Monday, May 08, 2006

I found this at the list of Berlusconi quotes:

Italy is now a great country to invest in... today we have fewer communists and those who are still there deny having been one. Another reason to invest in Italy is that we have beautiful secretaries... superb girls.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

From the front page of today's Times,

MOSCOW, May 4 — Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday delivered the Bush administration's strongest rebuke of Russia to date. He said the Russian government "unfairly and improperly restricted" people's rights and suggested that it sought to undermine its neighbors and to use the country's vast resources of oil and gas as "tools of intimidation or blackmail."

Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a rebuke of Russia in a speech before European leaders in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius.

"In many areas of civil society — from religion and the news media, to advocacy groups and political parties — the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people," Mr. Cheney said in a speech to European leaders in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius. "Other actions by the Russian government have been counterproductive, and could begin to affect relations with other countries."
I'm broadly in agreement. But every time I read about something like this, I can't help but think that it would sound a lot more convincing is Guantanamo, America's extraordinary renditions program, etc, didn't exist.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

On March 8, 1983, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals. He told them that the American experiment in democracy rests on "seeking God's blessings:"

...we need your help to keep us ever mindful of the ideas and the principles that brought us into the public arena in the first place. The basis of those ideals and principles is a commitment to freedom and personal liberty that, itself, is grounded in the much deeper realization that freedom prospers only where the blessings of God are avidly sought and humbly accepted.

The American experiment in democracy rests on this insight.
The way to keep America great, Reagan proceeded, is for evangelicals to continue their work, especially as far as their prayer goes:

Well, I'm pleased to be here today with you who are keeping America great by keeping her good. Only through your work and prayers and those of millions of others cans we hope to survive this perilous century and keep alive this experiment in liberty, this last, best hope of man.
He bemoaned the recent change in attitudes toward sex: one seems to mention morality as playing a part in the subject of sex.

Is all of Judeo-Christian tradition wrong? Are we to believe that something so sacred can be looked upon as a purely physical thing with no potential for emotional and psychological harm?
and went on to suggest that federally-funded clinics prescribing birth control to teenagers is part of
...many attempts to water down traditional values and even abrogate the original terms of American democracy.
He then critized advocates of a nuclear freeze for trying to reward the Soviet Union for its military expansion (we know now that no such expansion was taking place). He proposed the following rationale for fighting the Soviets:

A number of years ago, I heard a young father, a very prominent young man in the entertainment world, addressing a tremendous gathering in California. It was during the time of the cold war, and communism and our own way of life were very much on people's minds. And he was speaking to that subject. And suddenly, though, I heard him saying, "I love my little girls more than anything -" And I said to myself, "Oh, no, don't. You can't - don't say that." But I had underestimated him. He went on: "I would rather see my little girls die now, still believing in God, than have them grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God."

There were thousands of young people in that audience. They came to their feet with shouts of joy. They had instantly recognized the profound truth in what he had said, with regard to the physical and the soul and what was truly important.

Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness - pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.
And he cautioned his audience against the temptations of the devil:

You know, I've always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride - the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire...
Today, we refer to this speech as Reagan's "evil empire" speech, even though the only mention of the term comes at the end of the speech almost as an afterthought. A lot of people at the time thought it was rather ridiculous to suggest that we must fight the Soviets because God is on our side (whats next? an invasion of the holy land?). New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis was one of them:

If there is anything that should be illegitimate in the American system, it is such use of sectarian religiosity to sell a political program. And this was done not by some fringe figure, but by the President of the United States. Yet I wonder how many people, reading about the speech or seeing bits on television, really noticed its outrageous character.
Its interesting to observe how this event has morphed in our current political culture. There is a certain subculture of people on the right who would prefer to remember this as an instance of Reagan having the guts to say that the Soviet Union was bad (as if the US has not been fighting communism continually since about 1948). There is also a tendency to consider Lewis' response - along with other criticism of the speech at time - as an instance of moral relativism, done by a collection of people shocked at the thought of saying that something is wrong.

Consider, for example, how Andrew Sullivan edits Lewis' column:

I wonder how many people, reading about the [Evil Empire'] speech or seeing bits on television, really noticed its outrageous character… Primitive: that is the only word for it. … What is the world to think when the greatest of powers is led by a man who applies to the most difficult human problem a simplistic theology – one in fact rejected by most theologians?... What must the leaders of Western Europe think of such a speech? They look to the head of the alliance for rhetoric that can persuade them and their constituents. What they get from Ronald Reagan is a mirror image of crude Soviet rhetoric. And it is more than rhetoric: everyone must sense that. The real Ronald Reagan was speaking in Orlando. The exaggeration and the simplicities are there not only in the rhetoric but in the process by which he makes decisions.
Note how Lewis' main point - disgust with Reagan's use of sectarian religiosity to promote a political agenda - is completely edited out of speech, and Lewis seems to be criticizing Reagan for merely being "simplistic" - in a mirror image of today's criticism of George W. Bush.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Peter Beinart has a long piece in the NY Times containing what are most likely excerpts from his coming book. He makes the rather obvious point that current US policy is made up of half-baked cold war era plans:

Consider George W. Bush's story: America represents good in an epic struggle against evil. Liberals, this story goes, try to undermine that moral clarity, reining in American power and sapping our faith in ourselves. But a visionary president will not be constrained, and he wields American might with relentless force, until the walls of oppression crumble and the darkest region on earth is set free.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It was Ronald Reagan's story as well. To a remarkable degree, the right's post-9/11 vision relies on a grand analogy: Bush is Reagan, Tony Blair is Margaret Thatcher, the "axis of evil" is the "evil empire," the truculent French are the truculent French...

Over and over during the last half-century, conservatives have looked at America and seen a society enfeebled by moral relativism. In the 1950's, they saw America's enemies on the march — with China, half of Europe and half of Korea newly in Communist hands. The culprit, they argued, was liberalism. The New Deal, with its collectivist principles, had blurred the distinction between Soviet Communism and American freedom. And modern culture was undermining old certainties, above all the belief in God. As a result, Americans lacked the ideological confidence of their fanatical totalitarian foes. And that self-doubt was making them weak. Whittaker Chambers, the communist turned conservative whose 1952 conversion tale, "Witness," strongly influenced the early cold-war right, said Americans would suffer defeat after defeat until their "faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as Communism's faith in Man." The West, added James Burnham, the most influential foreign-policy thinker in the National Review circle, was losing "the will to survive."

After Vietnam, conservatives saw the disease of self-doubt growing even more acute. Many on the American right hailed "How Democracies Perish," by the French author Jean-François Revel, which declared, "Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is working to destroy it." Into this dark, dispirited landscape came Ronald Reagan, saying the things conservatives had been waiting three decades to hear. "The era of self-doubt," he announced, "is over." And in perhaps the most famous speech of his presidency, Reagan in 1983 invoked Chambers to denounce the right's old scourge: moral relativism. Calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire," he admonished listeners to resist the temptation to "label both sides equally at fault, to. . .remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil."

When the Soviet empire fell, it became an article of conservative faith that it was Reagan's policies, and in particular the moral clarity that underlay them, that had turned the tide. In this way, the old story was transmitted to a new conservative generation, which made it their guide to the post-9/11 world.
The solution, according to Beinert, is for liberals to ressurect their cold-era story:

But before Vietnam, and the disappointment and confusion it spawned, liberals did have a clear story of their own. In the late 1940's and 1950's, intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and policymakers like George F. Kennan described America's cold-war struggle differently from their conservative counterparts: as a struggle not merely for democracy but for economic opportunity as well, in the belief that the former required the latter to survive. Even more important, they described America itself differently. Americans may fight evil, they argued, but that does not make us inherently good. And paradoxically, that very recognition makes national greatness possible. Knowing that we, too, can be corrupted by power, we seek the constraints that empires refuse. And knowing that democracy is something we pursue rather than something we embody, we advance it not merely by exhorting others but by battling the evil in ourselves. The irony of American exceptionalism is that by acknowledging our common fallibility, we inspire the world.

The liberal story began with a different fear about America. If cold-war conservatives worried that Americans no longer saw their own virtue, cold-war liberals worried that Americans saw only their virtue. The A.D.A.'s most important intellectual — its equivalent of James Burnham — was the tall, German-American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was a dedicated opponent of communism, but he was concerned that in pursuing a just cause, Americans would lose sight of their own capacity for injustice. "We must take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization," he wrote. "We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized." Americans, Niebuhr argued, should not emulate the absolute self-confidence of their enemies. They should not pretend that a country that countenanced McCarthyism and segregation was morally pure. Rather, they should cultivate enough self-doubt to ensure that unlike the Communists', their idealism never degenerated into fanaticism. Open-mindedness, he argued, is not "a virtue of people who don't believe anything. It is a virtue of people who know. . .that their beliefs are not absolutely true."
Mostly, I thought the piece was good. But after spending god knows how many paragraphs lambasting democrats for not having a coherent story on world politics, Beinart comes back to, essentially, John Kerry's foreign policy proposals of 2004. If you are going to propose that lectures on the dangers of unilateralism, close consultation with allies to be the cornerstone of a set of foreign policy proposals, you ought to recognize that it was done before.

The only difference between Beinart and Kerry that I could see is that Beinart would prefer strongly tying this message into a theme of good vs. evil. Indeed, Beinart seems to have an obsession with grand narratives - one gets the sense that the problem with democratic foreign policy, according to him, is not that the proposals are bad, but that he can't see to tie them in one big picture.

To which I say, so what? If Beinart's concern is intellectual, then it should be no surprise that the world is too complex to fit in one grand narrative. If his concern is about explaining policy to the voters, he should take it up with the PR people in the DNC. I get the sense that explaining policy to the voters has more to do with effective 30-second ads rather than grand naratives.