International Relations

From Tunis To Tehran

It is now clear that a wave of democratization is sweeping across the Arab world. What began in Tunisia with the exile of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has now spread to Arab and Muslim capitals from Cairo to Tehran. The world has not seen a democratic wave like this since the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago.

Protests in Libya

Protests in Libya

Right now, it looks like Libyan dictator Mohammar Qaddafi, who has ruled his country with an iron fist, is about to be the next Arab despot to get thrown out. Michael Totten has an inside view into Qaddafi’s Libya, and it isn’t pretty. It’s telling that Qaddafi is playing the tyrant right to the inevitable bitter end: instead of leaving in exile, Qaddafi has ordered his forces to massacre civilians. With luck, that action will land Qaddafi a date with an angry mob and a lamppost rather than a comfortable villa in some tropical location.

That strategy isn’t exactly working for Qaddafi. His own diplomats are denouncing him, and two Libyan fighter pilots have defected to Malta rather than fire on protesters. Once the military begins defecting, it’s usually a sign that a regime is on the brink of collapse.

Meanwhile, many on the right are worried about Islamist influences taking over the Egyptian revolution. And while the fears about the Muslim Brotherhood are usually overblown there is cause to be very cautious. As Foreign Affairs notes, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the monolithic organization it’s made out to be. But at the same time, there are undeniably Islamist elements in the Muslim Brotherhood, and they are organized.

The Absent President

But what continues to be troubling is the absence of American leadership in this delicate time. The Obama Administration’s mixed messages over Egypt’s revolution has discredited them in the eyes of many of the democratic reformers than we will need to win over. By failing to support the Egyptian protesters early on, the Obama Administration ceded valuable ground to the Islamists who were late to the revolution but are now positioned to seize the initiative.

For all the talk about Obama’s “smart diplomacy,” we haven’t seen much of either. Right now, the United States should be enforcing a “no-fly” zone over Libya—but so far, the Obama Administration has been as weak on Libya as they were on Egypt. Now is not the time for mealy-mouthed platitudes or half-measures. It used to be that the President of the United States would unapologetically stand on the side of pro-democracy movements. Now, our government keeps sending mixed messages.

Where Does This Wave Lead?

The Middle East stands at an inflection point. Arab and Muslim dictators are dropping like flies, and the idea that Hosni Mubarak and Mohammar Qaddafi could end up being overthrown within the space of a few weeks would have been unthinkable not all that long ago. But even though many have been waiting for this moment for years, it is fraught with danger. Right now, the popular movements that are sweeping across the region are leaning in the direction of democracy. But the longer the West delays, the more anti-democratic forces have the opportunity to seize the initiative.

Now is the time for the West, and especially the United States, to make its position clear. The only legitimate governments are those governments that respect the wishes of their people. Our position should be the same as the protesters currently risking their lives in Tehran: death to dictators.

International Relations

After Egypt’s Revolution

This weekend, the government of Egypt began to collapse. After a week of unrest, last Friday saw the beginning of the end for the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Following in the footsteps of the revolution in Tunisia, the Egyptian people have risen up and kicked out their incompetent and autocratic leadership.

This may sound like a wonderful thing on the surface, but the trust is far more complicated. The likely winner of a free Egyptian election won’t be liberal democrats, but the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Barry Rubin looks at the likely outcomes of the Lotus Revolution and finds that the radicals have the upper edge. Remember, Egypt is the birthplace of radical Islam. Sayid Qutb, the man who inspired the modern Islamist ideology, was an Egyptian. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The number two man in al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was Egyptian, So too was Mohammad Atta, the ringleader of the September 11 attacks. Egypt has long been a hotbed of radicalism, and polling shows that many Egyptians are largely sympathetic to Islamist ideology.

Protesters in front of Cairo's Egyptian Museum

Protesters in front of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum

What was even more distressing was the risk of Egypt falling into anarchy. Some of world’s greatest treasures are contained in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. The museum is next to the headquarters of Mubarak’s political party, the NDP. Already, two priceless Egyptian mummies were vandalized in the chaos. But the Egyptian people took the security of their ancient past into their own hands: a human chain of Cairenes protected the museum and arrested looters until the Army could arrive and secure the building. Many in Egypt have long learned that the only way to keep the peace has been to band together into neighborhood associations: the police would not or could protect protect them. Those ad hoc organizations have helped to save lives and keep order during the revolution.

Who Will FIll The Vacuum?

It appears clear that the Mubarak regime will not survive for very long. The Egyptian people have spoken, and if the Army continues to support the protests, Mubarak will have no choice to flee or die. But the question then becomes about how will fill the power vacuum?

Nobel laureate Mohammad El-Baradei appears the most likely front-runner. El-Baradei was the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a well-known figure. He is also closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. If El-Baradei gains power, the Muslim Brotherhood gains power right with him. At worst, this would make Egypt like Gaza: a radicalized hotbed of Islamist that would pose a serious threat to the stability of the region, and could spark a war with Israel. At best, the Muslim Brotherhood has to compromise and support democratic reform. But given the attitudes of the Egyptian people, a secular government seems unlikely.

The big question is how the military will react. The military is the most widely respected institution in Egyptian society. If they throw in with the Islamists, then Egypt could look like another Gaza. But if the military decides to enforce democratic norms, Egypt could look much more like democratic Turkey. The Egyptian military, thankfully, tends to be less Islamist and more nationalist. A military government, strangely enough, could be more democratic than a populist government led by someone like El-Baradei.

Ultimately, the question is up in the air. There is even the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood and the military will end up fighting for dominance, leading to civil war. This outcome seems unlikely know, but the idea that the Mubarak regime would suddenly collapse in a popular revolution didn’t seem very likely just a few weeks ago.

President Obama: Voting ‘Present’ Again

Here in America, this crisis has exposed just how weak American foreign policy has become under President Obama. The lack of a coordinated response from the Obama Administration was inexcusable. First we had Vice President Biden saying that Mubarak was not a dictator and should not step down—a statement that was both irresponsible and idiotic. For one, Mubarak most certainly is a dictator, if an American one. Second, it signaled to the Egyptian people that the American government was in bed with the regime they were dying to overturn. The damage that statement caused was severe, and may have ripple effects for years.

President Obama was hardly better. There was a time when American leaders were unabashedly and unapologetically in favor of democracy worldwide. While President Obama’s statements on Friday night gave lip service to universal human right, the US government has done little to show support for the people of Egypt. Already, there are comparisons between Obama’s handling of Egypt and Jimmy Carter’s handling of Iran in 1979. The feckless response to the Lotus Revolution demonstrates American weakness abroad at a crucial time in the Middle East. Democratic movements across the region know that America will do little to protect them: Islamist ideologues know that America will do little to stop them. It is a recipe for disaster.

The Future of the Middle East Is Being Written Now

The revolutionary fervor that began in Tunisia is beginning to spread: there have been protests in Jordan and Yemen as well. But these revolutionary movements aren’t all democratic: many are Islamist movements seeking to further isolate the region from Western democratic influence. What we are seeing could be a flowering of democracy or a regional descent into radicalism. And we are sitting on the sidelines.

American policy should be clear: we will not directly intervene in the region without being asked, but we are not neutral. We support democratic movements over Islamist ones, and we will no longer prop up convenient autocrats like Hosni Mubarak.

When Mubarak first came to power, supporting the Egyptian regime made sense: they were willing to support peace with Israel and prevent the outbreak of another regional war. But the dynamics of the region have changed: autocracy feeds Islamism.

Before this revolution, the only place where an Egyptian could speak against the regime was in the mosques. The Muslim Brotherhood was the only group that could stand against the Mubarak regime. If Egypt is to democratize, it must develop civil society where there has been virtually none. That will not happen within a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years. Democracy is a process, not an event, and it will take generations for a democratic culture to develop in Egypt.

That is why sitting back and doing nothing is not an option. If democracy is to flower, it has to be supported, both internally and externally. That means the United States must be willing to engage with Egyptian pro-democracy activists and work to support civil society across Egypt and the region. But if all we are going to do is sit around and wait to see how things shake out, we will miss opportunities to shape events in favor of democracy and human rights.

President Obama said all the right words on Friday, but the right words are not enough. If we want a free and peaceful Middle East we have to support those who will make the Middle East more free and more peaceful. That means becoming more, not less, involved in the region. We don’t have to be heavyhanded in our treatment of the region, but benign neglect will not help anyone.

Right now, Egypt is at a turning point. The future of the region is being written now, and if Egypt tilts towards democracy and pluralism, it could continue to spill over across the region. But if Egypt becomes another Islamist theocracy, the democratic dreams of people from Beirut to Tehran could be crushed. As a believer in liberal democracy, I would like to think that democracy will win out. But pragmatically, I know that democracy is a rarity in human history: the human condition is much more likely to be in bondage to autocrats or tyrants than consensual governments.

But ultimately, the fate of Egypt will be written by the Egyptian people themselves. And they have shown that they will not live with the autocratic regimes that were once common across the region. The rest of the world can either recognize the new reality of the Middle East or be steamrolled by it.


A Time For Solidarity

David Ignatius has an excellent column on why the revolution in Iran is so important, and why President Obama should stand up and show solidarity with the Iranian people:

President Obama was right to speak carefully about the events in Iran during the first week of protest. But it’s time for him to express his solidarity with the Iranians who are so bravely taking to the streets each day. He can do that without seeming to meddle if he chooses his words wisely.

Obama should invoke the Iranian yearning for justice — which was a powerful theme of the revolution. He should cite Iran’s own rich history of political reform, going back to Cyrus the Great, whose declaration of human rights was chiseled in the Cyrus Cylinder in 539 B.C. He should cite the Iranian constitution of 1906, which established elections and basic freedoms. Democracy is not an American imposition but an Iranian tradition.

“We clearly have to be on the right side of history here,” says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment and an informal adviser to the White House. But he cautions that “if we try to insert ourselves into the momentous internal Iranian drama that’s unfolding, we may unwittingly undermine those whom we’re trying to strengthen.”

President Obama’s unwillingness to make a statement of solidarity is puzzling. Direct intervention would be a very bad idea, but the myth that any act of official support would harm the pro-democracy movement seem wrong. For one, the idea that the Iranian people actually still care about the overthrow of Mossadegh seems unlikely: Iran is a country where most the population was born after the 1979 revolution: Mossadegh is ancient history. Secondly, Obama has already “meddled” by requesting the Twitter delay maintenance to allow Iranian dissidents to communicate—a move that undoubtedly helped the Iranian resistance.

This is a time for solidarity. The free people of the world cannot turn a blind eye to the oppression that is harming the Iranian people—especially as the Khameini/Ahmadinejad regime tries to crack down on the protesters.

The people of Iran are risking their lives for the cause of freedom. As human beings, we cannot ignore their pleas. The very least the American government can do is put its moral authority into pressuring the Iranian government to avoid bloodshed. President Obama has, undoubtedly, a massive amount of political capital on the world stage. He should use it and he should make it clear that while the United States will not intervene unless asked, that we are with those who seek individual rights and human dignity anywhere they may be.


History Repeating Itself As Tragedy

Will Collier notes that Obama is acting like Jimmy Carter in 1979:

Rather than offering any crumbs of support to the Iranians who are literally putting their lives on the line for their own freedom, Barack Obama could only manage “deep concerns.” In Obamaland, it’s not as important to offer even moral support to people trying to shake off the yoke of a barbaric dictatorship as it is to not appear to be “meddling.”

This all sounds quite familiar, and everyone over 30 has seen it before. Did somebody replace the “community activist” with a self-righteous peanut farmer while we weren’t looking?

The fantasy that “moderates” within the mullah regime can be coaxed into a “grand bargain” has taken in better men than Barack Obama, but Obama doesn’t even have the excuse of not being aware of that prior history. The level of self-loathing an American has to possess to believe that the Khomeinists are a brutal, terror-supporting regime entirely because the US hasn’t been nice enough to them is pretty staggering.

President Obama is laboring under the entirely mistaken premise that because the U.S. overthrew the Mossadegh regime 30 years before most Iranians were even born, that someone we have no legitimacy in the region. That assumption is pure garbagemdash;Obama unquestionably has great power to at the very least show solidarity to the Iranian people. Even French President Nicolas Sarkozy felt free to uncategorically condemn Iranian brutality.

When the French are showing far more spine than you are, it’s a sure sign you’re on the wrong side of the issue.

President Obama is wasting his capital in the Middle East by sitting on the sidelines. The idea that a U.S. show of support would hurt the Green Revolutionaries in Iran is a myth. President Bush openly showed support for the March 14th protesters in Lebanon seeking to end the Syrian occupation of their country. Despite President Bush’s low standing in the region, that call did not hurt the Lebanese people’s cause. Why in the world does Obama think that joining the chorus of world leaders will hurt?

Collier seems correctmdash;Obama shares in the worldview of placing blame on the United States. He is unwilling to use America’s capital because he doesn’t believe in it. He quite literally blames America for the situation rather than seeing the United States as a force that could put its weight behind the crucial cause of freedom in Iran.

John Podhoretz makes the controversial, but compelling argument that Obama’s interests are best served by an Ahmadinejad win. Given that Obama has been taking steps towards deacute;tente with the Iranians and the subtle legitimization of the Ahmadinejad/Khameini regime, having that regime suddenly lose all legitimacy undercuts all of that work and makes Obama look like a fool. Obama’s interests are in a swift return to “normalcy” rather than a messy revolution and a nascent Iranian democracymdash;that reeks too much of George W. Bush for the Obama foreign policy team to take.

A show of solidarity is not “meddling”, especially when the rest of the world has made their position clear. Obama is showing no leadership on that issue, as the Iranian people are inspiring with their bravery. If ever there was a time when “hope” and “change” were needed by a people, the Iranians need it now. Too bad that on this issue Barack Obama is one again voting “present”.


Iran In The Flames Of Revolution

Right now, the people of Iran are engaged in a struggle against tyranny. The Ahmadinejad regime, flagrantly stealing an election, is now on the razor’s edge as hundreds of thousands take the streets to protest the regime and call for democratic reform.

Michael J. Totten, already a veteran observer of Middle Eastern affairs has some trenchant commentary on the brewing revolution in Iran. He calls the Iranian regime “an enemy of the entire world.” That’s no hyperbole: the regime in Tehran is illegitimate and oppressive. The Iranian people deserve better. They deserve to have a government that exists for the betterment of the people, not a government that keeps them impoverished and isolated from the rest of the world.

This revolution is being carried live on Twitter, as that seems to be the most reliable communications method for the Iranian people right now. What is amazing about this revolution is that it is the first Web 2.0 revolution. Social networking sites like Twitter, YouTube, and others are serving as avenues for communication and coordination, and brave Iranian dissidents are breaking through the regime’s efforts to stifle their voices.

This is a fight for the future of Iran. The Ahmadinejad/Khameini regime can only survive by force, they have lost the Iranian people. This will end in one of two ways: in a new Iran, or in blood.

I pray that this ends with a new and free Iran. I wish the Iranian people strength in these coming days, and I stand in solidarity with the people of Iran.

The Ahmadinejad regime must go. As the cry goes out in Tehran—Allahu akbar! Death to dictators!.

Iranian Protesters in Azadi Square
Iraq, War On Terror

What Victory Looks Like

ABC News finds that Iraqis are more secure and more supportive of democracy. Security is a necessary prerequisite to any kind of political reconciliation, and it’s now looking like the Iraqi people really do feel more secure. For example, the poll found:

While deep difficulties remain, the advances are remarkable. Eighty-four percent of Iraqis now rate security in their own area positively, nearly double its August 2007 level. Seventy-eight percent say their protection from crime is good, more than double its low. Three-quarters say they can go where they want safely – triple what it’s been.

Few credit the United States, still widely unpopular given the post-invasion violence, and eight in 10 favor its withdrawal on schedule by 2011 – or sooner. But at the same time a new high, 64 percent of Iraqis, now call democracy their preferred form of government.

While it would be nice to be popular in Iraq, what we have achieved through the surge is what needed to be achieved. The goal of the surge: to provide enough security to prevent Iraq from exploding was met. The surge worked. It not only created a more secure Iraq, but thanks to our willingness to work with all sides, it has dramatically reduced sectarian tensions. The surge did exactly what it was supposed to do, and it represents one of the most important military turnarounds in the history of counterinsurgency. Future military leaders will be studying the tactics of great military minds like Gen. Petraeus and Col. H.R. McMaster for years to come.

Now, imagine an alternate scenario where John Kerry was elected President in 2004. He would have pulled U.S. troops from Iraq, leaving the country defenseless. An Iraqi civil war would have been inevitable. The Iraqi Shi’a would have looked to Iran for protection from al-Qaeda. Iraqi Sunnis would have banded either with al-Qaeda or looked to the Saudis and other fellow Sunnis for protection from the Iranians. The Kurds in the north would be fighting a pitched battle against both al-Qaeda and Iran.

For all the talk about how terrible a war Iraq was, it could have been much worse. Had Kerry been elected, it almost certainly would have.

Had now-Vice President Biden gotten his way and split Iraq down sectarian lines, the result would have been much the same. Iraq would be divided, and soon conquered.

Biden, now-Secretary of State Clinton, President Obama, Sen. Reid, Rep. Pelosi, all of them were wrong on Iraq. None of the advances that have been made in the past two years would have happened had they gotten their way. There should be a lesson in that.

Iraq still has a long period of transition. Other, more mundane problems like corruption and government efficiency still pose a threat to its future. But the days when terrorists threatened to destabilize the country are now over—and if we continue to meet our commitments to the Iraqi people and continue to train their military and government leaders, those terrible days will be over forever.

But peace is a tenuous thing. If Obama withdraws American troops in an irresponsible manner, the gains we’ve made could be lost as al-Qaeda, the Sadrists, or other groups exploit the vacuum. We must withdraw with full cognizance of the situation on the ground and be prepared to alter our timetable as necessary.

We have won in Iraq, and we should not ignore the lessons we have learned. Future conflicts in the 21st Century will look much like the one in Iraq, and we must be prepared to fight them—and we must also be willing to learn that the model of Iraq may not fit elsewhere as easily. What we need in Afghanistan is the same kind of visionary leadership that we had on the ground in Iraq as well as a political structure back home that will listen to them. President Obama should learn from President Bush’s mistakes and understand that the path to victory should be dictated by the theater of battle, not the politics of Washington.

Political Philosophy

Partisanship Is Democracy By Another Name

Yuval Levin has why “partisanship” is a healthy thing in a democracy:

Our deepest disagreements coalesce into two broad views of human nature that define the public life of every free society. In a crude and general way our political parties give expression to these views, and allow the roughly like-minded to pool their voices and their votes in order to turn beliefs into action.

To ridicule these disagreements and assert as our new president also did in his inaugural that “the time has come to set aside childish things” is to demean as insignificant the great debates that have formed our republic over more than two centuries. These arguments—about the proper relationship between the state and the citizen, about America’s place in the world, about the regard and protection we owe to one another, about how we might best reconcile economic prosperity and cultural vitality, national security and moral authority, freedom and virtue—are divisive questions of enormous consequence, and for all the partisanship they have engendered they are neither petty nor childish.

Levin’s words match my own thoughts on the issue. Our current working definition of “non-partisan” seems to be more based on shutting up and getting with the program than anything else. When the President calls for an end to “childish” partisan disagreements, what he means is that everyone should accept his views on the proper role of the state and be done with it. The problem with that is that a large segment of the American population doesn’t accept the basis of his worldview, and they have a legitimate right to have their voices heard.

We don’t need “non-partisanship” at this point in our history. We need vigorous partisan debate. Democratic debate is a crucible that helps extract the truth—and today’s society is becoming less about democratic debate and more about cultural balkanization. We have a media elite that is overwhelmingly uniform in their worldview. With the exception of specialized media outlets like Fox News and talk radio, conservative voices are marginalized and diminished. Not only does this harm conservatism by denying it a forum, but it diminishes liberalism as well. Without a counterbalancing force, any ideology becomes stagnant and increasingly irrelevant. Liberalism, by constantly defining itself as the only valid worldview, has ceased being a vital political philosophy. Is it any wonder than that the banner of today’s liberalism is the empty slogans of “hope” and “change” and it’s ultimate rationale the accumulation of power? When President Obama spoke with GOP members of Congress his message was simple: “I won”. While that counts for a lot in politics, winning an election does not vindicate the rightness of a worldview.

This isn’t to say that conservatism is perfect. Many, if not possibly most of conservatism’s wounds are self-inflicted. Conservatism stopped, by and large, being intellectually vital during the Bush Administration. By going along with Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”, the conservative movement lost sight of it’s small-government origins. By becoming more stridently anti-gay rather than pro-family, conservatives alienated much of their own audience. The Republican leadership that has become the standard-bearers for conservatism lost the ability to connect to the American public because they became too ingratiated with power and defending their own record. That President Bush spent most of his second term allowing the opposition to control the public imagination helped bring conservatism in America to a new low.

But liberalism is making the same mistake. At this moment, liberalism is embodied in President Obama in a way that is fundamentally unhealthy. Just as conservatism tied itself to the political fortunes of President Bush, liberalism has become the Ideology of Obama, with the President as its pontifex maximus.

This is particularly unhealthy for a democracy. The combination of ideological arrogance and a cult of personality surrounding one great leader is a dangerous thing. The President, much to his credit, has tried to create a “team of rivals” to challenge his beliefs, but has yet been able to demonstrate more than a token commitment to that end.

Instead of trying to be aloof and above-the-fray, Obama should embrace respectful partisan disagreement as part and parcel of democracy. Instead of putting himself in an ideological cocoon, Obama should engage with the conservative movement. Instead of having The Huffington Post ask him pre-approved questions at his press briefings, he should invite prominent GOP and libertarian bloggers to grill him. It would be interesting to see how he would respond to questioning from someone like Glenn Reynolds or William Safire.

Obama has the bully pulpit of the Presidency, and he has a large hand in setting the tone. If he is serious about leading this nation, and he certainly is, he should be embracing partisanship rather than decrying it. The past President was accused, probably with merit, of living in an ideological bubble. He, like Obama, promised to be a unifying leader. If the President wishes to avoid the same problems that befell his predecessor, he needs to realize that you can’t strengthen your arguments without accepting the arguments of others as valid. For all his promising talk in this regard, his Administration has scarcely wavered from Democratic politics as usual.

Democracy cannot survive in a political monoculture or in a state where only one side is given legitimacy. Liberalism needs conservatism and vice versa. Partisanship is a crucial part of a healthy democracy, and right now American democracy is increasingly unhealthy. If we are to set things right, we need more reasoned disagreement, not mindless and rigid ideological conformity.

Obama Administration, Political Philosophy, Politics

Dissent Is SO Yesterday!

David Harsanyi asks whether dissent is still patriotic in the Age of Obama. The answer, I suspect, is no. Instead, watch for any opposition to President Obama, whether measured or not, to be labeled as “divisiveness” and cast aside. As Harsanyi puts it:

Some of you must still believe that politicians are meant to serve rather than be worshiped. And there must be someone out there who considers partisanship a healthy, organic reflection of our differences rather than something to be surrendered in the name of so- called unity — which is, after all, untenable, subjective and utterly counterproductive.

President Obama’s call to unity was standard boilerplate stuff. After all, one of the mottos of this nation is E pluribus unum—”out of many, one.” But at the same time, there’s a difference between coming together as a nation and being forced to all read from the same playbook. The strength of America is in our ability to have legitimate disagreements about politics and policy while still acknowledging our common values. That is a balance, and I fear that Obama will fail to understand the difference. These passages from his Inaugural Address does not bode well:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

Have we? I despise the idea that one party of another has a monopoly on either hope or fear, and it’s a transparently dumb argument to make. Those of us who voted for McCain voted out of hope as well, hope for a better future in which government did not trample upon the right of the people to pursue their own happiness. Does President Obama really believe his own bull about him being a living symbol of hope? If not, are these words just more empty rhetoric, sugary words devoid of substance? Then why make them?

I suspect the answer is that Obama is a believer in his own hype, and that scares me deeply.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

Like hell we have.

Every politician plays hardball. Partisanship is inevitable in a free society, and that’s a feature, not a bug. In order for this statement to make sense, Obama must believe 1) that he is somehow above politics, which is transparently ludicrous for any politician to say; and 2) that our politics would be better if we jettisoned the “worn out dogmas” that he doesn’t like.

As a good Burkean, this makes me gag. Our politics is meaningless without the beliefs that President Obama wants to denigrate as being “worn out.” Our politics needs vital disagreement on key issues. Democracy is never about conformity, else it becomes little more than the rule of the mob. But when you’re at the head of the mob, I suppose, mob rule doesn’t sound all that bad.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

Note what Obama is doing here. He’s first calling partisanship “childish” rather than a necessary part of vital democratic debate. He’s then wrapping himself in the mantle of the American character. It’s the classic way that a politician tries to diminish his or her opponents without appearing to do so. First you delegitimize the “other” then you wrap yourself in the values you wish to be seen as embodying. It’s a classic rhetorical trick, and Obama plays it to the hilt.

If that weren’t enough, this passage further demonstrates Obama’s feelings towards dissent:

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.

Hear that, all of us “cynics”? We’re too stupid to realize that now that Obama is on the scene, the question about the role of the State in our lives is no longer relevant. Now the question is not whether the government should interfere in our lives, but just how much it will take to achieve the desired ends of the left-wing nanny state. Our “stale arguments” aren’t even worth discussing, now is the Era of Government, and we are but mere roadbumps on the way.

Sadly, those words betray a worldview that would delegitimize debate. Whenever a politician speaks of “transcending politics” or whatever mumbo-jumbo they use, what they ultimately mean is that they would like their side to always prevail. Politics isn’t a flaw in our system, it is our system. The moment we start arguing that legitimate debate over issues is “childish” or decide to chuck out the “worn out dogmas” of the opposition party, we abandon the principle of democracy in for tyranny.

Not once in the speech does President Obama countenance any opposition to his worldview. Not once in his speech does Obama even admit to the legitimacy of those who see things through another lens. Rather it was entirely about how now that Obama is in charge it’s time to “remake” America, whether those cynical believers in the value of a limited government of enumerated powers like it or not.

It is one thing for America to be one nation united by common bonds of history and culture. It is another for someone to declare that their election is a triumph of hope over fear. The worst thing that could happen is that they actually start to believe that.

I will keep my “worn out” dogma and be “childish” then. We should, and must, act as a loyal opposition, never sacrificing the national interest solely to make a political point, but that does not imply rolling over for Obama’s “remade” America. In the words of another President, “aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.” Just because President Obama says that the days of partisan disagreement is over will not make it so, nor should it.


Vladimir Putin, Man Of The Year

Time‘s Man of the Year for 2007 is Russian President Vladimir Putin. It isn’t a bad pick (although I would have picked Gen. David Petraeus)—Vladimir Putin’s actions are most certainly of great import in shaping our world. The problem is that they’re not shaping our world for the better. Putin has been slowly but surely turning Russia into just another banana republic petro-state, and ultimately that course is not sustainable. Ss democracy in Russia dies, the potential for another wave of destructive totalitarianism grows.

The Time article plays into the idea that Putin just happened to amble into history and become President of Russia. This seems unlikely—more likely is that Russia is still being ruled by the same forces that ruled the country during the Communist age. Putin’s status as a former KGB agent and head of the FSB (the agency that took over from the KGB after the fall of the Soviet Union) serves him well when it comes down to doing the two things he does best: keeping Russia in line and ensuring that his political opponents cause him no trouble.

Putin is certainly a man with a mission:

Putin’s mission is not to win over the West. It is to restore to Russians a sense of their nation’s greatness, something they have not known for years. This is not idle dreaming. When historians talk about Putin’s place in Russian history, they draw parallels with Stalin or the Tsars. Putin, one can’t stress enough, is not a Stalin. There are no mass purges in Russia today, no broad climate of terror. But Putin is reconstituting a strong state, and anyone who stands in his way will pay for it. “Putin has returned to the mechanism of one-man rule,” says Talbott of the Brookings Institution. “Yet it’s a new kind of state, with elements that are contemporary and elements from the past.”

And there’s plenty that could go wrong. The depth of corruption, the pockets of militant unrest, the ever present vulnerability of the economy to swings in commodity prices—all this threatens to unravel the gains that have been made. But Putin has played his own hand well. As Prime Minister, he is set to see out the rest of the drama of Russia’s re-emergence. And almost no one in Russia is in a position to stop him. If he succeeds, Russia will become a political competitor to the U.S. and to rising nations like China and India. It will be one of the great powers of the new world.

Unfortunately, it won’t stay there for long. Totalitarian regimes—and Russia is already authoritarian and sliding more and more towards totalitarianism every single day—tend not to last very long. There are no purges, no mass executions now, but Putin’s authoritarian state makes it far easier for either him or the next dictator to make it happen. Putin can steer Russia towards the right course, but it would mean more openness rather than less, and a willingness to sacrifice his rule for the benefit of Russia’s future.

Putin’s Russia is slowly sliding away from democracy and towards tyranny, and Vladimir Putin is responsible for that. He is a man whose vision of Russia as a strong state is compelling, but ultimately he is sacrificing the future of his nation for his own ends. The line between autocrat and tyrant is a thin one, and Putin is already skating the edge—and once Russia crosses that line once more, it may be even harder for it to recover than it already has been.

International Relations

Venezuela To Chavez: ¿Por Qué No Te Callas?

In a bit of good news, the voters of Venezuela have rejected Hugo Chávez’s attempt to amend Venezuela’s Constitution to allow him to stay in office beyond 2012. The official tally has the amendment losing by 2%—although some sources indicate that the actual margin was considerably larger.

Chávez has been trying to make himself into another Castro—a “President for life” with plenary powers over everything in Venezuela. Thankfully, he isn’t strong enough to do that without moving directly against the Venezuelan army and people, who aren’t about to let him seize power. So, Chávez has had to try and democratically take more and more power. This defeat signals that his plans aren’t working, and his attempt to create another Cuban-style “socialist” state are failing.

TigerHawk asks whether Spanish King Juan Carlos didn’t help in putting Chávez down a peg. At a recent meeting in Chile, Chávez went on a rant, which prompted the monarch to tell him “¿Por qué no te callas?”—or “why don’t you shut up?” Adding insult to injury, King Juan Carlos used the informal form of address, which is the sort of language one would use for a child. The line has become famous throughout the Spanish-speaking world, being used in everything from mobile phone ringtones to numerous YouTube videos. By publicly scolding Chávez, King Juan Carlos essentially put him in his place, turning him from the Bolivarian Revolutionary to just another gasbag.

It’s unclear what Chávez will do now—although there’s no doubt he’ll try to hang on to power as long as possible. He’s wisely choosing not to move directly against the results of the election, but that doesn’t mean he’ll take the results lying down. As long as Hugo Chávez remains in power, Venezuelan democracy is imperiled. Thankfully, not even Chávez’s machinations have been enough to prevent the people of Venezuela from casting their votes. So long as the people have political power in that country, Chávez will be kept in check. What will be crucial is ensuing that he cannot so erode democracy as to give himself the dictatorship cloaked in Marxist rhetoric that he so fervently desires.