To Russia with Love

For Vladimir Putin, Donald J. Trump is the gift that just keeps on giving.

I suppose it is possible that some theoretical American president could do more to advance the interests of Russia in the world than Trump, but it is pretty hard to imagine.

Let’s go over an imaginary Russian check list of proposed gifts from a new American President they might have written up before the election:

  1.  Legitimate Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea? Check.

2.  Fail to hold Russia accountable for continued military action against the Ukraine?              Check.

3.  Fail to press hard on Russian interference in U.S. elections?  Check

4.  Acquiesce to violations of human rights in Syria by Russia and its puppet, Assad?               Check.

5.  Leave Assad in unchallenged power in Syria?  Check.

6.  Undermine NATO unity?  Check.

7.  Alienate key American allies in Far East and Europe?  Check.

8.  Undermine global trading regime responsible for much of the West’s power?                       Check.

9.  Reduce American prestige and influence worldwide?  Check.

10.  Weaken America’s diplomatic and intelligence services?  Check.

11.  Turn Americans against each other?  Check

12.  Weaken democratic institutions?  Check

13.  Weaken free press?  Check

14.  Destroy traditional conservatism and the Republican Party?  Check.

15.  Abdicate the role of leadership in the free world?  Check.

16.  Set up future economic turmoil and instability through expanding deficits and                   economic policies designed to increase income inequality?  Check.

17.  Foster dangerous nationalist movements in America and other countries?  Check.

18.  Encourage and befriend human rights violators?  Check.

19.  Expose U.S. to ridicule from other advanced nations?  Check.

20.  Radicalize major portion of American population?  Check.

I’m sure there are other examples that I didn’t think of right now.  I also deliberately did not put anything about the damage being done to our health system, our education system, our environment and so forth, as those tend to be longer term and difficult to quantify.  Although I think that they will all damage American power and prestige eventually (perhaps more than some of the things I did list), they are more difficult to predict when and how exactly.

In short, I really have no idea why Trump does what he does, nor do I know if it incompetence, ignorance or narcissism that is the defining characteristic of his presidency and his foreign policy.  Likely a noxious mix of all three.

It is also hard to not speculate, given all the things he has done that benefit Russia, that Putin has something on him.  Or perhaps Trump just really wants to shift the alignment of the United States from leader of the free world to lap dog of a dictator.  I have no knowledge or insight to offer on this that hasn’t been offered by others.  To me it is simply mind-boggling that intelligent people on both the left and the right are even considering the possibility that the President of the United States has been compromised by an enemy power.  That used to be the province of the more fevered imaginations of Hollywood script writers, not serious political observers.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter all that much why he is doing it.  What is clear is that he is giving aid and comfort to our enemies, whatever his reasons.

It needs to stop.  His independence first needs to be curtailed by losing his congressional majority of spineless tribal ass kissers this November, and then his job in 2020.

Hopefully, there will still be some shreds of our international power and prestige left by then.





In the World but Not Of It

Those of us who grew up in mainstream Christian churches probably remember this guidance being given to us many times.  It is a paraphrase of a challenging section of Scripture, 1 John 2:14-17, which is itself based on Christ’s message in John 17  1 John 2:14-17: 14 I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 1Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father[a] is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. 

The part about “in the world” was meant to instruct us that we are not just idle passengers in life.  Not just passive observers.  Rather that we have a responsibility in the world, and not just to avoid temptation and sin, but to actively seek to do good.

The latter part, “not of it”, meant that we were held to a higher set of standards than those set by society.  It meant that just because society said something was OK, that didn’t mean that it was OK for Christians.  Of course that didn’t and still doesn’t mean that Christians behave in their everyday lives any better than anyone else.  It just means they are supposed to.  And possibly that they will be held accountable if they do not.

For Christian leaders for many years it also held another meaning.  It meant that Christian leaders should be wary of meddling in partisan politics.  Partisan politics is about as worldly a thing as I can think of, and John’s admonishment to us needs to be taken seriously.  This message has always resonated with me, despite the fact that I am a very political person.  I think serious consideration needs to be given to what John’s teaching and the old guidance to be in the world but not of it means in today’s society.

I do not believe that it means that we should not be advocates for good in the world, that we should not passionately push for those issues that our beliefs and the Spirit move us on.  However, I do believe that it means we need to be cautious about letting this entangle us with partisan politics.  I think we need to constantly be thinking about whether our religious beliefs are determining our political allegiances or our political allegiances are determining our religious beliefs.

For instance, I believe it is always wrong for any pastor or religious figure to try to tell his flock how they should vote, or to endorse individual candidates or parties.  I think it is wrong for church leaders to pass out “voting guides” to their congregations.  I think it is wrong to tell people they must believe a certain way on certain social/political issues to be a “good Christian”.  I think many other things that I have seen or heard about in churches in recent years are also wrong or are gray areas at the very least.

My reasoning is founded not just on my understanding of John’s instructions or on other scriptural guidance, but also on my practical desire to see the church thrive.  I would not want political conservatives or political liberals to feel unwelcome in the Body of Christ because of their political views.  I would not want anyone to turn away from the doors of the church either in anger or in fear because they felt their political beliefs were trampled on or unwelcome.   I fear that this happens frequently in many Christian churches.

That does not mean that preachers need to censor themselves unduly and not allow the Spirit to move them.  It doesn’t mean that pastors shouldn’t challenge their congregations to think about issues of the day.  To the contrary, I would love to have more of that.  But that’s what it should be – present them with the scriptures and guide them in how to understand them, but don’t pound them over the head with it and dictate to them how they must believe and how they should behave.  Open the way for them.  Don’t seize them by the scruff of the neck and try to drag them along.

What it means is that church leaders need to be more careful in what they say, and examine their own motives more closely before speaking.  That they need to pray more for guidance.  That they need to be absolutely sure that they have clear Biblical guidance drawn not just from individual passages taken out of context, but also in accordance with the major themes of the Bible, the greatest of those being to love one another.  Most of all make sure that they are not being influenced unduly by politics.

I think one of the reasons Christianity in America is in crisis now, with declining participation and increasing numbers of people, especially the young, declaring that they do not believe, is because many church leaders are failing in this regard.  They have become worldly.  Politics has corrupted them.  Some started with good motives, but somewhere along the way lost perspective and allowed their passion for individual issues to blind them to all else.  Others I suspect have always been more political than religious and lust for worldly power and influence for its own sake.

In any event, it needs to stop.  The Body of Christ needs to be open and welcoming to all.  Conservative and liberal.  Gay and straight.  Black and white.  Native born and immigrant.  We are all God’s children, and we are all sinners saved only by grace.  We will not always agree on all things, but no one should be either driven out or made to feel unwelcome because of who they are or what they believe.  All are welcome to share in His love.


Civility or Avoidance?

There has been a great deal written about “civility” in the political discourse of the chattering classes, lately.  I’ve written some of it myself.  But what is “civility”?

I think most people would respond with some version of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase with regard to obscenity in 1964: “I know it when I see it.”  He was mocked, and rightly so, for championing such an utterly subjective standard.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition is hardly more helpful:

1     archaic training in the humanities
2a : civilized conduct; especially : courtesy, politeness

  • bemoaned the decline of civility in our politics
  b a polite act or expression

  • lacked the little civilities and hypocrisies of political society —Roy Jenkins
  • The men briefly exchanged civilities before the meeting began.

I’m all for training in the humanities.  Frankly, I think a bit more of that, and of education in general, would heal a lot of the ills this country faces now.  but I don’t think that is what people are talking about when they talk about civility today.  Rather they are looking at that second definition.

And that seems hopelessly subjective as well.  Who is to define what is “civilized conduct”?  Miss Manners?  Dear Abbie?  Or courtesy and politeness, for that matter?

Don’t get me wrong, I think there is definitely a place for courtesy and politeness in society.  I also think there is a strong reason most norms of society were established.  You could say, with some justification, that they are an essential part of the glue which holds our society together, along with the rule of law.  That glue is what keeps us from constantly attacking, verbally and physically, all with whom we disagree or who are different from us.  That keeps us from a time when the strong rule the weak with an iron hand, and the majority can oppress the minority at will.

So civility is not unimportant.

But it is also not sufficient to face the threats we have now.

Politics has always been a bare-knuckle fight, filled with aggressive, alpha dog men (and recently a few women) who have frequently tested the bounds of normal “civility” in their quest to advance the causes they believe in, or just to accumulate more power.  However, until the coming of Donald Trump, they were somewhat restrained by the normal rules of society.  They might stray across the line occasionally, but those who were successful always eventually returned to the norms of “civilized” behavior, either voluntarily or because public opinion forced them to.  Those who did not were eventually rejected and repudiated by the American people.

Trump is different.  He has met no norm of civilized society that he is not prepared to break.  He doesn’t occasionally cross the line.  He obliterates the line and celebrates the fact that is doing it.  He clearly believes the line doesn’t apply to him.  So far, it is hard to argue that he is wrong.  A huge portion of his support comes from people who adore him not despite the fact that he is nasty, bigoted and petty, but rather BECAUSE he is nasty, bigoted and petty.  At least so long as he aims his nastiness and bigotry at people other than them.  People they don’t like.

And, yes, it is the absolute height of hypocrisy for anyone who voted for Donald J. Trump to accuse anyone else in he world of “incivility”.  The very idea of that would make me roll around on the floor clutching my sides in fits of hilarity.  It would, if those same people had not made him our president.  Instead, it breaks my heart and moves me to the verge of tears.

Just as it breaks my heart that some of those who oppose him think the best way to do so is to engage him on his level.  I love them for their courage and their commitment to face down all that is wrong in America today, but they still break my heart.

That does not mean that I believe we need to remain silent in the face of the very real damage being done to our democracy by the wannabe dictator and his sycophantic cult of personality.  Far from it.

They deserve and more than deserve every bit of derision, every harsh condemnation, every verbal counterattack they receive.  They have it coming and then some.

I still think there are some lines that we shouldn’t cross, like Samantha Bee and Robert DeNiro’s vulgarity and like refusal of service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the Virginia restaurant “The Red Hen”.  But my reason for believing we shouldn’t cross those lines is not because I disagree with the sentiments of those who crossed them.  Rather it is because I believe they are deeply counterproductive.  They too easily feed into the narrative that Trump is no different from anybody else.  That both sides are equally vulgar and nasty.  That loyalty to tribe is more important than character in our leaders.

That thinking, perhaps as much as anything else, enabled Trump’s rise.

But those of us who have long respected civility, who believe that character in our leaders is important, and that some rules of behavior ought to be respected need to find an appropriate response to Trump and the threat to democracy that he represents.  Perhaps our old notions of civility need to be revised.

We need to speak up loud and clear in response to every fresh outrage, every blow that Trump strikes against minorities, the poor, the rule of law and against democracy itself.  We need to not shy away from using accurate labels and strong terms like racism, bigotry, white nationalism and white supremacy when they are well-deserved, as they are just about every day.  We cannot let the need for “civility” deter us from speaking truth to power.

If we do, that’s not “civility”.  That’s just conflict avoidance…or appeasement.  We have a responsibility to speak out loud and often when we see wrong being done.

Maybe someday we can restore a broader definition of civility.  I certainly hope so and this November gives us a golden opportunity to take a step in that direction.

Until then, I don’t really have it in my heart to completely condemn those who cross the line in criticizing Trump.  But it still makes me sad, and I worry that it is plays right into his hands.




Sticking with the Game Plan

I think virtually everyone would agree, even if they cannot agree on who is to blame, that America is in a nasty mood these days.  We are deeply divided and a snarl is more common than a smile when we encounter people on the “other side” of our great divide.  I confess to frequently feeling angry myself, and sometimes letting that slip into my own language in interactions with people who push my buttons.

I don’t apologize for the former.  I think there is plenty going on in America that people should be angry about.

I do feel ashamed about and apologize for the latter.  I need to be able to handle my own emotions better.  We need to be able to disagree without insulting, using profanity and calling people vile names.

Comedian Samantha Bee and actor Robert DeNiro both attracted attention and condemnation recently for using aggressive and profane language to express their disgust for the policies of this President.  I agree with the disgust.  Not with the way they expressed it.  Bee has the graciousness (or at least the savvy) to apologize and retract her statement, but DeNiro has doubled down on it.  And it depresses me that many people cheer him for it.

Now you can certainly argue that many, many Trump supporters, and Trump himself  have said far worse and said it far more often, and point out their hypocrisy.  That’s undoubtedly true.  We all remember the frothing hatefests that surrounded Trumps campaign appearances.  But it’s not a justification for doing the same.  And it is incredibly counterproductive.

President Trump’s success was made possible, in large part, because many people saw his opponents as just as bad as he is.  If all politicians and political viewpoints are corrupt, immoral and unethical, why not vote at least for the one that you think will advance your pet causes, whichever they may be?  Or why vote at all, if you cannot vote for someone you respect and admire?

The cold hard facts are that political cynicism, which fuels low voter turnout, plays into the hands of conservatives and the Republican Party.  They cannot win any competitive election in which there is high voter turnout.  The poll numbers have said that for years, and it is even more true under Trump.  That is why they work ceaselessly to depress voter turnout in any way they can.  And highlighting angry, hateful speech by liberals is an important part of that campaign.

It’s absolutely not fair that one party can insult and belittle their opponents in the most vile and profane ways and pay little to no political price for it, while the other party is punished deeply for doing the same thing.  That hypocrisy and imbalance makes me even more angry, and the tribalism and propaganda that make it possible deeply sadden me.  I understand the desire to lash out and rage against the injustice.

But it doesn’t work.  It may be cathartic, and it may satisfy those who already agree with us, but it does not impress anyone whose mind is not already made up.  Rather it pushes them away.  And that will doom us to failure.

I’m not saying that the outrages of the Trump Administration should be ignored.  To the contrary, we must not ignore them.  We must respond to and condemn each and every one of them.  But we can’t lash out and use Trump’s own weapons against him.  They just don’t work for us.

Anyone who has a brain and a conscience already has many reasons to oppose Trump.  Adding more is fine, but unlikely to move many votes.

What is needed is not just reasons to vote against Trump and the party which spawned him and is now utterly dominated by him.  What is needed are positive reasons to vote for liberals and Democrats, particularly when we get to the next presidential election.

Part of that is showing we can be better than Trump.  That we can strongly oppose what he stands for without stooping to his level.  That we can criticize without insulting.  That we can ignore the insults made against us.  That we stand for something more than just a change in who’s in charge.

So it’s time to put on our big boy and big girl pants, and give people a reason to vote for us, and not just against Trump.  And part of that is proving that politics does not have to be as nasty, insulting and demeaning as it has become over the last few years.

In sports there are teams that benefit from slowing a game down, making it more physical, and from throwing their opponents “off their game” with dirty tricks.  I would submit that the Republican Party of today is just such a team, and they are very, very good at it.  Perhaps the best.  To beat them, we need to avoid falling into their traps and engaging on their level.  In sports parlance, we need to play a game that emphasizes skill and speed, instead.  Policy, rationality and compassion are our best weapons.  We need to bottle our anger, not be provoked, and “keep our heads in the game” to quote every coach ever.

Or we lose again.

The Destruction of the Community of Democracies

What we are seeing now is nothing less than a radical realignment of America’s foreign policy.  Under the guise of “America First” the Trump Administration is steadily destroying the post-war network of military, trade and political alliances among the world’s major democracies.  This network was created and sustained over decades by every single Republican and Democratic administration since WW II.  This network carried the U.S. to its greatest prestige and power in the world, and is responsible in no small part for the prosperity and peace we and much of the Western world have enjoyed.  Due to this network, the idea of another world war among the major powers of Western Europe or Asia, such as ripped the world apart twice before it was created, is now virtually unthinkable.  These nations turned their back on the dangerous siren call of nationalism to build something together.  And they all benefitted.  Most of all the United States.

Trump is busy turning it all to ashes.  With threats and bullying he is driving wedges into all of our alliances.  He doesn’t understand any of it, nor does he seem to want to understand any of it.  In his ignorance and his spite he is behaving like a two-year old having a tantrum, lashing out around him and causing destruction to everything within his reach.  He is surrounded by sycophants, enablers and incompetents, and those few advisers he has who know better are unable to sway him or control him.  He is destroying the work of men far better than he.

And what will he replace it with?  I don’t think he knows or cares.  It does seem obvious that he is most comfortable with dictators and autocrats around the world, from Russia’s Putin to Duterte of the Philippines.   He admires their “strength”, derived rom the fact that they crush all dissent.  He dismisses their human rights abuses.  He is jealous of the pomp and circumstance that they celebrate their rule with, and jealous of the way they deal with their critics.  He seems to wish he were like them.

And they are delighted.  The enemies of America are rejoicing, particularly the Russians.  Their prayers have been answered.  They have been trying to undermine the Western alliance system for many years.  And now the person who should be leading that alliance system is doing it for them.  The investment they made in helping him win the Presidency is looking like the best investment they have ever made.

It is not too late.  Damage has been inflicted on the institutions of the Western alliance, just as damage has been inflicted on our own democracy in America, but those institutions, both international and domestic, were built strong and robust.  They can take a fair amount of damage before buckling completely.  But their endurance is not limitless.

There is no doubt that the post-WW II Western alliance system cannot stand forever without American leadership.  If and when it falls, we will enter a new and much more dangerous and unpredictable era of our history.  An era in which nationalism, the force which ripped the world apart so many times, again becomes dominant.  When narrowly defined self-interest dominates the policies of the great powers again.  Only now those great powers are all armed with nuclear weapons, or could be quickly if they so desired.

The Trump Administration is not just playing with fire.  They are building a bonfire which could consume the world.

We need to take away their matches.  That begins in November with the election of a Congress that will be a real check on his dangerous and ignorant plans.



The Challenge of Hate Speech in a Free Society

Must a tolerant society also tolerate intolerance?  This a is a question all free societies wrestle with, and there are no easy answers.

Most Americans are probably unaware of it, but our respect for free speech in the United States is pretty extreme.  They know, of course, that many countries of the world do not enjoy the same rights we do in the United States, but I think they imagine that is just in the countries that have authoritarian or non-democratic governments.  But that’s not the case.  Nearly every country in the world takes a less expansive view of free speech than the United States.  Most countries have stronger libel laws, for example, making it easier for the press to be sued for publishing things that are untrue.

Most also have laws that limit hate speech much more than the United States does.

That doesn’t mean that they are horrible places where the rights of the people to speak out in unpopular ways are under constant threat.  They’re not.  They are places with histories different from our own that recognize the undeniable truth that hate speech is a corrosive that damages all of society when left unchecked.  It is a grave threat to the stability and health of any democratic nation.  Their position is perfectly understandable and defensible.

But I have never agreed with it.

It is without doubt that hate speech is a vile, damaging and obscene thing.  It is a tremendous challenge for any democratic society.  It cannot and must not go unchallenged, particularly when it is aimed at minorities and other less advantaged groups by members of the dominant group.

But it shouldn’t be illegal.

For many years it was my job to push the official USG policy on hate speech, which can be summed up like this: Bad speech (hate speech) should be countered by good speech.  Every time.  By all good and responsible members of society, and especially by government leaders and by members of the dominant social group.  We have preached that standard to other countries for many years, and have held them to account with condemnation when they failed to do so.

I believe in this standard.  Hate speech, in my opinion, should not be banned, but it must always be countered and condemned.  Immediately.  By all right-thinking members of society.  Without caveats or reservations.  Without consideration of political alliances or tribalism.

That is where we currently have a problem in the United States.  The first reaction of many people, taking their clues from right-wing propaganda and our current government, is not to condemn hate speech, but rather to condemn those who protest against it by making the ludicrous allegation that protesting hate speech is a violation of the right to free speech.  That is wrong on many different levels, but the most important one is that the first reaction must always be to condemn the hate speech immediately and without any reservation.

Without that condemnation our right to free speech is meaningless.  Hate speech, if not countered by near unanimous societal condemnation, and particularly by condemnation from our leaders, can destroy us as a society.  The right to free speech must be accompanied by the courage and commitment to ostracize those who engage in hate speech each and every time, if democracy is to survive in America.

This administration and its supporters have fallen far short in this regard, and have engaged in some of what is arguably hate speech themselves, on more than one occasion.  That needs to change, or we need to change this administration when next we go to the polls.

True American Exceptionalism

We Americans have always taken pride in the fact that our country is a pretty special place.  Within our foreign policy that has frequently taken the form of what is called “American exceptionalism”, the idea or conceit that we have a special place in the world and are different from other countries, better even.

Now. certainly not everyone agrees with this notion.  There are those who point to our frequent hypocrisy, our foreign policy missteps, and our failures of morality and ethics to show that we no different, and no better than any other nation.  They make some very valid points.

But I don’t agree with them.  I have always believed in American exceptionalism.  If I hadn’t I could never have spent nearly three decades serving my country as a civil servant and diplomat.

There are a lot of things that make America special and different from other nations.  The most obvious of these is our sheer power.  We are, at the moment, considerably more powerful than any other nation on Earth, in terms of political, economic and military power.  No other nation comes close, and none of them will catch us any time soon.  All of that is obvious.  In my years as a diplomat I witnessed time and again that America is now, has been for some time, and will be for some time to come, the country whose support and participation is needed to accomplish almost anything of import, be it a military mission, a trade deal, a human rights accord or an environmental agreement.

But if that were all that made America special, I would not have felt moved to serve my country for so long.  What makes us special is the ideals on which we were founded.  Ideals that include democracy, freedom and human rights.  And the idea that every person in the world should be able to enjoy them as we do.  We haven’t always lived up to those ideals.  Far from it.

But sometimes we have.

Sometimes we have, in ways no other nation was or is capable of.  We have done good in the world, and not all of it was for purely selfish reasons.  We have led the world in a mostly positive direction, despite our many failures.  We have worked for peace and security, respect for human rights and for the spread of democracy.  And in turn, that has served our own selfish interests very well – the bipartisan consensus of the last eighty years or more in which we have embraced leadership in the world have been the time when America has thrived the most.  That is not a coincidence.  Others have worked for these causes as well, but none with the impact we can have because of our power.  Our leadership has been and still is necessary.  Without it, the world becomes a more dangerous place, a place dictators and aggressors feel more emboldened and where rights are more likely to be abused.  A world where democracy declines.

That is the true meaning and purpose of American exceptionalism.  That is why I served my country for so long and am proud of my service, as I am proud of my country.

That’s also why I am so saddened by the foreign policy of this Administration.  It clearly does not define American exceptionalism in the same way I do.  It focuses only on the power and the short-term interests of America, and ignores our ideals and is apparently ignorant of our long-term interests.  It seems to want to turn America into just another country, only stronger.  It has abandoned leading through persuasion and diplomacy and abandoned our allies in the process.  In its place it has installed the foreign policy of a bully, full of threats and unilateral actions designed to force others to our will.  It will undoubtedly achieve some short-term successes in that way, but at tremendous long-term cost both to ourselves and to the world.

It shouldn’t be a surprise.  One of the dominant personality traits of Donald Trump is that he is a bully.  No surprise that he should behave in the international arena just as he does in every other aspect of his life.  As with most bullies, however, I suspect he is a coward at heart.  And you can see the signs of it, in the way he backs down from other bullies in the world, like Russia and China.  Even worse, he seems to admire them in a perverse way, perhaps because they can be greater bullies within their own countries than our system allows him to be.

Clearly, there are many people in America (and there always have been) who do want America to be exceptional only because of its power.  America First has been a pernicious slogan for many years, discredited many times but always coming back.  Xenophobic nationalism and bigotry are difficult monsters to slay and I don’t know if we ever will be able to do so permanently.  They tore the world apart twice in the last century, costing millions of lives, and yet they still creep back now.  In America, Trump is their champion.

So, for all those of us who agree that America is exceptional and for those of us who would just like it to be, we need to decide why we want it to be exceptional.   To put it starkly, do we just want to be feared or do we want to be respected?  Do we want to lead or do we just want to bully?

America voted for the latter in 2016, and that is part of why I felt I needed to leave government service rather than serve an Administration whose foreign policy is based on short-sighted nationalism.  We have a chance to correct that mistake and restore true American exceptionalism in 2018 and 2020.  We need to seize that chance.