Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Lesser Evil

I will be enthusiastically voting for Barack Obama in November’s Presidential election. While I do not think he or his first four years have been perfect, weighed against our options and our nation’s historical context, I need not do so in shame, as Conor Friedorsdorf and other “liberals” I know demand of me.

That’s because, while it would be nice to live in a Walgreen’s commercial, just down the street from “Perfect, USA,” I have this nagging acceptance of reality to deal with. Just as I find “conservatives” longing for the “good ole days” as banal as it is historically revisionist, I find the complaints of Obama’s allegedly “liberal” detractors steeped in a worldview as fantastic as anything Disney created. While I am not interested in challenging Friedersdorf’s own moral comfort zone and deal-breakers – he is right to say everyone must define their own – I find that he is challenging those which I define as mine own.

I am a utilitarian, but I am not voting for Obama because he is the lesser of two evils, I am voting for him because he is the best candidate to lead this society away from the evils with which we are engaged at the current time. He is also the only candidate with an actual shot of continuing that difficult work.

Friedersdorf sums my views up in only one place: “On one issue, torture, he issued an executive order against an immoral policy undertaken by his predecessor, and while torture opponents hoped for more, that is no small thing.” At least there is this level of acceptance, though not for the reasons I share.

While it would be very nice to believe we live in a society where torture is truly seen as the abhorrent and immoral practice that it is, the absolute and final truth is that we do not. I would posit that, at this point in our history, a majority of voting stakeholders in our democracy not only have no problem with the use of torture as a means to an end, but support the further expansion of torture as an effective tool of more strongly correcting what they see as policy goals. How many voters openly celebrate the fact that people will be subjected to pervasive sexual torture when incarcerated in prisons right here in the United States of America? How many voters tacitly support police brutality towards individuals merely suspected of crimes? How many voters continue to equip their police forces with tasers while denying the appropriate training measures? How many individuals resist all efforts to exonerate individuals wrongly convicted of crimes for which the penalty is death?

A majority. That’s how many. And in a democracy, the majority usually wins when it comes to policy. Otherwise the practices would start changing in the cities and towns across America. Looking at it that way, understanding how many Americans don’t simply accept but actively support the torture of other Americans, what makes anyone think this majority is going to have a problem actively supporting the torture of non-Americans who they believe are out to kill Americans?

And this is where we are today, even after generations upon generations of fighting to extend civil liberties to other Americans and non-Americans. Hell, even with this majority that favors using torture to achieve policy ends, it probably represents the lowest level of popular support for torture in our nation’s entire historical context.

Yet Obama is the “lesser” of the “evils” by removing the torture aspect from our foreign policy, and is critiqued for not going after those who used it as the tool the majority so supported. One day, critics may come to understand that the political reality this President faces is not between “do not torture” and “prosecute torturers” but is between “do not torture” and “expand torture as a matter of policy.” Even in choosing the “do not torture” path, the President is reviled by nearly half the country as a terrorist-sympathizing America hater. At some point, with this subject, the responsibility lies on the American people who abhor torture to challenge their American neighbors who celebrate it. Blaming the President for not doing what we ourselves won’t do is simply projecting the guilt.

Then there are the things I think Friedersdorf gets wrong. Again, I believe that all of his conclusions stem from the same utopian misunderstanding of what American society will allow our political options to be.

Let's talk about the "drone war." When it comes to the “drone war,” we can have a President using shaky intelligence and advanced technology to strike at individuals believed to be engaged in a covert war against American interests. The nations in which these actions take place have neither effective means of (nor apparent interest in) investigating and prosecuting those individuals, nor even establishing law and order so that their own residents might live in any situation other than chaos.

What options does the American President have? Abandoning the theater of war allows enemies in Afghanistan a safe refuge to resupply, plan, and continue to stage attacks on Americans. Prioritizing the needs of “the children” may tug on the heartstrings. But you know who those same folks are scared of when the drones aren't overhead? The Taliban and the Pakistani Army, that's who. Let's not pretend for one moment that when we're finally gone, all these folks are going to dance through the fields to the sound of music.

Other options? Maybe we could invade their countries and engage in “nation building.” Think I'm joking? There's still plenty of popular support for that sort of thing here in America. Hell, the political options challenging Obama are the same folks who got us into the nation building business during the Bush administration.

But that sounds pretty “lesser of two evils,” doesn’t it? Here’s why it isn’t: the drone war is what the President is using to get NATO out of Afghanistan. What the President is hoping to replace it with is the Arab Spring. Because even a shaky Egyptian democracy run by members of the Muslim Brotherhood is better for the long term stability in the Middle East than continuing the last sixty years of US policy failure founded on propping up dictators. That's a thing the "lesser evil" crowd simply can't answer and they don't want you to think about it. Because democracy and self-determination in the Middle East, even imperfect democracy, is the only way those children you want me to worry about in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Waziristan will ever, EVER, have a chance at something more than chaos at the end of the Taliban's knives or American bombs. And the only way we get from where we are not to that point is to use the drone war, imperfect as it is, to hold that line.

Oh, and if there are some Americans who have taken up arms against America who get in the way of those bombs? Sorry, fellas. I drive down Jefferson Davis Parkway every day on my way to work. That's because I live in a region of the country that takes seriously the memory of a bunch of Americans who took up arms against America. Grant and Sherman may have a special place reserved in Hell, but they smashed Bobby Lee and the Southern Confederacy with fire and iron and without apology.

As far as the Libya thing goes, this President was faced with A) supporting that Arab Spring, B) cries from American liberals to save the Libyans who would be butchered by a brutal dictator, C) cries from American conservatives to get rid of a brutal dictator, D) requests from NATO allies to help them deal with this problem, and E) resolutions from the UN begging for help to get this thing taken care of. President Obama navigated all of that, got rid of an adversary, supported a fundamentally important foreign policy goal, supported every Western international ally of the United States, saved thousands of Libyan lives, and only lost 4 American lives in the affair (and even those lives were lost to terrorist activity by the dying embers of the former regime). That's not a "lesser evil" that's fucking brilliance. If there is a legitimate Constitutional question to be found, I'm wondering who is going to bring it up. It ain't like this Congress would hesitate to impeach the President over a foreign policy success story.

This isn't a cult of personality - these are decisions I would want to see any responsible President make. They are messy and complicated and don't make for easy campaigning. There aren't a lot of good options on the board. But this is far from the lesser of two evils. Is anyone looking beyond 2012? Are you kidding me? I've been waiting for a President with this level of foresight for the entire time I've paid attention to politics.


Monday, September 03, 2012

Don't Talk About Politics During a Disaster

I didn’t drown this week. I didn’t lose all my possessions. I didn’t have to use a hatchet to cut my way out of my own apartment, or help my neighbors cut their way out of theirs. I didn’t have to commandeer a boat and float neighbors and pets to safety. I didn’t have to find family and friends who had done the same amidst a mass exodus of people. I didn’t have to see dead bodies floating in the flood waters and wonder who they were.

Today, I am not mucking mud out of my house, wondering if I should all just pack it up and leave.

Tomorrow, I don’t have to help family and friends do the same. I won’t have to do my time cleaning out a restaurant walk-in cooler that is full of rotting food in the 100 degree heat without power and flooded with street water.

Instead, this morning I woke up in an air conditioned house, accessed my in-home internet and checked my email, took my girlfriend’s bratty dog for a walk around the bock, and walked up the street to buy donuts at a locally owned and operated business. Happy Labor Day.

I got to do all of these things today by the Grace of God, and because the United States government spent $14 billion in tax dollars to reinforce the New Orleans levee system.  One of those is a factor of my personal faith, and is something that can’t be proven. It is difficult to reconcile with the idea that, while I am high and dry (this time), so many of my neighbors in Louisiana are not. The other of those is a stone cold fact – if you are willing to spend government money on effective infrastructure, and you stay vigilant about making sure that money is spent the right way, you are able to mitigate risks that could otherwise be catastrophic.

Do I have to draw a clearer picture than this? Because this is a story I’m not hearing many places. I guess everyone got the memo: when there is a disaster, you aren’t supposed to talk about politics.

It doesn’t matter that a disaster lays bare the relationship between the community and the government in ways that go beyond the normal bullshit you hear every day all day on cable news, the internet, and talk radio. You aren’t supposed to bring up who voted for what when people are still being picked off their roofs by rescue workers. You aren’t supposed to point out that, back when something could have been done about mitigating risk, other priorities had support. That would be considered a crass “scoring of points” or playing the “blame game,” and there are reasons we feel that way as a community. Politicians and the media often take the opportunities disasters afford people far away to do just those things. And because people don’t want to hear that crap when they’re emptying their refrigerator of spoiled food, we “don’t talk about politics” during a disaster.

But we never get around to having that conversation later. Not the important parts, anyway. Mostly, all we do is postpone the blame game and the point scoring. The conversation never really gets to the uncomfortable but necessary relationship between politics and disaster.  

Seven years ago, what passed for that conversation took an ominous tone. New Orleans is below sea level, they said. New Orleans simply cannot be defended, they said. We might as well bulldoze that city back into the swamp, they said. Why would anyone chose to live there, they said. Why should we spend money to defend that city, they said, and still say.

That was what America heard seven years ago. That was our “conversation.” It didn’t matter that so much of it was absolutely wrong. After Hurricane Isaac, we have definitive proof.

New Orleans can be protected from catastrophic flooding. Taxpayers invested in infrastructure, and it worked. And what did that $14 billion dollar investment protect? That would be over $110 billion worth of infrastructure, which included funding to help protect almost a quarter of domestic oil production and half of the nation’s refining capacity, and one of the top 10 ports in the world. You think the price of gasoline is high now? Let’s lose access to the Louisiana Off-Shore Oil Port, or any of the Louisiana refineries and see what you end up paying at the pump.

Of course, I shouldn't have to list all the positives like that. I don't know why I can't just say that $14 billion was a good start on the investment needed to protect a great American city, and be done with it. We never have this conversation about Miami or San Francisco or North Carolina, but when it comes to New Orleans, we need a cost-benefit analysis. (But don't talk about politics during a disaster!)

I’m no mathematician, but I’d say this nation makes $10 off every $1 tax dollar invested in infrastructure and protection around New Orleans. At least. And if I have to draw an even clearer picture for you that the taxpayer investment to protect New Orleans is not only worth it, but working, let me go one further. Without that money, New Orleans would have flooded catastrophically from Hurricane Isaac. We know this because a lot of our neighbors outside the federal levees flooded catastrophically.

I don’t think this means that the stronger levees in New Orleans caused the flooding elsewhere. I don’t think this means we can ignore the important work of restoring Louisiana’s disappearing coast. I don’t even think this means New Orleans could have survived a stronger storm without flooding. Yet. What I know, deep down in my bones, is that if investing in Southeast Louisiana’s infrastructure brings at least a 10-to-1 return on investment for the taxpayers of this country, this nation can afford to invest in stronger protections for more residents down here, and get to work rebuilding this coastal resource.

And that's going to require talking about politics and how it relates to disaster. That's a conversation that needs to get started right now.