My country

Those of us who attend events at the Kennedy Center rather than Wrigley Field or other such palaces of sport are not used to starting off the evening singing the Star Spangled Banner. Thus it is always a bit of a surprise when an evening with an orchestra visiting from abroad starts off that way followed by its own national anthem. The other evening it was the Israel Philharmonic—The Star Spangled Banner followed by Hatikva. We rose a bit awkwardly to our feet. The fact that two nations joined in friendship to salute their national identities, ideals and aspirations added a great deal to the emotions of that moment. I was reminded once again of the great respect and pride I have for my country.

I say this not because my government or fellow citizens always do the right thing—far from it. But because we pretty much agree on what the right things are at the level of general principles and because we try to adhere to them as much as possible and return to them when we don’t. The United States was founded on great and honorable principles. We established institutions and developed attitudes—which include checks and balances on the exercise of power—that deserve our respect and defense. Thus I am encouraged that the abuses of government power following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, which reflected a frightened public’s desire for security, are beginning to be reversed. I am encouraged that our misuse of our military and political power to impose our views on others (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc.), which we have never been very good at, seems to be on the wane.

Our freedom of speech and free press and our critical mind-set play important roles in the never-ending fight to keep leviathan at bay. The trauma of 9/11 brought out the best and worst in my country. The dangerous excesses of the NSA have received a lot of badly needed attention in recent months but now another area of government lying to us in the name of security is back in the spot light. If you take yourself back twelve years or so, and try to remember what you thought about torturing terrorists for information that might prevent another terrorist attack, you might remember that some argued that it was OK if it really saved lives. We all knew that torture violated our values (not to mention international treaty commitments), i.e. that it was wrong, but if it really saved lives….. It turns out that it didn’t and the government lied to us about the useful information it allegedly produced. It was wrong AND didn’t save any lives. Congressional oversight and our free press are to be thanked in this case for disclosing these government misconducts: “CIA misled on interrogation program”/2014/03/31/.

Were these bad things done by bad people? These latest disclosure were made the same day as General Motor’s failure to disclose a faulty auto part for ten years and the causes of the failures are similar (human nature in the face of weak incentives to behave properly). Most people I encounter (not just Americans of course) want to do good with their lives even when the result of their activities are sometimes not good. There are, of course, also bad (just plain mean) people in the world. Most of us have encountered one or two of them in school (bullies). In adult life they can easily be attracted to position that give outlets to their meanness (the police, prisons, military provide such opportunities). We are fortunate that as the result of hard efforts by many people, our police, military etc. are generally very professional and keep the bullies among them in check. There are exceptions, of course. The disgusting mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by a few Americans in Abu Ghraib prison was exposed just as I took up a two-month residency in Baghdad. I was embarrassed that my countrymen and women could have behaved so badly (and concerned with its possible impact on my safety). But my point here is that in the United States such things are almost always revealed and disclosed eventually and thus kept in check. This is why I can remain proud of my country. Though we never live up to our high ideas, we take them seriously and are always trying. Excesses usually get corrected until the next one comes along. It is an important and never-ending battle, but as long as we keep fighting it, I will remain proud of my country.

American Values and Foreign Policy

One of America’s values and traditions is standing together in the face of foreign attack or challenge. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has violated that tradition by attacking the statements of the American Embassy in Egypt’s condemnation of an anti-Muslim film made in California: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

Following news on September 11 of American casualties at an American consulate in Libya, Romney’s foreign policy advisers recommended that he speak out against the government’s apologies. He issued the following statement:

“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

The next day Romney pressed his attack further, saying that, “I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values, that instead when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. An apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

Romney was apparently not aware that the American Embassy’s statement on September 11 had been issued before the tragic death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Libya. Christopher Stevens was a fraternity brother of mine from the ATO house in Berkeley, though we were not there at the same time and I have never met him. President Obama in fact condemned the killings and according to the Washington Post: “unnamed White House officials told news outlets later Tuesday night that the [Egyptian] embassy statement did not reflect U.S. government views.” That is a pity because it does reflect American values and should reflect U.S. government policy.

Since neither Romney nor Obama seem to understand what American values are in this context, I am volunteering a refresher course.

We believe passionately in free speech and tolerance of the views of others. This is far from accepting anything someone might say. It is hardly the same thing as condoning insulting or ignorant things people sometimes say. Sam Bacile’s “The Muhammad Movie” is crude and disgusting. It deserves to be condemned and the Egyptian Embassy was quite right to apologize for it. Terry Jones, the hate mongering, Koran burning, so-called Christian minister in rural Florida has been promoting the film. Real Christians should condemn him, while at the same time acknowledge his right to state his twisted views.

Our values were reflected, for example, when many Christians complained that Andres Serrano had received $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (a government agency) for his photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine without questioning the artists right (at his own expense) to do such things. Although the artwork was condemned by many as an affront to Christians, mobs did not storm the gallery that planned to show it nor the NEA. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is one of the few to get the balance about right: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/post/hillary-clinton-speaks-out-for-the-same-american-values-upheld-in-retracted-embassy-statement/2012/09/13/ccbf05f2-fdd6-11e1-b153-218509a954e1_blog.html

Standing together in the face of foreign attacks does not mean that we cannot or should not criticize foreign policies that we think do not service the best interests of our country.  But wise and thoughtful people know when the timing is right for such serious discussion. The present moment of grieving for our lost brothers and sisters is not a time for divisive political maneuvering. Romney’s foreign policy advisers have given him bad advise before (think Israel/Palestine. See my earlier blog: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/romney-on-culture/). Romney should fire them.

Comments on Libya and Greece

As usual, some of my friends have strong views of their own and interesting observations to add. Here are a few comments mainly on my Greek referendum blog.

Thanks, Warren

I totally agree with you regarding Greece.  I wonder if a similar referendum might be a good thing for the U.S., with the implication that if the majority of the population does not wish to cut spending and unsustainable entitlements, then the Federal Reserve will be mandated to expand the money supply to cover the shortage by inflation.  Actually, a referendum should put the choice that starkly.

Alternatively, we could rerun the election of 1896  — Fiscal conservative William McKinley versus Inflationist William Jennings Bryan (“free monetization of silver”)…  Then Bryan lost  — I wonder if he would win today.

Obama seems in many ways like another Bryan (without the Bible belt), but where is McKinley when we need him?

Ron [Bird, Virginia]

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I am not that keen on this referendum… It Will take 2 more months to have an answer and as you know, Time is money. Moreover they Will say no, do you know a kid who say yes when his father tell him at a party “do you want to go to Sleep”? They are not masochistic as far as I know.

Finally, it s a complete lack of balls from the politicians who are afraid to take strong decisions. However, that s what they were elected for!

Hugo [Gervais, Paris]

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Warren is smoking crack.

He writes, “If they accept it and embrace and stand behind the reforms

needed, the crisis for Greece will be over.”

And I say that if I grow 10 inches overnight and learn to play

basketball, I’ll be in the NBA.

The only difference between our two statements is that mine has a

.000000000001 chance of happening.

Dan [Mitchell, Washington DC]

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Greetings, Warren

I’m surprised that no one seems as yet to have noticed the irony that the country that invented democracy, and coined the term for it, is the first to be rounded on by a supra-governmental gang of unelected ideologues. I agree with you that the referendum is a good thing but not quite for the same reason you suggest. A ‘yes’ vote might give the Greek government enough political clout to clear out some of the Augean stables. But a ‘no’ vote would be even more fun: it would mean no bailout and lead to default and the exit of Greece from the euro and thus begin the unraveling of the entire misbegotten enterprise. The current prevailing message from the europhiliacs is that the eurozone must not be allowed to fragment, but there may come a time when they see the costs of a no-exit policy as too high and will then ditch the Greeks (and then the Portuguese? and then?) so as to save the currency for the handful of fiscally continent countries still left.

And I’m appalled by the fact that none of the commentators I’ve read has thrown up any hands at the suggestions of ‘closer fiscal union’ as a way of safeguarding the euro. That means, very clearly, taxation without representation, and from there it’s only a small step to tyranny. So the sooner Greece buggers the euro in the grand manner, the better for us all.

Cheers

Martin [Anderson, London]

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hi Warren,

Thanks for sending these.. though I disagree with both. On Libya: it’s way too early to count our chickens. But as I see it, the US got dragged into this by the French and the British on spurious grounds and then overthrew a dictator by force, which was nowhere in the UN mandate, however nasty that dictator was to his own people (for over 40 years, I might add, although we choose to overthrow him only now, and only after he gave up all his nasty weapons and was, so far as anyone could tell, no threat whatsoever to us).

On the Greeks, I’m dumbfounded by the referendum move. Your case makes nice sense in theory but hardly on the ground. How is it possible that Papandraeou, who has been negotiating on a more or less hourly basis with his European counterparts for at least the past six months, could pull off such a surprise? What is really going on? It suggests, at least to me, that the EU is so dysfunctional that there’s nothing to hope for at all. The Greeks voted to join the EU and then the euro. Now is not the time–particularly during the peak of a crisis right after a major negotiation–to second guess that by referendum in the name of validating an EU-wide decision. The EU is not the US but we did away with the doctrine of nullification a long time ago and I suggest the same holds for the EU. This referendum is essentially asking the Greeks to decide to pull out, and if they do it, anyone else can. It’s mad.

Ken [Weisbrode, Boston]

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Ken,

 On Libya, I was saying almost the same thing (see my five earlier warning blogs against getting involved: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/libya-and-the-drums-of-war/, https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/libya-lets-not-make-it-our-war/, https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/another-long-war/,   https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/libya-further-down-the-slippery-slope/,  https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/libya-part-ii/ ). I am not optimistic about Chapter 2 now starting and glad that we have some chance of staying out of it (though I am worried about that too).

Warren

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Warren

All forms of brinksmanship are pretty much welcome at this point. If you think, like I do, that the problem in Greece and Italy is fundamentally a price competitiveness issue, and not a financing one, then things have to get much worse before people change their ways, start cooperating and stop fighting each other.

It will probably not work out, but hey, that’s cheaper holidays in Italy!

Sahil [Mahtani, Jakarta]

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Dear Warren,

I liked your Greek piece.  Insufferable fools.  They’d trade simple (but not so simple…) bankruptcy for a 50% write down and a road back to prosperity.  I’m going to write about it for my column next week.  I wonder how much looking up at Parthenon makes them still think they’re special? The DNA now is mostly Turkish anyway.

I’ll be back in Manila in time for my book launch with ex-president Ramos in a couple of weeks.  I am starting new quickie the Manila publishers want, “For love of a country: 40 years in and out of the Philippines,” which I can write in my sleep.  Though it is amazing how much comes back one had forgotten. Sometimes it’s just hard to believe we’ve been at this game for over 40 years.

I feel my whole life has been a study of empires falling (UK, now USA), new ones emerging (and in Asia no less).  Obama understands…as you pointed out he did the right thing in Libya.  And isn’t it wonderful to say, let the Europeans do this and that, not coming to us with a begging bowl.  A true silver lining to loss of empire.  George W Bush merely hastened the decline.

Scott [Thompson, Bali]