Wednesday, May 31, 2017

echoes of 1798

I've long been fascinated by the Federalist period, when the new government got formed and set precedents still followed today -- like the Supreme Court's refusal to give hypothetical advisory opinions. But reading a new book by Professor Carol Berkin, A Sovereign People: the crises of the 1790s and the birth of American Nationalism [Basic Books], reminded me that there were many features we see today.

The country had sharp partisan divisions, at that time between John Adams and his Federalist majority in Congress and Thomas Jefferson's Republicans. The Federalists passed laws denying citizenship to immigrants or imposing long waits for naturalization. One of the Alien Acts gave the President the power to deport aliens deemed undesirable -- a provision still on the books and at issue in the travel ban court cases. And the President denounced the angry and often false criticisms of himself and his government and sought to punish his critics. 

In that case, his partisan Congress passed the Sedition Act, which said:
That if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered, or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either House of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States; or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the Constitution of the United States; or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act; or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against the United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
Nota bene: did you notice that the law did NOT outlaw criticism of the Vice President -- opposition leader Thomas Jefferson?

In fact, as the Berkin book notes, "Only 11 of the 17 men and one woman indicted [under that act] actually went to trial, and most of the editors, released on bail, continued to publish their newspapers in the interim... They had been incarcerated but not silenced." The Sedition Act expired at the end of the Adams administration -- and should stay there.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

patriotic gore

I know that the Revolutionary War was a real war, with fierce battles and casualties among the warriors and lots of "collateral damage" to civilians and their property. One of my own ancestors, Captain Levi Ely, who led a company of Massachusetts men, was killed in the battle of Stone Arabia near Utica, New York, on October 19, 1780.

Now there is a new book, Scars of Independence,  by Holger Hoock, that apparently drips with bloody violence committed by both sides. I'm on the library's waiting list to read it, for I'm not sure I really want it permanently near my books about Washington and the Continental Congress. The Times' book review cites some passages. It wasn't just the British and their Indian allies who were brutal.
Hoock narrates the brutal “campaign of terror” Gen. John Sullivan waged in Iroquoia during the summer of 1779, a scorched-earth march involving one-third of the total Continental fighting force. George Washington himself planned the campaign, telling Sullivan to pursue “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more,” wrote the Patriots’ supreme commander, whom the Seneca nicknamed Town Destroyer. Sullivan followed Washington’s orders; his men put at least 41 Indian towns to the torch. They desecrated native graves, raped native women and mutilated native bodies for profit and for sport. One lieutenant, William Barton, sent a party of his men “to look for some dead Indians.” The soldiers returned to camp having skinned two of them from their hips down for boot legs: a pair for Barton’s commander and “the other for myself,” he wrote in his official journal.
 I guess the lesson is that war is hell and war was hell, despite the airbrushed history many of us were taught.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

it feels like 1974

I was a staffer for a Democratic Senator in 1973-74.  I followed the Watergate scandal as a sideline to my regular work on such issues as military aid to South Vietnam and the B-1 bomber program. But, truth be told, I tried to catch the 11pm radio news because it often had stories from the just-published first editions of the newspapers.

I was shocked, of course, when the president fired his top aides and tried to push the scandal away by taking foreign trips and making defensive television speeches. One of our senior staff often reacted to those speeches with the comment, "It's enough to make a buzzard puke."

Life went on for the rest of us -- softball on the Mall; after work drinks at the Monocle, jazz at the One Step Down; foreign movies at the Circle theater. But the White House suffered the drip-drip-drip of revelations, and parts of the Congress were digging and holding hearings.

The media were actively investigating, too, and competing for big headlines.  Woodward and Bernstein get most of the credit because they had a movie made of their exploits, but the Times and other publications also had banner-headline exclusives.

Eventually the evidence became too weighty and undeniable. The president was involved in an actual crime and abused his governmental powers to obstruct justice and cover things up. His partisans in Congress couldn't defend him anymore. They were ready to impeach, but sent a leadership delegation that persuaded him to resign first. The president did, and a likable, experienced former congressman took his place.

Last night, for the first time in the Trump saga, it felt like 1974. It felt as if the capital city was at a tipping point, unable to move ahead on normal governance because of the accumulating problems of the chief executive.

Maybe things will play out as they did in 1974, but the impetus has to come from demoralized Republicans. They  hold the balance of power.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

face time

Presidents have a penchant for thinking that personal relations with foreign leaders can override structural conflicts or basic policy differences. Starting in World War II, American leaders have yearned for summit meetings, both to practice their charm and win praise in the media. Subordinates work overtime to prepare successful meetings, often with fully scripted outcomes.

In my class this spring I asked students to prepare an intelligence assessment on the Untied States and its leadership as if for President Putin or President Xi. The students recognized from media reports that foreign leaders should appeal to Trump's vanity with personal praise and minor agreements that he could boast about.

Foreign leaders made the same assessment -- notably Japanese Prime Minister Abe and Chinese President Xi. They and others realized that they needed actual face time with Trump to get his attention and win his support for their views.And as the Atlantic's David Graham writes today,  Trump is a pushover.
The pattern has become clear: A foreign official comes to President Trump. They speak. The official leaves with what he or she wants, and Trump emerges chastened, having reversed a major policy, or both.
Clemenceau was right that war was too important to be left up to the generals. International relations are too important to be left up to the whims of leaders.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

reconsidering Tillerson

I was surprised to read the New York Times report that Sec. Tillerson's speech to State Department people was concluded with "thunderous applause." Here was the guy with no governmental experience in foreign policy, who told his subordinates that our foreign policy had "gotten out of balance," that the department still had "not yet transitioned" from the Cold War era, who meekly accepted a 30% budget cut and substantial personnel reductions, yet his remarks provoked such a warm response.

So I read the transcript. And I saw remarks by a reasonable man, offering a tour d'horizon of global issues, articulating policies that sounded normal, not radical, more mainstream than I expected. I also saw that he praised his subordinates for their hard work.
So for those of you that have participated in these early efforts, thank you. I feel quite good about the one – the pieces that have been completed and are in execution, I feel good about those. I can tell you the White House feels good about it. The National Security Council really values the work that we provide in the interagency process. And I would share with you I hear that from them all the time, that the stuff that comes over from the State Department, we’ve done our homework. It’s a complete piece of work, it’s useful, we can use it, and that’s not always the case from all of the other agencies. So thank you for the efforts you’re putting into that in that regard.
 On the other hand, Tillerson persisted in the strange argument that policies and institutions were still stuck in the Cold War. He minimized the impact of the budget cuts, the personnel reductions, and the wrenching prospects of massive reorganization. At least half a dozen times he used the phrase "deliver on mission" as the goal of the Department and the metric for all his changes.

I don't know what that means in practice. At one level, State's mission is to promote U.S. interests. [Tillerson said we sometimes have to subordinate our values to pursue our interests] Ans those interests are broadly peace and prosperity, first at home and secondly abroad. But do you measure "peace" as the absence of war, or a reduction in violence, or stability, or social harmony, or what? And how do you figure that x+30% or x-30% in people or budgets gives a measurable change in "peace" or prosperity?

I'm more comfortable with Tillerson's leadership now than before, but still dubious that he has a smart approach to improving State and diplomacy.