Leadership

Phil Carter, who I think in many ways is the real deal has an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune (login using ‘laexaminer’/’laexaminer’) on Bush’s service and what it means in terms of his opinion of Bush as a leader and President.

It’s well written, serious, accurate, and amazingly wrong.

I’ve actually been dinking away on something on this and this gives me an opportunity to put the issues out there.

Here’s some of what Phil has to say:

Leadership by example is a principle that’s hammered into every newly minted American military officer. Soldiers want to follow leaders they trust, and the proven way to earn that trust is by force of personal example.

In practical terms, this means doing morning physical fitness training with your soldiers, carrying the same amount of weight as them, ensuring they eat before you do, and putting their welfare before your own. Above all else, it means never asking your soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself.

President Bush’s 30-year-old service record from the Air National Guard is relevant because it shows us something about his willingness to share the same hardships as the soldiers he now commands today from the White House. The issue has never been whether he was guilty of desertion or being AWOL–two slanderous charges leveled without regard for the facts. The real issue has always been the character of his service, and whether it was good enough to set the example for America’s 1.4 million citizens in uniform.

I believe in the same kind of leadership that Phil describes here; the CEO who can get on the phone and sell, or sit down and design next year’s products, or who makes coffee when the pot is empty; the police chief who periodically takes a shift and makes arrests.

The sad reality is that our culture is dominated by players instead.

By ‘player’ I mean someone who uses gamesmanship, relationships, and manipulation rather than genuine accomplishment to advance. I’m not someone who’s going to say that it wasn’t always so; I’m willing to bet that in many cases it was. But we’ve advanced the art pretty damn far, and we’ve managed to make it some kind of an ironically self-aware aspect of our culture and about our expectations of power in it.

And sadly, virtually no one at the high levels of politics (or industry, or entertainment) these days is free of it. Phil is even more generous when he points out that Bush didn’t necessarily use connections to skate on his commitments:

The second issue that has relevance to today’s military is Bush’s early discharge. In 1973, the president sought and received an early discharge to attend Harvard Business School. He could have elected to serve longer, or to serve with a unit near Harvard for his last six months. But the Air Force discharged him early, largely because it had a glut of pilots at the Vietnam War’s end and it wasn’t about to keep a guardsman in that it didn’t need if he wanted to get out. Everything about this early discharge looks legitimate.

Nonetheless, this early discharge sends a symbolic message to today’s reservist, for whom such an early discharge isn’t an option. There are more than 200,000 reservists on active duty today in support of the global war on terrorism. The Pentagon takes a dim view today of reservists who ask to get out while they still owe time to the service. And on this president’s order, hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been kept in the military beyond the term of their enlistment contract with “stop loss” policies that prevent their discharge or transfer into the inactive reserves. Thirty years ago, Bush was willing to serve less than his full enlistment in order to pursue an MBA at Harvard. But now that he’s commander in chief, he wants to ask more of America’s military than he was willing to give when he was wearing a uniform.

It’s a great myth that we demand of our leaders that they share our sweat, sacrifice and effort. The great ones did – or appeared to – even while descending from wealth and privilege.

Let’s look at Kerry’s record (and I’ll do so in more detail soon).

Wounded three times in Vietnam, but missed minimal duty due to the wounds, but parlayed it into an early transfer from Vietnam.

Along with Kerry’s unquestionable and repeated bravery, he also took an action that has received far less notice: He requested and was granted a transfer out of Vietnam six months before his combat tour was slated to end on the grounds that he had earned three Purple Hearts. None of his wounds was disabling; he said one cost him two days of service and the other two did not lead to any absence.

Afterward, he requested and was granted an early discharge from the Navy to run for Congress.

It’s not a matter of doubt to me that Kerry – as much or more than Bush – used privilege, probably connections, and his knowledge and ability to manipulate the system to get himself what he wanted; possibly, in my estimation, to get his ticket punched so that, like his hero John Kennedy, he could campaign as a warrior.

Why does this matter? Not because I’m making a ‘Kerry is as bad as Bush’ argument (although I reserve the right to make it later). But it matters, because in truth if you look closely at the resumes of the thousand people in the country who could plausibly run for President, what percentage of them do you think have gamed portions of their careers?

Clap if you believe in fairies, or if you believe that the percentages are small.

Edwards – The Real Cheeseheads Speak

I’m obviously pretty pleased about Edwards’ performance tonight. I’m not sold on him, but I’m convinced that on the issues that matter most to me – the war – he’s better than Kerry, and may be someone I’d consider against Bush, whose domestic policies make me anxious as hell.

William Saletan has a damn good column at Slate about some mechanics that should concern Kerry supporters as much as his policies and history concern me.

The pattern among crossover Republicans is more lopsided. Kerry has won one contest; Edwards has won six. This month, Edwards has beaten Kerry among Republicans in all six states in which Republican votes were measured.

Remember, Democrats are as likely to vote for Edwards against President Bush as they are to vote for Kerry against Bush. It’s far more likely that independents and crossover Republicans will determine the outcome. In states where the choices of these groups have been measured, Edwards is matching Kerry among independents and beating him among crossover Republicans.

Fine, you say. But independents and crossover Republicans don’t control Democratic primaries. Democrats do, and they’re voting for Kerry.

That’s true. But the exit polls show that by and large, Democrats aren’t voting for Kerry because they prefer him on the issues. They’re voting for him because they think he’s the Democrat most likely to beat Bush. What happens if they find out he isn’t? What happens if they realize that Edwards is doing as well as Kerry among independents and is doing better than Kerry among crossover Republicans?

Don’tcha think?

At Last!! Swag!!

OK, it’s finally here. Not only my birthday (yesterday! – I’ve decided to be 39 for a few years now….) but the long-awaited (at least by Joe and I) WoC and Armed Liberal swag.

Click through and melt your credit cards!! It’s my birthday, dammit!!

We’re setting aside the first profits to bring Joe to my wedding March 13th (the kind folks who donated have to date brought in about half of what he needs).

Just to give you two samples, here is the ‘official’ v 1.0 WoC mousepad, and the “Green” Armed Liberal one. Both show the logos pretty well:

Green Armed Liberal mousepad WoC mousepad

We also have Armed Liberal Mugs, and “I’m an Armed Liberal” T-shirts and sweatshirts. Note that backend marketing and fulfillment are handled by Iverdean.

More On Democratic – And American Foreign Policy

Via Matt Yglesias, an awesome article by George Packer in the New Yorker (I may actually have to subscribe…) about the struggle for a Democratic foreign policy. Go read the whole thing, but if the Republicans want to know one of the basic reasons I haven’t pulled the lever for Bush, given my obvious and loudly-stated discomfort with Democratic candidate’s positions, here it is, brilliantly expressed:

But there is a problem with the language of Bush the son: his actions rarely measure up to his rhetoric. A case in point was the President’s November speech at the National Endowment for Democracy’s twentieth-anniversary celebrations. After the fall of Baghdad, an institute funded by the endowment sent a team to Iraq to organize a series of focus groups so that Iraqis could talk about their collective future. The institute wanted to follow up with workshops that would train Iraqis in forming moderate civic groups and political parties, but its money soon ran out. Despite repeated requests, the funding wasn’t replenished until last month.

It happens often enough to form a pattern: the President talks of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan at the Virginia Military Institute in April, 2002, and then he fails to include any dollars for Afghanistan in his 2004 budget proposal; the President gives a landmark speech at the American Enterprise Institute in February, 2003, proposing a democratic Iraq as a model for the transformation of the entire Middle East, and within two months the Pentagon’s minimalist planning for postwar Iraq has that country in chaos, its state institutions gutted, its people demoralized; the State Department sets out to improve public diplomacy in the Islamic world, then puts the campaign in the hands of Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue executive, who produces a slick video about Muslims in the United States that is widely ridiculed; the Administration vows to get tough on Saudi sources that finance terrorism and the spread of extremist ideology, then suppresses the section of a congressional report on September 11th having to do with Saudi Arabia; after the Iraq war the President vows to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only to stand aside a few months later.

I don’t think this is a uniquely Republican failing; we’re the culture that puts “No Blood For Oil” bumper stickers on SUV’s, and believes in liposuction over exercise. There’s some frightening American adverse response to actually bearing the costs of our decisions.

We can’t afford that here. Listen to Packer some more:

…Biden went to Kabul, where he toured a new school…one that was bitterly cold, with plastic sheeting over the windows and a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. When the visit was over and Biden started to leave, a young girl stood ramrod straight at her desk and said, “You cannot leave. You cannot leave.”

“I promise I’ll come back,” Biden told her.

“You cannot leave,” the girl insisted. “They will not deny me learning to read. I will read, and I will be a doctor like my mother. I will. America must stay.”

As Biden put it in a recent interview, the Afghan girl was telling him, “Don’t fuck with me, Jack. You got me in here. You said you were going to help me. You better not leave me now.”

His wrapup nails it for me completely.

It has been much remarked that President Bush did nothing to tap this palpable desire among ordinary people to join a larger effort. Americans were told to go shopping and watch out for suspicious activity. Nothing would ever be the same, and everything was just the same. “How urgent can this be if I tell you this is a great crisis and, at the time we’re marching to war, I give the single largest tax cut in the history of the United States of America?” Biden said. The tax cuts haven’t just left the country fiscally unsound during wartime; their inequity has been terrible for morale. But the President’s failure to call for shared, equal sacrifice followed directly on the governing spirit of the modern Republican Party. After years of a sustained assault on the idea of collective action, there was no ideological foundation left on which Bush could stand up and ask what Americans can do for their country. We haven’t been asked to study Arabic, to join the foreign service or international aid groups, to form a national civil reserve for emergencies..or even to pay off the cost of the war in our own time. The war’s burdens are borne solely by a few hundred thousand volunteer soldiers.

Perhaps this was a shrewd political intuition on Bush’s part..a recognition that Americans, for all their passion after September 11th, would inevitably slouch back to their sofas. It’s fair to ask, though, how a body politic as out of shape as ours is likely to make it over the long, hard slog of wartime; how convincingly we can export liberal democratic values when our own version shows so many signs of atrophy; how much solidarity we can expect to muster for Afghanis and Iraqis when we’re asked to feel so little for one another.

“Why does not democracy believe in itself with passion?” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., asked in
‘The Vital Center,’ his 1949 book about totalitarianism and America’s anxious postwar mood. “Why is freedom not a fighting faith?” The only hope (Schlesinger turned to Walt Whitman for the words…who else?) lay in “the exercise of Democracy.” The process of struggling for freedom, accepting conflict, tolerating uncertainty, joining community…this would allow democracy to survive and not die. What if we now find ourselves, at this stage of thickening maturity, in the middle of a new crisis that requires us to act like citizens of a democracy? It’s impossible to know how the public would respond to a political party that spoke about these things…because, so far, no party has.

Fear Itself

Two great (and vaguely linked) posts over at Jeff Jarvis’ Buzz Machine – one of my daily reads. Check out his post on ‘Change and Fear: What They Got Wrong About America‘:

We wanted to hear a candidate start by saying he liked America, he loved America — especially at a time when it is under attack from Islamic nut jobs and Euro bozos and even Mexican soccer hooligans — and then propose ways to make it better.

You betcha. That’s a drum I’ve beaten for a long time and will gladly join Jeff in beating every chance I get.As an example of what Jeff’s talking about, scroll down his site and check out his dissection of Gore’s speech on terrorism in New York.

“Beginning with former Vice President Al Gore, who delivered the keynote address, speakers asserted again and again that the American government is preoccupied with instilling fear,” Rothstein writes.
But the dominant idea was that, as the conference’s thematic statement put it, fear was being “encouraged by our government and exacerbated by our media.” It was compared with the irrational fear of Communism and the perversions of McCarthyism. It was described as part of a counter-constitutional coup by a radical right.

Of course, I find that utterly offensive. I know personally how deep and real the fear is. I felt the searing heat of a jet exploding on my face; I breathed the dust of their destruction into my lungs; I saw the lives lost with my eyes. I do still live in fear, a very real fear. To dismiss that fear as an irrational variant of McCarthyism is to dismiss reality of the thousands of lives lost in that very real attack and to portray as harmless ideologues the terrorists who waged it; it uses the attacks against us to wage a self-serving political attack within. I am most disturbed that Gore — for whom I voted — is leading this attack.

That’s the heart of the anti-Bush campaign this fall; that Bush and his Administration are overhyping 9/11 and that terrorism really isn’t a significant problem; that the approach to fighting the Islamist terror movement is the one that is working so well in fighting drugs (let’s not forget that ‘didn’t inhale’ Clinton was every bit as much a drug warrior and civil liberties violator as Bush I, Reagan, and the other moralist Republicans). Pardon me while I giggle softly.

Speaking Of Good News

TG and I went to get our marriage license today. TG did some research, and discovered that instead of waiting half the day in line downtown, there was a local ‘marriage place’ that performed weddings (not ours) and could do the license for you for an additional $30 over the basic cost. Seemed like a no-brainer.

So off we went to our appointment in a nondescript little building off the 405 freeway, and as we stepped in, we saw what at first struck me as a sad and somewhat tawdry sight: a small room filled with white folding chairs, artificial flowers in an arch over the front of the room, and a karaoke machine in one corner. But the walls were filled with photos, and as I looked closer, I saw that they were vintage wedding photos; based on the clothes and hair, most were from the 40’s and 50’s – many hand-tinted, with some going back to the teens and 20’s. It turns out that the proprietor collects them at flea markets.I was struck by one photo in particular, which looked to be from the mid to late 50’s. The bride and groom were black, with two small black children as ringbearer and flower girl. But the best man – dressed in an identical dinner jacket to the groom – was white, with a slicked-back flat-top and a serious look, eyes directly at the camera, while the groom smiled warmly at his bride.

There’s a story behind that picture, I thought.

And a story behind all the rest of them as well, I realized, to which we’ll be adding our own soon enough.

And then, to make the day perfect in this election year, the man who issued our license was named Nixon.

Heart Art

I read this the other day in the LA Times, and saved it for this week’s Good News.

I’d heard of this guy, but never seen his work; a homeless guy who builds sculptures of stacked rocks and found objects up and down the beach.

This time around, Stuart Finch hopes to stay in Ventura a few years.

Last time, he left after a few months. That was early in 2000, when success knocked him for a loop.

People loved the amazing stone sculptures Finch put up at the beach. They flocked around the soft-spoken, homeless ninth-grade dropout, donating money, food and clothing. They sent angry letters to City Hall when workers knocked down some of his taller creations, claiming they could fall on children. A hotel even gave him a room for 30 days and a job as a maintenance man.

That was the final straw.

“It took me away from my rocks,” Finch said, back on the patch at Surfers Point where his efforts as a rock-stacker started in earnest.

As suddenly as he vanished four years ago, Finch, 41, showed up again in the last couple of weeks — along with a new crop of stone spires and minarets and whimsical whatchamacallits that vaguely resemble frogs, penguins and you-name-it.

Here, the corner of a cinder block was impossibly balanced on a stone the size of a golf ball; there, a gravity-defying stack of rocks fringed with seaweed looked like something a bored hobbit might have put together on his summer vacation.

“People need this,” Finch said, surveying dozens of his creations arrayed a few yards from the waves. “It’s all about the smiles.”

Click here to see a photo of the man and his work.

In a world where most art is measured as a commodity, there’s something about this kind of ephemera…

Fault

Commenter Abu Frank is one of the folks whose challenges to Joe’s and my thinking are most welcome in the comments here. As I’ve noted, one reason I do this is to sharpen my own arguments, and if there was no one to sharpen them against…

Yesterday, he commented, in response to my post on an Op-Ed in the LA Times that I felt ‘blamed the U.S.’ for Saddam’s intransigence. Here’s his first (and core) comment, in it’s entirety:

Armed Liberal:

Why are you letting this bunch of old news upset you? Meisler’s article isn’t saying anything new to anyone who’s been following the story.

What’s your counter-claim?

(1) that the US didn’t do what Meisler says it did (send signals that the sanctions would remain as long as Saddam, and use UNSCOM as a cloak for its own intelligence gathering)?

(2) that even if it did, those actions didn’t create disincentives to Saddam to cooperate with the inspections?

(3) that even if they did create disincentives, they were only minor?

(4) that even if they created major disincentives, Saddam’s non-cooperation was not the USA’s fault?

If (4), that doesn’t contradict Meisler; he doesn’t discuss the law or morality of the situation, just the power play: “Hussein never had much incentive to cooperate”, not “It’s all our fault”.

I don’t agree with him – even though I still think it was a ‘damn good argument’, and the issue I have is found not so much in parsing the historical record as in deciding how we want to view that record.

I can sift the record and find connections from and to almost anything; I have to judge which ones to give primacy and call causes.

Part of my objection to the modern philosophical interpretation of history is found in Fackenheim’s ‘Metaphysics and Historicity’, which I quoted over at Armed Liberal a long time ago. The relevant quote looks like this:

And from historical self-consciousness there is but one step—albeit a long and fateful one—to a wholesale historical skepticism: to the despairing view that history discloses a variety of conflicting Weltanschauungen, with no criterion for choice between them anywhere in sight [A.L.: except essentially artificial and arbitrary ones, per Derrida]. But when events move as they do today, this step is easily taken.

Just how commonly it is in fact taken may be illustrated by a review of three typically contemporary attitudes. The first is what may be called skeptical paralysis. Here historical self-consciousness has led to two results: to the insight that wherever there has been great purpose, there has been great faith; and to the loss of the capacity for commitment to such a faith. Hence there is paralysis which recognizes itself as paralysis and preaches doom.

Which pretty closely maps to what I’m seeing in Abu’s argument. There are conflicting narratives that can be built around our interactions with Saddam, which certainly supports Abu’s point. But…

…the act of building and accepting those narratives it itself not without consequence. By coincidence, Joe just linked to a great Norman Geras post on Arendt and Eichmann. In it he says (forgive the long quote, and do go read the whole thing):

I also have a wider theoretical misgiving about the emphasis on perpetrator normality: this is that it runs the risk of permitting the sociology and psychology which is involved in trying to understand what happened to displace the ethical perspective. Let us return to Arendt’s writing. On the face of it she was unambiguous about Eichmann having to bear the moral responsibility for his deeds. From a moral point of view she dismissed the notion that, in similar circumstances, others might have acted similarly to him. As though addressing the man himself, Arendt declared:
there is an abyss between the actuality of what you did and the potentiality of what others might have done.

But in explaining Eichmann, his mentality, his normality, Arendt also speaks of his committing crimes

under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

If it is well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel it, though, mustn’t this at least mitigate the degree of his moral responsibility?

From an interpretative point of view I think we are bound to stick with Arendt’s assignment of full responsibility to Eichmann, since she is so clear and emphatic about it. On the other hand, I believe that all the talk, in the relevant literature, of the normality of the perpetrators carries a danger of encouraging us to think: well, because of these psychological pressures, these social mechanisms or administrative structures, those patterns of internal rationalization and so on, what the perpetrators did is ‘understandable’. But isn’t there a sense in which, as Primo Levi wrote, one must refuse to understand? Or one must say: each and all of the factors – social, psychological or whatever – that tempted or pressured you, they are understandable; still, you made a choice or choices which you should not have made and which others did not make – you crossed the line.

I think that in judging history, particularly political history, we have to keep in perspective the moral issues; we have to be willing to keep in mind that what we’re watching isn’t chess, and that there is a moral balance which must be weighed. And I simply can’t weigh Hussein’s desire to hold on to power as the moral equivalent to Clinton’s or GWB’s intent to remove him.

Clearly there is an argument to make about diplomatic strategies and the tactics of negotiation – and the need to leave an opponent an out in order to get them to comply. There are also counterarguments to that about the trustworthiness of the other side, and whether they are worth negotiating with at all.