The Author’s Corner with David Dzurec

DzurecDavid J. Dzurec is Chair and Associate Professor of History at the University of Scranton  This interview is based on his new book Our Suffering Brethren: Foreign Captivity and Nationalism in the Early United States (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Our Suffering Brethren?

DDThis project began when I came across the captivity narrative of Revolutionary prisoner of war John Dodge.  Initially I had planned to write about the experience of captivity during the American Revolution, but as my researched progressed it became clear to me that the impact of these Revolutionary captivity narratives stretched well beyond the 1780s and ultimately played a role in shaping American politics and culture in the first decades of the nineteenth century.  In addition to expanding chronologically, my research also broadened geographically ultimately including narratives from captive Americans in both Africa and Europe.  In examining these narratives, I was struck by how stories of captivity, even at a great distance, still had an impact on the politics and culture of the early United States.  It was an attempt to understand what role these stories played in shaping American political culture that led me to write this book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Our Suffering Brethren?

DDThe threat of foreign captivity in the decades following Independence simultaneously served to bring the American people together in defense of their fellow countrymen while dividing them along partisan lines.  Ultimately, the efforts of both Federalists and Republicans to claim the mantle of defender of American liberty abroad, while playing on fears of American insecurity, helped to create a language of American nationalism that would define American political culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Our Suffering Brethren?

DD: American nationalism (and nationalism more broadly) is often associated with bellicosity and empire.  Our Suffering Brethren demonstrates how the roots of American nationalism and the political culture that goes with it, sprang from a profound sense of insecurity in the early existence of the United States.  While a number of historians have examined how Cold War fears of the Soviet threat shaped American political culture in the 20th Century, I demonstrate that the exploitation of American insecurity abroad was present in the earliest days of American politics—and that it was employed across the political spectrum to advance political agendas.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DD: While there wasn’t one “aha” moment, I have been fortunate to have a number of great history teachers over the years who have helped me to develop a love of both the subject and the process of historical research.  The first “research paper” I ever wrote was on Thomas Jefferson when I was in fifth grade.  Thirty years later, I’m still essentially researching the same thing.  My high school history teacher, Mr. Cowan, brought an irreverence and energy to the study of the past that was infectious and inspired me to become a history major when I went off to college.  As both an undergraduate and graduate student I was fortunate to work with outstanding faculty who helped me become the historian I am today.

JF: What is your next project?

DD: Growing out of the research for this book, I’ve become interested in how the Federalists dealt with not only losing political power, but how they responded to the ultimate collapse of their party.  I’ve made an initial foray into this topic with my article “Of Salt Mountains, Prairie Dogs, and Horned Frogs: The Louisiana Purchase and the Evolution of the Federalist Party 1803-1812” and I’m excited to see where this project goes. 

JF: Thanks, David!

The Meaning of D-Day

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Here is a taste of SMU’s Jeff Engel‘s piece at The Washington Post:

Lives were lost every day of the war — in the Soviet Union, one life every four seconds — but D-Day holds a special place in American memory because it marked the beginning of the end of our nation’s last clear-cut conflict between good and evil. “Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history,” President Ronald Reagan once explained on the wind-swept cliff above the bloodiest beach of all. We’ll hear similar invocations this week about bravery and sacrifice on behalf of this noblest of causes, and how we must aspire to such greatness today.

Those exhortations will be hollow if we fail to remember the real purpose behind those hallowed deaths, which was not merely the destruction of an evil regime but construction of a world capable of preventing its return. Today, nationalism, xenophobia, trade barriers and just plain hate — all the elements that produced World War II — once again dominate global politics. Even the war’s simplest lesson, that Nazis are bad, finds critics, a development that would undoubtedly surprise and sadden the men of Omaha Beach and Point du Hoc. That is a shame. It is also dangerous, because “lest we forget” is not merely about remembering grand deeds of old. It is also a warning.

D-Day was nothing less than the down payment on an investment Americans had debated since their inception: whether this country should build bridges to the rest of the world, or walls. The former brought costs but perhaps greater benefits. The latter meant isolation behind our splendid ocean moats, or at least engagement only when it suited our narrow needs alone.

Read the entire piece here.  Engel’s piece also echoes some of Queen Elizabeth II’s words earlier this week.

Trump Chooses Death Over Life Under the Guise of “America First.” Where are the Court Evangelicals?

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In case you haven’t seen it yet, here is the official White House statement on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and our ongoing U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia

America First!

The world is a very dangerous place!

The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more. Likewise, the Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly, and with great force, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Iran is considered “the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave. They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars in leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism.

After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!

The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone. Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder. After great independent research, we now know many details of this horrible crime. We have already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body.

Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that – this is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!

I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction – and they are free to do so. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America. After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!

Thoughts:

  1.  Under the mantra of “America First,” Trump and his administration will continue to support Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
  2. This statement affirms that the United States values the buildup of the American military over the life of Khashoggi and the hundreds of thousands killed in Yemen.
  3. Despite intelligence to the contrary, Trump believes King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman when they “vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.”  (And I believe Trump when he vigorously denies having adulterous affairs with porn stars).
  4. Where are the court evangelicals today?  Their Twitter feeds and other social media sites were filled with praise for Trump’s commitment to religious freedom after Andrew Brunson came home.  Yet today they are silent, much in the same way they were silent on the human rights violations in Yemen when they met with Salman earlier this month.

Here is Michael Steele, the former Chairperson of the GOP”:

The End of American Exceptionalism?

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Today I will be teaching John Winthrop’s sermon A Model of Christian Charity to the teachers in the Princeton Seminar.  You may know this as the famous “city upon a hill” sermon.  Winthrop’s words have been used by several U.S presidents (John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan come immediately to mind) to promote the idea of American exceptionalism.  John Wilsey does a nice job of unpacking this history in his book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion.

Over at the website of Foreign Affairs, Cal-Berkeley historian Daniel Sargent argues that we may have seen the end of the era of American exceptionalism.  Here is a taste of his piece “RIP American Exceptionalism, 1776-2018“:

When Benjamin Franklin went to France on a mission to win support for America’s fledging revolution, his fur hat intrigued Parisians, spurring emulation. But the fashion choice was also a considered statement of the distinct values of his country. From the very beginning, the affirmation of republican probity has remained a touchstone for U.S. diplomacy, just as a sense of the United States as a nation “conceived in liberty” has informed Americans’ understanding of their place in the world. As citizens of the “freest of all nations,” as Ulysses S. Grant put it, Americans favored “people struggling for liberty and self-government.”

It’s true that United States became in the 20th century an imperial republic, but even then, it disavowed conquest and subjugation. Liberation and emancipation became the refrain for America’s many wars, animated by President Woodrow Wilson’s refrain that the United States battles tyrants but emancipates ordinary people. The United States would even strive to elevate and redeem the citizens of the Axis powers it defeated in 1945. After 9/11, the trope became entrenched, as President George W. Bush aimed to sever al Qaeda from Islam and Iraqis from their president. “The tyrant will soon be gone,” Bush promised Iraqis. “The day of your liberation is near.” What other conquering power has code-named a major military operation for the liberation of the invaded, as Bush did with Iraq? (Doubtless it did not occur to Hitler’s high command to dub Operation Barbarossa “Operation Soviet Freedom.”)

Read the rest here.

“Narcissism as a Foreign Policy Doctrine”

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Here is Michael Gerson at The Washington Post:

In the run-up to Helsinki, Trump actively advanced many important national objectives — of Russia. He claimed Crimea to be Russiancredited Putin’s denials of cyberaggressionattacked NATO, called the European Union a “foe,” openly supported Brexitdisparaged the leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, pushed for a trade war with Europe and blamed tension in the U.S.-Russia relationship on the United States. At Helsinki, having imitated Neville Chamberlain in every detail but the umbrella, he declared a famous victory. And so our president, who shows how tough he is by abusing migrant children, was a cringing coward before a dictator.

One of the problems with narcissism as a foreign policy doctrine is that it hides national challenges from the president that are blindingly obvious to everyone else. While Trump employs a mirror, others in the federal government have been using a magnifying glass to find a direct and growing threat to U.S. national security.

Read the entire piece here.

Will Someone Please Explain to Donald Trump That He Did Not Denuclearize North Korea

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Here is Uri Friedman at The Atlantic:

Donald Trump got little of substance out of his summit with Kim Jong Un. But that didn’t stop him from making a triumphant, demonstrably false claim about how things went. Trump declared in an early-morning tweet that North Korea’s threat to America has been somehow neutralized altogether: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

In reality, Trump returned to America from the Singapore meeting having secured only a vague promise, not unlike others the North Koreans have broken in the past, about working toward the goal of denuclearization. Yet North Korea has just as many nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and nuclear facilities and personnel, and precisely as much fissile material, as before Trump and Kim shook hands and signed a document in which North Korea vowed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

 

Not only that, but the North Koreans have come away from the summit with a much more immediate pledge from the president to suspend U.S.-South Korea military exercises that the North has long viewed as a threat. The North Koreans may view their denuclearization commitment as a pie-in-the-sky pledge to give up their nuclear weapons once the nuclear-armed United States withdraws its protection for South Korea and ceases all hostile behavior toward North Korea. The statement they endorsed includes no details on how denuclearization will be implemented, how long it will take, or even what first moves the North will make toward that objective.

Read the entire piece here.

Mike Pence also believes that North Korea is now denuclearized.  Here is what he told the Southern Baptist Convention earlier today:

We certainly saw that in high relief over the last several days, didn’t we? Just this morning, the President returned from a historic summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. The President went to this meeting as, in his words, “on a mission of peace,” but with eyes wide open. And I can report, the meeting that took place was direct and honest, provocative, and productive. It resulted in a bold first step where North Korea’s leader committed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. (Applause.)

This is what authoritarian populists do.  Trump and Pence spread false information and propaganda to rally their base in the hopes that their followers will not do the hard and difficult work of fact-checking.  It is the height of anti-intellectualism and evangelicals are especially susceptible to it.  And when people do fact-check, Trump and Pence demonize the fact-checkers as enemies of the state.

Will Dennis Rodman be in Singapore for the Summit with the North Koreans?

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Former NBA player Dennis Rodman thinks he should get some credit for the upcoming summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.  It appears he will be in North Korea for the historic meeting.

Here is a taste of political scientist Eric Grynaviski‘s piece at The Washington Post:

Yes, it’s true — on Friday, Dennis Rodman confirmed on Instagram that he’s heading to Singapore to “give whatever support is needed to my friends, President Trump and Marshall Kim Jong Un.”

This news has caught many — including the president, apparently — by surprise. On Thursday, President Trump said that Rodman had not been invited to the summit, but called him a “nice guy.”

Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy” since 2013 involved high-profile visits to North Korea, where he met with Kim Jong Un. Rodman also brought along copies of Donald Trump’s books in 2017, and claims to have sold the North Korea leader on the U.S. president.

Rodman told TMZ that he should get some credit for a summit:

“I like Donald Trump. He’s a good friend and I’ve always asked him to talk to me because the people of North Korea and the government over there asked me to talk to Donald Trump about what they want and how we could solve things.”

Read the entire piece here.

Grynaviski places Rodman in the larger history of “America’s Middlemen.”

“The Strategic Implications of American Millennialism”

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After reading this post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, a friend sent me Major Brian L. Stuckert‘s 2008 study of the impact of dispensationalism on American foreign policy.  The paper was written as part of Stuckert’s education at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The paper is over seventy pages long and does a nice job of explaining dispensationalism to a military audience.  Stuckert’s “conclusions and recommendations” for the U.S. Army are worth considering:

“The enemy is a spiritual enemy. It’s called the principality of darkness. We, ladies and gentlemen, are in a spiritual battle, not a physical battle. Oh, we’ve got soldiers fighting on the battlefields, we’ve got sailors, marines, airmen, coast guardsmen out there fighting against a physical enemy. But the battle this nation is in is a spiritual battle, it’s a battle for our soul. And the enemy is a guy called Satan – Satan wants to destroy this nation. He wants to destroy us as a nation and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.” – U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Lieutenant General Boykin, 2003

A 2003 survey found that more than two-thirds of evangelical leaders view Islam as a religion of violence bent on world domination.181 Following the events of September 11, 2001, many Christian opinion leaders began to speak of President Bush’s election and policies as “divinely inspired.” This attitude can present challenges to rational decision making processes. While some political commentators have theorized that the administration’s unwillingness to admit errors is the result of arrogance or political calculation, it is more likely that the administration believes they are doing the will of God and will be vindicated in the end. In other words, intelligence or analysis that seems to support invasions or other administration policies are interpreted as an affirmation of God’s will, while information is to the contrary is viewed with suspicion – perhaps an effort by Satan to deceive or mislead.

As President Carter explained to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, what people believe as a matter of religion, they will do as a matter of public policy.185 There is a tendency on the part of Americans to view foreign policy and international affairs as a “clash of moral opposites.” This tendency may make it difficult for U.S. policy makers and strategists to perceive and act upon subtleties that may lie outside our conceptions of moral absolutes. Military leaders have the difficult task translating this religiously tinged policy into successful strategy and operations. War is primarily about politics. While geography and technology play a role, in order to be successful military leaders must be able to see the political goals as clearly as possible. Because of the influence of pre-millennialism, it can be difficult for military leaders to see themselves and their government accurately and state policy goals objectively.

Because religion in America directly impacts policy, military leaders and planners must learn to recognize the tenets and implications of American millennial thought. Millennialism has always been a feature of the American culture and has shaped not only the objectives of U.S. government policy, but also the way in which we interpret the words and actions of other actors on the international stage. Millennial ideas contribute to a common American understanding of international relations that guide our thinking regardless of individual religious or political affiliation. Millennialism has great explanatory value, significant policy implications, and creates potential vulnerabilities that adversaries may exploit. By gaining insight into and embracing intellectual honesty where our own prejudices and proclivities are concerned, we can greatly improve the quality and clarity of our decision-making.

Pessimism and paranoia are two possible results of pre-millennial influence. In the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, the Joint Staff describes the near-term future as one characterized by “a pervasive sense of global insecurity.”188 There are actually many reasons to trend toward optimism. The U.S. military has no rival and our power is truly global in nature. U.S. military spending always exceeds that of the next several major nations combined. The U.S. military regularly enjoys a position of leadership on the international stage and effectively uses military power to intervene in the affairs of other states. Decision makers should guard against unwarranted pessimism. We should consider whether a contemplated decision or policy is either overly optimistic or pessimistic. Dispensational pre-millennialism typically causes a predisposition toward pessimism in world affairs and a general worsening of international relations. A pre millennial reading of Bible prophecy paints a dismal picture of a world disintegrating toward a cataclysmic end where we are forced to confront the wrath and judgment of God. Assumptions and plans based on this worldview will be less than ideal. 

In the same manner that we so assiduously study the culture and thinking of others,
potential adversaries may study us, to include the ramifications of millennial thought, and gain significant advantages. Millennial thought and its policy implications may create strategic transparency that affords adversaries an advantage in decision-making. In other words, by studying the tenets and predictions of dispensational pre millennialism, one could, to some extent, predict U.S. government actions and reactions. This would certainly prove more useful in areas that figure prominently in dispensational pre-millennialist eschatology, such as Israel. An extension of this strategic transparency might include an ability to provoke or manipulate American policy and subsequent action. With or without the efforts of adversaries, American millennialism may increase the fragility of or even disrupt coalitions. Finally, adversaries could easily transform an understanding American pre-millennialism into a highly effective set of information operations themes and messages or psychological operations efforts to achieve a variety of results with American leadership or the population at large. By recognizing these potential vulnerabilities, American strategists can take action now to mitigate the effects.

Based on what we know about the effect millennialism has on our thinking, we may incorporate additional considerations into policy formulation and evaluation to assist ourselves in the identification of defects, diminished objectivity or unwarranted biases. As a result of millenarian influences on our culture, most Americans think as absolutists. A proclivity for clear differentiations between good, evil, right, and wrong do not always serve us well in foreign relations or security policy. Policy makers must strive to honestly confront their own cognitive filters and the prejudices associated with various international organizations and actors vis-à-vis pre-millennialism. We must come to more fully understand the background of our thinking about the U.N., the E.U., the World Trade Organization, Russia, China and Israel. We must ask similar questions about natural events such as earthquakes or disease. An ability to consider these potential influences upon our thinking may greatly enhance objectivity.

The inevitability of millennial peace through redemptive violence and an exceptional role for America have been and continue to be powerful themes running throughout the security and foreign policies of the U.S.191 Official U.S. government policy expresses these themes in a number of ways from the National seal that reads Novus Ordo Seclorum – the New Order for the Ages – or the nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile known as the Peacekeeper. Whether Americans seek to subdue the continent to realize their Manifest Destiny, conquer the Soviet Evil Empire or rid the world of Saddam Hussein, millennialism imparts an unusual degree of certainty and fortitude in the face of difficult situations. Judis points out that, for the same reasons, millennialism is usually “at odds with the empirical method that goes into appraising reality, based on a determination of means and ends.”192 As demonstrated by American history, millennialism has predisposed us toward stark absolutes, overly simplified dichotomies and a preference for revolutionary or cataclysmic change as opposed to gradual processes. In other words, American strategists tend to rely too much on broad generalizations, often incorrectly cast in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ and seek the fastest resolution to any conflict rather than the most thoughtful or patient one.

Read Stuckert’s entire monograph here.

Friedman: “It’s like diplomatic pornography from beginning to end”

Take 6 minutes to watch this.

Thomas Friedman tells it like it is on Hamas, Israel, and Donald Trump.  He holds nothing back and he is right.

Key lines:

“[Hamas] has a lot to answer for.”

“The whole thing is a tragedy.  It’s like two bald men fighting over a comb.”

“The embassy event was really just a Republican mid-term pep rally disguised as a diplomatic event….This was meant to fire up the far-right religious base of the Republican Party.”

“Trump didn’t do the ‘art of the deal,” he did the art of the giveaway….Trump gave away the most valuable diplomatic real estate in the Middle East treasure-box of the United States and he gave it away for free.  Believe me, in Jerusalem they are laughing at him.  In the Arab world they are laughing at him.  They can’t believe what a sucker he was to take that bait and give this away for free when he could have used it for leverage to truly advance the peace process.”

The Founding Fathers and Foreign Meddling in American Elections

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Were the founders worried about foreign meddling in American elections?

Yes.

Check out Jeanne Abrams‘s piece at History News Service.  Abrams teaches at the University of Denver and her book First Ladies of the Republic was featured in a March 2018 Author’s Corner at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Here is a taste:

In 1787, the new United States Constitution was being debated in Philadelphia, and both Jefferson and Adams followed developments closely from afar. In an oft- quoted letter written by Adams to Jefferson on December 6, 1787, Adams referred to the “Project of the new Constitution,” and the various objections both men had to the evolving document. Adams famously declared “You are afraid of the one – I, of the few.” Jefferson detested the institution of monarchy and was concerned that the installation of a powerful executive would overturn the principles of the American Revolution and create a quasi-monarchy. Adams, on the other hand, feared the creation of an elite aristocracy in the form of senators. Because of his concern about such a possible oligarchy, Adams therefore maintained “I would have given more power to the President and less to the Senate,” and he advocated for a strong executive.

What is more surprising, and for the most part overlooked, about Adams’s letter is his discussion of the potential danger of foreign meddling in American elections, a subject that is especially timely today. “You are apprehensive of foreign Interference, Intrigue, and Influence,” Adams wrote. “So am I, – But, as often as Elections happen, the danger of foreign Influence recurs.” To counteract that danger, Adams maintained that the less frequently elections occurred, “the danger of foreign influence will be less.” Of course, Adams’s view did not prevail and regular elections and the peaceful transfer of power are still regarded as hallmarks of American democracy.

Read the entire piece here.

Mexico in the American Political Imagination

GuardinoSome of you will recall Indiana University historian Peter Guardino‘s visit to the Author’s Corner last month.  His latest book is The Dead March: A History of the Mexican Amercian War.

In  recent History News Network piece which I read at the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail, Guardino argues that “Mexico hasn’t figured in US politics like this since 1848.”  Of course the United States fought a war against Mexico between 1846 and 1848.

Here is a taste:

In February 1847, Ohio Senator Thomas Corwin called the war a grave threat to American democracy, telling the Senate that each chapter of American history written “in Mexican blood may close the volume of our history as a free people.” Corwin argued that injustice does harm beyond its most direct victims by also damaging its perpetrators and putting at risk the political institutions of the aggressors.

He correctly predicted that the war of conquest against Mexico would soon lead to civil war between the North and South. Years later, Mexican-American War veteran Ulysses S. Grant also emphasized the connection between that war and the Civil War. In his memoirs, he wrote that “nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”

The racialized rhetoric some politicians used in 1846-1848 caused great suffering and death in Mexico, and lasting damage to the United States. Today, very similar racialized rhetoric promotes policies that also cause suffering and death for Mexicans and people of Mexican descent.

At the same time, it damages the United States by reinforcing some of the worst baggage that we bring with us from our past: The notion that if some whites are having trouble achieving their dreams, it must be because racial Others are too successful in achieving theirs.

For shame.

Read the entire piece here.

Was the Declaration of Independence a “Plea for Help?”

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This is the title of Ishaan Tharoor‘s Washington Post interview with historian Larrie Ferrerio, author of the recent Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It.  (Check out my review of this book at Education and Culture).

The idea of the Declaration of Independence as a “plea for help” will not sit well with many Americans today, especially on the Fourth  of July, but this does not make it any less true.  I explored this issue a bit in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction?.  Here is an excerpt:

Most would agree that the Declaration of Independence was not a theological or religious documents, but neither was it designed predominantly to teach Americans and the world about human rights.  Americans have become so taken by the second paragraph of the document that they miss the purpose of the Declaration as understood by the Continental Congress, its team of authors, and its chief writer, Thomas Jefferson.  In the context of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence was just what it claimed to be–a “declaration” of “independence” from England and an assertion of American sovereignty in the world.Revised

Historian David Armitage has argued convincingly that the Declaration of Independence was written primarily as a document asserting American political sovereignty in the hopes that the newly created United States would secure a place in the international community of nations.  In fact, Armitage asserts, the Declaration was discussed abroad more than it was at home.  This meant that the Declaration was “decidedly un-revolutionary.  It would affirm the maxims of European statecraft, not affront them.”  To put this differently, the “self-evident truths” and “unalienable rights” of the Declaration’s second paragraph would not have been particularly new or groundbreaking in the context of the eighteenth-century British world.  These were ideals that all members of the British Empire values regardless of whether they supported or opposed the American Revolution.  The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the members of the Second Continental Congress who endorsed and signed it did not believe that they were advancing, as historian Pauline Maier has put it, “a classic statement of American political principles.”  This was a foreign policy document.

The writers of the Declaration viewed the document this way.  In an 1825 letter to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson explained his motivation behind writing it:

“when forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our jurisdiction.  This was the object of the Declaration of Independence.  Not to find out new principles or new arguments, never before thought of…but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

John Adams, writing five years after he signed it, called the Declaration “that memorable Act by which [the United States] assumed an equal Station among the nation.”  Adams’s son, John Quincy, though not a participant in the Continental Congress, described the Declaration as “merely an occasional state paper. It was a solemn exposition to the world of the causes which had compelled the people of a small portion of the British empire, to cast off their allegiance and renounce the protection of the British king: and to resolve their social connection with the British people.”  There is little in these statements to suggest that the Declaration of Independence was anything other than an announcement to the world that the former British colonies were now free and independent states and thus deserved a place in the international order of nations.”

Here is Ferreiro:

We typically look at the Declaration of Independence as a document written to King George III by the American people, stating why we wanted to become an independent nation. That’s what we tell each other when we celebrate the Fourth of July.

Brothers in ArmsBut when you look at what happened in 1776, it was clear George III had already got the memo that the Americans wanted to be independent. And when you look at the writing of the Founding Fathers, they make it very clear that they knew they could not fight Britain by themselves. They knew that the only countries that had the motivation and the military and naval capabilities to defeat Britain were France and Spain. And the only way they could join on the Americans’ side was if they knew this was not simply a battle of colonists with their mother country to get a better deal. They only would come to our aid if they saw that we were fighting as a sovereign, independent nation against a common adversary.

The Declaration was specifically written for that purpose, and both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson said this — they were quite clear in their writings. Thomas Jefferson took those ideas and made a document for the ages, a truly enlightened document that read out many of the ideas of the time on what constitutes the rights of the state and the people. But at the core it was a cry for help. The first considered action by Congress after the Declaration was approved was to put it on a ship so it could reach the courts of France and Spain.

Read the rest of the interview here.

The Diplomacy of Narcissism

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This is what E.J. Dionne calls Donald Trump’s foreign policy of “America First.”  Here is a taste of his recent column at The Washington Post (via Real Clear Politics).

The problem with “America First” is that it describes an attitude, not a purpose. It substitutes selfishness for realism.

It implies that nations can go it alone, that we stand for nothing beyond our immediate self-interest, and that we should give little thought to how the rest of humanity thinks or lives. It suggests that if we are strong enough, we can prosper no matter how much chaos, disorder or injustice surrounds us.

America First leads to the diplomacy of narcissism, to use what has become a loaded word in the Trump era. And narcissism is as unhealthy for nations as it is for people.

Perhaps the best approach to the problem as it affects us both individually and collectively was offered by Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the century before the birth of Christ. Hillel’s lesson to us began with two questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Precisely. All of us should be prepared to stand up for ourselves. We are patriots because we love our own land in a way we can love no other. But we live in a world of more than 7 billion people and nearly 200 countries. Does our nation not stand for something more than its own existence? Can we possibly survive and prosper if we are only for ourselves?

Read the entire column here.

Obama’s Response to U.S. Withdrawal From Paris Agreements

Obama Scandals

Courtesy of the Boston Globe:

“A year and a half ago, the world came together in Paris around the first-ever global agreement to set the world on a low-carbon course and protect the world we leave to our children.

“It was steady, principled American leadership on the world stage that made that achievement possible. It was bold American ambition that encouraged dozens of other nations to set their sights higher as well. And what made that leadership and ambition possible was America’s private innovation and public investment in growing industries like wind and solar — industries that created some of the fastest new streams of good-paying jobs in recent years, and contributed to the longest streak of job creation in our history.

“Simply put, the private sector already chose a low-carbon future. And for the nations that committed themselves to that future, the Paris Agreement opened the floodgates for businesses, scientists, and engineers to unleash high-tech, low-carbon investment and innovation on an unprecedented scale.

“The nations that remain in the Paris Agreement will be the nations that reap the benefits in jobs and industries created. I believe the United States of America should be at the front of the pack. But even in the absence of American leadership; even as this Administration joins a small handful of nations that reject the future; I’m confident that our states, cities, and businesses will step up and do even more to lead the way, and help protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got.”

Abraham Lincoln: Internationalist?

BlumAn alternative title for this post might be “Abraham Lincoln’s Rural Enlightenment.”

Over at “Just Security,” Lincoln biographer and former Bill Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal argues that the 16th POTUS would have probably rejected the idea of “America First.”

Here is a taste of his post:

During the decade of the 1850s, Lincoln befriended many German exiled revolutionaries, who would become his indispensable allies in the formation of the new Republican Party. Lincoln’s identification of the “spread of slavery” and “monstrous injustice of slavery” with the struggle for democracy abroad drew the parallels of American slavery with European tyrannies and the antislavery struggle with European revolutions. It was also a direct appeal to the large German community in Illinois, composed of refugees from the suppressed revolutions of 1848.

Defending the American “just influence in the world,” Lincoln raised the perspective of liberal Europe to advance his case to Americans. “Already the liberal party throughout the world, express the apprehension ‘that the one retrograde institution in America, is undermining the principles of progress, and fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw.’ This is not the taunt of enemies, but the warning of friends. Is it quite safe to disregard it—to despise it? Is there no danger to liberty itself, in discarding the earliest practice, and first precept of our ancient faith? In our greedy chase to make profit of the negro, let us beware, lest we ‘cancel and tear to pieces’ even the white man’s charter of freedom.”

In his little law office in Springfield, Lincoln further deepened his cosmopolitan understanding of the issues at stake. He subscribed to newspapers from across the country and journals from London. His line referring to “the liberal party throughout the world” was quoted without attribution from the New York Times, which had reprinted an article from the London Daily News, whose conclusion warned against “the one retrograde institution in America.” Lincoln’s phrase, “cancel and tear to pieces,” was an unacknowledged quotation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a scene in which assassination of the rightful king is plotted. In a letter written in 1855, Lincoln also unfavorably compared the rising nativist movement of the Know Nothings against immigrants to Russia, “where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

As president, Lincoln presented the Civil War as an international event of the greatest magnitude, the cause of the United States as a liberal republic opposed by the same oppressive forces that had crushed the 1848 revolutions, and which sought the defeat of the American experiment in democracy. It was this idea that led Lincoln in 1862 to call the United States “the last best hope of Earth.”

Read the entire post here.

Lincoln scholars, what say ye?

Is Donald Trump More “Politically Correct” Than Barack Obama?

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Peter Beinart of The Atlantic compares the speech Donald Trump gave yesterday in Riyadh to Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo.  He concludes that Trump was much more “politically correct.”

Here is a taste:

“Political correctness,” as it is used in common parlance, means avoiding hard truths so as not to offend the people around you. And Trump made his hostility to political correctness a centerpiece of his campaign. Nowhere was this more evident than in his discussion of “radical Islam.” Again and again, Trump blamed America’s vulnerability to jihadist terrorism on President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s refusal honestly to speak about the pathologies of Muslims and Islam. At a Wisconsin town hall in March of last year, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked, “Do you trust Muslims in America?” Trump responded, “We have a problem, and we can try and be very politically correct and pretend we don’t have a problem, but, Anderson, we have a major, major problem.” In June, in defending his proposed ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, Trump declared that, “The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly” to keep America safe from terrorism.

But for all the pillorying Obama received for supposedly whitewashing the problems of the Islamic world, his Cairo speech actually addressed them quite bluntly. Speaking at Egypt’s prestigious Cairo University, Obama condemned Holocaust denial in Muslim countries, calling it “baseless, ignorant, and hateful.” He denounced people who “threaten Israel with destruction” and “repeat vile stereotypes about Jews.” He highlighted the oppression of women in Muslim lands, declaring that “a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.” He referenced the Middle East’s economic failures, arguing that “no development strategy can be based only upon what comes out of the ground, nor can it be sustained while young people are out of work.” And in a clear challenge to his host, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, he insisted that “all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

Compare that to Trump, who said virtually nothing that caused his hosts any discomfort. Trump criticized terrorist groups like ISIS for their “persecution of Jews,” and he condemned Iran for pledging “the destruction of Israel.” But since ISIS and Iran are Riyadh’s most bitter foes, those condemnations won’t have bothered the Saudi monarchs at all. Unlike Obama, Trump avoided the broader problem of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in Islamic countries, a problem in which his Saudi hosts are deeply complicit. Nor did he even hint at the fact that Saudi Arabia still does not recognize Israel.

On the question of women’s rights, it was much the same. Trump attacked jihadist terrorists for “the oppression of women.” But he described King Salman’s government as a virtual beacon of women’s rights. “Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030 is an important and encouraging statement of tolerance, respect, empowering women, and economic development,” Trump declared. You would never have known that women in the Kingdom still can’t drive.

Read the rest here.

So It Looks Like This Will Not Be Happening

Ed Kilgore reports at New York Magazine:

Trump conspicuously promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem at an AIPAC event in March of 2016. He reiterated the pledge on the eve of his inauguration, adding that, “You know I’m not a person who breaks promises.” And at the 2017 AIPAC gathering a few weeks ago, Vice-President Mike Pence backed off some but managed to raise expectations again. “After decades of simply talking about it, the president of the United States is giving serious consideration to moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Pence said.

Well, not anymore, or at least not imminently. Trump’s hopes of brokering some sort of Israeli-Palestinian peace deal are apparently alive, and he plans to meet with Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem next week. Putting the embassy move on hold is essential to any diplomacy with the Palestinians.

Read the entire piece here.

Andrew Bacevich on Trump’s Syria Attack

72ed6-bacevichThe Boston University history professor, former U.S. Army officer, and foreign policy expert has weighed-in at the Boston Globe.  A taste:

Let’s be clear: Syria’s Bashar Assad is a bum and probably a war criminal. Yet it does not follow that the president of the United States possesses the authority to order an armed attack on the sovereign state that Assad governs.

Granted, presidents have been encroaching on congressional war powers for decades now. At least since Harry Truman ordered US troops into Korea back in 1950, the role allotted Congress in authorizing the use of force has eroded. Not since December 1941 has Congress actually “declared” war, now a quaint notion akin to asking your girlfriend’s dad for her hand in marriage.

True, to sustain a pretense of relevance, Congress has periodically issued broad statements that essentially give presidents a free hand to do as they see fit. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964 offers one infamous example of this practice. The so-called Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, passed with minimal debate on September 14, 2001, offers a second.

That authority rests with the Congress, as Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution explicitly states. As a result of President Trump’s actions, that provision has now become a dead letter. The last constraints inhibiting the use of force by whoever happens to be commander-in-chief have now disappeared. When it comes to initiating hostilities, the occupant of the Oval Office is now omnipotent.

That document directs the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the events of 9/11. In effect, it says to the president: You decide; just keep us safe.

The AUMF is the ultimate blank check. In the 15-plus years since, senior US officials have cited it as a basis for conducting military operations against various and sundry evildoers who had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. It has become the point of departure for permanent war conducted according to the whim of whoever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office. What’s left to the Congress is simply to pay the bills, which it does routinely with minimal complaint or partisan bickering. When it comes to funding wars, bipartisanship reigns.

Read the rest here.