, The Sequester Puts It Last

FDR placed the needs of the American people above petty budgetary concerns, but today’s leaders lack his courage and vision.

In 1933 we reversed the policy of the previous Administration. For the first time since the depression you had a Congress and an Administration in Washington which had the courage to provide the necessary resources which private interests no longer had or no longer dared to risk.

This cost money. We knew, and you knew, in March, 1933, that it would cost money. We knew, and you knew, that it would cost money for several years to come. The people understood that in 1933. They understood it in 1934, when they gave the Administration a full endorsement of its policy. They knew in 1935, and they know in 1936, that the plan is working.—FDR, 1936

Eighty years ago this month, at the height of the worst economic crisis in our nation’s history, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered on his promise to launch a New Deal for the American people. Not wedded to any one program, idea, or ideology, the New Deal was founded on the very simple premise that when the free market failed to provide basic economic security for the average American, government had a responsibility to provide that security. In Roosevelt’s day, this meant imposing the first-ever meaningful regulation of the stock market, shoring up the nation’s financial system by guaranteeing private deposits and separating commercial from investment banking, and providing jobs to the millions of unemployed through government expenditures on infrastructure. The Roosevelt administration also launched the country’s first nationwide program of unemployment insurance to help the unemployed bridge the gap between jobs as well as Social Security to ensure that the elderly, after years of work and toil, would not suddenly find themselves utterly destitute.

Conservative critics of FDR’s polices say that these programs did not work—that unemployment remained high throughout the 1930s and that it was only World War II that brought us out of the Great Depression. As such, these same critics continually argue that the deficit spending that fueled the New Deal was the root cause of its inability to bring the unemployment rate down to acceptable levels. In short, they argue that government spending and government programs do not work, and that only the free market can provide the economic stimulus necessary to get the economy back on its feet again.

But as is the case today with the naysayers on climate change, the empirical evidence suggests that nothing could be further from the truth. During FDR’s first term, for example, the average annual growth rate for the U.S. economy was 11 percent. Compare that to the paltry 0.8 percent we witnessed in the first term of the Obama administration. The nationwide unemployment rate also fell, from its all-time high of 25 percent in 1933 to 14 percent by 1935, which at the time represented the largest and fastest drop in unemployment in our nation’s history.

But far more damning to the conservative critique is the argument that tries to invalidate the New Deal by positing that it was World War II and not the relief programs of the 1930s that brought us out of the Great Depression. Conservatives love to trumpet this fact and often use it as part of their argument against deficit spending, never stopping for a moment to consider that government expenditures—and deficits—in World War II made the New Deal look like small potatoes. In fact, deficit spending in the New Deal never topped 6 percent of GNP, while in World War II it ran as high as 28 percent. In other words, World War II was the New Deal on steroids. Viewed from this perspective, it is FDR’s critics on the left—not the right—who possess the stronger argument. The problem with the New Deal was that it did not go far enough. In other words, the government should have spent more money, not less, if it was going to be successful in bringing the economic crisis to an end.

All this is not to say that free enterprise is incapable of producing economic growth—it most certainly is. But there are times when capitalism, left to its own devices, can fail. Franklin Roosevelt was willing to acknowledge this, and he spent the better part of his tenure in office trying to put in place programs that would make capitalism work for the average American, not just those at the top. Hence, his agenda was not to subvert or destroy the free market system, but rather to save it.

It took vision and courage to launch the New Deal—the vision to understand that when the free market systems falls short or fails, government has a responsibility to take direct measures to get the economy moving again, and the courage to engage in deficit spending at a time when orthodox economic theory argued that the only proper response to an economic recession or depression was to slash government spending and balance the budget.

Unfortunately, the leadership we possess in Washington today lacks the vision and the courage to follow FDR’s example and put in place the sort of common-sense programs that would stimulate the economy and put people back to work. Instead of providing jobs for millions by spending money on our failing infrastructure—now ranked 24th in the world—or investing in programs that would reverse the falling education rates of our children, or providing greater federal support for the basic scientific research that may unlock untold benefits for future generations, we instead speak of nothing but the deficit and the sequester, as if cutting spending in the midst of recession is the magic bullet that will lead us out of our economic malaise.

Franklin Roosevelt faced similar critics, who, much like today’s deficit hawks, insisted that he must cut spending and balance the budget no matter what the consequences for the average American. But FDR would have none of this. “To balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935,” he said,

would have been a crime against the American people. To do so we should either have had to make a capital levy that would have been confiscatory, or we should have had to set our face against human suffering with callous indifference. When Americans suffered, we refused to pass by on the other side. Humanity came first.

As it turns out, FDR’s decision to put “humanity first” was not only the right moral decision, it was also the right economic decision. For the deficit spending that he finally unleashed in World War II, coupled with the social and economic reforms put in place during the New Deal, led to one of the longest periods of economic prosperity in America’s history and the birth of the modern American middle class.

Sadly, all of the evidence to date suggests that our leaders in Washington are quite happy “to pass by on the other side” and let the sequester proceed without so much as a fight. With roughly 16 million people across the country still unemployed, this is surely “a crime against the American people.”

 

By: David Woolner, The National Memo, March 3, 2013

March 5, 2013 Posted by | Deficits, Economic Recovery | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Insurance Against Need, Guaranteed Return”: Why Democrats Must Get Smart On “Entitlements”

In a season of depressing budget news, the worst may have been that a majority of U.S. House Democrats signed a letter urging President Barack Obama to oppose any benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlements. That’s the last thing we need.

To hold the line on harmful cuts to discretionary spending, Obama and the Democrats must educate the public about the necessity of entitlement reform. Otherwise, the poor and needy — largely spared by the automatic reductions under sequestration — will get hit much harder down the road.

Liberals are right to reject Republican proposals that would slash social-welfare programs even as they refuse to consider closing tax loopholes for the wealthy. And I agree that the sequestration will cut into the bone of important government functions and investments in the future.

That makes two more reasons to start talking seriously about how we will pay for the insanely expensive retirement of the baby boomers.

How expensive? Anyone reaching retirement age in the next 20 years (including me) will take more than three times as much out of Medicare as he or she contributed in taxes. By 2030, the U.S. will have twice as many retirees as in 1995, and Social Security and Medicare alone will consume half of the federal budget, with the other half going almost entirely to defense and interest on the national debt. It’s unsustainable.

If Democrats don’t want to talk about these programs, they can say goodbye to every other pet program. We can preserve Medicare in amber only at the expense of investments in pre-kindergarten programs or cancer research.

To reform entitlements, we should assess what these programs were meant to do in the first place.

For starters, Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t call them entitlements. Jimmy Carter’s administration borrowed the term from Anarchy, State and Utopia, a 1974 book by Robert Nozick, a political philosopher. “Entitlement” sounds selfish and at odds with the dignity and peace of mind that Social Security and Medicare are meant to provide.

It distorts the animating idea behind these programs, which is social insurance.

FDR didn’t have strong feelings about benefit levels, retirement ages or eligibility standards. He focused on what he called guaranteed return. By that he meant that having paid into the system through a kind of insurance premium (though in fact it was merely a payroll tax), Americans should rest easy that some money would be there for them if they lived long enough to need it. The whole point was “insurance against need.”

“Guaranteed return” and “insurance against need” should continue to be the two guiding principles of social-insurance reform.

“Guaranteed return” means no privatization or voucher system for these programs. FDR would have strongly opposed President George W. Bush’s plan to allow Social Security contributions to be invested in the stock market. He thought subjecting retirement income to what he called “the winds of fortune” was a breach of the social contract. Imagine what would happen to someone who retired in 1929 or 2008? No guaranteed return.

“Insurance against need” suggests keeping the focus on poor and middle-class recipients who depend on the money most. That means means-testing, giving wealthier retirees less. FDR, who favored high levels of taxation on the rich, would have been fine with taxing their benefits, too, as long as they were guaranteed to get at least something back.

Liberals generally oppose means-testing social-insurance programs. For decades they’ve argued that if the wealthy don’t get a heaping portion of Social Security and Medicare, it will undermine the political support of the programs and turn them into a form of welfare. Once that happens, the theory goes, the programs will be ended.

Like the word “entitlements,” this hoary idea should be retired. Social Security and Medicare are now so deeply in the marrow of the American middle class that they will never be seen as welfare. The question is not whether to reform them, but how.

Roosevelt structured Social Security as an insurance program with “contributions” through the tax code “so no damn politician can ever take it away.” He didn’t specify anything about the level of taxation or cost-of-living increases, which weren’t an issue in the 1930s but would become one shortly after World War II.

Today, only the first $110,000 in income is subject to the 7.65 percent tax that pays for Social Security and Medicare. Lifting the cap to higher income levels (say $250,000 or $400,000) could eventually generate hundreds of billions of dollars.

Republicans consider this a tax increase. That’s only true outside the context of these programs. The change could be structured so that no one paid in more than actuarial tables say they would take out. That would still raise billions and be consistent with the idea of paying for your own retirement if you can afford it.

For lifting the cap to have any chance, it would have to be matched by reforms such as adopting the chained consumer-price index, a new way to measure cost-of-living adjustments that Obama apparently favors. Liberals oppose chained CPI because it would theoretically result in lower benefits. But less frequent cost-of-living increases aren’t the same as cuts, especially if the current system is, as many experts believe, based on an inaccurate assessment of inflation.

Maybe there are better ideas for reforming social insurance. The point is, we better start talking about them. Otherwise, grandpa and grandma and their fellow Grateful Dead fans are going to eat all the food on the table.

 

By: Jonathan Alter, The National Memo, March 1, 2013

March 3, 2013 Posted by | Medicare, Social Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Promises Of Our Founding”: President Obama’s Unapologetic Inaugural Address

President Obama used his inaugural address to make a case – a case for a progressive view of government, and a case for the particular things that government should do in our time.

He gave a speech in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural and Ronald Reagan’s first: Like both, Obama’s was unapologetic in offering an argument for his philosophical commitments and an explanation of the policies that naturally followed. Progressives will be looking back to this speech for many years, much as today’s progressives look back to FDR’s, and conservatives to Reagan’s.

Obama will be seen as combative in his direct refutation of certain conservative ideas, and it was especially good to see him argue — in a passage that rather pointedly alluded to Paul Ryan’s worldview — that social insurance programs encourage rather than discourage risk-taking and make us a more, not less, dynamic society. “The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” he said. “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” This is one of the most important arguments liberals have made since FDR’s time, and in the face of an aggressive attack now on the very idea of a social insurance state, it was important that Obama make it again.

Yet the president pitched his case by basing it on a long, shared American tradition. He rooted his egalitarian commitments in the promises of our founding. The Declaration of Independence was the driving text– as it was for Martin Luther King, whom we also celebrated today, and as it was for Abraham Lincoln.

Obama’s refrain “We, the people” reminded us that “we” is the very first word of our Constitution and that a commitment to community and the common good is as American Washington, Adams and Jefferson. The passages invoking that phrase spoke of shared responsibility – “we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.” Obama said a powerful “no” to radical individualism (a point my colleague Greg Sargent made well earlier today in the course of a kind and generous reference to my book “Our Divided Political Heart”).

Some will no doubt think (and write) that Obama should have sought more lofty and non-partisan ground. The problem with this critique is that it asks Obama to speak as if the last four years had not happened. It asks him to abandon the arguments he has been making for nearly two years. It asks us to pretend that we do not have a great deal at stake in the large debate over government’s role that we have been having over an even longer period.

Neither Roosevelt nor Reagan gave in to such counsel of philosophical timidity, and both of their speeches are worth rereading in light of Obama’s.

“We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it,” Roosevelt declared. “[W]e recognized a deeper need—the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization. . . . We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.”

“In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem,” Reagan said. “It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed. It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people.”

Like these two presidents, Obama offered his fellow citizens the “why” behind what he thought and what he proposed to do — a point made to me after the speech by former Rep. Dave Obey. In my most recent column, I argued that Obama’s re-election (and the way he won it) had liberated him to be “more at ease declaring exactly what he is for and what he is seeking to achieve.” And that is exactly what he did in this speech.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, January 21, 2013

January 22, 2013 Posted by | Inauguration 2013 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The GOP Has Reached A New Height”: Have Republicans Ever Hated A President More Than Barack Obama?

It’s getting harder to deny.

The widespread belief on the right that Barack Obama is a Muslim is one of the stranger features of this period in history. There are some of them who know that Obama says he’s a Christian but are sure that’s all an act designed to fool people, while he secretly prays to Allah. But there are probably a greater number who haven’t given it all that much thought; they just heard somewhere that he’s a Muslim, and it made perfect sense to them—after all, he’s kinda foreign, if you know what I mean. Rather remarkably, that belief has grown over time; as the latest poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows, fully 30 percent of Republicans, and 34 percent of conservative Republicans, now believe Obama is Muslim. These numbers are about double what they were four years ago.

You can bet there aren’t too many who think there’s nothing wrong with it if he were. For many of them, it’s just a shorthand for Obama being alien and threatening. So it leads me to ask: Can we say, finally, that no Democratic president has ever been hated by Republicans quite as much as Barack Obama?

In the past when this question has been asked, the sensible reply is to not forget history. After all, when Bill Clinton was president, one of the Republican Party’s most respected figures distributed videotapes of a documentary alleging that Clinton was the head of a drug ring and had murdered dozens of people. And they did impeach him the first chance they got. Republicans had a visceral hatred for Franklin Roosevelt, too.

But I really think we’ve reached a new height. What makes this different isn’t just the kind of venom you see among the party’s true-believing supporters but that the hate goes so far up, all the way to the top. The party’s candidate for president literally claims that Obama hates capitalism and is not really American (Mitt Romney recently said, and not for the first time, that Obama has a “very strange, and in some respects foreign to the American experience type of philosophy”). Liberals look at conservatives claiming that Obama is a socialist or that he doesn’t really love America and think, “Those people are nuts.” But there is practically consensus in the GOP that these things are true. If a Republican candidate came out today and said, “Barack Obama is a good person who loves his country, but I just think he’s wrong about policy,” that candidate would probably get kicked out of the party.

This antipathy has multiple sources interacting together, so it’s overly simplistic to say that it’s just because of Obama’s race, or it’s just because of heightened partisanship. But it’s getting harder and harder to claim that there’s ever been a Democrat Republicans hated more.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, July 27, 2012

July 29, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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