28 February 2009

Values Expressed by The Election of 2008

It seems the election is sufficiently "over", and the new administration sufficiently "underway" for some reflection on what happened and how things are going. Most of our attention is being directed to the financial crisis, the stock market, and varying prescriptions for recovery. Suffice it to say here that I regard the crisis as a symptom of Republican values concerning the military pursuit of idealistic goals, privatization of government functions, the right of the wealthy to increase their wealth and decrease their numbers, and the Ayn Randian prescription that whatever works for personal ambition (and greed) is best for humanity. 'Nuff said. Now on to a couple of items that have cropped up this week.

First item: neocons have been resoundingly discredited by the election, but have they been replaced by dogmatic ideologue realists? That's one wag's view. He says that Obama has made a big mistake in appointing such a realist, Charles Freeman, as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Realists, he says, are completely blind to any idealistic motivations that the electorate may harbor, and see US self-interest as the only guide for foreign policy. In his view the idealism of the American electorate is legitimately important in some decisions about foreign policy, but totally opaque to realists. This is expressed in his most memorable line: "Consider, perhaps, if eunuchs tried to explain the way teenage boys act around girls." Nice; I'm sure this will forever endear Jon Chait to realists everywhere.

IMHO, American idealism tends strongly to be either hypocritical (we think we can "impose" democracy on others), or proselytizing (we have sent Christian missionaries to Muslim nations since antebellum times!). With that record, American idealism is always suspect in my mind, so I'm firmly in the realist camp. And I'm not at all sure that Freeman's take on Tienanmen Square amounts to a "reductio ad absurdum." After all, what happens in the USA when a disruptive demonstration occurs? Can anyone remember the 1968 Democratic National Convention?

Second item: It seems that the Obama administration is raising hackles by making Federal aid to localities blind to local rules on health profession "conscientious objection". That is, Federal aid will no longer be withheld from localities that discipline health workers who refuse to do assigned duties on grounds of conscientious objection. The Bush admin. measure to withhold Federal aid was principally directed at abortion related duties, but was broadly written enough to limit family planning, blood transfusions, and end-of-life treatment issues, according to the linked article.

IMHO, conscientious objection should be expressed by refraining from the activity that requires the offending services. For example, where would we be if conscientious objection to military service was acceptably expressed by active military personnel? Conscientious objection is not only a rationale for deferrment from military duty, it is a disqualification from military service. Those who are squeamish about those actions involved in providing professional health care should similarly steer clear of careers in the health professions. Instead, under the Bush administration, they were indulged as a means of harrassing the medical profession. The new adminstration's initiative to eliminate this harrassment is arguably at odds with its expressed intent to "find common ground." On the other hand, we can hope that the common ground will be sought in a more direct way of addressing the simultaneous legality and undesirability of abortion.

Third item: the new administration has announced plans to proceed with removal of most US troops within 18 month (vs. 16 months suggested during the election), and entirely within 36 months. This timetable is sufficiently close to that suggested by the Bush administration, and advocated by the Iraqi government, that we should be able to accept a certain convergence of views on this. Yet some pundits are claiming that Obama, in admitting that Iraq is now "winnable," has also accepted responsibility for the successful completion of the military action in Iraq.

IMHO, the administration is making good on its promise to end the war, and to do it in the most constructive way possible, which involves a certain buy-in to the Bush administration goals for the war. This in no way is an endorsement of the war, or an acceptance of full responsibility for it and all its outcomes. If the war eventually reflects well on the Bush administration through the eyes of history, so be it. But it will be exceptionally difficult to separate the war and its conduct from the financial crisis that has engulfed the USA and the entire world. Vice president Cheney famously opined that "deficits don't matter." But it is difficult for me to escape the conclusion that the reckless pursuit of idealistic goals by military actions in foreign lands is likely to be more costly than we reckon when we begin them, and indeed more costly than we would willingly afford in the absence of an overwhelming national interest in the outcome.