Hummer Rules

Posted January 6, 2010

Categories: Articles

Anti-government rhetoric is all the rage these days. And “rage” is the operative word here. Small-government enthusiasts are like the drivers of Hummers incensed at all the difficulties they encounter on the roadway — pesky speed limits, red lights, construction-related delays. Fuming at these restrictions on their liberty, they suddenly have a profanity-laced meltdown and take it out on those around them.

Michele Bachmann (R-Mars), who represents the Palin constituency inside Congress, regularly flies into anti-government rages. “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back,” she told a Minnesota radio program last year. “Thomas Jefferson told us ‘having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,’ and the people — we the people — are going to have to fight back hard if we’re not going to lose our country.”

Florida senatorial candidate Marco Rubio has gotten a lot of mileage out of his anti-government tirades. The Obama administration is trying to create “a dependency society,” he has said. But of course now he’s begging the federal government for assistance in fighting the oil spill.

Ironies abound. These people are in government. I propose we come up with a new term: self-hating politicians. If they hate government so much, the Bachmanns and Rubios of the world should simply resign and get jobs in the private sector. The slogan for the 2010 elections should be: No More Self-Hating Politicians!

Here’s the more depressing irony: Right now we need more government, not less. We need sustained government investment in public works. We need the government to focus on sustainable energy and the reduction of carbon emissions. We need assertive diplomacy from the U.S. government in global affairs. The small-government cabal has gotten everything turned around. The government isn’t intervening in the economy and suppressing liberty. The government creates the conditions within which liberty can thrive.

Let’s go back to the traffic metaphor for a moment. I recently came across an interesting article in The Washington Post that brought together anti-government sentiment and road rage. Complaints have been piling up in Washington over a particular stretch of roadway heading out of the District. After miles of delays on New York Avenue, drivers finally hit a green light at Bladensburg Road and start to accelerate to get out of town. Problem is, ‘there’s a speed limit on that stretch of highway and speed cameras have been issuing citations.

“What motorists think is happening at this [camera] site is a violation of their sense or understanding of freedom,” Isaac Kramnick, professor of government at Cornell University, related to me in a corrected version of a quote he gave the Post. “What they are thinking is that they’ve come all this way through traffic and now the government is stepping in with a ticket at this crucial moment of freedom.”

But how soon the freedom-loving motorists forget! Actually, the government stepped in a long time ago to build and maintain the road, set up the traffic light, establish the rules of traffic safety, and police those rules. Perhaps freedom of a sort existed when New York Avenue was marshy land and 18th-century horseback riders could gallop as fast as they pleased through the mud and muck. Since then, the government has created the conditions under which freedom (to drive) can exist in the first place.

We might quibble about this or that traffic rule. After all, we live in a democracy. But we must recognize that the traffic system saves us from the law of the jungle — might makes right — and tames the savage beast behind the steering wheel. Only because of government-sanctioned rules of the road can the Hummer lie down with the Honda. Government is the real invisible hand here, so invisible that we all forget its role in sustaining commerce, creating jobs, and establishing fair rules.

The same principles apply globally. The modest success of the traffic system gives hope that a fair and equitable global order is possible. If anarchic individuals can behave themselves on the roadway, so that road rage is the exception rather than the rule, perhaps states too can obey an international system of rules and regulations and thereby avoid the state of nature that Hobbes warned of: the war of all against all. Rules and regulations at an international level ideally prevent the strong (states, corporations) from preying on the weak (the rest of us).

Still, of course, we live by Hummer rules. The United States wages war; BP makes messes. But slowly — and I’m talking the long term here — we are coming up with rules that restrict the liberty of the powerful to guarantee security and justice for all.

Consider the recent Group of 20 (G20) meeting in Toronto. Yes, there are many reasons to be critical of the G20. It doesn’t represent the poorest third of the world’s population. It seems to pay more attention to the needs of the rich. It is, like so much else, an imperfect institution.

But the G20 can also help establish the rules that can rein in the anarchy of the market. For instance, the G20 has been considering two key reforms on tax havens and a global transactions tax. At a time of tight budgets, governments should be eager to crack down on corporations and individuals that shirk their taxes by funneling their money into offshore havens. The G20 has supported a “name and shame” campaign against financial centers that don’t comply with international standards. But some smaller countries like Luxembourg are reluctant to submit to a new regime of transparency unless big players like the United States — with dodgy areas like Delaware and the Virgin Islands — also play by the rules.

In Toronto last week, the G20 wrestled with a global transactions tax that could raise hundreds of billions of dollars from the people who can most afford to give. But the Canadian government led the opposition to the measure, and it was postponed until the next meeting in November in South Korea. The failure of this measure has revealed the problems with consensus rule in such a diverse forum.

“The bottom line,” Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Didier Jacobs points out in Our Global Senate and Its Flaws, “is that one-vote filibusters would be a bad idea for the U.S. government, and are likewise a bad idea for our global government. As the importance of global problems requiring global solutions grows, majority voting will eventually become necessary to advance the economic reforms we so desperately need.”

Anti-government sentiment has also prevented the G20 from encouraging the kind of public spending the world needs at the moment to pull us out of the current recession. European governments are focusing on deficit cuts. The Obama administration is rightly urging more stimulus spending, but has been reluctant to spend the political capital at home to overcome its small-government critics. We are on the verge of a “third depression,” argues economist Paul Krugman in a widely read opinion piece on Sunday, because of “the victory of an orthodoxy that has little to do with rational analysis, whose main tenet is that imposing suffering on other people is how you show leadership in tough times.”

The president has challenged the anti-government rhetoric that has brought us to this stalemate both domestically and internationally. “When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us,” President Obama said last month in a commencement speech in Michigan. “Government is the roads we drive on and the speed limits that keep us safe.”

In these tough times, we need leadership that can reveal the invisible hand of government and remind the public that government is the instrument by which we the people regulate ourselves. Without government, after all, it’s a Hummer world out there.

Loose Lips

Perhaps no one was more publicly anti-government last week than General Stanley McChrystal. The general in charge of the Afghanistan War, profiled in Rolling Stone, had a few choice names for the vice president, the national security advisor, and the ambassador to Afghanistan. He wasn’t particularly complimentary of the president either, calling him “uncomfortable and intimidated” around the military brass. Such candor lost McChrystal his job.

“The McChrystal debacle dramatizes how military thinking dominates U.S. policy — look at how much of the budget the Pentagon commands — as well as the utter hopelessness of achieving anything but draining defeat from the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan,” writes FPIF contributor Saul Landau in Remember Vietistan?

While Landau explores the comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam, FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan goes further back in history: to the Boer War that the British waged against Dutch settlers in South Africa at the turn of the 19th century. “All over the colonial world people took notice: a ragtag guerrilla force had fought the mighty British army to a stalemate,” he writes in Turkey, America, and Empire’s Twilight. “The Boer War exposed the underlying weakness of the British Empire, just as Iraq and Afghanistan have signaled the end of an era in which powerful countries could use force to dominate a region or the globe.”

And yet, the United States persists in its occupation policies. The Obama administration has promised to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. But the same folks that brought you the war in the first place — the one-two punch of generals and hawk intellectuals — are maintaining a drumbeat of staying the course. “In recent years there has been a tendency for like-minded think tanks and military officers to jointly pursue policy objectives, sometimes in direct conflict with the stated preferences of the president and his advisers,” writes FPIF contributor Mike Flynn in The Surge of Ideas, a piece we published jointly with Right Web. “According to some observers, this trend raises questions about the appropriate role of both military officers, who are part of a chain of command, and think tanks, which present themselves as ‘non-partisan’ appraisers of public policy.

Independent Inquiries?

Israel has appointed a committee to investigate the flotilla attack that left 9 activists dead. The make-up of the committee, however, does not bode well for the independence of the inquiry. As FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes points out, the two international members of the committee, Canadian Kenneth Watkin and David Trimble of Northern Ireland, are not likely to be impartial.

As for the Israeli members, Zunes writes in Israel’s Dubious Investigation of Flotilla Attack, “the committee is led by the conservative former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Jacob Turkel, who has attacked credible international inquiries into Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. A second member is Amos Horev, a reserve Israeli major general and major figure in the Israeli military industrial complex. The third member is Shabtai Rosen, a 93-year-old law professor who was involved in the cover-up of the 1953 massacre in the village of Qibya when Israeli forces crossed into Jordanian territory, destroying 41 buildings (including the school) and killing 60 villagers.”

Last year, Sri Lankan leader Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory over the Tamil Tigers after a military campaign that left tens of thousands dead and 80,000 civilians displaced. To date, there has been no international inquiry into charges that the Sri Lankan military bombed civilian targets during this war.

“While the Tamil diaspora has been active in Europe, Canada, and Australia — and also in the United States — lobbying to bring Rajapaksa to book for war crimes, the subsequent international pressure has had little success thus far,” writes FPIF contributor Vishal Arora in Sri Lanka’s Wartime Abuses. “The U.S. ‘clout’ in the UN Human Rights Council failed. Soon after the Sri Lankan war ended, Washington sponsored a resolution in the Council calling for a war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka, but China — reportedly along with Cuba, Russia, India, and Islamic states — managed to block the move. Instead, the 47-member human rights watchdog passed a Sri Lankan-authored resolution congratulating the Rajapaksa government for its efforts to address the needs of civilians displaced by the fighting.”

Sanctions, Asylum, and Vacation

The international community has leveled a series of sanctions against Iran. And the result has been more of the same. So, what’s next? More sanctions? A military strike? Talk about non-starters.

“The last, best hope of the international community is intense, concerted, high-level diplomatic engagement with Iran, similar to the Six Party Talks that were initiated after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and left the community borne of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” writes FPIF contributor Mary Slosson in It’s Time to Step Up Diplomacy with Iran. “International leaders — from regional countries as well as the United States, Russia, and China — should make it clear to Iran that there are economic benefits that would come along with cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and allowing full access of their nuclear facilities to inspectors. Participating negotiators should join the discussions willing to offer Iran concrete advantages to cooperation.”

Here’s an issue where the Obama administration is making some progress: asylum policy. “The Obama administration has certainly made some progress in asylum policy, by issuing new policy guidelines that eliminate the automatic long-term detention of persons who came to the United States without a valid visa to escape persecution and torture and asked for asylum,” writes Anna Theofilopoulou in Reforming Asylum Policy. “These new guidelines went into effect on January 4, 2010. Asylum seekers are still detained, pending an interview with an asylum officer to determine that they have a credible fear of persecution. Under the new guidelines, however, asylum seekers who pass the credible fear interview will be given a parole interview within seven days to determine that they are eligible for release from detention. According to non-governmental advocacy groups for asylum seekers, these new guidelines need further improvements for they still place an undue burden of proof on the applicant. They are nevertheless a welcome first step.”

FPIF, June 29, 2010

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