Herbert London is the author of Decade of Denial (Lexington Books) and most recently America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books), and publisher of American Outlook. He can be reached at: www.herblondon.org.
The Spiritual Dimensions of Nationhood
I've said this before but no matter how many times it is said, it bears repeating: the threats that the United States faces from a fanatical Islamic foe are made possible by our devotion to positions that undermine our heritage, accomplishments and Founding.
It is not coincidental that I'm reminded of this condition by the passing of Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of The United States. This best-selling book, memorialized by the pseudo-intellectual rants of the actor, Matt Damon, is among the most influential textbooks ever published. Bob Herbert of the New York Times wrote a saccharine eulogy which suggested Zinn was a "national treasure." If so, it was a treasure of fool's gold.
Zinn was not a historian in any real sense, but an ideologue who would envision only the blemishes in America's past. For him, the American experiment was predicated on colonialism, imperial aims, exploitation and enslavement. But the curious matter is that Zinn's brand of contemptuous nihilism, his anti-American posture and hatred of capitalism, have caught on among American elites.
Is it any wonder that a multi-cultural stance that denigrates our national experience and superordinates the goals of other nations is now the prevailing orthodoxy in our schools and colleges? If the United States is the world's exploiter, the despoiler of the environment, and the hegemon that restrains the impulse for liberation, why should it be admired? Alas, in many universities, the United States is the enemy. This condition cannot be laid at the doorstep of Mr. Zinn solely, albeit he is a central contributor.
However, the drumbeat of criticism has taken its toll. Students very often can tell you that Jefferson was a slaveholder, but know nothing about his framing of the Virginia Constitution. According to many, Columbus came to the New World in order to dominate and exploit the indigenous population.
That the United States has been the beacon of hope for mankind, that it has afforded its citizens an unprecedented degree of liberty, and that its openness has yielded technical breakthroughs that have enhanced people across the globe, are conditions that students of an earlier time imbibed as if mother's milk.
That has changed. The pseudo-sophisticated cynics have come to dominate the academy. American history has been put through the cauldron of political correctness. At best, the U.S. is merely one of 192 nations with its own history that is neither special nor exceptional; it is simply unique. At worst, American history is a steamy tale of conflict: workers versus bosses, plantation owners and slaves, guardians of the status quo and change agents.
Invariably many of those who are force-fed these arguments ask logically, "Why should I defend this nation?" If the United States is an outlier whose history infers struggle, the spirit necessary to sustain the nation may not be evident.
I often observe this spiritual enervation; this belief that our time, our glory has passed. In my judgment that explains, at least in some part, why radical Islamic ideas have gained traction in this nation. How do those who have lost confidence in the national heritage defend against a fanatical faith that has precise goals and direction?
The relentless critics of the nation may not have anticipated this result, but our homegrown radicals invariably express despair with what America stands for, or should I say, what they think America stands for.
Of course, not every American shares this anti-American sentiment, but I am confident a large segment of elitist opinion embraces it. The manifest form it takes varies. There are the cultural warriors who see America as depraved. There are the academics who win plaudits for nihilistic expression (vide: Howard Zinn). There are the radicals ready to leap into anarchy. And there are jihadists -- homegrown jihadists -- who have been radicalized by a faith that preaches triumphalism and a justification for violent behavior.
Our vulnerability does not stem from a lack of resources or even inept leadership, but rather from a void that emanates from not knowing what we believe. Our real enemy is a lack of confidence, of not believing in our own national achievements. Arnold J. Toynbee argued that civilizations die as a result of suicide, not murder. I am not yet willing to concede death, but there isn't any doubt that America is at risk because of a loss of self-confidence. What ails us internally is at least as threatening as the forces found externally.
There is a shift occurring in the United States, a tectonic shift that is imposing statism in a land predicated on limited government.
In the past, the not very distant past, mediating structures served as a barrier against managerial despotism. But these structures have been under assault for decades and are showing signs of weakness and decay.
The family has been undermined by divorce and illegitimacy. Schools have eroded rigor and standards. Churches resemble social institutions more than religious centers. And associations like Rotary and Lions are suffering from insufficient enrollment and a lack of interest.
The America Tocqueville described in mid-19th century is largely gone, a testament to the past when national identity was being refined. The New Hampshire slogan "Live free or die" is great for license plates, but not for contemporary politics.
Some would argue that big government is a natural consequence of living in a bigger and more complex nation than was the case a hundred years ago. Needless to say, this is obvious. But what is not so obvious is that incrementally the government has assumed the position of granting rights to citizens instead of having citizens grant rights to the government. During this onset of the recession it was believed by members of both parties that extending government power was essential in dealing with the economic vicissitudes of the moment. In doing so, however, the politics of grievance has emerged. If the government uses its largesse to address social woe, how are rights determined and who allocates the benefits? A government insistent on handouts will be a government that encourages grievance.
Let me not overstate the case. Despite an inclination to support limited government as the nation's Founders did, my issue with the Obama administration, to cite one example, is that it is weak where it should be strong and strong where it should be weak.
For example, the president has put his prestige and influence behind a healthcare proposal that a majority of Americans oppose and that willy-nilly will shift healthcare to the public sector. By contrast, Iran has violated the non-proliferation agreement, has abused its citizens for contesting electoral manipulation, and has been the leading state sponsor of terrorism. Yet the president who should recognize and resist these challenges seems weak and unresponsive.
The road to serfdom is paved with rights and benefits. People want more of whatever someone else will pay for. The casualty in this assessment is personal responsibility and liberty.
We are not yet an authoritarian state and my hope is that America never will be one, but it is imperative we guard against that eventuality recognizing that the rights we invent come with a corresponding withering away of freedom. Big government may not be a problem if it exercises power judiciously and in ways that promote American interests. Yet it is also true that government has a stake in perpetuating itself. It may not always be the problem, but it is rarely the solution, and all the programs that the American people covet may in the end alter the America they once loved and admired.
Now let me comment on the other side of the coin. Despite a breakdown in personal responsibility, a dumbing down of the population, and defining cultural deviancy down, the U.S. with all its flaws and imperfections, is, in my judgment the exceptional nation. A common misperception is that the U.S. is in decline. In fact, there is a "declinist" school of historical analysis comprised of Dean Koh, Ann Marie Slaughter, Geoffrey Hodgson, Amy Guttman, Richard Sennett, Andrew Bacevich, and Farid Zakaria among others who believe in historical inevitability, a Marxist view that the forces of historical determinism are not on our side. But, like Charles Krauthammer, I think declinism is a choice. Americans are the most resourceful and resilient people on the globe. We don't shrink from challenges. The biggest mistake any politician can make is to underestimate the people of this great land. I realize things often look bleak and indeed are bleak, but it is important to realize the U.S. is the land of miracles. We turn detritus into energy; failure into success, and we do it routinely.
I'm reminded, at this moment, of verses from Lee Greenwood's "I'm Proud to Be an American."
I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free,
And I won't forget the men who died who gave that right to me.
And I gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today
For there ain't no doubt I love this land, God bless the U.S.A.
Denial is a powerful influence in public life. It is obviously a major influence in the Obama administration, which may explain why a Republican party and conservatism that were declared dead institutions and philosophies have risen as a phoenix with life and vitality.
In response to Scott Brown's remarkable Senate victory in Massachusetts, President Obama said:
The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry, and they're frustrated. Not just because of what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years.
Here is the blame George W. Bush gambit yet again, even though Scott Brown is a Republican who ran against Obama's policies in a state that is overwhelmingly Democratic.
To make matters even more risible, the president went on to say:
If there's one thing that I regret this year, it is that we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crisis that [was] in front of us, that I think we lost some of the sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values.
Well, the question remains, what precisely did he get done? He did get a stimulus bill through the Congress that has done nothing to stimulate national employment, even though that was the promise. For a man busy with getting stuff done -- a curious rhetorical position -- he had the time to deliver 411 speeches, 52 on healthcare alone, which by presidential standards is unprecedented. Moreover, the president, who often speaks of core values, ignores the obvious fact that so many Americans repudiate his healthcare bill because it imperils the core value of personal freedom to select a physician and treatment they prefer.
Instead of facing questions directly, the president invariably engages in scapegoating. If there weren't a George W. Bush to rely on, he would have to invent one. Moreover, there is a barely veiled effort to suggest the public is angry, a kind of generalized anger unrelated to policy concerns. What Obama cannot admit is that much of this anger is directed at him and his policies. Instead of a psychological response, he needs a mirror.
President Obama seems to believe that the personality cult he created during the campaign will carry over to his government. He is so busy doing good stuff that he lost focus. Does that include vacationing in Hawaii, dates with Michele in New York, frequent appearances on the golf course, and basketball games in the White House gym? The president doesn't have a communications problem, he has a credibility problem. The issue with this White House is competence. "Is this president competent to govern?" is the question that has emerged in recent campaigns in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. That is something the president either doesn't understand or, as I see it, chooses to deny.
Comments that ignore the obvious political reality only make White House denials seem petty and foolish. Perhaps the president actually took seriously the fatuous New York Times editorial that the Scott Brown victory was not an indictment of the Obama administration. Democratic Senator Jim Webb certainly sees things differently. He called the Massachusetts race "a referendum not only on healthcare reform, but also on openness and integrity."
At this point, the president desperately needs a large dose of humility. It is discomforting to have a president so reluctant to listen to what Americans are saying. Instead of being obliged to consider his positions based on the Brown victory, President Obama seems to be feeling sorry for himself, since the public doesn't appreciate the "good stuff" with which he is preoccupied. As I see it, humility is a good way to attempt to resuscitate this presidency along with a sustained reality check.
As George Orwell noted the first duty of intelligent people is "the restatement of the obvious." It is obvious or should be obvious that the goal of terrorists is terrorism. What that means precisely is not clear based on recent news accounts.
According to reports, the United States escaped an enormous tragedy when a Nigerian, Umar Abdulmutallab, was apprehended when he attempted to blow up a KLM flight from Africa to America via Amsterdam. Alas, that is accurate as far as it goes. Overlooked in this calculus is that a terrorist who gains access to a commercial flight has already achieved his goal, i.e., promote the fear of terrorism.
When Richard Reid attempted to blow up a Boeing 767 between Paris and Miami by detonating his sneakers, he too was restrained by fellow passengers, but in the process he promoted fear. The risks of air travel may be miniscule -- if one relies on the comments of F.A.A. officials -- but for the average person Reid and Abdulmutallab have had a profound effect. The notion that any passenger can be a human time bomb has entered the consciousness of the public.
Moreover, it hardly establishes confidence when Ms. Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, assures the public "the system worked." Clearly a risk-free air flight doesn't exist, but newly instituted measures like magnetic resonance scans and banning blankets and bathroom visits during the last hour of a flight are not likely to mitigate anxiety about flying.
To compound the fear, the Obama administration has been briefed about the bombing technique attempted on flight 253 and about the Nigerian carrying the explosives. Since 2001, there have been a reported 28 failed terrorist attacks against the United States. It is obvious, that despite administration claims to the contrary, this was not an isolated incident of "human error." It is a failure up and down the metaphorical food chain, from the White House to the clerk who issued a visa.
The president, as commander and chief, has the responsibility for national security, but the issue at hand is not only protecting lives; it involves the maintenance of psychological equilibrium. With each airborne thuggery, timidity sets in. This is the victory terrorists seek. When ordinary people are afraid to leave their homes, terrorism is gaining traction.
I cannot tally the number of trips not taken or the business ventures cancelled because of flight fear. But I am sure, based on anecdotal evidence, that the numbers are substantial. One may fly through the sky, but flying friendly skies as the commercial suggests is not as likely as it once was.
Terrorism has altered our way of travel and our way of life. And in a sense has forced almost every traveler to ask, "Is this flight safe?" Well, yes, most flights are safe, yet trepidation about terrorism has entered the equation and it is not going to disappear in the short term.
Being on an airplane may lead to uneasiness, but terrorism has led to a special concern. As I see it, that special concern is terrorism's victory. All the effort to thwart a full-scale attack is obviously necessary. However, the very fact that a known terrorist, whose father warned U.S. authorities about his son's radical views, can gain access to a commercial flight has escalated the risk factor and the fear of flying.
Every time I enter an aircraft I look suspiciously at the other passengers. Are there terrorists on board? How would I know? What are the telltale signs? The very fact that I ask these questions indicates terrorism has gained entry into my mind set. That is the price we pay for conciliation and political correctness, a price that undermines the freedom we once enjoyed.
Iranian Influence in Iraq
In an ironic twist of fate the future of Iraq may be dependent on the good will of Iran. A Shiite-led, government commission in Iraq is currently examining which Sunni politicians are eligible to participate in upcoming elections. This is disconcerting because the last time Sunnis were restricted, using a debaathification policy to do so, the Sunnis launched an insurgency drive for political influence. A potential Shia-Sunni split represents an opportunity for Iran to assist its Shiite brothers with political, intelligence, and military assets, including, of course, the prospect of nuclear weapons.
For Iran, history appears to be moving in its direction. The desire to influence, indeed to dominate, Iraqi politics has long been a strategic goal going back to the Iran-Iraq War several decades ago. One might even contend that the nuclear weapons program is linked to its ambitions in Iraq.
In the days leading to Iraqi elections, Iran's influence in this neighboring nation is palpable. The Iranian seizure of the al Fakkah oil well in southern Iraq was a poignant example of encroaching dominance, an event that received almost no attention in the United States and one in which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki averted his gaze. In fact, to demonstrate that Iraq's government and Iran were dancing to the same tune, a government spokesman said any U.S. attempts to save a place at the government table for the Sunnis would "not achieve anything." Our State Department may not read the signals, and the Obama administration seems mired in concerns with domestic programs, but the message being delivered loud and clear is that Tehran, not Washington, has the upper hand in Iraq.
Based on its influence in Iraq, Iran is using this development as a bargaining chip with the U.S. in nuclear negotiations. Since the Obama administration has made it clear it wants to disengage from Iraq, Iran holds the key to regional stability and must be considered a negotiating partner in any future arrangement. A potential Sunni insurgency could upset U.S. withdrawal plans. Hence Iran has the ability to assist or thwart U.S. goals, a position that complicates negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and puts the U.S. in the position of seeking assistance on the one hand and chastisement on the other.
This leverage gives Iran an enormous negotiating edge. If the U.S. wants to avoid an eruption in Iraq that is tantamount to a civil war, then according to Iranian leaders, Washington will have to meet Tehran's terms on the nuclear weapons issue and forestall any military option by the U.S. or Israel. As Iran sees it at the moment, it is holding all the cards. Arguably the ace in the deck is the apparent cooperation between Prime Minister Maliki and the Iranian mullahs. Since Maliki understands he cannot rely on U.S. forces to maintain stability -- with withdrawal the overarching goal -- he has thrown in his lot with the Iranians.
It is apparent the Obama administration has not considered the law of unintended consequences. The announced plan for withdrawal has set in motion actions American military commitments were designed to prevent. It is ironic that the United States is dependent on Iran to bail it out of a dicey situation at the same time it claims to oppose Iranian nuclear ambitions.
As I see it, the die is cast. The United States' government will allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary. Furthermore, it will seek to obtain Iranian influence as a regional stabilizer even if it means the mullahs will insinuate themselves into Iraqi politics.
Clearly the spin-doctors in Washington will attempt to put the best possible gloss on this situation, but as I see it, this is a lose-lose for American diplomacy and a significant blow to U.S. policy in the Middle East. *
"In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution." --Alexander Hamilton