Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Reading

The Lessons of Tunisia — Steve Coll writes in The New Yorker about what’s at stake when people take to the streets in countries where democracy is a revolutionary idea.

The objections to pushing democratic reform in the Arab world are by now familiar: it may create instability; it may empower Islamist parties; it may open more space for Iranian mischief by empowering Shiite minorities; it can undermine a legitimate opposition group by making its members appear beholden to Western ideas; and it may deprive the United States and Europe of reliable partners in counterterrorism. Yet the corrosive effects of political and economic exclusion in the region cannot be sustained—among them the legions of pent-up, angry young men, Islamist and otherwise.

President Obama has been cautious about democracy promotion. The Bush Administration proceeded similarly during its chastened second term. A 2008 cable from the WikiLeaks Tunisia file unctuously describes a “warm and open” meeting between the assistant secretary of state, David Welch, and President Ben Ali, during which the dictator deployed a tried-and-true strategy, cultivating Washington’s allegiance by pledging “total” coöperation on counterterrorism, “without inhibitions.” Ben Ali also offered some free analysis: “He opined that the situation in Egypt is ‘explosive,’ ” a note-taker recorded, “adding that sooner or later the Muslim Brotherhood would take over” in Cairo. “He added that Yemen and Saudi Arabia are also facing real problems. Overall, the region is ‘explosive.’ ” Psychologists might call this projection, but Ben Ali had the trend lines right.

The Obama Administration’s policies are likely to have only indirect influence in Tunis. Nonetheless, the White House has a choice: to support Tunisia’s transition toward inclusive democracy or to keep a distance, so as to avoid alienating the Egyptian and Saudi regimes, and to thwart Islamists who might now seek to enter Tunisian politics. The practical rewards for promoting democracy in Arab societies may be uncertain and slow, if they come at all. There are significant risks, particularly if Egypt’s government were to fall to leaders who would abandon any alliance with Washington. But it is the right strategy—in principle and in pursuit of America’s national interests. Tunisians showed that the status quo in Arab politics is not stable. Sometimes, common sense is ample guidance in foreign policy: the United States must invest in populations, not in dictators. At hinge moments in domestic politics, President Obama has shown why words matter. Now is the time to add his measured voice to the fury of El Général’s.

More below the fold.

Role Reversal — Frank Rich notes how now it’s President Obama and the Democrats who have become the party of Reagan and the GOP is the one with the malaise.

Obama’s rhetorical Morning in America is exquisitely timed to coincide with the Gipper’s centennial — and, of course, the unacknowledged start of his own 2012 re-election campaign. It’s remarkable how completely the G.O.P. has ceded the optimism of its patron saint to the president just as the country prepares for a deluge of Reaganiana. Obama’s post-New Year’s surge past a 50 percent approval rating — well ahead of both Reagan’s and Bill Clinton’s comeback trajectories after their respective midterm shellackings — may have only just begun.

There was no drama to Obama’s address — just a unifying theme, at long last, as he reasserted the role of government in rebooting and rebuilding the country for a new century and putting Americans back to work. The president wisely left any theatrics to his adversaries, and, as always, they were happy to oblige.

This time we were spared a “You lie!” But once Obama segued into a rambling laundry list and the “prom night” bipartisan photo ops lost their comic novelty, the night’s storyline inevitably shifted to the reliable diva antics of Michele Bachmann, the founder of the House’s Tea Party Caucus. For all the Republican male establishment’s harrumphing, it couldn’t derail her plan to hijack the party’s designated State of the Union response with one of her own. More Katherine Harris than Sarah Palin, Bachmann is far more riveting television bait than Paul Ryan, the bland congressman officially assigned the Bobby Jindal memorial slot after the New Jersey governor Chris Christie was savvy enough to take a pass.

The G.O.P. grandees’ consternation was palpable. Earlier in the day Bachmann had dispatched an e-mail announcing that her speech would be carried live by Fox News. But when the time came, Fox relegated the live feed to its Web site, forcing viewers to scurry to CNN, of all places, and delaying its own television recap until after prime time in the East. Rupert Murdoch’s other major organ, The Wall Street Journal, toed the same line, burying Bachmann’s speech in a half-sentence in its print edition the next morning. By then, John Boehner, seconding the disdain of Eric Cantor, was telling reporters that he hadn’t watched Bachmann because of “other obligations.”

What were they all afraid of? The answer cuts to the crux of the right’s plight less than three months after its supposed restoration. Having sold itself in 2010 as the uncompromising champion of Tea Party-fueled fiscal austerity, the enhanced G.O.P. caucus arrived in Washington in 2011 to discover that most Americans prefer compromise to confrontation and favor balanced budgets in name only.

Whistling Dixie — James H. Burnett III of the Miami Herald on the reasons we fought a war 150 years ago.

Keeping in mind that 82-year-old Georgia Ayers has six children, 10 grandchildren, and 12 great grandchildren, and has taught and mentored several thousand more, the most uncomfortable question she’s ever been asked by a youngster has nothing to do with sex or reproduction.

“Whew!” Ayers, an elder stateswoman and unofficial historian in Miami’s African American community said recently. “Gotta catch my breath on that one. I have to tell you the toughest one has always been why did we fight the Civil War? Why would states that belonged to the same club, so to speak, turn on each other? Small children especially, just don’t get it.”

But as the 150th anniversary of the start of America’s deadliest conflict approaches, it appears it’s not only kids who “just don’t get it,” “it” being the cause of the war.

More than 630,000 Americans on both sides were killed in the Civil War between April 1861 and April 1865, and 412,000 were wounded.

As Florida joins dozens of other states preparing to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, also known as the War Between the States, some are asking if the lack of agreement on the cause of the war is behind the feeling that it’s still being fought.

There’s little dispute that the Union North’s motivation was not as magnanimous as has been portrayed in some historical texts, which suggest that the North initiated war simply to keep the union together, and which portray Abraham Lincoln as a prophet-like leader who crushed slavery, though the Emancipation Proclamation only freed some.

Still, the greatest public disputes over the Civil War have always been about the motivations and objectives of the Southern Confederacy, whose history-minded supporters insist that slavery was a side dish to the main course of free trade.

Hundreds of white war celebrants gathered in Charleston, South Carolina, in November to take part in a ball dubbed the “Secession Gala,” where attendees wore period clothing, cheered the pre-Civil War South, sang Dixie and other Confederate songs, and generally partied in a manner that might have made the producers of Gone with the Wind jealous.

Randy Burbage, vice president of the Confederate Heritage Trust, told The New York Times the ball was intended to honor men who were willing to die to protect states’ rights.

In Alabama there are plans for a swearing-in ceremony, featuring an actor playing Jefferson Davis, first president of the Confederate States of America following secession.

And what about Confederate flags? In 1861, they represented a defiant new nation. Today, serious Civil War history buffs insist the flag still represents the same. But they’re also common fodder for racial extremists, irreverent bumper stickers and car antenna banners. Are those vehicles driven by history buffs, free spirits who consider themselves “rebels in spirit,” those who pine for the days when that flag was in use, or none of the above?

“That’s the thing about disputed history,” said South Florida historian Marvin Dunn, an author and former professor at Florida International University. “When you start asking why, the answers become increasingly complex and increasingly ugly. People on both sides get offended by labels and symbols. People defending some aspect of the war get defensive.

“But we’re a tough nation. So maybe this is finally the time that we can put the Civil War to rest, not in terms of remembering it, but in terms of being honest about what it was about…what it was ALL about.”

Doonesbury — American Idol.