Monday, March 17, 2008

Politics, ugh

So, for a couple of weeks, I've been wanting to write something about the Democratic race (it's hard to call something that feels like it's not going anywhere a "race", but there it is), but I'm having trouble coming up with anything coherent. My gut reaction is "this has got to stop". I think this was put most succinctly in an article about Clinton in the New Yorker by Ryan Lizza.
It is tempting to say that the Clinton campaign’s plan is to burn the village in order to save it—that Hillary Clinton believes that Democrats, hypnotized by Obama, are making a historic mistake from which only she can rescue them. And it is tempting to add that this means the political destruction of the man who is still most likely to be the Democratic nominee.
It is tempting to say that, and sort of terrifying to think it. Lizza goes on to argue that maybe Obama will be the stronger candidate for it. I've had friends tell me that Obama stands a good chance of being "Dukasis-ized" by the Republicans in the fall, and that if he can't come up with a response to that treatment now, he'll be such a weak candidate that it won't matter. Maybe that's true, but if it means that fear-mongering still works, we're screwed anyway.

Roger Cohen, editor of the International Herald Tribune, has been writing columns in the New York Times for the past few months. His writing can be awfully fragmented, but he has some good insights. This column, about Kofi Annan's success is mediating a power-sharing agreement in Kenya, made me think about what it means to have "foreign policy experience".
My colleague Jeffrey Gettleman, who has chronicled the Kenyan crisis with immense authority, speaks of ''Annan Zen.'' Annan needed that imperturbability. The atmosphere between the Kenyan president, Mwai Kibaki, who had been declared the narrow winner of a demonstrably rigged election, and Raila Odinga, the opposition leader who felt robbed, was ''very icy,'' Annan said.
Kibaki's team kept saying, ''We won it fair and square,'' as Odinga's countered, ''You stole it fair and square.'' Kibaki, a Kikuyu, talked of ''accommodating'' the opposition; Odinga, a Luo, bridled. If pushed, he would form ''an alternative government.''

''It took a while to convince them that there was no way either side could run the country without the other, that it was a perfect political gridlock,'' Annan told me.

He got a German official to explain grand coalitions. He got Jakaya Kikwete, the Tanzanian leader, to talk about how presidents and prime ministers work together. He was helped by President George W. Bush declaring during his recent African visit that ''there ought to be a power sharing agreement.''

Kibaki's foreign minister retorted that Kenya would not be ''given conditions by foreign states'' — the old anti-imperialist thing. But this was international intervention of another kind. The pressure cornered Kibaki. He ceded, empowering Odinga as a prime minister with authority anchored by constitutional change.

''When we talk of intervention, people think of the military,'' Annan said. ''But under R2P [the global ''responsibility to protect'' citizens in states whose own governments prove unable to do so], force is a last resort. Political and diplomatic intervention is the first mechanism. And I think we've seen a successful example of its application.''

Some will quibble over technicalities, but Kenya kindled the somnolent spirit of R2P. We've also seen American might in subtler guise: listening better, applying soft power. That's another reason what happened in Nairobi matters so much.
"Imperturbability", "listening better, applying soft power" - these don't, to me anyway, describe the sort of foreign policy experience that McCain and Clinton are talking about, but their the sorts of things that we'll need to fix the mess that we've gotten ourselves into.

A memory comes back to me of watching Charlie Rose on PBS a couple of days after September 11, 2001. The basic premise of the show was "we should ask the Israelis how to deal with this, they have lots of experience". I couldn't help shouting at the TV ,"And look where it's got them!" It seems to me we've followed that advice. Look where it's got us.

Cohen makes no secret of his preferences in the Democratic primary. In another column with a reasonably insightful premise "Tribalism here, and there", he compares tribes in Kenya to the American tribes
...the black vote, and the Latino vote, and the women-over-50 vote, and the Volvo-driving liberal-intellectual vote, and the white blue-collar vote, and the urban vote, and the rural vote, and the under-30s vote - sub-groups with shared social, cultural, linguistic or other traits and interests.
Others have made this point, and fortunately it's mostly rhetorical. So far, no machete wielding enforcers have been spotted in the U.S. Cohen's real emphasis is on getting beyond tribes, in both countries.
An American generation under 45 has glimpsed an interconnected world beyond race and tribe. They know its attainment will be elusive but, after a bitter season, they feel summoned by what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." And, speaking of experience, they know Lincoln came to the presidency with all of two years in Congress behind him, and a failed Senate campaign.

Looking out from Kenya, where he mediated an end to the tribal violence, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, told me: "I think an Obama presidency would be inspirational, an incredible development in the world."
Not a bad endorsement, though I bet you could use it to "Dukakis-ize" someone, if you were so inclined.

1 comment:

Rionn Fears Malechem said...

It took a surprisingly long time for the point to be made that Hillary Clinton really has no executive experience; while she's been in the Senate for longer than Barack Obama, he's been in elected office longer. Without the long primary season, we wouldn't have gotten that notice.

We're presuming Senator Obama will be the Democratic nominee. But, if Senator Clinton had triumphed in a truncated primary, we would be in a lot of trouble. We'd have Senator McCain saying "You've got no relevant experience" and HRC replying "Yes, but all of yours is stuck on stupid."

We'd all have to vote for Cynthia McKinney.

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I'm a biochemist at a small college.