President Barack H. Obama’s Eulogy for Senator John McCain


September 2, 2018

President Obama’s Eulogy for Senator John Sidney McCain

Former President Barack Obama on Saturday delivered a eulogy on behalf of Senator John McCain at a ceremony at the National Cathedral attended by many of Washington’s top current and former lawmakers.

The following is a transcript of those remarks, as prepared by The New York Times.

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To John’s beloved family — Mrs. McCain; to Cindy and the McCain children, President and Mrs. Bush, President and Secretary Clinton; Vice President and Mrs. Biden; Vice President and Mrs. Cheney, Vice President Gore, and, as John would say, my friends:

We come to celebrate an extraordinary man – a warrior, a statesman, a patriot who embodied so much that is best in America.

President Bush and I are among the fortunate few who competed against John at the highest levels of politics. He made us better presidents. Just as he made the Senate better. Just as he made this country better. So for someone like John to ask you, while he’s still alive, to stand and speak of him when he’s gone, is a precious and singular honor.

Now, when John called me with that request earlier this year, I’ll admit sadness and also a certain surprise. But after our conversation ended, I realized how well it captured some of John’s essential qualities.

To start with, John liked being unpredictable, even a little contrarian. He had no interest in conforming to some prepackaged version of what a senator should be, and he didn’t want a memorial that was going to be prepackaged either.

It also showed John’s disdain for self-pity. He had been to hell and back, and he had somehow never lost his energy, or his optimism, or his zest for life. So cancer did not scare him, and he would maintain that buoyant spirit to very end, too stubborn to sit still, opinionated as ever, fiercely devoted to his friends and most of all, to his family.

It showed his irreverence – his sense of humor, little bit of a mischievous streak. After all, what better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience?

And most of all, it showed a largeness of spirit, an ability to see past differences in search of common ground. And in fact, on the surface, John and I could not have been more different. We’re of different generations. I came from a broken home and never knew my father; John was the scion of one of America’s most distinguished military families. I have a reputation for keeping cool; John — not so much. We were standard bearers of different American political traditions, and throughout my presidency, John never hesitated to tell me when he thought I was screwing up – which, by his calculation, was about once a day.

 

 

But for all our differences, for all the times we sparred, I never tried to hide, and I think John came to understand, the longstanding admiration that I had for him.

By his own account, John was a rebellious young man. In his case, that’s understandable – what faster way to distinguish yourself when you’re the son and grandson of admirals than to mutiny?

Eventually, though, he concluded that the only way to really make his mark on the world is to commit to something bigger than yourself. And for John, that meant answering the highest of callings – serving his country in a time of war.

Others this week and this morning have spoken to the depths of his torment, and the depths of his courage, there in the cells of Hanoi, when day after day, year after year, that youthful iron was tempered into steel. It brings to mind something that Hemingway wrote in the book that Meghan referred to, his favorite book:

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

In captivity, John learned, in ways that few of us ever will, the meaning of those words – how each moment, each day, each choice is a test. And John McCain passed that test – again and again and again. And that’s why, when John spoke of virtues like service, and duty, it didn’t ring hollow. They weren’t just words to him. It was a truth that he had lived, and for which he was prepared to die. It forced even the most cynical to consider what were we doing for our country, what might we risk everything for.

Much has been said this week about what a maverick John was. Now, in fact, John was a pretty conservative guy. Trust me, I was on the receiving end of some of those votes. But he did understand that some principles transcend politics. That some values transcend party. He considered it part of his duty to uphold those principles and uphold those values.

John cared about the institutions of self-government – our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, rule of law and separation of powers, even the arcane rules and procedures of the Senate. He knew that, in a nation as big and boisterous and diverse as ours, those institutions, those rules, those norms are what bind us together and give shape and order to our common life, even when we disagree, especially when we disagree.

John believed in honest argument and hearing other views. He understood that if we get in the habit of bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our democracy will not work. That’s why he was willing to buck his own party at times, occasionally work across the aisle on campaign finance reform and immigration reform. That’s why he championed a free and independent press as vital to our democratic debate. And the fact that it earned him some good coverage didn’t hurt, either.

John understood, as JFK understood, as Ronald Reagan understood, that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our bloodline; not on what we look like, what our last names are. It’s not based on where our parents or grandparents came from, or how recently they arrived, but on adherence to a common creed: That all of us are created equal. Endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.

It’s been mentioned today, and we’ve seen footage this week of John pushing back against supporters who challenged my patriotism during the 2008 campaign. I was grateful, but I wasn’t surprised. As Joe Lieberman said, it was John’s instinct. I never saw John treat anyone differently because of their race, or religion, or gender. And I’m certain that in those moments that have been referred to during the campaign, he saw himself as defending America’s character, not just mine, for he considered it the imperative of every citizen who loves this country to treat all people fairly.

And finally, while John and I disagreed on all kinds of foreign policy issues, we stood together on America’s role as the one indispensable nation, believing that with great power and great blessings comes great responsibility. That burden is borne most heavily by our men and women in uniform – service members like Doug, Jimmy, and Jack, who followed in their father’s footsteps – as well as the families who serve alongside our troops. But John understood that our security and our influence was won not just by our military might, not just by our wealth, not just by our ability to bend others to our will, but from our capacity to inspire others, with our adherence to a set of universal values – like rule of law and human rights, and an insistence on the God-given dignity of every human being.

Of course, John was the first to tell us that he was not perfect. Like all of us who go into public service, he did have an ego. Like all of us, there were no doubt some votes he cast, some compromises he struck, some decisions he made that he wished he could have back. It’s no secret, it’s been mentioned that he had a temper, and when it flared up, it was a force of nature, a wonder to behold – his jaw grinding, his face reddening, his eyes boring a hole right through you. Not that I ever experienced it firsthand, mind you.

But to know John was to know that as quick as his passions might flare, he was just as quick to forgive and ask for forgiveness. He knew more than most his own flaws and his blind spots, and he knew how to laugh at himself. And that self-awareness made him all the more compelling.

We didn’t advertise it, but every so often over the course of my presidency, John would come over to the White House, and we’d just sit and talk in the Oval Office, just the two of us – we’d talk about policy and we’d talk about family and we’d talk about the state of our politics. And our disagreements didn’t go away during these private conversations. Those were real, and they were often deep. But we enjoyed the time we shared away from the bright lights. And we laughed with each other, and we learned from each other. We never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other man’s patriotism, or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team. We never doubted we were on the same team.

 

For all of our differences, we shared a fidelity to the ideals for which generations of Americans have marched, and fought, and sacrificed, and given their lives. We considered our political battles a privilege, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those ideals here at home, and to do our best to advance them around the world. We saw this country as a place where anything is possible – and citizenship as an obligation to ensure it forever remains that way.

More than once during his career, John drew comparisons to Teddy Roosevelt. And I’m sure it’s been noted that Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” oration seems tailored to John. Most of you know it: Roosevelt speaks of those who strive, who dare to do great things, who sometimes win and sometimes come up short, but always relish a good fight – a contrast to those cold, timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Isn’t that the spirit we celebrate this week? That striving to be better, to do better, to be worthy of the great inheritance that our founders bestowed.

So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear.

John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that will ever come can depend on what you do today.”

What better way to honor John McCain’s life of service than, as best we can, follow his example?

To prove that the willingness to get in the arena and fight for this country is not reserved for the few, it is open to all of us, that in fact it’s demanded of all of us, as citizens of this great republic?

That’s perhaps how we honor him best – by recognizing that there are some things bigger than party, or ambition, or money, or fame or power. That there are some things that are worth risking everything for. Principles that are eternal. Truths that are abiding.

At his best, John showed us what that means. For that, we are all deeply in his debt.

May God bless John McCain, and may God bless this country he served so well.

 

Planning for the Post-Trump Foreign Policy Wreckage


August 31, 2018

Planning for the Post-Trump Foreign Policy Wreckage

When the president eventually exits the White House, the rest of us will quickly have to make sense of the world he’s left behind.

Donald Trump speaks during an event to announces a grant for drug-free communities support program, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 29, 2018. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump speaks during an event to announce a grant for drug-free communities support program, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 29, 2018. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

 

One of the many unfortunate consequences of U.S. President Donald Trump’s cavalier, corrupt, and capricious handling of foreign policy is that it discourages farsighted thinking about the global agenda. Even worse, it is gradually undermining the institutional capacity the United States will need to deal with that agenda. To a first approximation, the people who are most alarmed by his actions (and I include myself among them) are spending a lot of their time circling the wagons and trying to minimize the damage that he and his minions do while in office. They are like parents trying frantically to corral a rambunctious toddler (hat tip to Dan Drezner) who is running amok through a china shop: All the attention is on saving as much of the crockery as possible, and nobody has any time to think about what they’ll do once the kid has finished smashing things.

It’s understandable that people are trapped in a reactive mode, because Trump’s genius is his ability to make nearly everything all about him and to focus attention on whatever his latest outrageous antic is. What other president could or would make himself the center of attention when a prominent senator died or express his disagreement with an important allied leader by tossing candy at her? Trump may be terrible at running the government, but his ability to command attention through outrageous behavior makes Madonna look like an amateur.

Yet we should resist the urge to remain in a defensive crouch. Yes, there’s a lot of damage being done these days, and resisting Trump’s worst impulses is important. But there are plenty of problems out there that will require attention in the not-too-distant future, and where the appropriate solutions aren’t immediately obvious. Careful and creative thought will be needed to figure out an appropriate destination and then to chart a course to get there. It is not too soon, therefore, for foreign-policy mavens to start thinking about the post-Trump world, not simply to restore the pre-Trump status quo but in order to figure out arrangements that acknowledge new realities and are appropriate for the conditions we will face in the future.

No doubt each of you has your own list of priorities, but for what it’s worth, here are a few of mine.

#1: The Architecture of Great Power Politics

When he ran for president back in 1992, Bill Clinton once declared that “the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era.” He was expressing the widespread belief (pious hope?) that humanity had turned a corner at the end of the Cold War, and that the old logic of great power rivalry was now behind us. He was dead wrong, alas, and great power politics are now back with a vengeance.

But the form and intensity of that rivalry remains open, and the nature of relations among today’s great powers needs to be shaped through farsighted diplomatic action. Will the United States disengage and let Europe and Asia (mostly) go their own way? Will the United States, its NATO allies, and Japan link up with others to contain Russia, China, and their various regional partners? Should the United States make a concerted effort to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, perhaps by trying to work out an agreement on Ukraine and promoting a security architecture for Europe and Russia that reduces each side’s fears? Where will countries like India fit into the constellation of great powers, and where should the United States want it to be?

It is all well and good to obsess about “saving NATO” or “preserving a liberal order,” but those short-term, reactive goals do not eliminate the need to think hard about what sort of great power relations are realistic and desirable in the decades ahead. At key moments in world history—such as 1815, 1870, 1919, 1945, and 1993—the leaders of the great powers had to imagine and then try to implement visions of great power politics designed to preserve key interests, ideally without (much) resort to force. They were sometimes successful; at other key moments, they failed miserably. The problem cannot be avoided, but we are more likely to end up with arrangements we like if we start thinking through the possibilities now. 

#2: The Brave New World of Cyber:

I’m the first to admit that I didn’t foresee all of the ways that digitalization, social media, and other aspects of the cyber-world would shape both international and domestic politics. Sure, there’s been a lot of hype and threat inflation about cybersecurity, cyberwar, and cyber-everything else, but in 2018 it’s impossible to deny that these issues are affecting us all in pretty far-reaching ways. Indeed, even the suspicion that bad guys are using the internet to manipulate politics can have effects all on its own.

Instead of moving energetically to address these issues, however, Trump fired the White House cybersecurity coordinator and eliminated the position, repeatedly denied that anybody interfered in the 2018 election, and now is tweeting out accusations that Google is biased against him. Instead of developing a coherent U.S. policy and trying to negotiate an international code of conduct that might mitigate these problems, he’s kicking the can down the road.

But does anyone believe these issues will simply disappear on their own? Surely not. Which means more farsighted people will have to start developing policies that can preserve the benefits of the digital revolution while protecting us from its dark downside.

#3: New Institutions for the World Economy

It is now obvious that contemporary globalization did not deliver as promised for millions of people—though it did have significant benefits for the Asian middle class and the global 1 percent—and that the main institutions set up to manage global trade and investment need serious rethinking. This is partly because some countries (e.g., China) have complied poorly with some of the rules, though no country’s track record is perfect, and because unfettered globalization did not allow individual countries to tailor arrangements in order to support key cultural or national priorities.

This is not my area of expertise, and I’m not going to offer any detailed advice on what should be done. For what it’s worth, I find my colleague Dani Rodrik’s arguments on allowing nations greater autonomy within the global trading and investment order, so that their participation does not produce wrenching social dislocations at home, convincing. Less globalization might be more, therefore, but less globalization does not mean zero.

As near as I can tell, the Trump administration’s approach to these issues has been to use U.S. economic leverage to bully other countries into making minor economic concessions, which Trump can then hail as the “beautiful” new trade deals that he promised back in 2016. That’s what happened with South Korea and what appears to be happening with NAFTA. But what’s missing, at least so far, is any attempt to develop a larger set of institutions or arrangements that would safeguard the wealth-enhancing elements of (mostly) open trade and avoid both the obvious costs of a trade war and the social turmoil of hyper-globalization. Again, it’s not my field, but I sure hope Dani isn’t the only person thinking about what a new global economic order should look like.

#4: Whither the Middle East? 

If the architecture of great power politics is now uncertain and will require creative diplomacy to adapt to and shape, that goes double in the troubled Middle East. Thus far, the Trump administration has mostly doubled down on supporting America’s longtime Middle East partners: giving a free hand to Israeli expansionism, backing Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military dictatorship in Egypt, and encouraging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious domestic reforms and his increasingly reckless regional behavior (most notably and tragically in Yemen), as well as ramping up pressure on America’s perennial bête noire, Iran. Trump has also stumbled into a pissing contest with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, but Erdogan is at least as prickly and desperate for scapegoats as Trump himself, and a cynic might argue that the two leaders deserve each other.

Although it’s possible that National Security Advisor John Bolton will still get the war with Iran that he has long favored, the bigger questions are what the U.S. role in the region will be over the longer term and how it will deal with problems that are going to come home to roost eventually. Former Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all openly backed a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, for example, and each tried to bring it about in their own not-very-effective fashion. The two-state solution is now on life support if not completely dead, however, which raises the obvious question: If “two states for two peoples” is impossible, then what is does the United States support? Does it believe Israel should become a one-state democracy, with full political rights for all inhabitants, including the Palestinians who are now under strict Israeli control and denied political rights? Do Americans think those Palestinians should be kept in a state of permanent subjugation (aka apartheid)? Is the United States in favor of Israel expelling them to some other country? Nobody really wants to think about awkward questions such as these, let alone answer them, but Trump’s successors are going to get asked. Might be a good idea to start formulating a response.

And that’s just one issue. The United States will also need to figure out if it wants to continue its (mostly futile) efforts to mold local politics all over the region or revert back to the strategy of “offshore balancing” that it employed there from 1945 to roughly 1991. Should it strive for a modus vivendi with Iran—in the service of maximizing U.S. leverage and maintaining a regional balance of power—or continue to flirt with regime change? And it is worth asking if the Middle East is even as vital a region as it once was, given the shale gas revolution back in the United States, the imperative to reduce fossil fuel consumption, and the rising strategic importance of Asia?

#5: Rebuilding Foreign Policy Capacity and Expertise

Unfortunately, the United States will be grappling with all of these problems with a severely depleted foreign-policy capacity. The travails of the State Department are well known, but there has also been exceptionally high turnover among key Trump aides and a general erosion of nonpartisan experience and expertise throughout the government. Trump’s repeated attacks on the intelligence agencies and his efforts to politicize the civil service aren’t helping either. Lord knows I’m critical of the “Blob” and its tendency not to hold itself accountable and to stick with strategies that aren’t working, but the answer is a better foreign-policy establishment, not amateur hour.

Accordingly, planning for a post-Trump world will also require a sustained effort to rebuild the institutional and administrative capacity for an effective foreign policy. Having an effective and professional civil and foreign service is critical in a system such as America’s, because so many top jobs get replaced whenever the White House changes hands, and many senior officials take months if not years to be nominated and confirmed. Moreover, a lot of them stay in their posts for only a year or two, creating further disarray and churn within the government. Add to that America’s odd practice of letting big campaign donors serve in important diplomatic posts or management positions, and you have a recipe for trouble.

This problem wouldn’t be a big issue if the United States had modest foreign-policy goals, but that is hardly the case. Instead, it is trying to run the world with perhaps the most disorganized and dysfunctional system imaginable. Accordingly, farsighted patriots need to start planning how to restore expertise, analytic capacity, and accountability now, so that this process can begin swiftly once Trump is gone.

The list presented here is far from complete, and it’s easy to think of other issues (e.g., climate change, proliferation, migration, etc.) where imaginative thinking is going to be needed. But my central point remains: Preserving the status quo against Trump’s wrecking operation is not enough. Instead of just playing defense, his critics need to start thinking about the positive goals they intend to pursue once he’s left the political stage. And there’s an added benefit in this course of action: The most obvious way to convince Americans that Trump’s policies are mistaken is to show them a better alternative.

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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

Understanding Cambodia’s Foreign Policy


August 30, 2018

Understanding Cambodia’s Foreign Policy

by Chan Kunthiny
Image result for hun sen's engagement with China
Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Architect of Cambodia’s Win-Win Policy at Home and Abroad. This Policy has brought Peace, Stability and Prosperity since it was initiated in 1998

 

It is not accurate to just explain Cambodia’s foreign policy based on the perspective of major powers. They just serve the interests of self-serving writers who wish to draw international attention, amid the trendy thirst for stories, to the geopolitical superpower rivalry between the US and China at the cost of small states, writes Chan Kunthiny.

Explaining Cambodia’s foreign policy through the prism of either “Sinicization” or “anti-Americanism” does not reflect the dynamics and complexity of Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy. These two conceptual approaches ignore the underlying dynamics of Cambodia’s domestic politics and foreign policy.

Image result for Sihanouk's Book My War with The CIA

Image result for William Shawcross book on Cambodia

The Trump Administration has yet to learn the Lessons of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Read King Norodom Sihanouk: My War with the CIA and William Shawcross’s Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia

 

To analyse any country’s foreign policy, one has to at least understand what constitutes the national interests of that country. As a small state, Cambodia defines its national interests based on the following four factors.

First, protecting territorial integrity. No foreign pundits have ever looked at Cambodia’s foreign policy behavior from this aspect. Cambodian people have a strong “victim mentality”— owing to the long history of foreign invasion and occupation following the fall of the Khmer Empire. The latest border skirmishes and tensions between Cambodia and its neighbors occurred in 2011 (with Thailand), 2015 (with Vietnam), and 2017 (with Laos).

Cambodia had exercised its utmost restraint and exerted diplomatic means to resolve the border tensions and disputes. This needs to be recognised.

Second, maintaining sovereignty and independence. For any small states, practicing the Westphalian system in reality is probably similar to Martin Luther King’s fight for the rights of black people despite the constitutional equality of all citizens. Small states face huge challenges in maintaining their sovereignty and independence as they are subject to coercion or invasion by more powerful nations.

From an outside-in perspective, small states tend to be willing to cede their sovereignty and independence in exchange for security protection or economic benefits. And from the inside-out perspective, there is a generalisation that superpowers are all the same in the way that they exert their power without respecting the interest of their weaker states.

Third, preserving peace and stability. This has been taken for granted by both outsiders and some insiders. The sad truth is that peace and stability that Cambodians have been enjoying since it gained total peace in 1998 is, in fact, the longest peace in Cambodian history after the collapse of the Khmer empire in 15th century.

As a post-conflict country, Cambodia remains vulnerable to political instability if strong leadership and institutions are not in place. Cambodia needs to keep nurturing the culture of peace, social harmony, and political dialogues.

Fourth, sustaining economic development. Cambodia has been quite successful in eradicating poverty – from absolute poverty in 1979, to a more than 50 percent poverty rate in the 1990s, and now to almost below 10 percent. This is a remarkable journey of development and nation building. It needs to be noted that after gaining independence from France in 1953, Cambodia had only one high school and the post-colonial Cambodia did not have a proper state apparatus to provide sufficient public services. Moreover, peace did not last long enough to allow state institutions to get reformed and strengthened.

The above four factors are all critical and intertwined. For example, even if internal peace and stability is so dearly important for Cambodia, it can never rule out the possibility of war if foreign powers interfere and violate Cambodian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Since the early 1980s, the Cambodian government has been domestically and internationally accused of being a “Vietnamese puppet” that allegedly ceded territory to its so-called master. However, the fact is even after nearly 40 years of border negotiation, both sides have not completed border demarcation. If Cambodia were a colony of Vietnam, the border demarcation would be completed in Vietnam’s favor, just like when the French colonial master decided everything on behalf of Cambodia.

Image result for hun sen's engagement with China

Constructive Engagement with China based on mutual respect and common interest

Another lingering perception is that Cambodia is willing to lose its sovereignty and independence just for the sake of material incentives provided by China. This is the theory of “Sinicization” of Cambodia. In its publication on July 19, the Nikkei Asian Review featured Cambodia in the front page with the title “Cambodia’s Chinafication”. In contrast, its latest article on August 24 entitled “Thailand rolls out red carpet for 500 Chinese companies” provided a softer tone of discrimination. It should be noted that despite Cambodia’s seemingly good relations with China, Cambodia has never had the opportunity to receive 500 Chinese companies in one single delegation.

Another important fact is that so far there is no case of any purchase of Cambodia’s public property and infrastructure by Chinese entities. It should be noted that all the deals are leasing contracts or BOTs (Build-Operate-Transfer). Moreover, in terms of risk of indebtedness, Cambodia is seen as being constantly aware and wary of the trend when it declined a loan offer from the China-controlled Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank in May 2017.

Concerning the relationship between “sovereignty and independence” and “economic development”, the futility of threat of sanctions and aid cut by some major powers to pressure a sovereign state to reverse its judicial verdicts is truly a type of neocolonialism that Cambodia has consistently rejected.

All the above four factors should be the analytical lens when one seeks to understand Cambodia’s foreign policy behaviours. The four factors are the barometers of Cambodia’s foreign policy towards other countries.

It is not accurate to just explain Cambodia’s foreign policy based on the perspective of major powers. They just serve the interests of self-serving writers who wish to draw international attention, amid the trendy thirst for stories, to the geopolitical superpower rivalry between the US and China at the cost of small states.

Cambodia will never kowtow to any major power. Cambodia has been and will be consistent in linking its foreign policy with peace, stability, territorial integrity, sovereignty, independence, and economic prosperity.

Chan Kunthiny is a Cambodia analyst based in Phnom Penh.

More Tributes to John McCain: A True American Patriot


August 28, 2018

Elephants in the Room

John McCain Was Always There for America

Remembrances of a hero the United States—and the Republican Party—will miss.

John McCain (R-AZ) prepares to greet supporters during a Veterans rally for U.S. Sen candidate and U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) at the American Legion Post on October 13, 2014 in Covington, Louisiana.  (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

John McCain (R-AZ) prepares to greet supporters during a Veterans rally for U.S. Sen candidate and U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) at the American Legion Post on October 13, 2014 in Covington, Louisiana. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

By Will Inboden

“There were giants in the earth in those days…” Genesis 6:4

A giant has departed from among us. With Sen. John McCain’s death on Saturday, our nation has lost a war hero, a statesman, and a patriot.

As an Arizonan, I grew up under the long shadow cast over our state by McCain. He may not have been a native son, but on moving there in 1981 he quickly embraced Arizona and we embraced him in return. The state and the man were made for each other: proud, independent, stubborn, free, and on occasion as prickly as the countless saguaro cacti that adorn Arizona’s southern landscape.

His first run for the House of Representatives in 1982 remains the stuff of Arizona political lore. Criticized during a primary debate for being a carpetbagger, McCain responded defiantly: “I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”

Even as a young conservative congressman in the vanguard of Ronald Reagan’s revolution, McCain built a close friendship with fellow Arizona Rep. Mo Udall, a liberal Democrat and senior House member who graciously mentored McCain despite their political differences. Displaying the loyalty and honor that were his lifelong traits, McCain in turn never forgot Udall, to the point of visiting him regularly in the veteran’s hospital even when the dying Udall was barely conscious and had been forgotten by the rest of his former colleagues.

McCain won election in 1986 to the Senate seat previously held by the iconic Barry Goldwater. McCain and Goldwater combined served 61 years in the Senate, each a pillar of the institution and each a pillar of Arizona. In particular, they wielded enormous influence on defense policy as both became chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee and both designed landmark defense reform measures while working tirelessly to strengthen and equip our military.

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Part of McCain’s greatness came from his sense of history. He venerated the past and felt a special duty to be worthy of the legacies he inherited. Whether in his own family Navy lineage as the son and grandson of admirals, in Arizona as the successor to the Goldwater Senate seat, and especially as an American who loved his country with abiding and unrelenting passion, the past captivated McCain. (Because of his devotion to history and national security leadership, we were honored to have McCain serve on the Statecraft Board of Reference for the Clements Center for National Security that I oversee at the University of Texas at Austin.)

McCain also carried forward the Reagan legacy on national security policy more than almost any other U.S. political leader. Like Reagan, McCain was a stalwart advocate for human rights and democracy, exemplified by his longtime chairmanship of the International Republican Institute. Like Reagan, McCain stood for a strong military, free trade, loyalty to our allies, and U.S. international leadership.

Like all giants, this treasure in an earthen vessel had his flaws. McCain could too often let political differences become personal, had a combustible temper, and was rarely guilty of excessive humility. Few Republicans, myself included, agreed with him on every policy stand he embraced. Almost all of us who served in national security roles in the George W. Bush administration found ourselves crosswise with McCain on some occasion or another.

A great country produces great men, and John McCain was a great one indeed. May he rest in peace but may his legacy rest not.

* * *

By Daniel Twining

I started working for John McCain in 1995. I never really stopped working for him. I served on his Senate staff, including as his foreign policy advisor, a role that took me to some 40 countries with him and allowed me to witness the great man in action during some of the most consequential moments of modern American history, including the campaign for NATO enlargement, the 9/11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I volunteered for both his presidential campaigns, doing everything from driving him to events to penning parts of his foreign policy platform. I now run an organization, the International Republican Institute, that he chaired for 25 years until reluctantly handing over its leadership in the weeks before his death. The John McCain I know is not the one in the glare of the media spotlight. The private John McCain is in fact more impressive than the public one.

The media narrative always had McCain in the center of the great public policy cause of the day: from campaign finance reform to North Korean nuclear proliferation to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Russian aggression against its neighbors. He was a leader in these and other causes, foreign and domestic. But the causes that animated him equally passionately were those with no media bandwidth whatsoever: a coup in Fiji that subverted democracy; the cause of human rights defenders in Belarus; persecution against online dissidents in Vietnam; the fate of Cambodia’s opposition in the face of repeated government crackdowns; the prospects for Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition; the future of Iraq’s Kurds; the fate of tiny Baltic nations most Americans could not find on a map; prospects for peace in the Balkans; ethnic cleansing in Burma by the powerful against the powerless.

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Sen. McCain was not selective in his belief that advancing universal values of democracy and human rights served American interests in a more peaceful, stable world. He raged against tyranny in countries such as the Maldives, population 400,000, as virulently as he fulminated against the strongmen in control of authoritarian great powers who had turned their nations into prisons for their people. He took repression personally: How did Putin get away with conning Russians into believing he was protecting their country from American encirclement even as Moscow invaded neighbors in Georgia and Ukraine in an effort to build a new empire? How did successive North Korean despots charm American presidents into negotiating closer ties when large segments of the North Korean population lived in gulags?

Sen. McCain believed deeply that America must lead internationally—and that while our country did so imperfectly and at times intemperately, it was vacuums left by the absence of American leadership that ultimately made the world more dangerous and insecure. America was a different kind of great power, he understood—one whose universalist aspirations were not simply a cloak for the covetous pursuit of territory and resources but a reflection of the belief that our founding ideals were the prerogatives not only of Americans but of all people. If Americans were endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, should that not be true for everyone else too? Those authoritarians who stood in the way of their people’s natural rights to freedom and dignity were the targets of his greatest wrath.

It takes courage and commitment to care so much about the liberty of those who did not have a voice, or who could not pay Washington lobbyists to push their case. Sen. McCain could have made an equally successful career leading on popular causes that made the front pages of the newspapers and led the storylines on cable television. But he was haunted by an insight he had learned in solitary confinement in Vietnam, where he saw the best and worst of humanity.

Honor is not defined by fame and fortune; it’s not determined by the choices you make when everyone is watching. “Honor is who you are in the dark,” he would say, when you are alone—and when no one but yourself will know whether you did the right thing or whether you accommodated, yielding your principles in the pursuit of a narrower self-interest.

John McCain never yielded. America and the world are better for it.

* * *

By Michael Green

More than any other public figure I have had the opportunity to meet, John McCain is the one I tell my own children to exemplify as they seek a life made meaningful by patriotism, integrity and service. My son was very young when I worked on the foreign policy team of the 2008 McCain campaign. At the time my wife bought him the book My Dad John McCain written by Meghan McCain to introduce the candidate to young readers. My son’s collection of books has changed several times since then, but he still keeps My Dad John McCain front and center.

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As Max Boot notes, John McCain was an easy Presidential candidate to support as a foreign policy advisor. In 2008 I represented the campaign in a series of proxy debates organized by think tanks and the press. The Obama team would always come armed with thick books looking like litigators in a complex anti-trust case. While I had a lot of respect and admiration for the guys on the other side of the table, it was clear that their talking points were designed to avoid alienating key Democratic constituencies as much as they were to articulate a clear foreign policy strategy. Team McCain came armed only with an understanding of our candidates’ vision, principles and record. Our counterparts later joked that our clarity on human rights, alliances or trade probably didn’t move any voters in swing states like Florida, but there was no doubt we had much more fun.

Like others, I have also been under the glare of Sen. McCain. As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain authorized an external review of U.S. basing strategy for the Pacific that I co-chaired in 2010. Always focused on the taxpayers’ money and the readiness and welfare of our forces, McCain was cranky about the cost of new housing for Marines on Guam and the Rube Goldberg-like airfield the Pentagon was constructing in Okinawa to satisfy local complaints about noise and safety. After six months of intense work, our outside panel concluded that the new dispersed laydown of bases and access arrangements made good operational and strategic sense given China’s growing missile arsenal and reach into the South China Sea, but that the plan would need adjustments. When I first briefed McCain, he grimaced. When I testified, he called me up afterwards and told me I would need “a bigger piece of lipstick” for this particular pig. He was not going to be convinced by ideology, party, or talking points. In the end, he supported the plan, but only after Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work personally squeezed the Navy to bring costs down almost 50 percent and only after we could explain with precise citation of history, geography and operations how the plan could be implemented in a way that would make our service personnel, our country and our allies safer.

John McCain was a constant reminder of American power and principle for our allies in Asia. Secretaries of defense were grateful when he led bipartisan delegations to the Shangri-La security summit every year to reinforce the administration’s message of commitment and staying power in the region. In 2016, when Beijing began bullying the new government of Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, McCain added a stop in Taiwan on his way back from Singapore to buck her up and push back against the PRC. When Japan was hearing mixed messages about Chinese incursions around the Senkaku Islands, McCain pressed the Obama administration to clarify its support for Tokyo. As many tributes to this great man have emphasized, he relished nothing more than channeling his outrage to plug the gaps in our national security and the shortcomings in our sense of national purpose.

I have been asked in Tokyo, Canberra, Seoul and Taipei on recent trips who will now fill this enormous space in the Senate. I tell our friends that McCain nurtured a strong cohort of principled internationalists on the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Sentors Dan Sullivan and Joni Ernst. John McCain has left them—and all of us—a charge to keep.

* * *

By Phil Levy

I had the honor of coordinating international economic policy for Sen. McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. I have worked on such issues for two presidential administrations and three presidential campaigns, despite my background as an academic economist. There is normally some combustion that occurs when academic economists encounter American politics: The economist will talk about optimal policies; the politicians will dismiss those stances as naive fantasies.

With Sen. McCain’s campaign it was different, at least as far my experience went. Sen. McCain firmly supported whatever policies were most likely to help American consumers, workers, and businesses. He resisted intense pressures to resort to economic demagoguery, such as promises to name China a currency manipulator (a popular stance that both recent winning candidates for the presidency expounded, only to eschew once in office). Sen. McCain was a man of strong principle and believed in doing what was right, even if there was a significant political cost.

One of the great ironies of the 2008 campaign was the dismissal of Sen. McCain as weak on economic issues. It was certainly true that his passion was for security issues. His self-deprecation allowed this to be cast as insufficient preparation for dealing with the economy. Yet his instincts and his stances on economic matters were unusually strong. While he may not have been enamored of the details, he did not need to be; he was of sufficient caliber as a leader that he attracted excellent, experienced people around him, such as Doug Holtz-Eakin, to whom I reported, and some of the others involved in Elephants in the Room.

I cannot claim to have known Sen. McCain well. But I am very proud to have had a small role working with such a principled leader, a true American hero. He will be sorely missed.

* * *

By Dov Zakheim

I knew John McCain since he was a Navy captain, working in the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs after he returned from Vietnam. I always admired his heroism, his honesty, and his decency. He had a sense of what was best for the country that sadly too many contemporary politicians seem to lack.

He could have a ferocious temper—but it was one that could dissipate quickly. He once blew up at me when I was testifying at a hearing and did not like my reply to his comments. He absolutely refused to accept my apologies. That summer, however, my wife—not knowing that he was furious at me—bought his latest book on CD, to which we listened while driving to our summer home in New Hampshire. (I write from there now.) One of the items that struck me was his statement that he didn’t believe in personalizing policy differences. When I saw him again in September, he growled at me until I told him that I had listened to his latest book. “You did?” I replied in the affirmative, adding, “And you write that you don’t personalize policy differences.”

His reply: “You’re right. I apologize,” and he extended his hand.

That was John.

He could, however, be ferocious when he knew he was in the right. During the Air Force tanker scandal, he told me that he would not rest until he sent the guilty parties to jail. And to jail they went.

Quite independent of our relationship, John was especially nice to my son Roger. They developed a quite close relationship during conference committee for the Armed Services Authorization bills when Roger was a senior staffer on the HASC. For that I am exceedingly grateful.

I will miss John and so too should everyone who shares his deep concern about our alliances and friendships with partners worldwide, our commitment to those who fight for our freedom, and the values that have made this country great and that he held so dear.

May his memory be a blessing for us all.

* * *

By Dan Runde

Sen. John McCain distinguished himself by having the right adversaries. My wife and I hosted a fundraiser for McCain during the 2016 election cycle. Our key pitch was: “How will the Mullahs in Iran, the Chinese leadership, and Vladimir Putin feel if John McCain loses his Senate seat?” That was the question that moved people to give.

McCain also distinguished himself by the wonderful friends and allies he had. In the Senate, these included Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, and Joe Lieberman. He also sought the foreign-policy advice of brilliant people such as Richard Williamson, Randy Scheunemann, and Stephen Biegun. In politics, McCain was fortunate to have the loyalty and persistence of wonderful folks including Wayne Berman and Charlie Black.

McCain valued allies, worked tirelessly to maintain the rule-based international system set up after World War II, had a clear sense of America’s leadership role, and was (thankfully) our adversaries’ worst nightmare. The world is a freer, safer, and better place for his efforts. He understood that the United States needed both a strong defense and many friends. He also understood that we couldn’t just kill our way out of our problems, so we needed to use our soft power just as we used our hard power.

I always felt as if I was in the presence of greatness when I was with McCain. Like all of us, he had his foibles, but he earned a stack of waivers from me and millions of Americans after spending five-plus years in a prison camp in North Vietnam. In my mind, he had the right to break with Republican orthodoxy or have a personal moment of weakness whenever he wanted.

I made a point of taking my three children to the fundraiser my wife and I organized to make sure they met a real hero. The fundraiser was organized around the time that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump made the accusation that McCain was “not a hero.” I told my children that McCain had made great personal sacrifices for the United States and that his sacrifices and his service were things to admire. I encouraged my children to look up to McCain. I told my children that McCain was a hero. He will always be one of mine.

* * *

By William Tobey

With John McCain’s passing, we must mourn the loss of an American hero. We are blessed that for two centuries men and women such as McCain have stepped forward to protect and to defend America’s constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

McCain possessed both physical and moral courage. In 1967, he pressed ahead on his mission over North Vietnam in the face of anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles that he knew risked his life and which ultimately brought down his airplane. Later, as a prisoner of war, he refused an offer of release ahead of other Americans who had been held longer. Even injured, imprisoned, and tortured, he would not take the easy way out. He did the same thing in his years in the Senate and an unsuccessful campaign to be president.

In 2006, I faced a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. With me were other Republican nominees chosen by then-President George W. Bush. The senator who gave our panel the most difficult time was not a Democrat; it was McCain, because he cared so deeply about the defense of our nation. He would not permit partisanship to prevent him from asking difficult questions. He was relentless in his pursuit of U.S. security—whether in an aircraft cockpit or on the Senate floor.

I mourn his passing and honor his service, and so should all Americans who value our constitution and our liberty.

* * *

By Thomas G. Mahnken

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His passing leaves a yawning void as the United States struggles to deal with a world characterized by the reality of great-power competition and the increasing possibility of great-power war. The U.S. military is nonetheless stronger, and the United States more secure, because of his tenure in Congress.–Thomas G. Mahnken

 

Americans committed to vigorous internationalism and strong national defense have lost a champion, and America has lost a fine and decent public servant.

I had the honor of testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee periodically, and the pleasure of working more frequently with the truly stellar members of his staff. And I was honored to have been one of three commissioners that Sen. McCain appointed to the National Defense Strategy Commission, which has been charged with reviewing the 2018 National Defense Strategy and reporting its findings to Congress, the President, and the Secretary of Defense.

John McCain truly loved the U.S. armed forces, though not in a starry-eyed, reflexive way. This was not bumper-sticker patriotism. Rather, he possessed a deep and abiding connection to the men and women of the U.S. armed forces in which he himself had served, together with a sense of duty that often led him to ask uncomfortable questions of civilian and military leaders in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Where he saw inaction, he prodded; where he saw problems, he sought solutions; where he experienced obfuscation, he berated. Over the years, he championed the causes that he believed needed championing to improve the nation’s defense, to include strengthening the U.S. military in the Asia-Pacific region and moving the services to adopt new ways of war. His committee’s Restoring American Power laid out a vision of a stronger U.S. military better positioned to confront the operational and strategic challenges that confront us. To the extent that there is a Trump military buildup, one of its chief architects was John McCain.

Even before he was diagnosed with cancer, he acted with a sense of purpose. As befit a man who according to the odds should have died twice—first during the deadly fire that engulfed the flight deck of the USS Forrestal, and later as the result of injuries sustained before and during his captivity in Hanoi—he was fearless, impatient, and abrasive.

His passion, determination, and dedicated focus on national defense—qualities the nation needs now more than ever—will be hard to replace. His passing leaves a yawning void as the United States struggles to deal with a world characterized by the reality of great-power competition and the increasing possibility of great-power war. The U.S. military is nonetheless stronger, and the United States more secure, because of his tenure in Congress.

Fair winds and following seas, Senator.

Elephants in the Room is a blog about U.S. foreign policy in the age of Trump, written by experienced GOP policymakers, scholars, and others not currently working in the new administration. It is curated by co-editors Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.

The New Yorker: President Trump Implicated in a Criminal Conspiracy with Cohen’s Guilty Plea


August 23, 2018

The New Yorker: President Trump Implicated in a Criminal Conspiracy with Cohen’s Guilty Plea

by Adam Davidson

https://www.newyorker.com

The President of the United States is now, formally, implicated in a criminal conspiracy to mislead the American public in order to influence an election. Were he not President, Donald Trump himself would almost certainly be facing charges. This news came in what must be considered the most damaging single hour of a deeply troubled Presidency (and flawed President).

On Tuesday morning, it was still possible to believe that Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort might be exonerated and that his longtime attorney Michael Cohen would only face charges for crimes stemming from his taxicab business. Such events would have supported Trump’s effort to portray the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” perpetrated by overzealous partisan prosecutors. By late afternoon, though, Cohen, the President’s longtime adviser, fixer, and, until recently, personal attorney, told a judge that Trump explicitly instructed him to break campaign-finance laws by paying two women not to publicly disclose the affairs they had with Trump. At precisely the same moment, Manafort was learning of his fate: guilty on eight counts of bank and tax fraud, with the jury undecided on ten other counts.

The question can no longer be whether the President and those closest to him broke the law. That is settled. Three of the people closest to Trump as he ran for and won the Presidency have now pleaded guilty or have been convicted of significant federal crimes: Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn. The question now becomes far narrower and, for Trump, more troubling: What is the political impact of a President’s criminal liability being established in a federal court? How will Congress respond? And if Congress does not act, how will voters respond in the midterm elections?

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America’s Notorious Trio–You are known for the company you keep, so shall it be with President Donald J. Trump

The President spoke to reporters soon after the Manafort and Cohen news. He said that the Manafort guilty verdicts made him feel “very badly,” but they “had nothing to do with Russian collusion.” He then walked away, as reporters shouted questions about the Cohen guilty plea. While his comment was, technically, correct—neither man’s guilt was for crimes involving the Trump campaign colluding with Russia—the President would be unwise to consider the outcome of either case beneficial. Manafort was convicted of crimes he committed while being paid tens of millions for serving the interests of oligarchs and politicians closely allied with the Kremlin. The trial made clear that Manafort was in tremendous financial distress, in hock to some of those same oligarchs, just when he became Trump’s unpaid campaign chair. The trial contained a central but unasked question: What did this desperate man do when he needed money and had only one valuable asset—access to Trump and his campaign? Manafort, who faces decades in prison, is under renewed pressure to coöperate with Mueller’s investigation and to answer that question.

It is the Cohen plea that should be the most alarming, though, to the President, precisely because it has nothing to do with Russia. Instead, it demonstrates a comfort with law-breaking by people at the core of the Trump Organization. Cohen’s guilty plea is part of a long trail of evidence. Last month, a tape recording of Trump speaking with Cohen showed that the President had familiarity and comfort with the idea of using shell companies to disguise payoffs that, we now know, were illegal. This echoed evidence from depositions in a lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General against the Trump Foundation that suggested deceptive—and almost certainly illegal—practices were standard at the Trump Organization. Cohen admitted in open court that Trump directed him to violate campaign-finance laws. Later in the day, Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, issued a public statement that included these lines: “Today [Cohen] stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”

The day had a feeling, on one level, of history, of recognizing that one is living through moments that will become central parts of the Trump Presidency. At the same time, the day felt small and shabby, as we learned more details about the crude crimes of those who surround the President. Manafort and Cohen did not commit clever, subtle crimes; they blatantly and crudely lied. They lied to banks to get money; they lied to the I.R.S. In Manafort’s case, he instructed countless support people to lie on his behalf. In Cohen’s case, it was Trump demanding that a subordinate do the lying. The crimes were not unraveled by brilliant detective work. All it took was law-enforcement officials looking.

It is conventional wisdom these days that views of Trump are fixed: those who hate him can’t hate him more and those who love him can’t be budged, and, all the while, Republicans in Congress will do nothing, no matter what he says or does. There is another way of understanding the impact of Tuesday’s news. Trump was widely viewed to be morally challenged, a man comfortable with pushing the limits of legality, before he was elected. Perhaps he did business with some bad characters, maybe he engaged in some light civil fraud. But that fact had been priced into the election and, anyway, we don’t impeach Presidents for things they did before they were in office. The possibility of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia was a separate matter that was worth investigating because it had to do with his election. Keeping these two matters separate—Trump’s private business and possible campaign collusion—has been an obsession of Trump’s, for obvious reasons. His business cannot withstand this level of scrutiny.

The Cohen plea and the Manafort indictment establish that this separation is entirely artificial. Trump did not isolate his private business from his public run for office. He behaved the same, with the same sorts of people, using the same techniques to hide his actions. It is impossible, after Tuesday, to imagine that a responsible congressional investigation wouldn’t thoroughly examine every deal with which Cohen was involved and wouldn’t even more aggressively seek to understand Manafort’s links to Russian figures. These two men are now convicted financial fraudsters, each found guilty of precisely eight counts of various financial crimes, though nobody, glancing at their record, would imagine this is an exhaustive list. Tuesday was not the end of an examination of their record; it is much more like a beginning. Manafort has another trial ahead, as well as a possible retrial for the ten counts for which the jury could not reach a consensus; Cohen is all but screaming that he has more to share.

What will this add up to? Well, at first, nothing. The Republican leadership has, indeed, made clear that its instinctive response to any Trump outrage is silence. And the increasingly desperate Trump apologias have already been tried: this has nothing to do with Russia, nothing to do with Trump, it’s a witch hunt, the President can’t be indicted.

It would take some remarkable news to shake Republicans from their moral slumber; while Tuesday’s events should be more than enough to do so, it is already clear that they aren’t. However, it could shake that small portion of the electorate that voted for Trump but never embraced him fully; even a slight downturn in Republican turnout could well mean a victory for Democrats in the midterms, which, in turn, will guarantee a far more aggressive—and far more public—investigation into the activities of Trump and his shadier cronies. Tuesday’s news also helps build an increasingly compelling case for impeachment and removal from office. It is now clear that the President engaged in at least one conspiracy to hide the truth from the public in an election he won with a tiny margin in three states.

We will know far more about Trump, his business, and his campaign in the months to come. The country will be moving down two tracks simultaneously. There is one track of investigation and prosecution in which more of the people close to Trump fall or coöperate and the man himself appears increasingly vulnerable and desperate.

There is the other track, though, in which he remains President. He will likely successfully transform the Supreme Court and imperil the environment, immigrants, consumers of financial products, and others. Those who carefully study Trump and those around him know where this story likely ends—in humiliation and collapse—but we can’t underestimate his embrace of mendacity and deflection. Shortly after the fateful hour, Trump flew to West Virginia for a rally with some of his strongest supporters. The crowd, referring to Hillary Clinton, chanted, “Lock her up.”

 

  • Adam Davidson is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

De Tocqueville and the French exception


August 14, 2018

Liberal thinkers

De Tocqueville and the French exception

The gloomiest of the great liberals worried that democracy might not be compatible with liberty

 Print edition | Schools brief

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HE IS the most unusual member of the liberal pantheon. Liberalism has usually been at its most vigorous among the Anglo-American middle classes. By contrast, Alexis de Tocqueville was a proud member of the French aristocracy.

Liberalism tends to be marinated in optimism to such an extent that it sometimes shades into naivety. Tocqueville believed that liberal optimism needs to be served with a side-order of pessimism. Far from being automatic, progress depends on wise government and sensible policy.

He also ranks among the greats. He wrote classic studies of two engines of the emerging liberal order: “Democracy in America” (1835-40) and “The Old Regime and the French Revolution” (1856). He also helped shape French liberalism, both as a political activist and as a thinker. He was a leading participant in the “Great Debate” of the 1820s between liberals and ultra-Royalists about the future direction of France.

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In 1849 he served briefly as foreign minister (he died a decade later). He broadened the liberal tradition by subjecting the bland pieties of the Anglo-American middle class to a certain aristocratic disdain; and he deepened it by pointing to the growing dangers of bureaucratic centralisation. Better than any other liberal, Tocqueville understood the importance of ensuring that the collective business of society is done as much as possible by the people themselves, through voluntary effort, rather than by the government.

Tocqueville’s liberalism was driven by two forces. The first was his fierce commitment to the sanctity of the individual. The purpose of politics was to protect people’s rights (particularly the right to free discussion) and to give them scope to develop their abilities to the full. The second was his unshakable belief that the future lay with “democracy”. By that he meant more than just parliamentary democracy with its principle of elections and wide suffrage. He meant a society based on equality.

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The old regime was predicated on the belief that society was divided into fixed classes. Some people are born to rule and others to serve. Rulers like Tocqueville’s family in Normandy inherited responsibilities as well as privileges. They were morally bound to look after “their people” and serve “their country”. Democratic society was based on the idea that all people were born equal. They came into the world as individuals rather than as aristocrats or peasants. Their greatest responsibility was to make the most of their abilities.

Terror and the state

Many members of Tocqueville’s class thought that democratisation was both an accident and a mistake—an accident because cleverer management of the old regime could have prevented the revolution in 1789, and a mistake because democracy destroyed everything they held most dear. Tocqueville thought that was nonsense—and pitied his fellow blue-bloods who wasted their lives in a doomed attempt to restore aristocratic privilege.

The great question at the heart of Tocqueville’s thought is the relationship between liberty and democracy. Tocqueville was certain that it was impossible to have liberty without democracy, but he worried that it was possible to have democracy without liberty. For example, democracy might transfer power from the old aristocracy to an all-powerful central state, thereby reducing individuals to helpless, isolated atoms. Or it might make a mockery of free discussion by manipulating everybody into bowing down before conventional wisdom.

Sir Larry Siedentop, an Oxford academic, points out that Tocqueville’s contribution was to identify a structural flaw in democratic societies. Liberals are so preoccupied by the “contract” between the individual on the one hand and the state on the other that they don’t make enough room for intermediate associations which acted as schools of local politics and buffers between the individual and the state. And, he was the first serious thinker to warn that liberalism could destroy itself.

Tocqueville worried that states might use the principle of equality to accumulate power and ride roughshod over local traditions and local communities. Such centralisation might have all sorts of malign consequences. It might reduce the variety of institutions by obliging them to follow a central script. It might reduce individuals to a position of defencelessness before the mighty state, either by forcing them to obey the state’s edicts or making them dependent on the state’s largesse. And it might kill off traditions of self-government. Thus one liberal principle—equal treatment—might end up destroying three rival principles: self-government, pluralism and freedom from coercion.

Tocqueville feared his own country might fall into the grip of just such an illiberal democracy, as it had in the Terror, under Maximilien Robespierre in 1793. The French revolutionaries had been so blinded by their commitment to liberty, equality and fraternity that they crushed dissenters and slaughtered aristocrats, including many members of Tocqueville’s family. His parents were spared, but his father’s hair turned white at 24 and his mother was reduced to a nervous wreck.

He was worried about more than just the bloodshed, which proved to be a passing frenzy. The power of the state also posed a more subtle threat. The monarchy had nurtured an over-mighty state, as French kings sucked power from aristocrats towards the central government. The revolution completed the job, abolishing local autonomy along with aristocratic power and reducing individual citizens to equal servitude beneath the “immense tutelary power” of the state.

By contrast, the United States represented democracy at its finest. Tocqueville’s ostensible reason for crossing the Atlantic, in 1831, was to study the American penal system, then seen as one of the most enlightened in the world. His real wish was to understand how America had combined democracy with liberty so successfully. He was impressed by the New England townships, with their robust local governments, but he was equally taken by the raw egalitarianism of the frontier.

Why did the children of the American revolution achieve what the children of the French revolution could not? The most obvious factor was the dispersal of power. The government in Washington was disciplined by checks and balances. Power was exercised at the lowest possible level—not just the states but also cities, townships and voluntary organisations that flourished in America even as they declined in France.

The second factor was what he called “manners”. Like most French liberals, Tocqueville was an Anglophile. He thought that America had inherited many of Britain’s best traditions, such as common law and a ruling class that was committed to running local institutions.

Of liberty and religion

America also had the invaluable advantage of freedom of religion. Tocqueville believed that a liberal society depended ultimately on Christian morality. Alone among the world’s religions, Christianity preached the equality of man and the infinite worth of the individual. But the ancien régime had robbed Christianity of its true spirit by turning it into an adjunct of the state. America’s decision to make religion a matter of free conscience created a vital alliance between the “spirit of religion” and the “spirit of liberty”. America was a society that “goes along by itself”, as Tocqueville put it, not just because it dispersed power but because it produced self-confident, energetic citizens, capable of organising themselves rather than looking to the government to solve their problems.

Sleeping on a volcano

He was not blind to the faults of American democracy. He puzzled over the fact that the world’s most liberal society practised slavery, though, like most liberals, he comforted himself with the thought that it was sure to wither. He worried about the cult of the common man. Americans were so appalled by the idea that one person’s opinion might be better than another’s that they embraced dolts and persecuted gifted heretics. He worried that individualism might shade into egotism. Shorn of bonds with wider society, Americans risked being confined within the solitude of their own hearts. The combination of egalitarianism and individualism might do for Americans what centralisation had done for France—dissolve their defences against governmental power and reduce them to sheep, content to be fed and watered by benevolent bureaucrats.

Tocqueville exercised a powerful influence on those who shared his fears. In his “Autobiography” John Stuart Mill thanked Tocqueville for sharpening his insight that government by the majority might hinder idiosyncratic intellectuals from influencing the debate. In 1867 Robert Lowe, a leading Liberal politician, argued for mass education on the Tocquevillian grounds that “we must educate our masters”. Other Liberal politicians argued against extending the franchise on the grounds that liberty could not survive a surfeit of democracy. In the 1950s and 1960s American intellectuals seized on Tocqueville’s insight that mass society might weaken liberty by narrowing society’s choices.

More recently intellectuals have worried about the rapid growth of the federal government, inaugurated by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programme. Transferring power from local to the federal government; empowering unaccountable bureaucrats to pursue abstract goods such as “equality of representation” (even if it means riding roughshod over local institutions); and undermining the vitality of civil society tends, they fear, to destroy the building blocks of Tocqueville’s America. A recent conference, organised by the Tocqueville Society and held in the family’s Normandy manor house, dwelt on the various ways in which democracy is under assault from within, by speech codes, and from without, by the rise of authoritarian populism, under the general heading of “demo-pessimism”.

It is worth adding that the threat to liberty today does not stem just from big government. It also comes from big companies, particularly tech firms that trade in information, and from the nexus between the two. Gargantuan tech companies enjoy market shares unknown since the Gilded Age. They are intertwined with the government through lobbying and the revolving door that has government officials working for them when they leave office. By providing so much information “free” they are throttling media outfits that invest in gathering the news that informs citizens. By using algorithms based on previous preferences they provide people with information that suits their prejudices—right-wing rage for the right and left-wing rage for the left.

Today’s great rising power is the very opposite of the United States, the great rising power of Tocqueville’s time. China is an example not of democracy allied to liberty but of centralisation allied to authoritarianism. Its state and its pliant tech firms can control the flow of information to an extent never dreamed of. Increasingly, China embodies everything that Tocqueville warned against: power centralised in the hands of the state; citizens reduced to atoms; a collective willingness to sacrifice liberty for a comfortable life.

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Before the revolution in France in 1848, Tocqueville warned that the continent was “sleeping on a volcano…A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon.” Today democracy in America has taken a dangerous turn. Populists are advancing in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Authoritarians are consolidating power. The most pessimistic of great liberal thinkers may not have been pessimistic enough.

Read more on classical liberal values and thinkers at  Economist.com/openfuture

This article appeared in the Schools brief section of the print edition under the headline “The French exception”