November 17th, 2015 // 9:53 am @ Oliver DeMille
- ISIS is cheering the Paris massacres, and vowing that this is only the beginning. They promise that more such attacks on Europe and the United States are ahead.
- One of the terrorist attackers in Paris had a passport on him that showed he came into Europe with the Syrian refugees on small boat through Greece. (It may or may not have actually been his, but whoever put it there must have been sending a message.)
- The terrorists were highly trained, well equipped, and functioned in a way that requires additional support beyond the known attackers.
- ISIS isn’t content to focus on gaining territory in Syria and Iraq. It is a key part of their strategy to take the war to Europe and the U.S. This has been true for a long time, but it is finally hitting home to most Americans.
- Another part of ISIS strategy is to create a Western backlash against Muslims in Europe and the U.S. ISIS wants to create a situation where all Muslims are pushed to choose between the West and ISIS—with no middle ground.
- According to numerous reports on the news, ISIS is calling for supporters who live in Europe and the United States to take initiative and make terrorist strikes on people without waiting for top-down orders.
If ISIS is in fact behind the Paris attack, ISIS has killed over 400 people in less than 10 days—including the Russian airliner, the Beirut bombings, and the 6 coordinated attacks in Paris. Even if ISIS isn’t behind some of these events, they all play directly into the ISIS strategy.
The U.S. Response?
But where does the United States stand on ISIS? Just hours before the Paris attack, President Obama announced that ISIS has been “contained.” The timing couldn’t have been worse for such a statement. After Paris, Obama spoke in strong terms of supporting France, but said little about any response to ISIS.
In contrast, just the night before, Donald Trump announced that his plan for ISIS was to bomb the s%&t out of it. News reports the next morning featured experts pointing out why Trump’s extreme words were out of touch and bad for America. By that very evening, after events in Paris, some of the same channels put on experts saying exactly the opposite. Other candidates spoke strongly of the need to stop ISIS.
The Big Debate
In all this, there is a big debate about what the U.S. should actually do about ISIS. After all, ISIS isn’t likely to just go away.
What should we do? Before Paris, the debate was mainly about whether or not to put American boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria. After the Paris attacks, it’s a whole new world.
Here’s how the debate is now developing:
View A: Airstrikes will never beat ISIS. To seriously stop them, we must put a lot of ground troops into Iraq and Syria-enough to really destroy ISIS once and for all. We’ve waited too long, and President Obama hasn’t been truly committed. Now, with Paris, we know that the terrorists are coming after us in our own nations. It’s time to go destroy them, and that means real ground troops and a “win at all costs” strategy. Find our Patton and go win.
View B: Hold on a minute. Slow down and think. Every time we intervene in the Middle East, we make things worse. Just look at how we armed Saddam Hussein to fight against Iran, and then he turned on us. We eventually intervened to stop Saddam, and most of the weaponry from that war is now in the hands of ISIS. And Iran is still a major problem. Also, look at Libya, which is arguably much worse off than before we intervened. Likewise, Afghanistan is another nation that our intervention made worse in some ways. Let’s stay out of the Middle East.
View A: We disagree. The reason Iraq went to pieces is that we moved our troops out. If we had stayed, the region would be stable. Same with Libya—we intervened but didn’t keep troops there to stabilize things. Same with Afghanistan: it’s only getting bad again because we keep reducing troop levels. As for Syria, if Obama had followed through on his “red line” promise and taken out Assad, Syria would be stable and ISIS would be a minor group with little or no power. That’s the reality.
View B: Really? You actually wish the U.S. had lots of ground troops right now in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, and probably Iran? You think that the Middle East can only be stable if the U.S. intervenes in all these nations—and any others where terrorists gather to train and plan—and kills the bad guys, then posts troops in those nations for decades to keep the peace? This is your strategy? U.S. troops in half a dozen nations for the next six decades, like we are in Korea? And the same in any other Middle East nation that has problems? Really? That’s a horrible plan.
View A: ISIS is a new and more modern kind of terrorist group, and its strategy is to take the war to France, Britain, Germany, the United States, etc. It plans to ramp up Paris-like terrorist attacks far and wide in Western Europe and North America. We are at war with these people! Whether we like it or not, they are waging war on us, and this will not only continue but actually escalate as long as we don’t entirely destroy them in their home base—Syria, and even Iraq. What choice do we have? If we don’t destroy them, they’ll keep waging terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. They’ll kill hundreds, then thousands. Then they’ll keep killing our people until we absolutely destroy them in their home base. And air strikes won’t do it. Ground troops are essential.
View B: Actually, after four years with ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, we still haven’t solved the problem of terrorists coming from those places and attacking Western nations. Ground troops don’t seem to be a real solution. We need something better.
View A: Like what? Ground troops is what works.
View B: But it hasn’t worked. Seriously.
View C: Can I join this debate? I have something to interject here. What about literally bombing them back into the stone age? Bomb their oil. Bomb their buildings, where they might be on computers running their huge financial resources or posting their online recruiting videos. Bomb all their buildings. Flatten them. Leave nothing but dust. We know what areas ISIS controls. Let’s flatten them. Period. It’s us or them. Let’s win this war before it gets much, much worse. Let’s don’t be like Chamberlain appeasing Hitler, hoping ISIS will start being nice. Bomb them until they’re all destroyed.
Views A and B: That’s so barbaric. That’s not the kind of country we are. Think of all the women and children we’ll kill or maim.
View C: The women and children are either slaves of ISIS or supporters of ISIS. For the ones who are slaves, our actions in ending the slavery would be merciful. Just look at the way ISIS treats such people—repeated rapes and maiming and torture and slavery. It’s unspeakable brutality. THAT’S the barbarism. Bombing will create chaos and free a bunch of them, and the ones who are casualties will at least be released from the ongoing torture. On the other hand, those who aren’t slaves are nearly all supporting ISIS. Cut off their support. Destroy them. It’s us or them, and they’re getting stronger. If we let them keep spreading, they’ll eventually gain an air force, missiles that can reach Europe and America, and probably even nukes—given how much money they’ll have. Stop them now.
View A: We can do this humanely, if we get serious about this war and put enough ground troops into Iraq and Syria, and leave them there long enough to really turn things around.
View B: But that might mean a thirty-year war, or more. We’ve already been in Iraq and Afghanistan for fifteen, and we haven’t made much progress. Let’s rethink this. What if we put all our resources into protecting the United States? Let’s protect our borders and protect our cities and states. Let’s focus on our national defense, not on the security of the Middle East.
View A: That sounds good, and we should certainly do that too, but it won’t work if that’s all we do. Just look at the nation of Israel. It is so much smaller than the U.S., with only a few cities and populated areas to protect—like the U.S. trying to protect New Jersey, or to make the point, even New York. Yet in Israel, with armed soldiers on every corner in times of terror threats, and with a huge portion of the adults trained in the military and prepared with weapons to fight, hundreds of terrorist attacks still occur. The U.S. cannot stop a committed ISIS (and other groups like it, of which there are many) that finds ways to recruit homegrown American terrorists online. Nor can Europe do it effectively.
Moreover, if we give ISIS a free rein in the Middle East, by just pulling out all U.S. involvement, it will drastically increase its funding, and its online influence around the world. The number of terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. will significantly increase. In fact, if the U.S. pulls out of the Middle East, ISIS will take over more oil, territory, and gain intercontinental missiles and naval and air power.
Make no mistake. ISIS intends to weaken and eventually take over the United States. That’s what the Caliphate is all about—taking over the whole world, starting with anyone who stands in their way. That’s their plan, as many experts on ISIS have been telling us for months.
If the U.S. pulls out of the Middle East, ISIS will grow, strengthen, gain more funding, and eventually attack us with missiles, warships and nukes. We must stop them now. Not barbarically by wiping them out with bombs, like View C wants, but humanely, with ground troops.
Specifically, put enough U.S. and allied troops into Iraq to push all ISIS fighters back into Syria. Then Assad and Putin and Western air strikes can get rid of ISIS. But it starts with ground troops.
View C: No. Let’s not send another generation of our young men and women into a Middle Eastern war zone. Bomb ISIS into oblivion. ISIS doesn’t even have an air force. At least not yet. Let’s do this now, before they expand and gain an air force, missiles, even nukes. Bomb them into the dust. Right away. France will help. Britain will help. Russia might even help. We might even get Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arabic nations to help. Flatten ISIS. Now. It will save more lives and ultimately be more humane—with fewer dead and injured—than any other strategy.
View B: Wait. Think this through. There’s got to be a better way.
This is basically where the discussion in Washington stands right now. What do you think? Ideas?
Do you have any great alternatives to these three main viewpoints? If so, share them.
This is worth thinking about deeply.
October 20th, 2015 // 4:09 pm @ Oliver DeMille
“Why can’t the two parties in Washington just get along?”
“Why can’t the politicians just stop bickering and work together?”
“With the factional divides in the Republican Party, no Speaker of the House can get anything done.”
“Shutting down the government is a failure of leadership.”
“I wish Washington would just stop fighting all the time.”
Sound familiar? I’m amazed at how often I hear these words. At the barbershop. At the store. Waiting for my car to get serviced. At a family party. Granted, not every conversation is about politics. Most aren’t, in fact. But when politics does come up in casual conversation, you can usually count on hearing these sentiments—or something very much like them.
Yet every one of these phrases shows a serious lack of understanding. The people who utter these words either don’t understand the Constitution, don’t like it, or have decided not to openly show that they understand the Constitution.
In a cultural sense, these words are false. They’re wrong. They’re ignorant. These statements are the opposite of the Constitutional culture established by the Founding Fathers and ratified by our forefathers. And this misunderstanding is literally a much bigger problem for America than anything happening in Washington. In fact, many if not most of Washington’s problems are rooted in this broad misunderstanding.
Specifically: If a lot of the regular people don’t understand the Constitution, our government will be dysfunctional. But not in the way the media portrays. In fact, the problem is almost precisely the opposite of what the media typically tries to spin.
I. Why the Framers Wanted Lots of Tumult
and Conflict in Washington
The U.S. Constitution is based on separations of power and checks and balances. The Framers clearly saw that, through human history, political power has been abused. Almost always, and by every kind of government. And this abuse takes a certain form: Power centralizes in one political entity (sometimes the executive of the nation, whether king or dictator or president; sometimes in the legislative or parliamentary branch of the government; and other times, in judges), and then the bearer of that centralized power abuses it.
This is the story of ancient Greece and Israel, of both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and of the various Germanic, Asian, African, and pre-Columbian American tribes. The same plot is repeated numerous times in the island nations around the world, and in dynasties, feudal eras, and nomadic cultures. James Madison made special note of how this pattern played out in Western Civilization, particularly various Greek city-states and alliances, and a number of German, French and other European princedoms and commonwealths (Federalist 18,19,20).
Madison’s conclusion, which was adopted by most of the Framers, was that no single branch of government should have too much power, and that the only way—the only way—for a people to remain free is for the branches to have the power and duty to effectively check and balance each other (Federalist 47,51).
Madison warned that the people wouldn’t stay free unless such ongoing checks and balances, tumultuous and intense at times, were part of America’s regular fare (Federalist 37,38,53)–what we might call our cultural DNA. In fact, if the three branches of the federal government ever became less than jealously in conflict with each other, Madison warned, the people should be very concerned about their freedoms (Federalist 47,48,51).
In addition, the three major parts of the federal government were created to provide certain vital functions, based on different strengths. They were meant to be:
- The Decisive Branch (executive), to stop foreign aggression
- The Protective Branch (judicial), to maintain the inalienable rights of the people, especially against government abuse of power
- The Chaotic Branch (legislative), to argue, debate, disagree, deliberate, and ultimately pass only a few limited laws that nearly everyone can agree upon
This is the crux of the Constitutional culture the Framers established. Today it remains central to maintaining our freedoms.
II. The Constitutional Culture
the Framers Wanted
Under this system, freedom is in jeopardy if the executive, legislative, and judicial branches aren’t actively checking each other (ibid.).
One of the leading Founding Fathers, St. George Tucker of William and Mary College, called any government where the three branches weren’t at odds and actively fighting each other by the name “tyranny.” Madison said the same in Federalist 47.
The people can only remain free if each branch uses its checks and balances to keep the other branches in line (Federalist 47,48,51).
When the branches do this, it is chaotic. But it’s the kind of chaos that happens when the branches fight each other, which is much better than what happens when the branches stop bickering and work together to reduce the power and freedoms of the regular people.
In short, chaos in Washington usually means that the branches are attacking each other, instead of the freedoms of the people. That’s a good thing!
The major checks of each branch were, and are:
- executive veto
- judicial decisions concerning constitutionality
- legislative purse strings
Again, the Framers knew that the use of these checks would be hotly contested, turbulent, divisive, and often very upsetting to those on the receiving end of such checks.
The Framers realized that sometimes a presidential veto would feel disastrous to some people. They also knew that a Court decision of “unconstitutional” or “constitutional” would at times trigger a lot of frustration, and that the Congress using its power of the purse to shut down government if necessary would cause real discomfort.
Madison warned in Federalist paper 1 (the introduction to the Constitutional system) that during such periods of “great national discussion”, the following would happen in America:
“A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose.”
Yet such checks—including vetoes, Court decisions, and Congressional tumult and government shutdowns—were the very basis of the U.S. Constitution. As Madison put it: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” (Federalist 51)
This bears repeating. The Founding Fathers knew the use of a check by one branch of government on another would bring controversies and adversarial contentions. Indeed, “controversy” is mentioned 25 times in the Federalist, and “adversaries” and “contentions” are discussed 40 times.
But for the Framers, the real worry, the big danger, was the “ambition” of people holding government offices. Forms of the word “ambition” appear 62 times in the Federalist. The Founders were willing to allow angry feelings about checks and balances, in order to stop abuses of power by government officials and agencies.
This is the very foundation of the U.S. Constitution. As mentioned above, it is firmly based on the idea that government officials, agencies, and branches that spend lots of time fighting each other will find less time to over-govern or over-regulate the people. Those who understand this reality understand our Constitutional culture. Those who don’t, do not.
III. When You Hear that “Government is Gridlocked,”
Remember that Jefferson and Madison
are Somewhere Cheering!
Today, however, when a discussion about Washington or politics arises, it often turns in the direction of politicians not getting along, or not getting much done. But let’s be clear: if the politicians start agreeing on a lot of things, our freedoms will be voted away more quickly.
The Founders knew this, and in response they purposely established separations of power with checks and balances to keep us free.
As Madison said, quoting Montesquieu, in Federalist 47:
“‘There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body…’ or ‘if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive functions.’”
That’s pretty straightforward. “There can be no liberty…” if the checks and balances aren’t used.
Unless government is frequently gridlocked, freedom quickly declines.
The checks and balances matter.
Yet when the House uses its Constitutional power of the purse to withhold funds or shut down the government to keep the president or Court in check, many Americans today somehow think that Congress isn’t doing its job. The truth is the opposite. If the House isn’t using its power of the purse to keep the president and Court checked, then Congress isn’t doing its job.
If the campaigns and debates to elect a new Speaker of the House aren’t heated, passionate, and tumultuous, then Congress isn’t doing its job very well.
If sections of the House aren’t fighting each other, Congress isn’t doing its job. Same with the Senate. Same with all the branches of the government.
IV. The Constitution Works—
We Should Try Following It
When did the majority of citizens stop understanding the Constitution? When did so many of us stop seeing that the separations, checks, and balances are key to our freedoms? Or forget what the actual checks and balances are?
For example, if your Congressman/Congresswoman won’t use the Constitutional power of the purse to fight for freedom, you should elect a new one.
Ultimately, the majority of American citizens have somehow stopped understanding the Constitutional culture the Framers outlined—with its intense, passionate, turbulent and rowdy conflicts between the three branches of government (and even within Congress). Somehow many voters have been swayed by the modern media view that everything should be smooth, friendly, and without struggle, that politics should be professional, gentlemanly, and efficient.
Indeed the media has convinced too many of us to see the latest political fights and shake our heads in frustration or disgust, when we should be smiling and carefully watching to ensure that the branches of government keep fighting each other—except when the national security is legitimately at stake.
That’s how our Constitutional system is designed, and the result is more freedom for the regular people. Most nations of the world, and of history, would give nearly anything to have such a Constitutional structure with its checks and balances and the freedoms and prosperity they engender.
If we ever actually adopt the type of civil, tranquil, administrative politics many in the media envision, we’ll live in a nation that has lost its freedoms. The fact that serious, vigorous debate and intense disagreement in Congress and other parts of Washington is seen as somehow…bad…is a national tragedy. Such fervent skirmishes and struggles are what the Framers wanted when they designed the Constitution the way they did. This is precisely what is needed to ensure that no one group or elite upper class controls everything.
Furthermore, the emasculation of Congress and its Constitutional power to check the president and Court by withholding funds as needed and shutting down the government on occasion is a major step in the direction of losing our freedoms.
If only more people understood the Constitution.
Next time you hear about chaos in Washington, smile. Smile widely. Grin and take a deep breath. The Framers got it right.
But if you ever hear about a lack of gridlock in the government and laws sailing through Congress in gentlemanly civility, you’ll know that we’re experiencing a massive loss of freedom.
We all need to help more people understand the Constitutional culture of freedom the Founding Fathers gave us, based on lots of chaos and bickering in Washington.
October 15th, 2015 // 12:51 pm @ Oliver DeMille
Putin, Iran and Our Escalating National Security Problem
I. The Disaster
In the last few weeks, Putin has rapidly reversed many of the major gains Reagan garnered for the United States when he faced down the USSR in the Cold War. Amazingly, Russia is now arguably the major power in the Middle East, having moved significant military assets into Syria and created an alliance between Syria, Iran, and now even Iraq.
This is incredibly big news. A month ago many people were deeply worried about the rise of nuclear Iran; today major nuclear power Russia is bombing U.S.-backed rebels.
Things just got a lot worse.
The Rise of Russian Power
Consider the strategic upgrade for Russia, which is the world’s second largest producer of oil in the world over the past 10 years, now quickly spreading its influence in the oil rich regions of the Middle East. Russian jets and helicopters are now flying daily maneuvers in the area, near 5 of the top 10 oil producing nations in the world (Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Iraq, Kuwait). And the Russian navy has proven its eagerness to act in the area as well.
This at the same time that the Obama Administration’s stunningly weak foreign policy has significantly reduced U.S. influence in the area. In a very real sense, the U.S. has lost the Middle East to Russia as much as it lost Vietnam and North Korea to Russian and Chinese influences in past decades. As David Brooks put it in The New York Times: “3 U.S. Defeats: Vietnam, Iraq, and Now Iran.” (August 7, 2015) And that was written before Russia’s latest aggression.
Imagine the situation if U.S. power continues to weaken, Russian dominance in the region continues to increase, and Putin’s administration gains even more influence over the control and price of world oil. Like it or not, this is a major issue; yet the Obama Administration continues to defend its recent agreements with Iran and its general downgrade of U.S. military strength.
This new reality has an interesting backstory. Listen to a Republican presidential debate, and you’ll hear a chorus of criticism toward the Obama Administration’s foreign policy and national security record. Most Americans—on both the Left and the Right—tend to chalk such rhetoric up to political bickering.
But what some voters don’t realize is that President Obama is a Woodrow Wilson-style diplomat, not an adherent of realpolitik. Whether regular citizens understand this or not, it has serious ramifications for all of us, many of them dangerous for the United States.
Wilsonian diplomacy is based on the idea that agreements made between nations will be honored by both sides. Negotiate, discuss, compromise, then sign a mutual deal. And—Voila!—your work is done.
In this worldview, words are the main thing. You can talk your way out of, or into, almost anything. Once the talking is done, it’s all peachy. “Peace in our time!” Neville Chamberlain announced, sure that the words and paper agreements had done the job. Churchill scoffed.
Where Reagan famously quipped “Trust, but Verify,” the Wilsonians prefer a different approach: “Trust, Trust, Trust.” And the corollary: “Talk, Talk, Talk.” Indeed, they often label a “Trust but Verify” strategy as too aggressive, even warlike. “Give peace a chance,” they demand. And, on face value, that’s a good idea. But without follow up, without effective verification and a strong military, even the best “talk” often evaporates in the face of reality.
Many nations break their agreements. Iran has done so repeatedly. The same is true of Iraq and Syria. Not accounting for this in a negotiation with them is tantamount to national security malpractice.
In contrast to Wilsonian negotiations based primarily on hope and talk, realpolitik argues that nations act for their own national interest, and that aggressive enemy nations are ultimately limited only by actual power. The American framers pitted power against power, governmental branch against branch—in order to curb the abuses they knew were inevitable. Similarly, many commercial contracts openly include exit plans and establish specs for arbitration for the breaches, misinterpretations and misunderstandings that can and do sometimes arise.
In international affairs, realpolitik has a much more effective history than Wilsonian idealism. (The word “idealism” isn’t a criticism; Wilsonianism is actually called “idealism” by many political scientists and historians.) The only Wilsonian presidents in the past century were Wilson, Carter, and Obama. All three left international chaos in their wake.
Specifically, in our time, President Obama has taken a “words and trust” approach to:
- Syria (Assad must go, and crossing the “red line” of using chemical weapons will not be tolerated)
- the Crimea and Ukraine (you cannot invade other countries in the 21st century, Russia)
- Iran (it must come clean on it’s nuclear program, or we won’t make any deal)
- ISIS (we will downgrade and destroy it), and China (I’ve indicated that they must stop engaging in cyber attacks on us, and they agreed).
Really? All of these words by President Obama turned out to be false. All of them. But many Americans aren’t very surprised. After all, such words mirrored certain domestic promises: e.g. If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.
Except: you can’t.
- Syria’s use of chemical weapons was tolerated with no significant response.
- Russia was allowed to invade Crimea.
- Now Russia is reinserting itself in Syria, Iran, Libya and Bagdad at pre-1973 levels, foreshadowing major increased conflicts ahead. Syrian refugees are fleeing by the millions. Iran didn’t have to come clean—despite President Obama’s tersely delivered words—and it got almost everything it wanted in the negotiation anyway.
- ISIS hasn’t been downgraded or destroyed. Indeed, it is still growing, and emboldened by all this U.S. weakness, the Taliban is once again stepping up its operations. For example, on September 29, the Taliban attacked and took control of the first major city (Kunduz) it has overtaken since 2001. On top of these serious developments, Putin’s first choice of targets in Syria was U.S. backed rebels. Seriously.
In short, President Obama’s Wilsonian words aren’t working. At least not in the real world.
“Peace Through Weakness” isn’t even a bumper sticker. It’s just plain stupid.
III. The Real Strategy
And let’s be clear. This is not, as some Republican politicians claim, a case of incompetence in the Oval Office. If we’re honest, we have to admit that Barack Obama is one of the most effective politicians in American history. Just look at the evidence:
- He got Obamacare passed, despite the fact that a large majority of the nation dislikes it.
- He pushed through the Iran deal, even though, again, most of the nation thinks it’s very bad for America.
- He got the debt limit raised repeatedly, even in the face of Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.
- He also led numerous, significant budget increases and massive growth of the federal government.
- His drive to increase the size and scope of the federal government has hardly been stopped by the flaccid speed bump that is the Republican opposition. To date, more has been added to the national debt under President Obama’s watch than during all the presidents before him combined.
In short, this President knows how to get things done. When he ran for office, he had a campaign quiver full of domestic goals—and we’ve seen many of them realized. Not a kinder, friendlier Washington, certainly, but many of his other objectives.
Concerning foreign policy, his main purpose was to stop exporting American exceptionalism and make the U.S. just another industrialized nation—not a superpower, but just another country; you know… like France, maybe, or Japan. In many measures, he’s accomplished this as well. In the next sixteen months of his tenure, he’ll likely do even more.
In fact, when asked on 60 Minutes why his foreign policy has been weak, he responded that is hasn’t been weak, that it has in fact been strong. When pushed on what he meant by this, he noted that his words about global climate change have been very strong indeed.
The truth is, I think this is exactly where his head is. Strong foreign policy to him means talking strongly about things like fighting climate change and lecturing Syria about chemical weapons. Wilsonian words.
In other words, this President did exactly what he meant to do with our foreign policy. As a result, we live in a much more dangerous world. This gutting of our national defense will probably be his biggest and most enduring legacy.
Putin, clearly, has gone the opposite direction. As has China. And Iran. Syria too. And many others.
As bad as this all is for the U.S., imagine how Israel must feel.
Our overall foreign policy goals are a deeper topic than we have time to fully develop here. Yet it is worth mentioning the highlights. Some argue that the U.S. should happily stay out of the Middle East, and let the various radical Islamic groups fight it out amongst themselves. There is a lot of merit to this strategy. Supporting Iraq against Iran in the 1980s resulted in the extremities introduced by Saddam Hussein. Likewise, intervening to remove Saddam and trying to create a more pro-Western Iraqi government resulted in a power vacuum that has helped ISIS.
But sitting back and watching Putin essentially take over Crimea and Syria, establish Russian military bases in the Middle East, fly Russian aircraft and drones in droves around the region, and establish a new axis alliance (with Iraq, Iran, and Syria all working with—and to a certain extent, for—Russia), is a whole different matter. If Russia turns its eyes toward controlling world oil prices and revenues (and this has already begun), the consequences will only destabilize the entire region and could drastically hurt the U.S. economy.
In a stroke, Putin has managed to sweep in and direct much of the $150 billion Iran-deal U.S. payout to Iran in the direction of Russian and Chinese weapons and infrastructure. Moreover, events in Europe, relationships between China and Russia, and Russian-American relations are quickly—and dramatically—becoming more dangerous. Putin simply moved into the Middle East without announcement or fanfare and took over. The White House was, and remains, shocked.
When Russia invaded and took Crimea, President Obama responded with words (of course) of censure, and Western sanctions. The President also called Russia a “regional power,” basically limited to influence in Eastern Europe. He was pointed in his explanation that Russia is no longer a global power, just as he recently called ISIS the jayvee team. But under Putin’s leadership, this “regional power” took over Syria almost overnight (cheaply and easily) and then got Iraq and Iran to join the alliance.
However you feel about American intervention abroad, the result of these developments is a major downgrade to our national security. It’s one thing to avoid getting caught in a Middle Eastern quagmire; but it’s an entirely different thing to turn the reins of power over the Middle East to Putin’s Russia. And it’s even worse to do this while simultaneously downgrading the U.S. military year after year. Not only has the Obama Administration’s policies hurt national security, they’ve significantly downgraded our national defense as well.
V. The Road Ahead
Let’s now turn our attention to briefly considering the bigger picture. We have a serious set of problems ahead. The following are potential existential crises for the United States, meaning that one or more of them will almost surely threaten our very national survival in the years ahead:
- Terrorist Attacks in U.S.
- Nuclear North Korea
- Russia’s Expansion and Oil Domination in the Middle East
- Economic Recession—or Worse
Even something as simple as continued economic stagnancy could have a hugely negative impact on our families, standard of living, and our children’s future. None of these problems are likely to just go away, no matter how many Wilsonian words our leaders multiply. America will need to wisely consider, plan, and take effective action to deal with all of these major challenges.
On the issue of defense, without a significantly re-strengthened military, the United States is in serious trouble. I’m not by any means suggesting that we need as many interventions as the two Bush presidents felt determined to engage, but a weak military is not the right path to American success. And big words from the White House about how America will use its power–followed by capitulation whenever a foreign enemy ignores the President and attacks our interests with no consequence except more words–isn’t the right course either.
The Obama legacy may well go down in history as the era of “Speak Loudly and Carry a Small Stick.” Again, the President seems genuinely annoyed that he has to deal with foreign issues. We can expect the problems to grow in the months ahead—not just in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but elsewhere as well.
Whoever replaces Barack Obama in the Oval Office will have his/her hands full. It was bad enough when Bush left office, leaving massive problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an escalating face-off with China–not to mention the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008.
But let’s be honest: Things are much worse now.
The tinderbox only needs a spark.
August 27th, 2015 // 10:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
The Questions of Today
The professional political and media class is surprised (“shocked” may be more accurate) by what they are witnessing right now in the U.S. presidential campaign. Most of their predictions are turning out to be wrong, and much of their commentary is consistently off.
What is going on? And why is it happening?
The answer is fascinating. America is currently witnessing a different kind of politics–not because Washington has changed, but rather because the voters are taking a very different approach than they have in the past.
In a nutshell: a huge number of voters are simply demanding that politicians do something very different. This can be summed up in the following words, spoken directly to our politicians:
“Why won’t you just do what you said you’d do?”
Lies from the Left
This is a big deal. Voters are frustrated with the inability (or unwillingness) of politicians to simply deliver on their promises. For example, President Obama promised that under his health care law, we would be able to keep our doctor if we wanted to. We would also be able to keep the same health care providers. And our costs wouldn’t go up very much, if at all.
These all turned out to be false. Many people aren’t allowed to keep their same doctor or health care providers. And in 2015 insurance premiums went up around 30% for many companies and families—in addition to major increases already in 2014. With the additional details that kick in during 2016, premiums will go much higher in the next two years.
The President also promised that his policies would bring more jobs. But the reality is that while the unemployment rate has gone down, the large majority of people with new jobs obtained during the Obama era are making a lot less each month than they did before. The promise of more jobs turned out to be technically true, but it feels totally false, like something only a lawyer or a genie could make up.
Lies from the Right
And Republicans haven’t done any better. Voters were promised that if they elected Republicans in 2012 and 2014, these Congressmen would repeal Obamacare and seriously tackle the national debt. The electorate responded by putting Republicans into Congress in record numbers—in both of these midterm elections.
But once in office, the GOP promises were promptly forgotten. No repeal. No debt reduction. Voters know that Congress can defund programs at will, and can even overcome a veto by shutting down non-essential government functions to get a handle on the debt and/or defund Obamacare. This takes tenacity and guts, but it works.
Instead, voters who put Republicans into the majority in both houses are lectured by Boehner and McConnell about what “can and can’t” be done. But Boehner, McConnell and their allies didn’t do the honorable thing and loudly promote such lectures before the elections. Rather, they boldly promised big changes and then smugly turned their backs on such promises once elected. Ted Cruz was right to call this a “lie.” Voters feel increasingly duped by the political class.
The top leaders in both parties simply didn’t follow through on what they said they would do.
Just Do What You Promised
All of this is front and center in the voters’ minds right now. They don’t want to elect politicians, because they don’t believe what politicians promise. Why should they? Both parties have failed, repeatedly, to fulfill their promises. Most people have reached the conclusion that this is just the way politicians are now. They don’t do what they promise.
In voter logic, the only intelligent response is to elect non-politicians. To reject politicians and find people who will just do what they say they’ll do. To find someone—anyone—who simply tells the truth and then does it.
Thus anyone who looks even remotely like a politician is suspect. For a growing number of voters, everything a politician-looking candidate says during the campaign is probably not going to happen after the election.
So any candidate that seems to fit this bill, doesn’t get much support. This is a real problem for Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, etc. It’s also a problem for anti-establishment candidates like constitutionalist Rand Paul and tea partier Marco Rubio—they just seem too much like Washington insiders.
The candidates who are surprising the political pros are those who don’t seem much like politicians at all. Thus very different-sounding candidates like Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz have piqued the electorate’s interest.
“Will one of them just do what he/she is promising?” This is the question many American voters are asking right now.
The Media vs. The Electorate
The media focuses on things like policy details, tone, offensive behavior, and stances on the issues—but most voters don’t care much about these things as much as electing someone who will do what they said they’d do. They’re used to candidates who are politically correct, talk a lot about policy positions, but then get elected and fail to deliver what they promised.
With such a track record, why should voters care about policy plans? They’re going to be forgotten anyway.
Instead, voters are now trying to feel out the candidates, hoping that one of them is the kind of person who will actually just do what he/she promised—even after the election.
If voters think they’ve found such a person, they don’t even have to agree with him/her on every policy. They’ll look past differences, if they can just get someone who will deliver.
Media and political professionals who don’t figure this out are in for a lot more shocking surprises, because the last two decades of hearing promises during campaigns, getting excited to vote based on such promises, and then seeing your chosen candidate get elected but fail to do what he promised.… Well, voters are just plain sick of it.
Voters are too smart now. They’ve been fooled too many times in recent elections.
If they don’t think any of the candidates will follow through on promises, voters will turn off and stay home on election day. As a result, the typical establishment candidates will win. But if voters really believe that a candidate will deliver—he or she is going to ignite a powerful following.
August 19th, 2015 // 2:36 pm @ Oliver DeMille
Steps to Freedom
I read another great book today, and it rekindled my sense of hope for the future. If you care about freedom, you’ve got to read it! This new classic is Liberty’s Secrets by Joshua Charles, and it is…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a story here, an important one. And I need to tell it in order to do justice to this book. In a world of brief sound bites and too frequently shallow media and educational conversations, a great book is easily overlooked. Such greats all too often go unnoticed because we live in an era of constant—aggressive—distraction. So to introduce a genuinely great book, we need to get this right. Here goes…
I. The Great Books
I was a young boy when first it happened, old enough to ride my bicycle to the library on hot summer afternoons and find interesting books to read, but young enough that high school sports and summer trainings weren’t yet part of my daily routine. One day under the memorable breeze of the town library’s large swamp cooler I came across a long shelf of books that boldly called themselves “The Great Books”. I stopped and stared. I re-read the title, then pondered.
“These can’t be the only great books,” I reasoned to myself. “There must be others.” Intrigued, I pulled out a volume and perused the title page, then skimmed through several chapters at the beginning of the book. I was impressed by the small print, the columns and footnotes, and the sheer quantity of big, unfamiliar words. They were downright intimidating.
I marveled a bit, rubbing my fingers along the cloth-covered bindings. I knew I would read these books some day. I just knew it.
I remember nothing specific about which volumes I investigated that day, but I skimmed many of them, reading a sentence here and another there. The afternoon passed, and I eventually returned the last volume I’d removed to its place on the shelf and went to the front counter to check out the L’Amour novel I’d selected for the week’s reading.
We lived in the desert, and it was a very hot summer, so during the exertions of my bike ride home I forget about the “Great Books”. But each time I returned to the library, I noticed them again. It seemed like none of them were ever checked out, and I could well believe it. They were truly daunting, with their gold foil lettering, fancy author names, and massive domination of shelf space.
II. Fast Forward
Today I just finished reading a truly great book on freedom, and I smiled widely as I completed the last few lines and closed the book. I removed the dust jacket and ran my fingers over the sleek black hardcover with the red foil print. “I was right, that day,” I thought to myself.
Then I realized I had been right on both counts. I would, in fact, come to read the whole set someday. I couldn’t have known at the time that I would re-read The Great Books many times, teach them extensively in multiple university, high school, and graduate level courses, and spend many hours discussing their content with colleagues, business executives, students, professionals, family members, and friends. The Great Books volumes have become dear friends over the years, and I have returned to them often for heated debates with their authors or to rehash unfinished questions in the “Great Conversation”.
But I was right about the other thing as well: there are great books beyond those in Britannica’s 54 volume set. And when I encounter an additional great book, I always feel a sense of excitement. Great books are great because they are important. That’s the major criterion. They have to be truly significant, to add meaning to our world—to innovate something that wasn’t there before the book brought it to life.
III. What Makes “Great”?
Over the decades I’ve experienced several great books beyond those from the “official list,” and they always leave an impression. Like The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler, or The Five Thousand Year Leap by W. Cleon Skousen. Such books, like those by Bastiat or Austen, simply must be added to list. Along with Solzhenitsyn’s works.
In recent years I’ve come across several additional great books, like Andy Andrew’s The Final Summit, Chris Brady’s Rascal, Stephen Palmer’s Uncommon Sense, Orrin Woodward’s Resolved, Judith Glaser’s Conversational Intelligence, or Henry Kissinger’s On China. I also studied an old great book I hadn’t ever read before, The Early History of Rome, by Livy, and found greatness in its pages as well. When you read a book that is truly great, it’s a moving experience.
Such books come along rarely, so when they do it is important to pay attention. But what makes a book genuinely great? After all, greatness is a very high standard. It can’t just be good. As Jim Collins reminded us, good is too often the enemy of great.
Nor can it simply be well written. It can’t merely be accurate, detailed, beautiful, or interesting. More is necessary. It can be one, a few, or all of these things, but to be truly great, it must be also be transformational. It must change you, as you read.
IV. A New Great Book!
When I started reading Joshua Charles’ book a few days ago, I didn’t know I was in for such a treat. I had already enjoyed his earlier bestselling work, so I was ready to learn. I got my pen and highlighter out, and opened the cover. But as I read I realized that this book is truly very important. Needed. And profound.
Then, as I kept reading, I noticed that I was feeling something. A change. A different perspective. A re-direction. I was experiencing…the feelings that always accompany greatness.
Charles notes in several places that as a member of the Millennial generation he felt compelled to share this book with the world. Why? Because, in his words: “I wrote this book for one reason, and one reason only: to reintroduce my fellow countrymen to the Founders of our country and the vision of free society they articulated, defended, and constructed, in their own words.”
As a member of Generation X, I was thrilled to see a Millennial take this so seriously—and accomplish it so effectively. Even more importantly, as I read I noticed something very important, subtle but profound. Charles doesn’t make the mistake of so many modern authors who write to the experts and professionals in a field. His scholarship is excellent, and he goes a step further. He has a more important audience than mere political or media professionals. He writes to the people, the citizens, the voters, the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers—the hard-working people who make this nation go, including the artists, scientists, teachers, executives and leaders.
In so doing, he is a natural Jeffersonian, speaking the important principles of freedom, culture, economics, and leadership to a nation of people—not merely to politicos or aristos, but to everyman. To underscore this (and I doubt it was a conscious decision on his part, but rather his core viewpoint), his word choice refers not to “the American voter” but rather to “we the people.” He considers himself not merely the expert, but one of us, one of the people.
I could have hugged him for this, had he been here in person. We have far too few freedom writers today who see themselves truly as part of the citizenry. When they do come along, albeit rarely, I feel a sense of kinship and I know that their hearts are in the right place. Jefferson would be proud. For example, Charles wrote:
“We no longer know where we came from, the grand story we fit into, and the great men and women who inspired the noble vision which birthed the United States of America, the first nation in history to be founded upon the reasoned consent of a people intent on governing themselves….
“Additionally, few of us are well-read enough (a problem our educational system seems blithely unconcerned with) to discuss the lessons of the human experience (often simply called ‘history’)…”
Freedom, the classics, voracious reading, leadership, and the future—all rolled into one. “This is my kind of author,” I realized, once again. “These are the themes I emphasize when I write.” So did Jefferson. And Skousen, and Woodward. No wonder I love this book.
The Current Path
More than profound, Charles’ book is also wise. Belying his Millennial generation youth, he speaks like an orator or sage from Plutarch when he warns:
“Liberty is difficult work. It is fraught with risks, with dangers, with tempests and storms. It is a boisterous endeavor, an effort for the brave and the enterprising…”
These latter words have stayed with me since I read them several days ago. I keep remembering them. Boisterous. Brave. Enterprising.
These are the traits of a free people. In classical Greece, among the ancient Israelites, in the Swiss vales, the Saracen camps, the Anglo-Saxon villages, and the candlelight reading benches of the American founders—wherever freedom flourished. Yet today we train up a nation of youth to be the opposite. To fit in (not boisterous). To avoid risk (not brave). To focus on job security above all else (not enterprising).
If this trajectory continues, our freedoms will continue to decline.
Where and When
Speaking of freedom, Charles calls us to immediate action with his characteristic humility, depth, and conviction: “We either pass it [liberty] on to our posterity as it was passed down to us, or it dies here and now.”
Here and now? Really?
Is it that immediate? Is it truly this urgent? Is it really up to us?
The answer is clear: Yes.
Yet, it is.
“He gets it.” I smile and take a deep breath. Then I whisper to myself: “Another great book!”
I hold the book sideways and look at the many pages where I have turned down the corners. Dozens of them. Just for fun, I open one of them and read:
“…we have every reason to be doubtful of, skeptical about, and disdainful toward the notion that Caesar [government] can solve all our problems.”
I nod. When freedom is under attack, leaders rise up from among the people. This book is part of that battle.
“The Great Books indeed.” I grin as I say the words.
I turn to another page with a dog-eared corner and read Charles’ words:
“‘Society is endangered not by the great corruption of the few, but by the laxity of all,’ Tocqueville had noted, and on this he was in complete agreement with the Founders.”
And now, I note, with at least one Millennial.
I feel a sense of building hope for the future. “The Millennials are beginning to lead,” I say with reverence.
“This is big. And if this book is any indication of what’s to come…
“It’s about time,” I say aloud.
Then, slowly, “Everyone needs to read this book.”
*Liberty’s Secret by Joshua Charles is available on Amazon