In a rather stunning sentence that Ramesh Ponnuru flagged over at National Review‘s The Corner, Joe Klein, in saying that the “chronic disease among Democrats” is their tendency to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right, wrote this:
This is ironic and weirdly self-defeating, since the liberal message of national improvement is profoundly more optimistic, and patriotic, than the innate conservative pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature.
As Ponnuru points out, can you imagine Klein’s outrage if the charge had been made the other way – that the conservative message of national improvement is more “patriotic” than liberalism? Actually, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Here is Joe Klein in “An Overdose of Invective,” one of his many angry columns from 2004:
To be sure, there is a bright line between tough and scurrilous. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth crossed it, and the Bush campaign joined them when presidential surrogates, including Bush the Elder, ratified the Swifties’ lies. (They can’t all be liars, the former President told Don Imus.) Zell Miller’s frontal attacks on Kerry’s patriotism at the Republican Convention also crossed the line-as did the President’s celebration of Miller’s speech in subsequent stump appearances. Indeed, Bush’s gleeful willingness to personally join in the mudslinging is unprecedented in modern U.S. politics. Usually Presidents leave the dirty work to others. Even Richard Nixon, an apotheosis of darkness, had Spiro Agnew do most of the heavy lifting.
Liberals have made a habit out of getting furious about having their patriotism challenged even when it’s not; in Klein’s most recent column we have an example of an explicit assertion that liberalism is more patriotic than conservatism, but without the sound and fury.
This charge, beyond its falsity, is also ignorant and shallow. For one thing, some of the best arguments on behalf of patriotism in recent years have been made by leading conservative intellectuals like Walter Berns in his book, Making Patriots; Norman Podhoretz in My Love Affair With America: The Cautionary Tale of A Cheerful Conservative; William Bennett in Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (see in particular his chapter “Love of Country”); Yale Professor Donald Kagan’s November 4, 2001 lecture on patriotism; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s May 1997 Commentary essay “For the Love of Country.”
Beyond that, is Klein really prepared to argue that the aim of the institutional strongholds of contemporary liberalism – whether we are talking about the academy or Hollywood or others – is to deepen our love for America and increase our civic devotion and pride? That their efforts will make us a more perfect union? Does Klein believe that during the last several decades liberals rather than conservatives have been more likely to reject cultural relativism and radical multiculturalism? Have liberals rather than conservatives been more vocal in arguing why the United States is better in every way than its totalitarian enemies? Is Ted Kennedy really more patriotic in his “liberal message of national improvement” than Ronald Reagan was in his conservative message of national improvement?
To be sure, patriotism is a complicated matter, as it has many elements to it and tensions within it. It is certainly not the property of any one political party. It is not blind support for America, just as it is not reflexive opposition to America. But what we can say, I think, is that, as Berns points out, part of what it has traditionally meant to be an American is to believe in our most cherished creeds – most especially that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. Patriotism also demands that we hold an honest view of our nation — which, in the case of America, means we should acknowledge our injustices (past and present) even as we acknowledge that, in Allan Bloom’s words, “America tells one story: the unbroken ineluctable progress of freedom and equality.” And of course patriotism requires us to sacrifice for our country, to defend her when she is under assault, and to do what we can to help America live up to her founding ideals.
I would finally add this: Conservatives are not “pessimistic” about the perfectibility of human nature; rather, they are realistic about human nature, which is an admixture of virtues and vices. Conservatism is skeptical about grand programs to remake human nature itself, but it is risible to argue that conservatism is philosophically proscribed from making an argument for national improvement. Many of the greatest conservatives in American history have done just that. One could also argue that those who believe in the perfectibility of human nature tend to embrace the view that we are “citizens of the world” even before we are citizens of America.
Joe Klein has waded into ugly waters. Let’s hope he can make his way out of them before too long.
More on Joe Klein
Must-Reads from Magazine
Democrats will regret treating this as a partisan issue.
Whenever a former Obama administration official’s name comes up in the process of investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russian sources, Democrats take the position that the right’s penchant for “whataboutism” neutralizes the implication of wrongdoing. The Democratic objective is to shame those who are committed to crafting a full and unbiased portrait of the events of 2016 into ignoring inconvenient facts, but the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee remains unintimidated.
This month, the committee has met with a variety of senior Obama officials behind closed doors amid its probe of the Russia affair, including former Chief-of-Staff Denis McDonough, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The committee will meet with former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power on Friday.
These interviews are apparently being conducted in the effort to get to the bottom of why incoming Trump administration officials who were inadvertently captured in intelligence intercepts of foreign targets were conspicuously “unmasked” with their names and the details of their conversations leaked to the press. Trump administration opponents call the issue a distraction, but it’s a matter of grave national importance.
Those who are disinclined to look too deeply into the issue of “unmasking” have latched onto a comment from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr like flotsam in a shipwreck. “The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes,” Burr said of the House Intelligence Committee chairman whose reckless conduct compelled him to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s conduct. “I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” he added. Fewer have, however, paid much attention to Burr’s full quote. “Clearly,” he added, “there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”
Indeed, there is a lot to explain. Only weeks into the new Trump administration, unnamed former Obama administration officials began telling reporters to expect to see details involving the surveillance of administration officials and Trump associates’ communications with their Russian counterparts. The New York Times, for example, revealed how these Obama officials left a “trail” of evidence of these contacts for investigators to uncover.
A month earlier, the Washington Post disclosed that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had privately discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in phone calls prior to the inauguration. The transcript of those intercepted communications was related to reporters, despite its highly classified nature. This revelation contradicted the transition team’s repeated denials that any such conversations between Flynn and Kislyak took place and it served as just cause for Flynn’s termination.
Flynn was a liability and should never have been placed in such a sensitive role. His dismissal was a relief, but the methods by which he was discredited established a dangerous precedent. If a private citizen swept up in routine intercepts of communications with foreign agents can be “unmasked” to achieve a political purpose, even if that purpose is defensible, it won’t be long before that precedent is applied toward more ambiguous ends.
Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to have been the target of a politically motivated intelligence reveal. As reported by, again, the Washington Post, the attorney general apparently misled U.S. officials and members of Congress with regard to the nature of his contacts with Russian officials. According to communications intercepted by “U.S. spy agencies,” Kislyak related the details of two conversations he apparently had with then-campaign advisor Sessions to his superiors in Moscow. Sessions was not personally swept up in those intercepts, but Kislyak mentioned his name and the substance of those intercepts was related to Post reporters.
The outlet stressed that it could not confirm the authenticity of the intercepts as they could in Flynn’s case, but President Trump went ahead and did that for them. “A new INTELLIGENCE LEAK from the Amazon Washington Post, this time against A.G. Jeff Sessions,” the president declared on Twitter. “These illegal leaks, like [former FBI Director James] Comey’s, must stop!”
This particular leak was widely viewed within the context of the ongoing public feud between the president and his attorney general, but it should not be so quickly dismissed. In cryptic testimony before Congress, Comey revealed that Sessions’s recusal from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia had nothing to do with Justice Department rules. He said he knew that recusal would be forthcoming, but he could not say why in an unclassified setting. Comey’s disclosure and this leak may not be unrelated.
Trump administration opponents who celebrate these unprecedented disclosures because they damage the administration are being extraordinarily parochial. This is an assault on the American social compact. The precedent being established now erodes the prohibitions on using intelligence gathering as a tool to discredit your political enemies. Democrats can bet that this practice will be deployed against them in the foreseeable future. In the process, political actors will render intelligence products suspect, weakening their utility for policymakers and, thus, making America less safe.
It is a tragedy that Democrats have not followed the lead of Senator Burr and other Republicans who are treating the issue of “unmasking” as seriously as they are the unprecedented efforts by Moscow to shape the course of American political affairs in 2016. Like the hacks of Democratic targets, this is not a partisan issue. The “unmaskers” will one day come for Democrats, and they will regret their silence in this pivotal hour.
Has Mattis gone rogue?
At the core of the Qatar dispute is the question of Qatar’s support for extremism. While many Gulf states have histories of donating to or promoting radical Islamism, many have made real reforms. Saudi Arabia, for example, became much more serious about the need to curtail support for radical groups after the Kingdom started suffering blowback with terrorists targeting foreigners living in Saudi Arabia and senior Saudi officials. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, meanwhile, has cracked down not only on the Muslim Brotherhood but has also moved to sever the life-line Egypt often provided Hamas leaders in Gaza. Qatar, however, continues to set itself above the rest in its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and other moderate Arab states are rightly confused, if not frustrated, by the muddled U.S. response so far. After all, diplomats and official from these states say, both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States have both long beseeched them to take a no-nonsense approach to extremism and to operate in a coordinated fashion against regional threats.
When they finally do, the White House flip-flops and the State Department urges compromise and negotiation. Evenhandedness is not a virtue when one side is right and the other wrong. To negotiate with regard to the acceptance of terrorist groups is, however, a very dangerous precedent. If the United States re-engaged in Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda’s bases there or began operations in Syria to counter the Islamic State, Washington would greatly resent outside powers demanding that the United States compromise with either.
In the wake of the Qatar crisis, now in its second month, Turkey set up a military base in Qatar, much to the outrage of the states seeking to pressure Qatar into compliance. That base’s closure remains a key demand among moderate Arab countries.
Now word comes that the U.S. military is planning to conduct military exercises in Qatar with the Qatari and Turkish militaries. Daily Sabah, a once independent paper which was seized by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and transferred to his son-in-law, quoted Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah as saying, “Qatar, Turkey and the U.S. regularly conduct military drills in Qatar. In the near future, a joint drill will begin by the three countries.”
Like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has sought to temper President Trump’s impetuousness on a number of foreign policy issues. While this can often be a good thing when done behind-the-scenes and in the course of a normal policy process through the National Security Council, the Pentagon conducting its own private foreign policy creates confusion and risks antagonizing allies.
Mattis already displayed a tin ear for timing when, just days after Trump sided with the moderate Arab states and called Qatar out on its funding of extremists, the Pentagon announced a multi-billion dollar arms sale to Qatar. To conduct military exercises in Qatar with Turkey suggests Mattis is choosing sides and endorsing the positions of Qatar and Turkey. Perhaps he is motivated by the desire to maintain access to the al-Udeid Air Base. If this is the case, though, he confuses the Pentagon’s preference for the status quo with broader U.S. interests. To prioritize preservation of the al-Udeid Air Base over broader interests effectively tells Doha that it need not reform its behavior and that it can use the U.S. presence as a “get out of jail free card.”
Should Qatar’s announcement of military drills be true and should Mattis go ahead with the exercises, he also risks undercutting efforts to repair the damage which the Obama administration caused with America’s traditional allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Those governments remain furious with how they believe President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry threw them under the bus.
Mattis may be more refined than Tillerson in his efforts to blunt Trump’s excesses. To conduct his own foreign policy, however, is bad in any instance. To do so in such a counterproductive way and to again betray moderate states, which have only done what successive U.S. administrations have asked them to do, may risk damaging alliances beyond the point of no return.
Anger over health care clouds the left's judgment.
Nate Silver spoke for most of the liberal blogosphere when he objected to the mainstream media’s coverage of Senator John McCain’s speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
McCain appeared in the Capitol just days after he had a blood clot removed from above his left eye. Amid that process, doctors discovered that a particularly malignant form of brain cancer was responsible for the clot. Despite his condition and his recovery, McCain made his way back to Washington to vote on a motion to proceed with a debate over the process of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Following his critical vote, which allowed the motion to carry only after the vice president broke a tie, McCain gave a stirring address extolling the virtues of the republic and the Senate, while also castigating his congressional colleagues over their approach to the health-care reform process.
“Among younger and less traditional reporters on Twitter,” Silver began, “a lot of people are pointing out McCain’s inconsistency in scolding McConnell’s process but nevertheless voting for the motion to proceed.” Silver added, however, that more traditional reporting outlets in print and on television were far more awed by the remarks. They didn’t seem to recognize the inconsistency that so irritated the Twitter-verse.
“Longtime readers of FiveThirtyEight know that I have a lot of beefs with the establishment media,” Silver wrote. “Moments like these, where they elevate style over substance, are a big part of why.”
The self-selected, cloistered, like-thinking population of professional cynics on political Twitter is a bad target for professional statistical analysts to critique. Moreover, this criticism is a value judgment founded not in rationality but pique.
McCain’s speech on the floor of the Senate was worthy of all the praise it received if only because not every political observer has yet abandoned basic human decency (a frailty that political Twitter discourages). McCain is by any definition an American hero who spent his life serving his country. On what may be his last speech to the nation from the upper chamber of Congress, the man deserves a hearing. Silver and his colleagues did not give him that.
McCain’s speech was mostly dedicated to the dysfunction of the body in which he serves. “When I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body, I’m not so sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today,” he said. “Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.”
McCain implored his colleagues to ignore the professional rabble-rousers who have made a career of sowing internecine discord. “To hell with them,” he said. “They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.” If this speech started to sound like an appeal to bipartisanship, that became explicit in the following sentence.
The senator said that the virtue of the American system is found in those features that stifle one-party governance. “Top-down” “parliamentary maneuvers” that abandon the process of regular order to govern without bipartisan consent have poisoned and radicalized the country. And to repeat Democratic mistakes by shutting the other party out of the process of reforming one-sixth of the American economy would be a mistake.
“I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered,” McCain said. “I will not vote for this bill as it is today.”
Only ignorance of what a motion to proceed is or rage-induced blindness over the concept of repealing the Affordable Care Act could lead Silver or those for whom he speaks to make their claim. McCain’s vote to proceed with a debate is entirely consistent with regular order, to say nothing of his stated reverence for the process of deliberation in the Senate. His insistence that he would not support the health care bill as it exists, without major reforms (including a bipartisan buy-in and, likely, a return to the committee process), is also intellectually consistent.
I would add that it is clear that the activist left with whom Silver has lumped himself simply didn’t, or wouldn’t, hear the substance of McCain’s address. The senior senator from Arizona delivered a moving and eloquent statement of affection for the extraordinary history of the American republic. He painted a portrait of the United States as a fundamentally moral nation. He shared his love for the institutions that have made the American Constitution the world’s longest surviving governmental charter. And while he criticized American politics and the politicians who practice it, his reverence for the American system of government—to say nothing of the prosperity and security it has afforded the American people for nearly a quarter thousand years—was infectious.
The left dislikes that kind of sentimentality. They find it mawkish, at best; chauvinistic, at worst. But an American who has dedicated his life to his countrymen, often at great cost, is owed a little maudlin schmaltz, even if the popular Twitter clique does not share those sentiments. Not only was McCain’s vote consistent with his opinions, his speech was a moving tribute to the country he loves. It’s a shame, but a telling one, that the left didn’t hear any of it.
Donald Trump sees disloyalty even in his closest supporters.
In a performance that would have shocked sensibilities if they weren’t already flogged to the point of numbness, President Trump delivered a nostalgic, campaign-style stem-winder on Monday to a troop of boy scouts. The commander-in-chief meandered between crippling self-pity and gauche triumphalism; he moaned about his treatment by the “fake media,” praised himself for the scale of his Electoral College victory, and pondered aloud whether to dub the nation’s capital a “cesspool” or a “sewer.” Most illuminating in this manic display was an exposition on the virtues of fealty. “We could use some more loyalty; I will tell you that,” the president mused. These days, Trump seems fixated on treachery—among Republicans in Congress, among his Cabinet officials, and among his subordinates in the administration. His obsession may yet prove his undoing.
Donald Trump wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign. That has become obvious, and not just because Trump’s new communications director (whose portfolio seems to consist of inflating the president’s ego in friendly media venues and purging the administration of experienced political professionals) admitted as much. Trump told the New York Times that Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from any investigation into the campaign was “very unfair” to him personally. The president has criticized his “beleaguered” attorney general for taking a “weak” position on prosecuting Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, and investigating the Ukrainian government’s efforts to support the Clinton campaign.
This is all post hoc. Trump expressed no interest in re-litigating the charges against Hillary Clinton (which his former FBI director dismissed as beyond the scope of prosecution) in November of last year. The tenor of Trump’s agitation with his attorney general is proportional to the tempo of new revelations regarding the special counsel investigation into the president’s campaign, many of which were first revealed to the public cryptically in Trump’s own public pronouncements. As a self-described campaign operative, Sessions was obliged to recuse himself from any investigation into the campaign’s activities, and he did so in February. The move reportedly irritated Trump at the time, but his outrage has boiled over only as the probe has begun to ensnare his family.
There is no small amount of absurdity in the fact that Jeff Sessions is perhaps the most loyal of Trump’s associates in Washington. His every action has been designed to shield Trump from the consequences of his own recklessness. When Donald Trump was still regarded by the majority of GOP officeholders as a liability and a usurper, Sessions was the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse the rogue candidate. He was a stalwart campaign-trail surrogate and turned in a workmanlike performance at the Justice Department. When Trump fired his FBI director, Sessions refused to testify before Congress as to the nature of pertinent conversations between the president and his Cabinet. When privilege did not protect those conversations, Sessions insisted that he had simply forgotten many of the particulars.
Perhaps more than most, Sessions helped to make Donald Trump the president. As attorney general, the former senator has been effective in overseeing an increasingly restless Justice Department populated by people who chafe amid Trump’s regular attacks on them and their superiors. Even now, by declining to be goaded into resignation, Sessions is protecting the president. Trump seems to imagine that Session’s removal would clear the way for a new attorney general, who would be free to dismiss Robert Mueller and dissolve the special counsel’s office at will. But that wouldn’t happen. Trump would merely ignite a political firestorm and be faced with the task of finding another person to serve as a punching bag atop his least favorite agency.
This is all to say nothing of the fact that such a masochistic individual would have to be confirmed by Republicans in the Senate. In that process, lawmakers would surely seek assurances that the new attorney general would not touch the special counsel’s office. The Republican-led Congress is already conducting four of their own investigations into Trump’s campaign. The president’s extraordinary relationship with Russia has forced the GOP-led legislature to prepare a sanctions bill that robs the presidency of its freedom to administer those injunctions.
This all might seem like hostility, but it’s precisely the opposite; it’s guidance of a kind that a political novice with self-destructive impulses sorely needs. But this sort of protection, too, has led the president to wallow in melancholy and a sense of betrayal. “It’s very sad that Republicans do very little to protect their president,” he wrote of the incoming sanctions bill.
The kind of paranoia on display in Trump’s attacks on his most loyal partners in government is not unfamiliar. It is the kind that mistakes a desire for self-preservation—an instinct found in every successful political actor—as weakness and perfidy. Trump is fortunate enough to have surrounded himself with people devoted enough to him to know when his requests are inappropriate or when the president is better served by preserving the appearance of their independence. The fact that Trump finds even that kind of pantomimed insubordination intolerable is disturbing. This is a man who would sacrifice competence for sycophancy. In a less robust system of constitutional laws, they are the impulses of a leader who would corrupt the very government he manages. They still might.
In his attacks on Sessions—an early Trump supporter, a dedicated public servant, and a man with more goodwill among Republicans on Capitol Hill than the president may ever possess—Trump might have gone too far. Even Trump surrogates who are loath to criticize the president when he most deserves it are no longer being shy. Perhaps they know the bell will toll for them one day, or maybe they sense the danger of the moment. If past behavior is a guide, these defections won’t compel Trump to rethink his conduct. In fact, they might only reinforce in Trump the notion that he is surrounded by traitors.
I have written before about Steven Salaita. Once a tenured professor of English at Virginia Tech, he resigned from that position on the strength of an offer from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign to serve in the American Indian Studies program. But in the summer of 2014, UIUC rescinded the offer, mainly over of a series of reprehensible Salaita tweets.
Let the tone of one exemplify many others: Concerning three kidnapped Israeli teens—there was already reason to believe they had been killed—Salaita opined, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” As I noted at the time, reasonable people could disagree about whether the offer should have been rescinded.
Ultimately, UIC paid $875,000 to make the case go away. But it was troubling that some on the left chose not only to defend Salaita’s academic freedom—as one might defend the freedom of the Westboro Baptist Church to say vile things—but also that they made him into a kind of hero. To this day, he remains an elected member of the National Council of the American Studies Association and is still from time to time invited to give lectures at prestigious places about how he is not allowed to speak.
He has been occupying a chair in American Studies at the American University of Beirut. But that was not a tenured or tenure track position and, apparently, no one else will offer him a job. So he has decided to leave academia.
We will now be endlessly subjected to the claim that Salaita cannot find a job merely because, as he puts it, he has “disdain for settler colonialism.” The problem is, he says, that academia is a “bourgeois industry that reward self-importance and conformity.”
That is nonsense.
First, Steven Salaita’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, roughly that Zionism is the problem and that turning Israel into a pariah state is a prudent and moral way of dealing with it, may be foolish and morally obtuse. But it is hardly out of bounds in academia and well over a thousand academics have expressed public support for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Many of them occupy tenured positions at prestigious colleges and universities and, at least as far as I can tell, pay no professional cost for holding the very same set of views Salaita wants us to think is too hot for academia to handle.
Second, in the field Salaita inhabits, a pro-BDS position is not a nonconformist position. It is famously the official line of the American Studies Association. The Association for Asian American Studies, which preceded the ASA in passing a boycott resolution, passed the resolution unanimously with nary an extension. Over four years ago, I observed that not one scholar in that field had publicly dissented. As far as I know, that remains the case today. Salaita himself, in spite of a thin scholarly record, was offered a job at UIUC, the flagship of the Illinois system, presumably on the strength of his activism. There is no doubt in my mind that were it not for his disgusting tweets, he would be happily tenured at U of I spouting the same line he was spouting before he got into trouble.
Of course, people who take radical positions, even if those positions are popular in their subfields, may find themselves under closer scrutiny than people who don’t, even at colleges and universities that are supposed to value unconventional thinking. That’s unfortunate, and should be decried. Indeed, the U of I’s defense of its decision to rescind Salaita’s offer in terms of civility was unconvincing and rightly earned the disdain of academic freedom organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Association of University Professors. People do sometimes lose their jobs over this kind of thing. But Salaita’s views are not what undid him. He was undone by his own callousness and recklessness, neither of which has he found any reason to regret.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.