Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Mercurial Rant

"Torture, you say?  I don' know nothin' 'bout no torture."
Disclaimer: this essay represents the hot-headed views of Mercurious alone, and should not be construed to speak for the other Geezers, who are reasonable men, each and every one.

I came of age in the Vietnam War era, so you'd expect me to have a bit of cynicism regarding the motivations of our government. I'm a slightly cynical guy by nature, and the late 60s would certainly help solidify that character trait for a young man. I remember having pretty bitter arguments with my dad, a navy veteran, on our foreign policy during that era, over whether our government was lying to us or not. In the end, though, Dad started wearing POW bracelets in honor of captured pilots who became political pawns.

But for all of that, as a young adult I maintained a firm belief that American stood for certain ideals—I believed that, despite the befuddlement of Johnson and the bat-shit paranoia of a guy like Nixon, America as whole genuinely stood for (and practiced) the defense of human rights and genuinely wanted to ensure that everybody around the world could pursue happiness. That cup of purple Kool-aid I had happily consumed. And frankly, my overall dovishness made plenty of room for wielding a big  military stick when you were coming to the rescue of somebody little being bullied. That, for me, was really the only reason to swing that stick.

The first gulf war, pursued by the first George Bush, was something of a shock to me, because here for the first time, our government openly ridiculed that human rights ideal espoused by Carter and others and said it openly: we're at war with Iraq because we have certain economic interests in the region—specifically the open trade of petroleum.  Perhaps I'd been naive up to that point, but it seemed me like something of a turning point at which America began to wean itself away from its principles. Or maybe just the point where it started to be honest with its reasons for wielding the stick.

Still, I expected better from our government, and there were enough times when the old ideals seemed to hold true. There were moments during the Carter, Reagan, and Clinton administrations where it seemed, indeed, that we had ideals and were champions of worldwide human rights—times when it seemed like we chose our foreign policy with human dignity, rather the economic or political benefit, as the prime motivation.

Bush II  was of course a plummet back to the Nixonian dark ages, a time when torture by water-boarding was a legitimate thing to discuss.  But then came the dawn of the Obama administration, for which I had high, high hopes indeed. Obama talked the talk like nobody since Clinton, and seemed almost as eloquent as Kennedy. He seemed to believe in the ideal, both domestically and in international foreign policy.

Fast forward 6 years. Obama is no Clinton. And one can only wonder how Obama would have handled the Cuban missile crisis.

Today's newspapers report that an archive of 55,000 photos emerging from the secret jails of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, documenting in horrifying color the physical torture leading to the death of 11,000 Syrian citizens. It is stuff that would have a perfect place in a special exhibit at a museum chronicling Nazi atrocities. Like the Nazis, the Syrian government was apparently obsessed with documenting their evil.

And yet the analysts are saying, horrifying though it all is, that this will have no impact at all on Obama's foreign policy regarding Syria, since he is now heavily invested politically in the current deal to get chemical weapons turned over and the civil war "ended." A negotiated ending, mind you, that will have Assad still in power, even while it will create talk about Nobel prizes.

What can you say about a liberal President who cannot see his way clear to forcefully and courageously, without fear of political consequences, oppose the continued reign of monster like Syrian president Assad, but instead bends to whatever seems most politically acceptable at the moment?

"Sleep pretty darling, do not cry....and I will sing a lullabyeeee" 
Now, I'm well aware that blind support of rebel factions seeking to overthrow a dictator is a tricky business, and that it often lead to even worse situations a few years later. It probably would not have been wise to airdrop thousands of stinger missiles into the hands of Syrian rebels. And our history of on-the-ground assistance hasn't been great in recent years. We frankly don't really have the stomach to get bloody anymore, even when the cause is just, as it is in this case. And when deposing a tyrant, there's the awkward reality of having to stick around and help the survivors put together something looking like a nation again. The "you broke it, you bought it"  rule of foreign policy.

So I understand why we don't want to do any of those things. It's not easy, after all, it's hard; and as a nation we no longer like to do hard.

But if America's idea of negotiated peace,  it's version of foreign policy success,  is a Syria with Bashar al-Assad still in power....we should ask ourselves what is it, exactly, that we do stand for?

Damned if I know.


  1. Well done.
    Where do we go from here?

  2. Agree on all points. The President stirred hopes in me dormant since working for Carter. It all seems to have come for naught. Where do we go indeed......there is not room in the world any more for the dramatic changes of the past, our revolution, the French, the Magna Carta, or even the dramatic, mostly peaceful changes in the fold of the Soviet Union. We have such an infrastructure in place that that scale of change is impossible, in any likely future.

    We've come to the social version of a statistical of "regression to the mean".....with 'groups' like the tea party, the political middle ground has shifted to what was Goldberg's stance. With the real political weight out at the end of the fulcrum, groups or PAC's like the NRA, a politician cannot hope for a future without going far to what might be their position.

    A long-winded version of "I don't know what to do".....you younger folks gotta cowboy up,

  3. "I expected better from our government"

    Don't we all? But the terrible thing about it is that we'll most likely never see improved behavior from our government. I'm just waiting for the day of the tyrants and bleeding on the tree. I'll more than likely see that in my lifetime the way things are going...

  4. I read your post with interest, but deep sadness. I don't know how many Americans realise that there are many thousands of Europeans who share your thoughts. In many ways, the U.S. president is as much our president as he is yours, it's just that we on this side of the pond are disenfranchised. Yet our lives are heavily influenced by American politics, the President, and not to mention the shenanigans that goes on in the Lower House, the House of Representatives.

    As someone who has lived in France long enough to have become disenfranchised in the UK, without gaining the vote in France, I feel particularly frustrated with what I see going on around the world. Unfortunately, and as far as foreign policy is concerned, nothing is quite what it seems to be. Naturally we want to oppose bullies, but are the Al-Quaeda cells working with the Western-recognised opposition anything but fundamentalist bullies? Has anything really been resolved in Iraq? Will anything change in the long term in Afghanistan? And when we have sorted out those foreign countries that we can beat, what do we do about about the big bullies, such as Communist China? Or do we turn a blind eye, as we have so often done in the past, because they are nominally democratic?

    I am growing old and tired of people who insist on 'being in your face', whether as individuals, nations, sects or what-have-you. I despair of people at times, yet my heart lifts when some speak out for a better world. But I know that better world will not come into being so long as we put our national egos first, wealth and power before principles, words before wisdom.

    You know, one of the heartening acts I saw not too long ago was when the British House of Commons voted against the U.S. plan to "chastise" Syria over the use of chemical weapons. Let me make it plain here, I do not support the use of chemical weapons.....by anyone! But just for once, a group of elected representatives said 'No' to yet more state-sanctioned violence for indeterminate ends which would have had unforeseeable consequences.

    Finally, I am sorry if I have inappropriately responded to your post. I meant no offence, but I find it difficult to remain silent at times, even when I have no answers. Oh to see the world through the clear eyes of your Republican hawks! Maybe next time, a GWB will not get elected, and we may commiserate with an honourable president who simply finds 'the system' too big to overcome.

    1. Tom, your response is completely appropriate. YOu should know, however, that I'm by no means one of those Republican hawks—far from it, as my fellow Geezers will confirm.

      But I do think, sometimes, that inaction can be immoral. I'm not at all saying that the proper US response should have been military action. But I am saying that we could have, and probably should have, taken a stance that Assad remaining in power was not acceptable. Being party to a "peace" that just restores a horrific status quo doesn't seem morally defensible. Very complicated issue, I know. But I suspect we're not all that far apart in philosophy.

  5. That was really good and very thought provoking.
    I agree with just about every thing you said. I didn't have a problem with us going to Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism. I felt that way until I was actually IN Vietnam, while serving in the Marine Corps. The "Domino Theory" was a load of crap. We never seem to take the time to get to know the people we are fighting against, or the people we are fighting for. We didn't understand the Vietnamese any more than we understand the people in the middle east. I don't think we should have been in Afghanistan, Iraq or Vietnam. We had no chance of winning those wars because we don't know who the bad guys are. The combatants on the other side don't wear uniforms and they look just like the civilians. We lost in Vietnam, we lost in Iraq and will lose in Afghanistan. It really boils my blood that so many Americans have died or been maimed in these wars, while so many civilian military contractors get rich. One more thing, when soldiers are fighting in these places, they aren't fighting for the good old U.S. They are fighting for each other.
    I don't believe any politician when it comes to matters of war. If we had never gone to Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, the world would be exactly the same as it is now. Well, except we wouldn't have an insane amount of national debt and a lot more American's would be alive. If it was REALLY about us protecting the citizens of other countries, then why in the world haven't we done anything about North Korea? What goes on in Syria, is NOTHING compared to what the Korean government does to it's people.

  6. Thanks for your perspective, Pat. I agree with your view, but damn, wouldn't it be nice to believe in the team for which we play? I can't help believe that it's possible.

  7. I always figured there was oil in the gulf of Tonkin and that was the real reason we were in Vietnam. I lost my faith long ago.

  8. Your words stir a lot of thought. My sense of history is that American Foreign Policy has been many things and often mistaken or blundering. We can count on some degree of self interest, first and last, but consistency has been lacking, shaded by the interests of a particular administrations.

    I must quibble with you, however. Obama is not a liberal. He may appear to be more liberal than most on the stage, but a liberal he is not. Sadly he was taken in, or taken captive if you wish, by the national security community, early in his administration.

    If intimate accounts are correct, this President is intelligent and does his homework. If he is studied, he is also eventually decisive, though his "vision" has been structured on inexperience. He puts too much faith in logic. He has had trouble using power. He has second guessed his own policy. He is not the preeminent world leader. His
    Afghanistan policy has been wrong and foolish from the beginning. He's taken a cautious line in Syria and you really have to wonder about Iraq. He's tried to get us out of that disaster, but while US troops have come home, US Mercenaries and private personnel are still there. I think he could have/should have done a better job of cleaning up after the deadly and costly neo con adventurism of Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz et al. I fear what we are watching is the deepening of what will eventually be a Muslim war-Shiite vs Suni.

    So what do we stand for? Expediency? Capital Investments? Planetary Stewardship? Relief of suffering? That we even have to ask underscores the deficiency to which we have descended. What does the US mean to the world?

  9. On July 8, 1853, U.S. ships sailed into Tokyo bay and said basically trade or fight. I don't think people or governments have changed so much during the last two hundred years. People have become more enlightened and different administrations have different and sometime opposing policies, but I think what America is what it has always been.

  10. I suspect its a question of how long people can tolerate endless confrontation in the Middle East. People will get tired of it. They want change. Leaders who cannot change will no longer be leaders. Unfortunately the interval between this time and that is measured in human lives. Terrific post.