Fifty years ago 485,000 American troops were serving in Vietnam, and in November, 1967, alone almost 500 died there (sources 1 2). Since 1968 began our long, cruel exit from that place, we will be inundated with anniversaries over the next few years. Also, many of us saw at least some of the 15-part Ken Burns’ PBS series on the war that ran last month. I thought it would be a good time to discuss an age-old topic: What should we have learned from the Vietnam War, and did we learn it?
Candidates for lesson-hood are many. Off the top of my head, possible ones include (in no particular order ideological or otherwise) the following.
- Don’t take over other countries civil wars.
- Distinguish vital national interests from peripheral ones – and be willing to live with the consequence.
- Don’t abandon an ally after you spend a decade fighting the enemy to a standstill (Congress cut off military aid in 1973).
- Cutting losses beats compounding them forever just to preserve “America credibility.”
- Counter-insurgency is a different kind of warfare – and easy to lose.
- Carpet bombing cities cannot break an enemy’s will.
- Americans can be as brutal in war as anybody else.
- Don’t assume all U.S. adversaries worldwide are united against us (USSR/China/N. Vietnam; Al Qaeda/ISIS/Hezbollah).
- Anti-war protests can – or cannot – stop a war.
- Protests rarely are popular, especially if the most anti-American elements get out in front.
- Military power alone can’t win wars.
- U.S. wars require broad public support or at least “silent majority’s acquiescence.
- Poor Americans shouldn’t bear all the burden of the fighting.
- Huge wars cause huge refugee flows and we need to have a plan.
- The government sometimes tell big, whopping lies.
- The Best and the Brightest often are neither.
- Domino theories are stupid. Or: Sometimes they come true.
- The USA is an imperialist power. Or: No, the Left just thinks we are.
- Journalists reporting war’s ugly details saps public support.
- We shouldn’t let our troops fight with “one hand tied behind their backs.”
- Americans hate to lose so much we create myths when it happens (like one hand behind or stab in the back).
I could list these all night. You probably can, too, since most of us in Civilized Conversation were alive and/or adults during the Vietnam War era and several of us were there. I doubt you need much background material, either. Here are a few timelines and summaries of the conflict, along with some “lessons learned/unlearned” retrospectives. I’m egregiously adding a few readings on the parallels between Vietnam and the wars on terror, Iraq, etc.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Timelines: Basis timeline major stuff only. More detailed.
- U.S. military:
- Our troops did NOT fight with one hand behind their backs.
- It was a war on civilians. Recommended.
- Lessons learned according to General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s Natl Security advisor. Recommended.
- U.S. anti-war movement – All recommended:
- Ken burns series:
- Conservative POVs:
- Lessons for our current wars:
NEXT WEEK: Understanding the Prosperity Gospel.
Jim Z.’s topic is timely, for obvious reasons. But it’s also complicated and lends itself to different approaches.
First, we could discuss how much democracy this country has had in the past, given constitutional limits on majority rule and long-standing anti-democratic characteristics of American politics and culture. It might be helpful here first to explicitly identify which features make a democracy deep and lasting. Which of these does a democracy most depend on?
- A constitutional foundation of rights, separation of powers, checks/balances, civilian control of the military, etc.?
- Free and fair elections with universal suffrage and protections for voting rights? What about ease of voting?
- Public faith in democracy and/or in government and/or a high level of public engagement in civic life?
- Pluralism (multiple and competing organized interests)?
- Strong democratic institutions, in government and outside of it (free press, political parties, so on)?
- Limits on powerful private interests’ political power and on corruption and cronyism?
That’s a bunch of two-hour meetings right there, some of which we’ve done (undemocratic Constitutional features, voter ignorance, money in politics). Last year we even discussed whether U.S. democracy really could unravel.
A second approach for us would be to dive right in to the (in my opinion) large and growing threats to American democracy that have emerged in the last 20 years. Obviously, Donald Trump is embodies and leads the most obvious threats, his own presidency and political movement. But, there are others.
I believe that if we want to save our democracy, we have got to be honest about one particular elephant in the room: The Republican Party and its increasingly authoritarian nature. Their gutting of the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression laws/policies. The outright theft of a Supreme Court seat. Highly aggressive state-level gerrymandering to lock in electoral advantage. The welcoming of far right-wing news media and even White nationalists into the party. Legislative hostage-taking. Union-busting to “defund the Left.” And now, a deliberate, coordinated attack on the rue of law, including the FBI and DOJ.
To be fair and balanced (!) but also accurate, undemocratic forces may be emerging within progressivism, too. Examples: Antifa-type violence, intolerance of dissent on social media, etc. We could talk about the full range of partisan/ideological threats to democracy. Other, structural threats to U.S. democracy exist and might be worth discussing, too, especially runaway economic inequality and rural economic stagnation, rising xenophobia, and even foreign interference in our elections.
Finally and on a more philosophical note, we could challenge the implied premises of Jim’s question. Is a lack of democracy really a big problem in the United States? Would more of it really help solve our big problems? Does the Constitution straightjacket us from taking bold steps toward increasing majority-rule? And, does the public really want more control over a political system they all say they have no faith in and most of them care little and know even less about?
I will do a short intro on Monday and then focus my effort on making sure we address major avenues of inquiry in our discussion and on making sure everybody gets a chance to be heard. Jim, do you have anything you want to say to start us off?
A lot of links this week, since it’s a big topic. I think they all add value and don’t repeat much or rehash old issues. My suggestion: Focus on recommended ones.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
How Democratic is the USA –
- Two big expert surveys said we’re doing pretty well but some reasons to worry – especially with Trump’s election. Recommended.
- Wrong. We are an oligarchy, another study said (in 2014!)
- Our political system has become biased against one major party and that’s bad in a democracy.
- Important: Healthy civic institutions matter more than just having elections.
Do we have too much democracy?
- USA has too much democracy and it may destroy us. , center-right author Andrew Sullivan. Related: The voters are the problem; ignorant, erratic, etc.
Recommended to read one.
- Conservative POV: Too much democracy + unconstitutional expansion of govt are the real problems.
Threats to US democracy –
- Three big threats: Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and Big Money in politics. Recommended;
by a Republican. More on the GOPs assault on voting rights.
- Economic inequality, because it reinforces political inequality. Recommended.
- Our Constitutional system was not built for this level of economic inequality. Interesting.
- Protest is being criminalized by GOP governments.
- How to deepen U.S. democracy.
- Obama’s farewell entreaty to protect our democracy from what is coming.
NEXT WEEK: Lessons of the Vietnam War, 50 years later.
Is there a more scary topic for a Halloween eve meeting than this one?
President Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea has been highly irresponsible and reckless. But, it is hard to judge exactly how dangerous the situation is. War is still unlikely based on what I am reading.
But, honestly. Trump has threatened to annihilate North Korea’s civilian population in a written speech before the United Nations. He has pledged to attack merely if its leaders don’t stop verbally threatening us – to start a war over words. He has repeatedly tweeted (!) that the end of diplomacy is near and we should stay tuned for the next exciting chapter. Senator Corker’s words of warning about Trump earlier this week are widely interpreted as a warning specifically about the likelihood of his triggering war (either accidentally or deliberately) with Pyongyang. Regarding this irresponsible and dangerous president’s behavior I’m not sure what there is to say or discuss, other than to be horrified.
And, yet. North Korea is a massive problem that must somehow be managed no matter who is president. No one really knows what to do and all of our options are bad. So, I thought it would be useful to get up to speed on those options and those risks so we can all better understand what is going on.
Fortunately, a lot of excellent commentaries on North Korea have been penned recently, at least in my opinion. Also, in a few weeks President Trump will visit East Asia.
On Monday night I will do a very brief opening update of recent developments and a preview of what experts say to look for in the Trump Asia tour. Then we can vent discuss North Korean policy.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Panic. Inside North Korea “all paths lead to war.” Recommended.
- Don’t panic. We know deterrence will work on NK because it has worked for decades. Recommended.
- Trump’s policy (or “policy”)
- It’s an even stupider version of George W. Bush’s stupid policy. Recommended.
- Does Trump genuinely want war?
- Detailed discussion of all four major options for dealing with Pyongyang. All are bad but some are much worse than others.
NEXT WEEK: Do we really have a democracy?
If you can remember the decade you weren’t there. Wait, that’s the 1960s. Anyway, we did a meeting on the 1960s (pre-blog) and on the 1970s, too. They were pretty good ones, I thought, even though admittedly it is a little arbitrary to consider ten year periods as distinct epochs, especially ones with first and last years ending with zeros.
Still, most CivCon members were alive in the 1980s. Where were you? What do you recall as significant about the 80s? Did the events and trends you thought were important then still seem that way now? If you were not an adult in the 1980s, what did you learn about it and how? What’s the consensus on what came out of that decade?
Below are the usual ABC-level discussion questions, and links to timelines of events to refresh your memories and to some commentary on a few of the big things that happened or trended in the 80s. I will start Monday’s mtg with a “Where were you” question for the group and we can go from there.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Where were you? How did you experience the 1980s? How did the perch you viewed it from affect your perspective?
- Major events of the 1980s: USA + abroad? Which ones were foundational from today’s perspective and which were ephemeral?
- Major changes in U.S. culture and people’s lives, same questions?
- Looking backwards: How inevitable was what happened? What about the 1980s could (should?) have gone differently?
- 30 years from now? What might we infer from our 1980s vs. now assessment about how history develops and how well we can predict what things today will have lasting significance?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- CivCon mtgs: The 1970s. The Reagan Presidency.
- Timelines of the 1980s:
- Overall assessments of the 1980s:
- Special topics of importance:
- Reagan’s presidency:
NEXT WEEK: Is it hard to be a man these days?
This is one of those topics where it is a little vague what it’s about. My “end of paper currency” wording implies a focus on whether we are finally approaching the long-imagined “cashless society” in which all transactions are electronic. Cash is probably far too convenient in transactions for that to happen anytime soon, from what I read. But, the rise of PayPal and other e-payment technologies make the idea at least worth discussing, maybe.
We also could talk about cryptocurrencies, a very different thing. Also called altcoins, these are non-government-backed monies (or, “monies”) that can be used in electronic peer-to-peer transactions. Bitcoin is the most widely known cryptocurrency, but there are hundreds of others, many with tech-bro names like Etherium, ZCoin, and Einsteinium. Cryptocurrencies have a lot of limitations and problems, notably no governmental central bank to back their value or control their volatility. They are vulnerable to bubble and the machinations of peculators and get used a lot in criminal commerce (but then, so do $100 bills). Still, cryptocurrencies may be here to stay, at least in some forms, and the idea of a currency free from government will continue to be appealing to some Libertarians.
A third way we could expand our topic would be to talk about some of the more, um, exotic (crackpot, maybe) stuff that comes up when you Google “the end of paper currency.” These range from advocates of returning the United States to the gold standard and Ron Paul’s “end the Fed” stuff, to survivalists predicting a collapse of society and a return to a barter-based economy. It’ll be fun for the whole family.
Re: Readings. Cryptocurrency is a brand new topic for me, so I don’t know which of the primers on the subject are best for you to read.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
A Cashless Economy? –
- What is a cryptocurrency? Wiki. More detail from an industry sight.
- How their prices get determined.
- Recommended: Atlantic Monthly clearly explains this stuff + a big potential problem with crypto-money.
- Views of cryptocurrencies’ future:
Gold standard –
- Returning to it = “world’s worst economic idea.”
- Trump has said we should, a truly loony idea. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: What is the legacy of the 1980s?
Oops. I forgot that “Fair Trade” is the name of a consumer movement that asks people to make ethical choices when buying imported goods. Consumers are encouraged to buy only products that carry the fair trade label indicating they are produced sustainably by companies that pay a living wage, keep safe working conditions, etc. The Fair Trade movement is interesting of course. It’s one small way individuals can make a difference in the world of foreign policies few of us have any input in fashioning, and the movement helps to build awareness of global poverty and how people in rich countries can contribute to it (even though in the broadest sense globalization has reduced poverty in developing nations).
I had in mind something more ambitious. How “fair” is free trade to, well, to Americans? The consensus in favor of free trade has collapsed. President Trump owes his election to pandering to resentments of all sorts, of course. But anger over “unfair” trade agreements allegedly foisted on pitifully-led Americans by wily foreigners was a major theme of his rage-filled campaign. It resonated because Republican voters are actually more hostile to free trade than Democratic voters – probably because blue cities benefit more from globalization than redder areas. Yet, many Democrats, too, are abandoning free trade, as Bernie Sanders’s near-success and Hillary Clinton’s reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact attest.
Why do so many Americans believe trade and globalization are unfair? Some dumb reasons, sure. But, I think the links below finger a very legitimate reasons: Modern trade agreements go far beyond simply knocking down barriers to increased imports and exports. They have sought to rewrite some of the basic rules of business and commerce to harmonize them across countries, areas of policy that used to be the sole province of national governments. Progressives sometimes exaggerate the extent of this, IMO. But, it’s real, and a big change in how the now highly-integrated global economy is managed. More is at stake than freer trade.
This notion and other reasons why free trade allegedly has turned against us are highly-disputed. It’s complicated and not just a left-right thing. Trump’s reality-free trade rhetoric doesn’t help the debate, nor did Bernie’s big foreign policy vision speech yesterday that ignored trade. Still, I think we can carve off a few digestible chunks of the controversy over the fairness of free trade and turn the chewing into an informative meeting. Maybe we could focus on these questions a bit.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Consumer movement: What is buying Fair Trade + where can I get more info?
- Trade v. convergence: How much have global trade rules gone beyond freeing trade towards harmonizing economic regulation in general?
- Quo bene? Why was this done? Whose interests were served? Elites/big biz? Doesn’t trade help the public interest via faster growth, spurs innovation, etc.?
- Quo screwed? Who has been harmed? What evidence it was due to (1) trade and (2) trade agreements?
- Alternatives: IF trade has turned against interests of U.S. public and/or democratic accountability, now what? Renegotiate them, one by one (Trump)? Do nothing/double down (GOP)? Attach labor and enviro standards (some libs)? Strengthen edu/training + social insurance/safety net (other libs)?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – Fewer this week, but longer ones.
- The free trade consensus is dead (2015 article).
- It should be (progressives):
- How to make globalization work for all Americans. Or try this shorter one. Either.
- Where it all went wrong and what Trump gets wrong. [Duplicate 2nd link deleted]
- Basic economic regulations does not belong in trade deals. Hard, but key arguments.
- Wrong. Free trade worked and still works:
NEXT WEEK: Social security reform.
That big money has too much control over our political system is one of the few political statements that almost all (85%-90%) Americans agree with. Most progressives I know think Big Money is pretty much the root of all evil in politics, or at least the largest single impediment to solving our national problems. Few conservatives I know go quite this far, but polls show a majority of conservatives and Republicans agree with the general proposition that regular people are priced out of the system.
We last discussed campaign finance reform in 2015, although we do related issues periodically, like corporations’ free speech rights in 2014. For this one, I thought we could sharpen our understanding of the (alleged) problem a bit. How did big money get to be the lifeblood of politics at almost all levels of government? What’s the evidence that Big Money really is our political system’s worst problem (as opposed to other factors, see below)? And, what might be done about big money’s dominance given the GOP’s almost total dominance of government these days and its almost complete opposition to any reforms progressives would support?
I will do some kind of informative, non-polemical opening to set the stage for discussion then open things up. Here are some readings and some more-detailed-than-usual discussion questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Big Money’s rise: Trends and amounts, who spends and on what and why do they do it?
- Regulations’ failures: Deregulation of campaign finance and lobbying rules. Citizens United et al. Rising economic inequality reinforcing political inequality. Over-regulation of economy led big biz to fight back? Recent state/local govts trying to reign money in.
- Harms: In elections vs in between elections. At which levels of govt? Visible vs. invisible harms. Crowding out the public interest vs. actively opposing it?
- Benefits: Are there any benefits to so much money in politics?
- Dogs that don’t bark: What things don’t happen due to big money’s influence that would or should happen?
- Other culprits: Ideological and partisan polarization, voter apathy/ignorance, changing news media/social media effects, candidate quality, etc. à Is big money really more important than all of these factors?
- Solutions: What fixes might be constitutional, possible given total GOP opposition at all levels, and effective?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – (many, some long – pick and choose)
- Overall summaries of problem:
- Corporate lobbying is the real problem. Recommended.
- California: In CA its the Democrats that dominate the money.
- More facts and figures:
- [Update Sunday]: Politics is NOT all about the money, this liberal argues. Recommended.
- Conservative POV: All of this is highly misleading, part 1 and part 2. Convincing?
NEXT WEEK: What is “fair trade?” Do we need it?
American discomfort with its relationship with Saudi Arabia has been growing for many years. It’s not just a result of 9/11. Human rights, democracy promotion, and gender equality play larger roles in U.S. foreign policy than they used to do. The Arab Spring, which the Saudi regime fiercely opposed, spurred at least a faint hope that the Middle East could one day get long without a brutal theocracy and exporter of radical ideology at its center.
Yet, the same obstacles to downgrading our de facto Saudi alliance that have led every president since FDR to rely on it. Saudi Arabia is the only big oil producer with enough reserves and spare refining capacity to maintain supplies to the West and keep prices from fluctuating wildly. The House of Saud has been a pro-American (in its policies, if not in rhetoric or support for radicals) anchor of stability in a troubled Middle East. This has been especially true since 1979 when the revolutionaries toppled our only big secular Arab ally, the Shah of Iran; and it’s been reinforced recently as Bush/Cheney’s hope to install a stable pro-Western regime in Iraq turned to ashes. Also, despite its long-time support for radicalism, the Saudi government has been relatively tolerant of Israel in recent years, hostile to Iran, and since 9/11 willing to help us fight Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Now comes President Donald Trump. As they say in the Middle East, oy, vey.
It is very hard to know where Trump stands on most any foreign policy issue or how long he will stand there. But, so far Trump appears to be doubling down on Saudi Arabia. As the articles below explain, Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. They lavished Trump with praise, awards, and gifts, and as a result he appears to have green lit the Kingdom’s blockade of one neighbor (Qatar) and continued savage war against another (Yemen). Trump also reportedly really, really wants to abrogate the nuclear treaty with Iran, which the Saudi government absolutely would love since it is locked in a virtual Cold War with Tehran and desires our support.
I think all of this leaves us with a few basic questions and partial answers, such as…
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What major interests do we have in common and not in common with the Saudi government?
- Has that changed recently? What is Saudi govt trying to accomplish domestically and abroad? Is it achievable? Risky? Good for us?
- What is Trump doing? It is a coherent policy shift or more of a whim?
- Will these changes hold; i.e., can a president fundamentally change the U.S.-Saudi relationship, or do its roots run deeper?
- How, specifically, could we downgrade the U.S.-Saudi relationship? Range of possible consequences, including Riyadh’s and others’ responses.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Backgrounder on U.S.-Saudi relations.
- Our relationship is based on three assumptions, all of which (for now) still hold.
- No, Trump should rethink it. Recommended but long.
- His embarrassing visit to Saudi Arabia. Good Lord.
- The Saudis now hope to reinforce their influence, target: Iran.
- Trump’s unquestioning support for that plan has put the Middle East on the brink of disaster. Either.
- What are our options overall? Recommended.
- [Update: The new Saudi leader is a bumbling fool; Trump should (but isn’t) treating him like one.]
After Trump –
- U.S.-Saudi relationship will survive Trump because for better or worse we’re stuck with each other.
NEXT WEEK: Does Big Money really control U.S. politics?