Tuesday, August 23, 2005

700 Club Economics

The poster boy for the Christian Right has once again shown that the name of the movement is a double misnomer. Pat Robertson has called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and has justified this claim by saying "It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war."

Robertson is abdicating his duty as a spiritual leader. His justification for killing Chavez is economic. On "The 700 Club," he said "We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one strong-arm dictator." This kind of utilitarian justification for an assassination is deplorable and nauseating. Robertson is not an economics expert. He has a degree in history, a law degree, and a Master of Divinity. In other words, his so-called area of expertise is in morality, spirituality, and the law, most likely as seen through the lens of history. But at the same time, he has forgotten the history of the religion that he preaches, which is founded on the ideas of peace and love, and adamantly opposed to murder.

Robertson is an interesting and enigmatic person, at least as shown through his contrasting views on the subjects of life and the law. He is opposed to abortion and supports a moratorium on the death penalty, and yet he calls for the assassination of Chavez. He has a law degree, yet calls for an act that would violate the law as articulated in executive orders banning political assassinations issued by two presidents, Ford and Reagan, both of whom, like Robertson, are conservative Republicans.

A man who claims to preach a religion that at its core espouses the virtues of peace should not be advocating the murder of anyone. For this person to advocate the political assassination of the leader of another country is even worse. For him to advocate this based on economic interests, both in the potential cost of a nonexistent war and in the threat of reduced oil supplies, is grotesque. Robertson needs to apologize and stick to spiritual matters. He can start by going back to the source and reading the parts of the bible that speak of peace and love.

The day may come when we have a confrontation with Venezuela and Chavez. That day, however, is neither today nor will it be tomorrow. If that day does come, we have numerous means at our disposal, most diplomatic, some military. But assassination is never the way to go. In America we value the rule of law, and while we may not like Chavez or be the best of friends with Venezuela at the moment, we cannot simply remove him from office in a "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" style.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

On Their Own

Yesterday in Iraq, the committee writing that the new constitution for that country gave themselves an extra week to finish the document and work out compromises on the last few issues facing them before sending the completed constitution to the Iraqi National Assembly. While the Iraqi leaders missed their deadline for completion, they did so in order to not send an incomplete document to the assembly. It is easy to say, as the Sunnis have requested, that they will work out issues of federalism and self determination, as well as women’s rights, next year, but this will lead to an unstable country filled with violence and the potential for civil war.

While the Bush administration is putting the best face that it can on the delay, it is obviously disappointed that the Iraqis could not complete the constitution by the August 15 deadline. The administration had long pushed for a vote on the constitution, even if it did not resolve all of the issues that Iraq is facing as it begins to make its way in a post-Saddam Hussein world. I am not going to speculate as to whether democracy can take hold and succeed in Iraq. However, what I do know for certain is that for democracy to succeed, it has to begin on Iraqi terms. They need to hammer out compromises and solutions to their problems. If they come to the United States with questions or for advice, then it is our place to advise them. Otherwise, the process needs to be their own.

If a new Iraq starts out with Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems, then that country can be a peaceful oil powerhouse in an increasingly globalized world. If, on the other hand, a new Iraq starts out with American solutions to Iraqi problems, it is very likely that the country will fail and collapse under internal pressure from opposing forces. The people writing the new constitution know that they have to finalize the document soon, or their country will never get off the ground, but the process cannot be rushed to a so-called "completion" that leaves the most pressing issues for a later date.

We can hope that the final product will include equal rights for all Iraqis, men and women, Muslims and Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, but we cannot dictate to them how to accomplish this. The greatest thing that a country can do for its own future security and success is to dictate how it will govern itself. Here in the United States, it was men like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison who wrote, debated, amended, voted on, approved, and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These men are celebrated as great Americans who changed the course of history with their words and deeds. How could we deny Iraq the right to have its own great leaders in the same vein?

The Iraqis will finish their constitution. Iraq will emerge as a peaceful economic power. There will be an additional measure of stability in one of the most historically volatile places on earth, the Middle East. The world will be a safer place because of what the Iraqis are doing for themselves right now. But this can only happen if the United States remains hands-off and lets the Iraqis find solutions to their own problems.

Monday, August 8, 2005

"To Seek, to Find, and Not to Yield"

Peter Jennings died yesterday at the age of 67. The face and the voice of the news for more than 20 years for millions of Americans, the Canadian-born Jennings brought the world into our living rooms for so long that for many people, including myself, it is hard to remember a time when he did not keep us informed of the goings on around the world. The first man on the scene at so many of the defining moments of the second half of the 20th century, Jennings was the man we turned to on September 11, 2001. He provided us with the information we needed and was a source of comfort and consistency on that most bizarre and inconsistent of days. It is hard to imagine who the world will turn to when the next major event occurs. On September 11, Jennings was on the air for 12 straight hours. There was no script prepared, and we experienced the emotions of the day through his reporting.

Jennings' impact on America and the world goes beyond simply reporting what was happening half a world away. He had a personal influence on people that was shown in the reaction to his sudden announcement in April that he was battling lung cancer and would have to leave the anchor desk at ABC News. Countless current and former smokers hurried to their doctors for screenings and tests to see if they were in the same fight, and it is impossible to say how many lives were saved because of his announcement. Jennings had a choice in his announcement. He could have stepped down saying that he wanted to spend more time with his family, or that he felt that it was time for there to be a new face in the business, or because it simply was his time to leave. Instead, he felt that he had a duty to those who had spent so many years depending on him, and that he should tell the world that he was in a fight for his life, and many others are in this same fight whether they know it or not. I personally know someone whose life was saved by Jennings' announcement, and I am thankful for his courage in sharing what is often a very private fight with the world.

Peter Jennings brought us the world every day for over 20 years. In tribute to his life of traveling the world and being part of the world he reported, I am including three quotes from Alfred Tennyson's "Ulysses" that I feel exemplify the man and his mission to the world.

"Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met…

"The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die…

"Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Saturday, August 6, 2005

Sustaining Democracy

In ancient Athens, the government was run through a system of direct democracy. Members of the Athenian Assembly were chosen by lot for each day the body would meet. This way, all citizens had the opportunity to participate in the political process. Each could voice his own views and debate publicly with his fellow citizens. But citizens of Athens had not only the opportunity to participate, but the duty as well. If a man who was chosen by lot for the assembly did not participate, a police officer would go to the man’s house and paint his toga red, so that everyone would no that this man had chosen to not participate in the Athenian government.

The United States is a far cry from the days of Athens. Today, especially in the youngest group of voters, it is a challenge just to get citizens to vote, no less to voice an opinion. People are disillusioned with government, and do not feel that it can or will do anything for them. So, instead of trying to change the way government operates, they sit idly by and let others make decisions for them.

But there was a time in the not-so-distant past that our government did make monumental changes that changed the lives of its citizens. Elected leaders opened up the franchise to many Americans who had been denied their rights as citizens of this country. Congress gave a voice to the silenced and opened democracy to all citizens of the United States, ending the discriminatory practices that had plagued the country since the Civil War.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. This act set up the mechanisms to enforce the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote to all citizens of the United States, regardless of race. Over the last four decades, Congress has amended and renewed this act several times. The act, according to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, "is considered to be the most effective civil rights statute ever enacted by Congress." Legendary leaders like Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and John Lewis worked for its passage. The Voting Rights Act gave a voice to those who needed to speak the most, and dealt a serious blow to those trying to stop the extension of democracy to all Americans.

The franchise is the birthright of all Americans. The United States is founded in the idea that every citizen has the right to vote and be heard. This idea has developed from the early days of democracy, and is the historical heir of the democracy of Athens and the republic of Rome. To be a citizen means that you have a voice. The way we express our voice is through the ballot. Millions have fought and died for this idea over the years, decades, and centuries. The march of democracy spread all over the world in the 20th century, from the Middle East to Latin America to Eastern Europe. And the right to vote was extended in this country to the heart of the confederacy through the Voting Rights Act to Alabama and Mississippi.

Only when everyone has the right and ability to vote can we get to the point of making sure that everyone exercises that right. The Athenians knew that to sustain the democracy, everyone must participate in it. The red paint was a mark of shame for an Athenian citizen, just as declining to vote when one has the opportunity should be a mark of shame in this country. There is a saying that "If you don't vote, you can't complain." This is what the franchise is all about, giving everyone a voice.

The Voting Rights Act did a lot of good in its first 40 years, but there is a long way to go. Today, as we celebrate the signing of this great act, we must also work for its renewal again. The march for democracy is not over in this country. The fight for equality is not concluded. The right to vote must still be preserved for all Americans. When it returns from its recess, Congress needs to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act in the way that those who worked so hard for its original passage would want, by having democratically elected representatives vote to renew the act.

Monday, August 1, 2005

A Kick-Down Appointment

President Bush today used a recess appointment to make John Bolton the ambassador to the United Nations. In taking this action, President Bush has bypassed the Senate, which has held up the appointment because of Bolton’s reputation as, according to a former colleague, "a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy." This is not the kind of representative that the United States should have in the UN, and President Bush has again shown his true colors as one of the most divisive political leaders of our time, instead of as the uniter that he promised to be in the 2000 campaign.

The position of ambassador to the United Nations, more than almost any other Presidential-appointed position, should go through the process of being confirmed by the Senate. This is not a position within the executive branch where the job, while officially to run an agency or department, is primarily to advise the President in a specific policy area. Instead, the UN ambassador represents the position and interests of the United States to the rest of the world, and it should represent the entire United States, not just the President and his inner circle.

Before the attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush had begun a policy to steer the country towards a more isolationist position in the world. The events of that day again thrust the United States into the world spotlight, however, and there was no way that we could go at it alone. By sending John Bolton, a man who has questioned the value of the UN, to take part in the UN, President Bush has sent a very clear message that the United States has little, if any, respect for the world body.

This is a huge mistake that will have effects on the U.S. position in the world long after Bolton's temporary appointment expires. At a time when the U.S. is at its least popular in world opinion in decades, and in an increasingly global society, we need as many allies as we can get in as many areas of the world as possible. President Bush thumbing his nose at the world by sending John Bolton to speak for him cannot help in this quest.

After the September 11 attacks, President Bush said repeatedly that nations were either with us or against us. With this appointment, Bush has clearly shown that he is against the world. On March 18, 1968, during his campaign for the Presidency, Robert F. Kennedy spoke at the University of Kansas on the quality of life in America and America’s position in the world. Here is the end of his speech:

"From the beginning, our proudest boast was that we, here in this country, would be the best hope for all of mankind. And now … we wonder if we still hold a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, and whether they have maintained a decent respect for us, or whether like Athens of old, we will forfeit sympathy and support, and ultimately security, in a single-minded pursuit of our own goals and our own objectives."

Appointing John Bolton to the United Nations clearly shows that President Bush does not hold any respect for the opinions of mankind, no less a decent one, and instead is going ahead with a single-minded pursuit of his own objectives. This appointment can only lead to a weakened U.S. position in the world, exactly the opposite of what a UN ambassador is supposed to do.