Notes on Disengagement From the Middle East

by Alex Knepper

What do we lose when we start disengaging from the Middle East? I think we lose a sense of national honor. I think we lose a sense of our moral distinctiveness. I think we lose some of the legitimacy behind our claim that we possess a willingness as Americans to look hard truths in the eye and confront hard choices others want to ignore. I think we will be more likely to allow ourselves to forget about the outside world. I think engagement abroad can also be a healthy reminder of what unites us as Americans — of what we have in common, and what makes us different from the rest of the world: whether we are from Maryland or Montana, we have infinitely more in common with each other than with our enemies abroad. Nowadays we lose sight of that seemingly-obvious fact with relative frequency. I also believe well-coordinated interventions can be an effective way to do a lot of good for a lot of deserving and suffering people, if we check the right boxes — see: Hillary Clinton’s reasonable and limited proposal for a No-Fly Zone in Syria. I think this is a loftier and more ennobling enterprise than just constantly trying to run down the price of everything and fatten our paychecks.

Americans hate foreign policy. They do not pay attention to it unless it seems immediately relevant to their own lives and values. For the overwhelming majority for Americans, the rest of the world is something they see on TV: something an ocean away. And furthermore, in campaigns, this irritant, foreign policy, insists on diverting our attention away from programs and institutions at home that have become totally dysfunctional. When we are dysfunctional at home — witness the price tag attached to college and health care, rent in major cities, and diminished job opportunities — we will be far less likely to be able to rally our people to a grand mission abroad. My colleague Cinzia has a point, in that regard. Someone who is staring down a life-altering medical bill or six-figure student loan debt is a lot less likely to find room in his political consciousness for the spirit of military virtue.

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More to the point, America’s big-picture mission in the Middle East no longer makes sense to the average voter — it has become incoherent. Voters last year seemed to have little idea what America was trying to accomplish in Syria in the first place, and many were convinced outright that we had no interest there at all and that the attention we paid to its civil war was misguided or a waste of time. Many simply find the topic overwhelmingly complicated and confusing and do not understand why they cannot be provided with a simple-enough explanation for why we should be involved. A real threat can be explained succinctly and quickly, right? The old canard that we have an obligation to fight evil dictators is no longer convincing, and it is wrong. besides. So what is the point of our intervention? What is the explicit, bottom line goal that the average voter can weigh and measure?

Proponents of intervention since the Iraq War are hopelessly divided and no longer speak with one voice about what we hope to accomplish in the Middle East. I have a lot of very serious disagreements, for instance, with many neoconservatives and liberal hawks alike about the viability, necessity, and logic of Islamic government in the Middle East. I have come to believe that most governments in the Middle East should have an Islamic character. But many, who — for good reason — are suspicious of conservative variants of Islam and think they are all incompatible with liberalism — want to side against the crazy Islamists every time, even if a particular variant of secular authoritarianism is just as bad or even worse than what the religious fanatics are offering. These include many of the followers of Donald Trump. Islamists are obviously a cancer on the planet, and the world would be better off if they all dropped off tomorrow. But the same is true of Assad: he is a despicable, cruel, liberty-hating tyrant, and by no means “our bastard.” What is the long-term strategy and goal against which the results of the proposed short-term intervention in Syria could have been judged? Americans did not know how to answer that question, and that is why they rejected further intervention in the Middle East. Those of us who believe in continued American engagement abroad must come up with better answers, or we will lose the policy battle.

Everyone Needs to Calm Down a Little

by Alex Knepper

A month after the election, I wrote this:

There is no way around it: Trump is really bad. But I refuse to spend the next four years in perpetual disappointment, embarrassment, and outrage over what is likely to be a long series of unfortunate events.

I stand by that assessment. I have several friends telling me they are frightened by Trump, even personally frightened. They are frightened for women and minority groups, and they are frightened about the possible advent of a fascist regime.

The rhetoric driving these fears is out of hand. I firmly believe that some lamentable crisis is likely to take place in the next four years — probably in the foreign policy arena, where the president has his broadest powers — but once we cut through the clutter, the chaotic administration of the flurry of executive orders, and the rhetoric — we are most surely not there yet. The specter of fascism — a somewhat amorphous term that often just is invoked as a synonym for “extreme right-wing” — remains mostly inside progressives’ heads.

Some of my social media commenters have suggested I am failing to appropriately speak out during a critical historical moment. But I have spoken out against Trump as much as anyone — repeatedly, and harshly. I have said that his election represents a turning point for our republic and an indictment of its current claims to greatness, that he has the soul of a tyrant, and that he is uniquely unqualified to be president. And unlike many people now complaining the loudest, I did all that was within my power to support the only person who could actually keep him from becoming president.

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‘Alternative Facts’ and the Media Crisis of Legitimacy

by Alex Knepper

President Donald Trump and his legion of lackeys rolled the dice on the theory that left and right now live in totally different realities: that we no longer agree on what constitutes a legitimate source of information, that motives and intentions now count for more than diligence in ‘getting the facts right,’ and that a forceful Republican candidate can bypass the mainstream media altogether as long as he steadfastly refuses to cater to their standards. To a large extent, this is true, and is one of the major truths Trump accurately perceived that caught Washington by surprise. Rather than seeing polarization as a problem to be overcome, Trump sees it it as an opportunity to be embraced. There have been occasions in which Trump has been shown a tape of him saying something, after which he denies having said it. But rather than abandoning him over such a blatant act of charlatanism, his supporters love it: he is their liar, engaged in combat against the other liars — and his lies drive those other liars up the wall. He lies for them, and against Obama, the Clintons, and progressives — and that perceived loyalty means more than any factual account: motive trumps all.

Not surprisingly, a campaign based on this attitude became a magnet for grifters, media-whores, trolls, has-beens, and malcontents — an army of the alienated: everyone from Sarah Palin to Martin Shkreli to Milo Yiannopoulos — excuse me: MILO — to Richard Spencer to 4chan to Alex Jones eagerly hopped on the Trump Train, perceiving that this opportunity to help usher in a world where everyone has their own — liar-for-hire Kellyanne Conway’s words, not mine — ‘alternative facts‘ — would be a boon to them. An environment like this is something of a free-for-all, and every niche figure can be included and validated in it. There is no umpire, no referee — every man and woman can be their own final arbiter of what counts as true.

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In Praise of Colorblindness

by Daniel Clements

In the summer of 2009, I was banned from stocking sodas at my job at a Shell station. I had unintentionally integrated the Code Red Mountain Dew and the regular Mountain Dew, the Orange Fanta, and the Pineapple Fanta. Over the weekend, I was delighted to (belatedly) discover EnChroma had developed glasses to correct colorblindness — yet I was disheartened Monday when so many of my friends expressed to desire for a pair of societal EnChroma glasses.

These friends repeated an argument that is gaining strength on the left: that “colorblindness” is a subtle form of racism. It should go without saying that we can agree on colorblindness as an ideal and still debate policies like affirmative action — yet these friends were flat out decrying colorblindness even as a goal. This is because white Americans apparently can never genuinely understand what it’s like to be a black American. I was dismayed that this was how Martin Luther King was being remembered.

Our country was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed with the same rights. The modern idea of equality is based on the notion that people should be treated as persons first, not primarily as lord or serf, Catholic or Protestant, Roman or barbarian; that no one is “more human” and deserves special treatment. Aristotle claimed that what makes us humans is the ability to speak — but specifically, to give reasons for what is just and unjust. We each have our own unique experiences, but reason can bridge this gap and allow us to form societies based on justice. This was at the heart of Martin Luther King’s project. I’ll let him speak for himself:

“How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

The Civil Rights movement only came to be because of the solid reasoning that segregation was unjust — reasoning that any person, no matter their color, can understand. It only succeeded because it managed to persuade people who hadn’t experienced the horrors of Jim Crow. Martin Luther King fought so that black Americans would be treated like everybody else. Abandoning colorblindness is unavoidably to ask us to judge people by the color of their skin, not the content of their character.

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Depreciating reason in the name of experience or history has been used to justify horrific things. Slavery itself was frequently defended by the claim that the Declaration of Independence didn’t express timeless truths and doesn’t have any relevance to the present. Lincoln cleverly rephrased this interpretation as: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all British subjects who were on this continent eighty-one years ago, were created equal to all British subjects born and then residing in Great Britain.” He argued against this:

“The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in affecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.”

To claim that experience creates an unbridgeable gap is to argue that some of us really aren’t fundamentally equal after all. The logical conclusion would be some form of segregation, or a caste system with different classes of citizens. We should not back away from the ideal of colorblindness any more than religion-blindness or wealth-blindness. Of course, we should open our hearts and minds to those who have experienced injustice and who are suffering — but we should not let it deter us from our goal of equality.

Ed. Note: A big welcome to Daniel Clements, who will be joining us as a regular contributor, along with Penn Bullock. Read about them both on the Our Writers page.

Farewell to Eight Years of Adriftness

by Alex Knepper

Except in comparison to Donald Trump, I can’t say I’ll miss President Barack Obama. From the very beginning of his first presidential campaign, I was deeply suspicious of what I viewed as a cult of personality: the slick, too-cool cultural phantasmagoria eliciting orgiastic joy from my peers: I was a freshman at American University in 2008, after all. I supported the moderate-but-hawkish Rudy Giuliani in the Republican primary contest (and Hillary Clinton against Obama) and eventually voted in the general election for John McCain, despite serious reservations over his temperament and the Palin pick, simply because I did not trust that someone such as Obama, with so little experience, could really have a successful presidency. Unlike my frightened conservative colleagues, I did not fear he would be a radically anti-war president, a wild-eyed socialist, or what-have-you, once he actually stepped into office and surveyed the tasks at hand. I merely believed that, despite being an intelligent, charismatic, capable man, the scope of the office and its responsibilities are overwhelming, and he had never been in charge of anything other than his campaign. You can have all the potential in the world, but experience counts — it takes more than a vision to force an idea to life. Moreover, hailing from safely blue Illinois and waltzing to his Senate victory, Obama never had to endure the full force of conservative opposition, and had no clue what he was in for.

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Putin: A Convenient Enemy

by Cinzia Croce

A quarter of a century has passed since the United States scored a clear, undisputed foreign policy victory: the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And history did not end, as Francis Fukuyama boldly and erroneously asserted: since then, we have had multiple foreign policy challenges, shed precious American blood, and spent trillions of dollars in search of more victories, only to find stalemate and frustration. Thus, it is very curious that there is such a bipartisan effort to revive the Red Scare and erase the only points we have been able to score in a very long time.

Putin’s foes in DC are careful to couch their motives in noble terms, or in the name of national security, but their arguments don’t hold under the slightest scrutiny. The current bout of Russophobia sweeping Washington has little do with lofty principles or fear of the return of the Soviet empire. No — for pedestrian reasons and widespread intellectual laziness, Putin is simply a convenient enemy for both Republicans and Democrats.

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Memo to Trump Opponents for the Next Four Years

by Alex Knepper

As the dawn of the Trump era tiptoes ever-closer, many Democrats and skeptical Republicans have still not figured out what makes the president-elect ‘tick.’ It is fair to say that we have never known so little about the motives and core beliefs of an incoming president. Nonetheless, we know enough about him to cut through the noise and sketch an outline of what the opposition must note as it prepares for battle. If Trump’s opponents want to effectively combat him, we will need to re-learn a lot of what we thought we already knew:

1. Remember: Trump Is Not an Ideologue, and He Has No Master Plan

Many vain attempts have been made to make sense of Trump by gathering the president-elect’s various statements and attempting to discern a systemized ideology from them. But Trump has no ideology: he is more like former Chinese autocrat Deng Xiaoping, who declared that ‘it does not matter what color a cat is, as long as it catches mice’ — which is not to say that there are not discernible patterns in Trump’s thought, but rather that they are informed more by ‘gut,’ instinct, or prejudice than by a coherent system of abstract principles.

This is a major part of his appeal. He boldly declared earlier in the year that, while he is a conservative, ‘it’s called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party.’ He does not attempt to justify his beliefs by appealing to time-honored principles: he defines what is politically good by its immediate practical effect — which is always hand-in-hand with increasing his power — and if existing theories conflict with Trump getting his way, then Trump insists on a new theory, rather than on accommodating his desires to pre-existing principles.

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