Friday, August 22, 2008

Decline of the “White non-Hispanic” No Big Deal

It’s been a week since the Census Bureau released a report that supposedly predicts white people will no longer make up a majority of Americans by the middle of the century. “Minorities” will form the majority, and one-third of Americans will be Hispanic, we are told. That’s 132.8 million people.

Visions of brown-skinned men hanging out downtown to wait for the contractor in a pickup while their wives go home to clean suburban houses and their kids join a street gang.
Sounds like an radical overthrow of the old American order.

It isn’t.

Hispanic and Asian immigration is certainly changing the country, like immigration always has since the years when Germans and Irish then southern and eastern Europeans settled in what had been a nation of Britons and enslaved Africans.

We hear languages other than English more often, and we see more people who look “foreign.” We like the entrepreneurial spirit of some immigrants, yet worry that others will join the underclass.

But simplisms about the end of “white” dominance and “minorities” becoming “majorities” do not explain what is going on.

For one thing, the Census report did not predict that “whites” will make up less than 50 percent of the population. What it did say is that whites who have no Hispanic ancestry will make up less than 50 percent of the population.

Is that a big deal? No. By mid-century, as populations blur through intermarriage and assimilation, the category “white non-Hispanic” will be less meaningful than it is today. Except among the xenophobic fringe, it won’t matter much that white Americans without Hispanic ancestry make up less than half of the nation’s population.

“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” movies illustrate the point.

Honduran-American actress America Ferrera, who has the ethnic appearance most Americans expect of Hispanics, plays Carmen Lowell. Fictional Carmen is half-Puerto Rican and half-Anglo, but meant to be perceived as a Hispanic character.

One of Carmen’s friends is Lena Kaligaris, a fictional Greek-American — which puts her under the category of “white non-Hispanic.” She is played by the Texan actress Alexis Bledel, who might be categorized as “white non-Hispanic,” going by her fair looks. Yet she has an Argentinean father and a mother whose roots are in Mexico. So she is every bit as Hispanic as America Ferrera, if less obviously so.

And the point is: Big deal. Fictional Carmen is a young Hispanic woman at home in the mainstream threatening no one with her ethnicity, while the real-life Bledel is a young Hispanic woman who few even realize is Hispanic. Those girls — the characters as well as the actresses — couldn’t possibly be anything other than American. They already arrived to the place Hispanic America is going to be by mid-century, even if it’s hard to see now.

Our national confusion about Hispanics begins with the system of ethnic and racial classification taken for granted in this country, which incorrectly classifies “Hispanics” into a race apart, mutually exclusive with whites, blacks, Asians or Native Americans.

Actually, a Hispanic individual can be of any race or combination of races. Cesar Chávez was mestizo, descended from European colonists and the pre-Columbian people of Mexico. Roberto Clemente was a black man whose ancestors were Africans enslaved in Puerto Rico. Andy Garcia’s white Spanish forebears settled in Cuba.

One could go on: Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori is of Japanese ancestry, Chile’s founding father Bernardo O’Higgins has ancestors who immigrated from Ireland, Shakira is Colombian-Lebanese and in Miami, there are at least two predominantly Hispanic synagogues.

We are a diverse bunch. In the 2006 American Community Survey, 52.3 percent of Hispanics self-identified as white, and 41.2 percent said they were “some other race.”

There is also intermarriage. Census figures show about a quarter of all Hispanics marry someone who is not Hispanic, with the figure reaching 30 percent among U.S.-born Hispanics.

What that does is blur categories, not give rise to a tectonic demographic shift. It’s particularly true when white Hispanics marry white non-Hispanics. The children of such marriages are part Hispanic, so the half-Cuban Cameron Diaz, say, could not logically count as “white non-Hispanic.”

Which makes Ms. Diaz guilty of contributing to the decline of white non-Hispanics into minority status.

Can anybody think of anything less momentous?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Where Have All the Josés Gone?

It was sobering news for some earlier this year when the Social Security Administration reported that the most frequently given name for males born in Texas in 2007 was José.

Then this week a new report from the Census Bureau must have shook them up some more, with the projection that “Minorities, now roughly one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become the majority in 2042, with the nation projected to be 54 percent minority in 2050.”

Hispanics are the fastest growing group, the report says. The Hispanic share of the total U.S. population will double from 15 percent to 30 percent between now and 2050.

Ah, not to worry. We’re not taking over.

One study conducted this year by the Spanish-language edition of, a Web site owned by Johnson & Johnson (here is the report, in Spanish), found that Brandon, Michael and Jonathan ranked among the top 10 male names for babies of Hispanic parents born in the United States in 2007; just one of the three has a traditional Spanish translation, “Miguel.”

Other names that made the list are pretty much the same in Spanish and English: Sebastian, David, Daniel, Nicolas, Samuel. The only uniquely Spanish name that made the Top 10 was Diego.

And the same study found that among U.S.-born Hispanic girls in 2007, nine of the 10 top names were Camila, Sophia, Valerie, Isabella, Nicole, Melanie, Alexa, Samantha, Sara and Ashley.

So, no way José. Nomenclaturally speaking, at least, Hispanic Americans are becoming Anglicized.

You can see it in the roster of U.S. Olympians. A look at the names of the athletes shows about 20 individuals with unambiguously Spanish surnames and only one of them, runner Jorge Torres, has an unambiguously Spanish first name. Others like softball outfielder Jessica Mendoza, soccer’s Michael Orozco and wrestler Henry Cejudo have Anglo first names, though I won’t tell anyone how to classify taekwondo’s Diana López or runner Leonel Manzano.

Of course, on rosters for athletes from Spanish-speaking countries, traditional Hispanic names are the norm. Argentina’s soccer team is full of names like Fernando and Juan — but this being Argentina, the surnames are just about evenly split between those with origins in Spain and Italy.

Mexican Olympians, too, mostly have traditional Spanish first names. There are four Josés in the 85-member delegation, but I’m not sure whether that makes the list José-heavy, José-light or José-right.

Mexico also has remained loyal to old-fashioned names that sound hopelessly antiquated in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world: There’s marathoner Procopio Franco, swimmer Imelda Martínez. Still, you also find a sprinkling of newfangled names that seem invented by parents. There’s a runner named Zudikey Rodríguez, a diver named Yahel Castillo.

Zudikey? Yahel? These are far from the santoral, the list of Catholic saint names from which for centuries Spanish-speaking parents drew inspiration — like San José (or St. Joseph) and even a certain St. Procopius. My Cuban birth certificate states my full name as Roger Emilio Hernández Vázquez, but my baptism makes it Roger Emilio Julian Hernández Vázquez, because Jan. 9, my birthday, is the feast day for St. Julian.

Spanish names from the santoral remain overwhelmingly the norm in most Hispanic communities. But things are changing some places. One such place is here in the United States, with the growing trend of Hispanic parents giving their children Anglicized names like Michael or Ashley.

But names like that are not removed from the santoral — they are the English names of the same saints. Just about everybody has heard of St. Michael, and believe it or not, there is a St. Ashley. According to, he was an Englishman “who went to Valladolid, Spain, in 1590, became a Jesuit laybrother and returned to England in 1598” only to be tortured and executed.

Where naming customs have grown the most estranged from santoral tradition is in Cuba.

On the Olympics roster, the baseball team has one each of Eduardo, Antonio, Carlos, Norberto and Pedro. A bunch of perfectly normal, traditional Spanish saint names. But then you get Yulieski, Yoandry, Yorelvis. The women’s track team has names just as bizarre: Yenima, Yarisley, Yumisleidis, Yaniubis, Yunaika. In Miami, too, Ys abound among Cuban immigrants who arrived over the last decade or so.

Why “Y”? Nobody knows. Yoani Sánchez, the dissident Havana blogger who runs the hugely popular Generación Y says the name was “inspired by people like me, with names that begin with or contain a ‘Y’. Born in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s, marked by schools in the countryside, Russian cartoons, illegal emigration and frustration.”

Emigration there, immigration here. A Census Bureau study last year found that two Spanish surnames, García and Rodríguez, rank among the top 10 most common in the United States.

A reminder we are here.

But a reminder, too, that there is no Hispanic monolith. Just people named José, or Ysomething, or Procopio, or Ashley.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Obama Needs Nuance Without Ambiguity

“I don’t do nuance,” President Bush supposedly once said to Sen. Joe Biden.

And he didn’t, during the past eight years, in ways too disastrous, too numerous, too familiar to list.

If Bush’s problem was not doing nuance, Obama is facing the opposite problem: doing too much of it. Good for policy, bad for politics.

He goes to Iraq, sees what’s happening and realizes that the timetable he favored needs to be more flexible than he first believed. Obama made the shift only after he satisfied himself in person that the actual security situation on the ground required discarding rigidly preconceived, ideologically driven troop movements deadlines.

It’s what presidents are supposed to do (though we can think of one who didn’t). Yet Obama got hammered for flip-flopping.

Obama has also been attacked for changing his mind on any number of other issues: offshore oil drilling, dipping into the strategic petroleum reserve, NAFTA, negotiating “without preconditions” with Iran and Cuba, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Not every Obama supporter is going to like every tug and adjustment. What could he possibly have been thinking when he called the D.C. gun ban unconstitutional?

And some of those tugs and adjustments are self-serving. Nothing else explains his opting out of public campaign financing.

So there’s political calculation mixed in there with the policy nuance. Well, it is politics. But now Obama’s job is to show that it is not all politics.

He can do that by leading a reform of affirmative action.

Obama has the opportunity to bring nuance to these policies because there is no agreement on what affirmative action is, or even on what its purpose should be.

On one side, there are liberals who fear that any recalibration of racial preference programs means disaster for ethnic minorities left unprotected from discrimination.

The left that loves nothing better than a nice wallow in virtuous victimhood saw no problem with the program at the University of Michigan that was struck down by the Supreme Court five years ago, under which Barack Obama’s daughters would have received an automatic 20 points on a scale of 150 because they would have been deemed underprivileged. To assume that being black equals being socioeconomically disadvantaged is nothing less than a hidden form of racism.

Obama sees the absurdity in that. He told George Stephanopoulos last year that his daughters “should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged.” And he added that “we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.”

It’s a move toward an affirmative action that considers factors other than race. But without forgetting race, because at the same time, Obama needs also to confront conservatives who like to pretend racial discrimination is no longer a barrier to progress. These people, too, love their own right-leaning wallow in virtuous victimhood — remember that infamous Jesse Helms ad with the “white hands” crumpling a job rejection letter because “they had to give it to a minority”?

An Obama reform of affirmative action must have as a premise the fact that racial discrimination is much more likely to affect people who are not white — while at the same time, the policy must be nuanced enough to recognize that indeed, reverse discrimination is also reprehensible and should be every bit as illegal.

Then there is that buzzword, “diversity,” derided on the right as mere political correctness. Well, “diversity” in the workplace brings together individuals from different backgrounds, with different ideas and different ways of doing things so that an enterprise can consider a product or service from various perspectives. Why does that make some on the right uneasy?

And so, there you have Obama’s nuanced affirmative action: It should be used to oppose racial discrimination, whether overt from the right or the veiled, patronizing kind from the left; it should boost disadvantaged people regardless of race; and it should promote the benefits of diversity.

He has said much of all that, a little bit here and a little bit there, sometimes ambiguously. Now he needs to lay it all out. Nuance without ambiguity. Because what this country urgently needs is a president unafraid to act boldly upon shades of gray.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Is McCain the New Dole?

Twelve years ago against Bill Clinton, Bob Dole ran a spectacularly inept effort to win Hispanic votes. There was little money, almost no ads and a couple of staffers cut off from campaign insiders. The candidate was an honorable man, a war hero with a dry sense of humor, but worried too much about protecting his right flank from the likes of immigrant-bashing Pat Buchanan.

Dole clueless about Hispanic America, ended up with a record-low 21 percent of the Hispanic vote. Even in Cuban Miami, “in the most lopsided Republican stronghold precincts of Hialeah and Little Havana, which Bush and Reagan were sometimes able to carry by margins as high as nine to one, Dole barely received 60 percent of the vote,” wrote Darío Moreno, a political scientist at Miami’s Florida International University.

Can something similar happen to this year’s Republican, another honorable man and war hero with a quirky sense of humor?

This week's national survey by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that Barack Obama held a sizable lead among Hispanic registered voters, leading John McCain by 66 percent to 23 percent.

That’s Dole numbers, surprising for a Republican from Arizona, a state with a large Hispanic population that gave McCain a majority in his most recent race for Senate. Even more surprising: among Cuban-Americans, the poll claimed, Obama was up 53 percent to 28 percent.

Now, there are many Cuban-Americans — including Cuban-Americans who once or maybe even twice voted for George W. Bush — who have come to believe the current administration has wreaked enormous damage to this country in almost every conceivable way. They believe, like so many others, that a profound transformation in leadership is mandatory to rebuild American power and international prestige.

But 53 percent? Everything I know about Cubans tells me that figure is off. Barack Obama is not going to win the Cuban-American vote, because there simply is too much mistrust, especially among older voters, about his Cuba policy.

The Dole-McCain parallels work sometimes, sometimes not. Both men are coming off primary seasons in which the far right of their party demonized Hispanics. Both candidates also know that to win, they can’t disregard the vociferously anti-immigrant GOP base.

But McCain is much more Hispanic-savvy than Dole was. He is trying a balancing act Dole never attempted. McCain has television spots in Spanish, runs a Spanish-language campaign Web site, and has gone not only to Miami’s Calle Ocho, where it’s easy for Republicans, but has also spoken to Democrat-leaning, Mexican-American-dominated organizations like the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza.

McCain, however, has one burden Dole never had: the enormous unpopularity of a sitting Republican president. It’s gotten so bad that according to a poll in early July by Bendixen & Associates, the incumbent Miami congressional Republican brothers Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart, once thought unbeatable, are barely leading their moderate Democratic Cuban-American opponents, Raúl Martínez and Joe García.

Yet the same poll claimed that among Miami Cubans, Obama has Dole-like numbers: 21 percent support him.

I don’t believe it any more than the 53 percent in the Pew poll. My sense is that enough Cubans have turned against Republicans to put Obama in the place Clinton was in 1992: He’s got a shot at 40 percent. Which happens to be the number McCain is shooting for, nationally, among Hispanics.

Nationally, of course, other Hispanics do not much care about Cuba policy, and they are traditionally Democratic to begin with. Add to that the anger about GOP xenophobic rantings, even though nobody thinks of McCain as part of the anti-immigrant crowd (including, significantly, the anti-immigrant crowd).

Also add the lackluster performance of the McCain campaign — the maverick of 2000 may have had a chance against Obama’s political superstar, but eight years later McCain is reduced to a technophobe fuddy-duddy given to foreign-policy gaffes, mouthing Republican boilerplate from the Reagan era, and embarrassing himself with the pathetically feeble Paris-Britney-Barack comparison. And add the $20 million the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee announced this week they’d spend going after Hispanic voters.

At this point, there are no political developments visible in the horizon to help John McCain win more than 30 percent of the national Hispanic vote. Better than Dole, but not enough to win the Hispanic-heavy swing states of Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Al Sharpton for Human Rights in Cuba?

I bet I know what you’re thinking when you read “Al Sharpton” and “Fidel Castro” in the same sentence. Me too.

But no.

On Tuesday, Sharpton stood in front of the Cuban Mission to the United Nations in New York and asked the Cuban government to allow him into the country to learn more about the situation of political prisoners.

Sharpton spoke about Oscar Elias Biscet and Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as “Antúnez,” both considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Biscet was one of the 75 dissidents arrested in the infamous crackdown of 2003 and is serving 25 years for criticizing the Castro regime. Antúnez was released a month ago, after serving 17 years. He spoke with Sharpton on the telephone Monday, apparently, and told him that government goons continue to harass him daily.

The two Cubans are black men, as were a half-dozen other former Cuban political prisoners who stood with Sharpton at the press conference. This explains Sharpton’s interest. But is he also concerned about imprisoned Cuban dissidents who are not black?

Sharpton is an activist in black causes. The proper question is, “What took you so long?”

Sharpton visited Cuba in 2000, and two years later wrote in his book, “Al On America”: “If the reason for continuing the embargo is because Cuba is still a Communist regime, then how does America explain its relationship with North Korea, and China? We talk about human rights violations — of which I personally saw none. Yet we can dialogue with China and all of her blatant human rights violations. We have continued to demonize Castro at the expense of good, sound foreign policy.”

He also called Castro “one of the three most impressive people I have ever met” and, according to the New York Daily News, once tried to organize “a hip-hop concert in Havana, beam it around the world and bring down the embargo.”

That kind of talk put him in the company of a certain kind of figure unique to the left — people who say they are politically progressive and passionate about defending human rights, even as they defend a regime that is among the world’s worst violators of human rights.

You criticize the Castro regime to people like that, and they come back at you with complaints about American support for right-wing dictators or, alas, nowadays, the U.S. abuses at Guantanamo, conveniently for their rhetorical purposes located right on the island of Cuba. They change the subject, and never mind Cubans under the Castros’ boots.

Havana has had no better friends than these Americans, Europeans and Latin Americans who fancy themselves liberal yet created the romantic aura that, for nearly 50 years, has surrounded the Cuban tyranny — a false mystique that serves as a cover for economic failure and political despotism.

Opening the eyes of people like Sharpton, Oliver Stone, Gabriel García Márquez and so many others who made the Havana pilgrimage to worship at the feet of Fidel would help expose the charade of Little Brother. During the past few months, Raúl Castro has loosened the stupidest of Fidel’s economic absurdities, letting Cubans have cell phones and allowing them to visit resorts previously reserved for tourists; the government hopes that a more bearable day-to-day existence will distract Cubans from the continued prohibitions on free expression.

Ernesto Díaz Rodríguez, an African-Cuban who spent 28 years in a Cuban prison and joined the Miami-based, paramilitary and anti-Castro Alpha 66 after he got out, appeared with Sharpton and caught the moment exactly: “The importance of this petition is that it is not being made by a Jesse Helms on the extreme right, but by a personality of the radical left,” he said.

Sharpton seems more noncommittal than is his normal in-your-face style. Said a National Action Network press release, “He has not taken a side and he is still for the ending of the embargo and will look into the allegations.”

Not taken sides? Is this the same Al Sharpton who always shows up on the side of the victim, or at least those he perceives with nary a doubt to be victims?

Every human rights group in the world has charged that Havana institutionalizes the violation of basic human rights, and now individuals who happen to be of African ancestry have personally told Sharpton they suffered it themselves.

Isn’t that enough to take sides? For Sharpton, asking out loud if, just possibly, there might actually be something to all that talk of human rights violations is at least a start.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Barack Obama and John McCain have been running hard after Hispanic voters the past three weeks.

Speeches by each candidate before three different Hispanic national groups, trips by McCain to Colombia and Mexico, an awkward new television ad by McCain and some remarks on language by Obama that the nutty right twisted out of context.

The speeches were before the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza. Each candidate tried to kiss up to the audiences in the ways you’d expect.

“[A]s the first African-American nominee of my party,” Obama told NALEO, I’m hoping that somewhere out in this audience sits the person who will become the first Latino nominee of a major party.”

Applause and cheers from the crowd. He was making the We-Are-Minorities-Together link.
It’s a connection that McCain can’t make, obviously. But the Arizona senator has his own way of connecting, one that is beyond Obama.

He talked of his days in a North Vietnamese prison and “My friend, Everett Alvarez, a brave American of Mexican descent.” He went on, “When you take the solemn stroll along that wall of black granite on the national Mall, it is hard not to notice the many names such as Rodríguez, Hernández and López that so sadly adorn it. When you visit Iraq and Afghanistan you will meet some of the thousands of Hispanic-Americans who serve there, and many of those who risk their lives to protect the rest of us.”

Ah, the We-Are-Patriotic-Americans-Together link.

On issues of substance, McCain was on the defensive. Obama unambiguously declared himself in favor of giving illegal immigrants a path to residency. McCain also declared himself in favor, but not for now. He has had to backtrack from his own bill that would have provided that path and told the NCLR, “When we have achieved our border security goal, we must enact and implement the other parts of practical, fair and necessary immigration policy.”

That made it easy for Obama to attack McCain at all three appearances for walking away from “comprehensive [immigration] reform when it becomes politically unpopular.”

McCain won points with his visits to Mexico and Colombia, though. The latter has an unsuspected importance. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is hugely popular in Colombia and also among Colombian Americans, and it is McCain, not Obama, who is more closely aligned to him and supportive of the U.S.-Colombia trade pact. No small matter, with the Colombian-American vote growing rapidly in the battleground state of Florida.

But McCain took a hit because of an ad that just doesn’t work. The spot uses his remarks at a June 2007 debate in New Hampshire, when he honored Hispanic Americans in the armed forces, even “the few thousand that are still green card holders who are not even citizens of this country, who love this country so much that they’re willing to risk their lives in its service.” Nice sentiments. Until McCain added that “They must come into the country legally.”

When he said this last at the debate year, he was criticized. No good reason to bring up immigration status in a tribute to American fighting men — but hey, anybody can slip in an extemporaneous remark.

However, re-using the same non-sequitur in a recorded, planned-out television spot makes it seem as if McCain is pandering to the anti-immigrant right in a television commercial that the anti-immigrant right could well say panders to Hispanics.

Then there is the dust-up involving Obama and the Spanish language. At a campaign stop in Georgia he said, “I don’t understand when people are going around saying, ‘We need to have English only.’ They want to pass a law, ‘We want English only.’ Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English. They’ll learn English. You need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual.”

Not hard to figure out what came next. A group called the Americans for Legal Immigration accused Obama of saying “Americans should be forced to learn to speak Spanish.” The ever dependable Lou Dobbs said it was a “pander to the illegal alien lobby.”

Never mind that immigration had not been part of the discussion when Obama spoke about language.

It will be an interesting run to November.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Colombian Rescue Reveals Latin American Struggle

The spectacular rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, three Americans and 11 Colombian soldiers has given Latin American leaders the opportunity to speak up — and show the world that the political battle in the region is no longer right versus left, nor rich versus poor, nor pro-American against anti-American.

Those categories still count (there is still an enormous gap between rich and poor, there still are liberals and conservatives, there still are admirers and critics of the United States) but they are no longer at the center of the struggle. Today the struggle is between those who think violence is a permissible route to political power, and those who think political violence is useless and stupid.

Of course, every leader professed delight at the freedom of the hostages. Some actually meant it. Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet wants to nominate Betancourt for the Nobel Peace Prize. Brazilian Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said, “I hope this is an important step toward the release of all the other hostages, the reconciliation of all Colombians and peace in Colombia.” Argentine President Cristina Fernández said it was a day of “joy and happiness.” Colombia’s own Álvaro Uribe saw his popularity hit 91 percent.

Politically, those four are a mixed bunch. Uribe, a conservative, is Bush’s firmest ally in the region. Bachelet and Lula are pragmatic leftists. Fernández is an old fashioned Argentine nationalist, a Peronista with a tinge of anti-Americanism.

Different from each other though they may be, they are alike in at least one sense: none of them have anything to gain if the Colombian guerrillas who held the hostages were to get stronger.

Other leaders, though, have a lot to lose if the guerillas get weaker. So the hostage’s liberation came as a political setback.

Not that they admit it.

“Because of a basic sense of humanity, we are gladdened by the news,” Fidel Castro wrote in his “Reflections” column in the official government media. “We have honestly and strongly criticized the objectively cruel methods of kidnapping and retaining prisoners under the conditions of the jungle.”

But he added, “I am not suggesting that anyone lay down their arms, when everyone who did so in the last 50 years did not survive to see peace.”

A lie. Castro surely remembers that the 19th of April Movement, a FARC-like guerrilla group that in 1985 took hostage Colombia’s Supreme Court, eventually gave up its arms and today takes part in elections. FARC and a smaller group that calls itself the National Liberation Army could do the same.

But they won’t.

It’s not just Castro who backs their refusal to forsake violence. Hugo Chávez has been urging that Europe and Latin America take FARC off the list of terrorist organizations and recognize it as a “belligerent force” with an internationally recognized right to wage war. Earlier this year he told the rubber-stamp Venezuelan Congress that Colombia’s guerrillas are “insurgent forces that have a political project, a Bolivarian project that is respected here.”

But they don’t.

Whatever ideology FARC once had has degenerated into a orgy of kidnapping, extortion, cocaine trafficking, and sadistic cruelty described by Betancourt and the other recently freed hostages.

Even if they were still defending some sort of Marxist-Leninist anachronism, even if they attacked military targets only, their violence would still not be justified — not in a Colombia that, like most of Latin America, is a flawed, raucous and often dangerous yet vibrant democracy with a lively media and political parties that range far right to far left.

“The waging of armed struggle as a means of achieving power should end in Latin America,” Lula said the day after the hostages were freed. “'The belief that armed struggle can solve anything is out of date.”

Despite what the Havana-Caracas axis says, FARC’s armed struggle leads to nothing other than the perpetuation of its existence as a criminal enterprise in the jungles of Colombia.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Immigrant Obsessive Lou Dobbs

Lou Dobbs was singled out by a Media Matters study as the talk-show host “most obsessed with the topic” of illegal immigration. Said the report, issued in May, “cable news overflows not just with vitriol, but also with a series of myths that feed viewers’ resentment and fears, seemingly geared toward creating anti-immigrant hysteria.”

There have been two futile efforts recently to get CNN to make Lou Dobbs stop lying. In April the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, made up of 21 Hispanic Democratic congressmen, fired off a letter complaining about Dobbs, and earlier this month the Washington D.C.-based Hispanic Institute called for “a Latino boycott of CNN to protest the cable news network’s ongoing distortion of facts surrounding U.S. immigration issues, especially in commentaries and reports on ‘Lou Dobbs Tonight.’”

Dobbs is still spinning fantasies for his fans, who are all too eager to believe the worst about Hispanics.

For sheer, breathtaking disregard for the facts it is hard to top his leprosy moment on 60 Minutes last year. On his own program earlier, he had shown a report claiming illegal immigrants bring diseases like leprosy, of which there had allegedly been 7,000 cases in the past three years. But 60 Minutes found out it was 7,000 cases in the last 30 years, and that no one knows how many can be attributed to illegal immigrants. Lesley Stahl called him on it.

“Well, I can tell you this. If we reported it, it’s a fact,” Dobbs said.

“You can’t tell me that. You did report it,” Stahl replied.

“I just did,” Dobbs said.

“How can you guarantee that to me?” Stahl asked him.

Said Dobbs, “Because I’m the managing editor. And that’s the way we do business. We don’t make up numbers, Lesley, do we?”

Turns out he does make up numbers. It’s fine to be an opinion journalist, as every columnist knows. But it’s not fine to spread egregious factual falsehoods.

Another lie is Dobbs’s insistence that his concern is illegal immigration and not the legal kind. He gets pretty touchy when someone suggests otherwise, like this past February when he had on his show Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza.

“Have I ever attacked an immigrant? Have I ever?” he said to her, bare teeth clenched in the inimitable Dobbs style. “Have I ever spoken against legal immigration in this country?”

Yes you have, Lou. You mix criticism of illegal immigration (some of it well-founded, some of it needlessly alarmist, some of it outright falsehoods) with attacks on the supposed threat that immigrants in general bring to America. You even think Irish immigrants of the previous century present a threat — why else would you proclaim on your show, “I don’t think there should be a St Patrick’s Day” because “we should be celebrating what’s common in this country”?

Dobbs can get pretty slick, like in this introduction to a correspondent’ s story during the big immigration marches in the spring of 2006:

“Turning to our illegal immigration and border security crisis, the White House today declared that President Bush supports making English the national language of the United States. The Senate also supports the idea. But neither the White House nor the Senate is prepared to make English the official language of this country.”

The issue of “illegal immigration and border security” is of course separate from the question of whether English needs to be made the “official language.” People who think it needs to be “official” believe that the supremacy of the English language is under siege by an overabundance of foreign-language speakers in the United States, regardless of their immigration status. And Dobbs seems to be one of those people.

He made that pretty clear last year on his show when he asked CNN colleague Rick Sanchez whether we have “reached a stage in this country in which English is not the language of commerce, is not the language of education, media and science.”

Can anybody be seriously worried that English in the United States is under that kind of threat?
In what was either a joke or an effort to make nice, last year Dobbs gave $5,000 to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and became a lifetime member. I knew that you didn’t need to be Hispanic to join. Apparently you don’t have to be a journalist, either.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Obama’s Affirmative Inaction

People are asking: If Barack Obama can really transcend race, is he going to transcend race preferences?

The answers he has given to that question have elicited commendation, disappointment and, for me, confusion.

George Stephanopoulos asked Obama about affirmative action last year on “This Week,” and again at the Philadelphia debate in April. His response was that when his daughters apply to go to college they should “be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged,” as he put it on Stephanopoulos’ show, and that “if there’s a young white person who has been working hard, struggling and has overcome great odds, that’s something that should be taken into account,” as he said in the debate.

Sounds like the build up to a ringing denunciation of socioeconomically blind racial preferences. Yet Obama pulled back from explicitly coming out against racial preferences. “I still believe in affirmative action as a means of overcoming both historic and potentially current discrimination,” he said at the debate.

Confusing? Not to DeWayne Wickham. Last week, in his USA Today column, he commended Obama for opposing ballot initiatives in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska that would accomplish exactly what Obama had denounced — these measures ban race-based preferences in state contracting and college admissions, but allow preferences based on socioeconomic factors. Wickham quoted an Obama representative who said Obama believed those initiatives “would roll back opportunity for millions of Americans and cripple efforts to break down historic barriers to the progress of qualified women and minorities.”

That disappointed Ward Connerly, who led those anti-affirmative action efforts after winning similar battles in California, Michigan and Washington. Writing in the Wall Street Journal Friday, Connerly said he had “desperately wanted to believe” Obama would come out against race-based affirmative action, but the Wickham column dashed his hopes. “By supporting race preferences, Mr. Obama is unmistakably attaching himself to despicable ideas,” Connerly wrote.

Obama is, of course, correct to say his daughters are children of privilege. In what other way can anybody regard the family of a man who, five months from now, could well be elected president of the United States?

And he is correct to say college admissions systems should grant poor white applicants an edge. He knows it is unsustainable to argue that his kids are in more need of special help than the kids of a janitor who immigrated from Albania last year, or of a single unemployed mother from Appalachia whose ancestors came here from England 300 years ago.

So why doesn’t Obama back Connerly’s ballot measures?

Connerly’s movement is fatally tainted. It is tainted by Neanderthals from the right, to whom affirmative action represents an opportunity to play the virtuous victim, the role long ago perfected by the left. In the conservative mind, Affirmative Action America is a country of — dare one say it — institutionalized racism where guilt-ridden liberals give blacks and Hispanics all the advantages. It’s pretend, of course, a game. Nobody really believes that being white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male makes you the target of so much racism only NASCAR will give you a job. But crying about the unfairness of it all while proclaiming that Connerly, a black man, will slay the dragon of reverse discrimination gives these people an irresistible chance to publicly act out decades of repressed racism in a socially acceptable way.

Obama is also under pressure from Neanderthals on the left. There is no good argument for a system like the one outlawed by the Supreme Court at the University of Michigan, which awarded an automatic 20 points on a scale of 150 to every applicant from ethnic groups deemed a “minority.” That system was only defended by “minorities” who love to wallow in the virtuous victimhood that was once their exclusive domain, and by liberal whites who get secretly get a kick from patronizing them.

But pressure from either end of the political spectrum should not matter to Obama. If he truly intends to be this country’s first post-racial leader, he is going to have to create a new form of affirmative action — one that considers ethnic diversity a worthy goal but does not patronize its intended beneficiaries, and that protects all Americans from racial discrimination while recognizing most of its victims are not white.

Obama has not addressed that issue with clarity. His public pronouncements have been ambiguous, an a Google search for “affirmative action” at returns exactly zero hits.

McCain’s Hispanic Dilemma

A John McCain commercial intended to air in South Florida radio stations features Roberto Martín Pérez, who was a political prisoner of the Castro regime for 28 years until released in 1987.

“While some support a dialogue with Raúl Castro, John McCain believes we should support the courageous men and women who continue to stand up for freedom in Cuba,” he said. “Rather than resume relations with Raúl Castro, John McCain wants first and foremost for all political prisoners to be released.”

Martín Pérez does not mention Barack Obama by name, but the reference is clear: Do not elect Obama because he will “dialogue” and “resume relations” with the dictatorship, and therefore help it stay in power.

Fair enough. At the very least, Obama has sent out mixed signals on Cuba policy. In a speech before the Cuban American National Foundation last month, he said he would not lead a diplomatic effort with the Castro regime unless “we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.” But he also said it was “time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.” In the rough world of presidential politics, that statement is fair game.

The spot is, of course, an effort to win conservative votes on Calle Ocho.

But will it lose McCain conservative votes on Main Street?

It will. The ad happens to be in Spanish. And the responses on the YouTube page where it’s posted came fast and furious.

Says one: “Please make English commercials ... I am getting nervous about your priorities. I am a lifelong Republican and could never vote for Obama, but I want to feel like you are also my president, not just for illegals.”

Says another: “Don’t know what to say! Are you still allowed to speak English in this country? Enough of illegal Mexican appeasement!”

Something similar happened earlier in the month, when the campaign began a series of Spanish-language ads about McCain’s plan to revive the economy. The message is conservative economics in pure form. But to that certain breed of right-wing nut, it did not matter.

“Muy estupido, Senator McAmnesty,” wrote someone on the Washington Post’s campaign blog. At the far-right Vdare Web site, there was the usual talk of “Balkanization.”

The ignorance is breathtaking. There can be no greater waste of time than attempting to explain to this kind of person that political advertisements reaffirming conservative policies to conservative U.S. citizens of Hispanic heritage have nothing at all — zilch, nada — to do with “appeasing” illegal immigrants from Mexico. And everybody knows that nearly all second- and third-generation immigrants speak English as their primary language.

But there you have it. Some people will make those connections. The Spanish language seems to cause some sort of Pavlovian negative response in the brain of some conservatives, even when the message is eminently conservative.

And that is a big problem for John McCain. Out of all the candidates in the Republican field back in February, he has always been the most likely to get 40 percent of the national Hispanic vote in November, which was what George W. Bush won in 2004. Karl Rove has said Republicans cannot win if they don’t get that much.

But some of the qualities that make McCain an attractive candidate to conservative Hispanics are the qualities that make him “Senator McAmnesty” in the far precincts of the Right.
Will matching Bush’s 40 percent without losing the right-wing loonies that are also essential to a Republican victory prove to be Mission: Impossible for John McCain?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Forgetting Puerto Rico

Every once in a great while, the issue of Puerto Rico’s status gets a quiet mention in American political discourse. Then everybody forgets about it.

Just a couple of days ago was one of those moments. While it is an exaggeration to say that Sunday’s primary put the national spotlight on the question of whether Puerto Rico should remain a commonwealth, become independent or join the Union as the 51st state, it is fair to say the issue shone with light reflected off the star-bright candidates, Hillary and Obama.

For a minute or two, Americans actually thought about it. The candidates did, too. They both said Puerto Rico must have the right of self-determination. Which is what presidential candidates of both parties have said for a generation, right before everyone forgets about it.

Well, not everyone. Almost nobody in Puerto Rico forgets it. It is at the center of political consciousness there, so much so that the identity of the three major parties rests on their positions on the issue — pro-commonwealth, pro-statehood or pro-independence.

It’s been the Big Question in Puerto Rico since the United States acquired the island after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Puerto Ricans gained U.S. citizenship but little self-rule with the Jones Act of 1917, and in 1952 the island became a Commonwealth, or as the official Spanish title has it, Estado Libre Asociado, or “Free Associated State.” That is what it remains today.

Supporters of the Commonwealth status say Puerto Rico is culturally distinct enough from the United States to justify separate treatment, but want to preserve long-standing political and economic ties with the U.S. Under the current arrangement, the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens who elect local government and vote in presidential primaries, but have no voting representative in Congress and cannot vote in presidential elections (unless their legal residence is in one of the 50 states). They do not pay federal income tax, but do pay social security and local taxes. They can travel between the island and the mainland with no immigration encumbrances, as easily as flying from Texas to Minnesota.

Most Commonwealth supporters favor an “enhanced” Commonwealth, final form to be determined. Among the “enhancements” considered are veto power over federal legislation applicable to Puerto Rico, and the power to establish commercial treaties with foreign countries — attributes that might not pass constitutional muster.

Supporters of the statehood option say under the Commonwealth arrangement Puerto Rico is just a colony of the United States, a situation that becoming the 51st state would remedy. Puerto Rico would get two U.S. Senators and perhaps six Congressmen. Residents would lose their tax exemption and there would be no more Puerto Rican sports teams in international competition — not a small matter in a baseball-crazed island, and just one element of a serious cultural debate. Critics on the left say Puerto Rico would lose its 500-year old Hispanic culture if it became just one more state. Critics on the right, at least in the mainland’s version of the right wing, say that a Spanish-speaking island with a strong cultural sense of self should never become a U.S. state.

Supporters of independence believe Puerto Rico should be a sovereign Latin American nation, not in any way a part of the United States. Residents would lose U.S. citizenship and like other foreigners become subject to immigration law. Puerto Rico also stands to lose U.S. benefits like social security for individuals and tax breaks for businesses.

In four referendums, held in 1967, 1991, 193 and 1998, Puerto Rican voters upheld the Commonwealth status, with statehood a close second and independence far behind. In Sunday’s exit polls, however, statehood came in first with 59 percent; 35 percent favored Commonwealth, and four percent independence.

Those four referendums might as well have been exit polls, for all the legal weight they carried. What Puerto Rico needs is a binding referendum, with the backing of Congress to enact self-determination for Puerto Rico.

That’s going to take a lot of work. San Juan must figure out what final form the enhanced Commonwealth will take. Washington must consider the constitutionality of those enhancements, and debate the pros and cons of what will in essence be a Hispanic state.

But San Juan has been too mired in political fights to finalize those enhancements (in the 1998 referendum the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party instructed followers to vote for “None of the Above”). Washington? In the excitement over Obama’s historic nomination-in-waiting, it has already forgotten all about it.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cuban Eyes Wide Open on Obama

One Hispanic politician who will not be supporting Barack Obama is Fidel Castro.

Castro complained in a recent commentary published in the official newspaper Granma that Obama’s speech in Miami last week “portrays the Cuban revolution as anti-democratic and lacking in respect for freedom and human rights.”

Which is a good description of the Havana regime. Brother Raúl indeed introduced economic changes, like letting Cubans buy cell phones and stay in resorts that used to be tourist-only. But free expression is still severely limited.

Just this Sunday, police broke up a peaceful meeting of about 30 people in the home of a leading dissident, Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as “Antúnez.” They had gathered to plan a walk through the streets of Havana to commemorate the death of Pedro Luis Boitel, a political prisoner who died in jail in 1972. Is merely talking about that kind of protest illegal under Cuban law? Doesn’t matter. The cops barged in and beat up people because they can. When the authorities want to crush somebody, they don’t look up the legalities. They just go do it.

It’s arbitrary lawlessness, and it’s the way Cuba has been governed for going on 50 years. Raúl Castro is not interested in ending it. But will the economic changes he introduced set off a demand for political reform that cascades out of his control?

More than ever, the policy of the United States toward Cuba needs nuance, flexibility and eyes wide open. It’s no good continuing on as if nothing has happened in Havana. Something is happening, and Washington should aim at helping that something spin out of the hands of the ruling elite who want to loosen economic constraints without permitting political liberties.

George Bush did right by fine-tuning the embargo to allow Cubans in the U.S. to send cell phones to Cuba. Cell phones give Cubans more contact with the outside world, which is to say more encouragement to demand basic rights. Bush saw the opening and took it. It’s one example of the nuance and flexibility that is possible if eyes are wide open.

More can be done: The time is now right to let Cubans from the U.S. send visitors to the island and send money to relatives without restrictions. Economic gains that the regime makes from the flow of dollars would be offset by Cuban-Americans bringing word of democracy.

Bush is unlikely to take those steps. And McCain has yet to show any imagination. He is just calling for more of the same — an unforgivable failure to take advantage of the regime’s vulnerabilities in the transition between Castros.

Then there is Obama. Why did the older Castro complain about him? In his Miami visit, Obama said he’d keep the embargo in place but lift restrictions on visits and remittances. He was applauded, although hard-line exiles see that as capitulation.

What would be capitulation is a unilateral lifting of the embargo, which Obama made clear he opposed, and direct talks, about which Obama did not make himself clear at all.

“John McCain’s been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raúl Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering. That’s never what I’ve said,” Obama told the Miami crowd. “After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.”

Sounds like a pledge to meet with Raúl Castro. A meeting with him and the American president would be worse than useless. Nobody who knows anything about the two brothers can possibly believe they can be talked into reform. There is simply nothing to negotiate, and the only effect of such a meeting is to give a regime in critical condition a formidable political and diplomatic boost. And that would be even more unforgivable than McCain’s lack of action.

Yet after the implicit promise to meet with Castro “without preconditions,” Obama went on to say that “as president, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”

The next few months will reveal whether Barack Obama has his eyes open wide enough to see not only that urgent changes are needed in Cuba policy, but also that those changes must not include direct talks that can only set back the cause of freedom for Cubans.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Is Obama the new Reagan?

It’s like some sort of flashback, circa 1980.

Gas prices through the roof. Iran thumbing its nose. Americans deeply unhappy about the direction the country has taken. A bumbling president whose foreign-policy blunders diminished the United States’ capacity to shape the world in accordance with its national interest.

And a presidential candidate who is the polar opposite of the man in the White House, promising to change everything.

Back then, political cartoonists drew Jimmy Carter as a little boy whose feet didn’t touch the ground sitting in a big chair in the Oval Office, smiling insecurely, overwhelmed by the task of being president of a superpower.

There were two superpowers in those days. Pundits fretted that the Soviet Union was growing stronger while the United States became weaker — a perception reinforced by 444 humiliating days of Iran hostage crisis. Time magazine declared nothing less was in order than a “self-examination in which the U.S. weighs its role as a superpower and balances the inherent heavy burdens against the benefits.”

In other words: let us think about drawing back and leave a triumphant Soviet Union as the sole superpower. American confidence, at rock bottom.

On the 444th day, however, Ronald Reagan took office. Minutes later, the hostages were freed. And just about a decade later, the Soviet Union was gone, leaving the United States unchallenged (for a while, anyway) as the globe’s only hyperpower.

The extent to which Reagan’s assertive foreign policy should get credit for bringing about the demise of totalitarian Soviet Marxism has been debated since. But there should be no question that the Reagan presidency utterly changed the national mood from Carter’s “malaise” to the self-assured “shining city on a hill,” and restored muscle to a foreign policy paralyzed by indecisiveness. The United States under Reagan was a far more powerful actor on the global stage, its citizens far more confident in the future of their country, than under Carter.

Today, the country needs a sea-change every bit as transformative — but not in the same direction.

Put aside the orthodoxies of dove versus hawk that have dominated U.S. foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War, and take an unbiased look at the geopolitical position of the United States five years after the invasion of Iraq, almost seven years since the 9/11 attacks, and just about eight years into the Bush presidency. What you see without ideological blinders is an America every bit as incapable of having its way in the world as the America of Jimmy Carter.

Last week, the Saudis just said “no” to Bush’s request to open the oil spigot. The Iranians continue to speed toward nukes, unchecked and unafraid of an America with its hands full in the unnecessary war in Iraq. Europe, which thinks we are nuts, rebuffed Bush’s proposal to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, “a remarkable rejection of American policy in an alliance normally dominated by Washington,” as the New York Times put it. There is also the absence of a policy to deal with the rising power of China, or of a comprehensive regional approach to build alliances in Latin America willing to stand up to the Havana-Caracas axis.

The country’s international position is as weak in 1980 — but for entirely different reasons. The transition from Carter to Reagan was marked by a shift from vacillation to resolve. That was indispensable to re-establish American preeminence. But now, we are on the verge of losing that preeminence because of an excess of resolve — a unilateral, damn-what-anybody-thinks resolve born out of jingoistic arrogance, executive incompetence and cultural ignorance about the world beyond the borders of the United States.

That is not all. This administration has wiretapped citizens without a court’s permission, proclaims a right to torture by any other name and, as a harrowing story last week in the Washington Post put it, “injected hundreds of foreigners it has deported with dangerous psychotropic drugs against their will to keep them sedated during the trip back to their home country.”

Somebody has got to put a stop to this, the way that Reagan stopped the slide under Jimmy Carter. John McCain can’t do it — a watershed year like this one requires a comprehensively transformed leadership.

But Barack Obama has yet to succeed in assuring the American public that he can be not just smart, but also strong. Eagerness to meet “unconditionally” with the world’s worst dictators is no improvement over the recklessness of the Bush years.

Obama needs to show that he is no Jimmy Carter, but a liberal version of Ronald Reagan.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Between a Roca and a Hard (Right) Place

John McCain’s Cinco de Mayo announcement he will speak at the convention of the National Council of La Raza this summer sent a certain type of Republican into paroxysms of delusional angst.

Michelle Malkin called it an attempt “to legitimize the militantly open-borders, anti-immigration enforcement, ethnic nationalists who call themselves ‘The Race.’

The popular right wing blog Little Green Footballs asked, “Why is John McCain pandering to a rabidly racist Mexican-American group with an open agenda to turn the Western states of the US into ‘Aztlan?’”

And Joseph Farah at World Net daily added that the news “is beyond disturbing. It is sickening. It is repulsive. It is inexcusable. It is … immoral and evil” because the aim of the group is to turn the Southwest over to Mexico or establish “an independent, autonomous, Spanish-speaking socialist state.”

This is hilarious stuff. Back on planet Earth, the NCLR is boring in a Kraft burritos sort of way: there’s Mexican flavor in there, but safely Americanized (its “Corporate Partners Program” reads like the Fortune 500, from Allstate to Xerox). The NCLR is nothing more than a civil rights group with a focus on Hispanics. Yes, it leans left. It advocates for affordable housing, immigration reform, lowering the Hispanic school drop out rate — quintessentially mainstream, moderate liberal causes.

Radical separatists? A disclaimer on its website could not be clearer: “Another misconception about NCLR is that we support a “Reconquista,” or the right of Mexico to reclaim land in the southwestern United States. NCLR has not made and does not make any such claim; indeed, such a claim is so far outside of the mainstream of the Latino community that we find it incredible that our critics raise it as an issue.”

But they do. Just like they are also raising alarms about McCain’s launch of a Spanish-language website.

“McCain is basically letting us know that Spanish is now irrevocably becoming our second language,” someone posted at the website of Americans for Legal Immigration. At the hysterically anti-immigrant (its head honcho, nativist but British-born Peter Brimelow, once helpfully corrected me by clarifying his site was not white supremacist but "white nationalist") one Alan Wall wrote, “A common civic language is a great advantage, one we shouldn’t toss on the junk heap so easily. English is our national language. It’s our language of public discourse.”

An eminently reasonable point. Fascinating, too, to learn that a person with what seems like a normally functioning brain has actually convinced himself, and is trying to convince others, that the United States of America is junking the English language.

Such rantings from the Republicans’ lunatic fringe has been predictable ever since immigrant-bashing became de rigueur on the right. It’s become tedious. But the bombast will attract interest again as the presidential campaign draws closer.

What John McCain heard this week is just a little sample of what the anti-immigrant right has in store for him. These are people who will not forgive him for sponsoring legislation that offered qualified illegal immigrants a path to legal residency and eventually citizenship. The worse among them will not forgive him, either, for refusing to join their hallucinations about conspiracies to turn the United States into a Spanish-speaking province of Mexico.

Most people like that will stay home given a choice between McCain and a Democrat. But they will stay home screaming, and their yelling can influence voters who are not racist but do worry about illegal immigration. McCain cannot win if they stay home too.

At the same time, McCain needs Hispanic votes. He has proven he can get them: in his 2004 race for Senate he won 75 percent of Arizona’s, the same year George W. Bush won 40 percent nationally, highest ever for a Republican presidential candidate.

McCain will find it tough to top that. “The tenor of the [immigration] debate has harmed our image among Hispanics,” he acknowledged when he announced the Spanish website and NCLR appearance.

To win he will have to court Hispanics without making border hawks stay home. Good luck with that.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Obama the Patriot

Everybody knows about the two speeches Barack Obama needed to get past, or at least try to get past, his pastor problem.

There was the first one, early March in Philadelphia, when he said the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country,” yet he insisted, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother.”

Then there was the second speech, after Wright’s rantings about a government plot to spread AIDS in black communities revealed to the world his hallucinations about the nature of America. A visibly stunned Obama disowned him — and learned that he didn’t have to also disown his grandma or blacks in general.

But there was a third speech. It came Tuesday night, after Obama’s win in North Carolina. And it helped the candidate muscle his now former pastor into a locked sound-proof box from which no more damaging YouTube loops can escape (at least until Republicans try to smash it open).

Yet in that victory speech Obama did not mention Wright, or even allude to the maelstrom that threatened his viability as a presidential candidate. What he did was try to soothe, without saying that’s what he was doing, the fear that fed that maelstrom: Patriotism.

It all came down to the anxiety that a man who might be President of the United States did not love his country.

The entire Wright episode has been denounced as a distraction from discussion of “real issues” like the economy, health care, the war in Iraq, terrorism, immigration (remember that?) and America’s deteriorated image and declining influence on the world stage.

But the questions raised by Obama’s relationship with the delusionally anti-American Wright did constitute a real issue. It is not just a partisan hatchet job to ask how it is possible for a man who loves his country, and might be president of us all, to think enough of Wright to have him as mentor — spiritual or otherwise — for 20 years.

Obama has yet to explain how that is possible. He has yet to explain what he was thinking about Wright, or what he had heard Wright say over those two decades. That’s almost half a lifetime for Obama. Did he entirely miss hearing the pastor’s bizarre views that seem to be not merely the product of a moment of loopiness, but an entire political philosophy? And if he did not miss it, how can he have put up with it?

No, he has not explained how all that is possible. Yet in North Carolina he made it clear that it is possible.

Obama needed to show that he loves this country as much as any old-fashioned Ronald Reagan patriot, even without the flag pin. Which is what he did in North Carolina.

“This is the country that made it possible for my mother — a single parent who had to go on food stamps at one point — to send my sister and me to the best schools in the country on scholarships,” he said. “I know the promise of America because I have lived it. It is the light of opportunity that led my father across an ocean. It is the founding ideals that the flag draped over my grandfather’s coffin stands for — it is life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Back in that Philadelphia speech, he spoke in front of an array of U.S. flags and praised the Founding Fathers, but he also denounced America’s original sin — the hypocrisy of permitting slavery in the world’s first democracy. Noting that then, in the context of trying to explain his relationship with Wright, was necessary.

In North Carolina, however, the task was to get past Wright and affirm the patriotism that had been questioned. Which he did as well as anyone could have hoped.

Time to stop it about Jeremiah Wright.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

(Not) Angry White Males

Those guys that Obama says “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” — aren’t they the same as the “angry white males” of nearly 15 years ago?

Back then, angry white males were lionized by the hard right, after their votes in the 1994 midterm elections supposedly helped Republicans gain control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1946.

It was the year of Proposition 187, when immigration — legal and illegal — was as big an issue as it was in 2007. Paleoconservatives, like Pat Buchanan, thought they were fighting a culture war (ah, for the pre-neocon days of pretend wars). And two years of Bill and Hillary in the White House seemed more than red-blooded Americans could bear.

So, people wore T-shirts that bragged they were angry, white and male. AWMs claimed they were simply taking back their country (“this once great country,” they loved to say) from liberals who wanted to ban guns, teach evolution in classrooms and flood America with foreigners.

Like someone put it recently, they clung to guns, religion and antipathy to people who weren’t like them.

Except that angry white maleness was, and still can be, a boast. In contrast, Obama had to apologize.

Is that wrong? Obama and the 1994 Republicans were talking about the same group of people: working-class, white, non-Hispanic Americans who felt threatened by changes that made this society more liberal and more ethnically diverse.

One difference is what each meant about that group. Republicans of the Newt Gingrich era believed AWMs were correct to feel threatened. Obama feels Ivy League contempt for the same crowd: small-minded small-towners.

Another difference is born of political necessity. Gingrich Republicans had no need to differentiate between truly angry blue-collar whites and blue-collar whites who did not feel very threatened — Republicans had the former group all to themselves, and there was little they could have done to drive away the latter, who, in that election, would have voted Republican no matter what.

Meanwhile, Obama needs to work harder at not driving away working-class Americans who are not black, and who do not walk around in a rage. He gives the impression that he thinks blue-collar white equals racist white.

And blue-collar whites don’t like it.

In the Pennsylvania primary, Hillary Clinton won 64 percent of high-school graduates who did not go to college; 62 percent of gun owners; 59 percent of voters in union households; 57 percent of voters earning $50,000-75,000 annually.

Bowling gutter balls and drinking beer did not help.

And look who his opponent was. In what other election could Hillary Clinton win the gun-owners’ vote?

It will be a major weakness in the general election, assuming Obama wins the Democratic nomination.

If Obama cannot hold on to a reasonable number of white, working-class voters in a race against Clinton, he will do much worse against a Republican. It’s not a matter of expecting Obama to win a majority of that electorate, it’s a matter of Obama not letting McCain squash him.

Likewise, Obama has been having trouble with Hispanic voters, while McCain is the Republican less likely to drive Hispanics away. McCain himself surely knows he won’t win the Hispanic vote outright. But the way things are now, an Obama candidacy is McCainbest shot at coming close to the 40 percent of the Hispanic vote that Bush got in 2004.

Hispanics, and those non-angry white males, may be the key to the 2008 election.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cuban Economic Changes Not Enough

Admiral James Stavridis, head of the U.S. Southern Command, told a congressional committee this week that we need to watch if the changes in Raúl Castro’s Cuba are “sincere” or just “cosmetic.”

Admiral, you bet that the changes are sincere — as far as the economy.

With Fidel Castro bedridden and apparently reduced to venting in a newspaper column, Raúl and his people have been able to lift their heads, look at the world around them and realize that absurd laws like not letting people buy cell phones make Cuba the laughingstock of the world.

Without the heavy weight of Fidel right on top of them, these guys came to the realization (or, more likely, were finally able to act on the realization) that Cuba will be forever condemned to backwardness — unless some of the extreme economic prohibitions are abolished.

That explains the fast pace of economic reforms in the two months after Fidel Castro officially ceded power to his younger brother.

Cubans can now freely buy not only cell phones, but also computers and domestic appliances like air conditioners and toasters; they can get title to their homes, once held by the state; on vacation, they can stay at hotels and resorts previously reserved for foreigners; at work, they may now practice that quaint capitalist ritual known as asking the boss for something called a “raise.”

These changes are a reminder of how bad things had gotten.

“You mean Cubans couldn’t just walk into a store and buy a radio?” No, they could not — they had to wait their turn until the government assigned them one.

“You mean Cubans couldn’t stay in the best hotels in their own country?” No, they could not, except that if they brought a foreigner, they were allowed in.

In some ways, the reforms are meaningless. Few Cubans can afford a cell phone, to say nothing of an air conditioner or a $600 weekend (and that’s just for the room) at the Melia Varadero hotel. Few employers can afford to pay workers more, even if it’s now legal to do so. And as for holding title to your property — well, it’s nice to have that piece of paper, but you are not allowed to sell the house you own.

Still, the mere fact that more economic liberalization has taken place in the last two months than in the past 50 years is significant, even if such reform is on the books and not so much in practice.

Cuba’s new rulers are undoubtedly “sincere” about moving the country’s economy into the 20th century, now that we are eight years into the 21st. They cannot hide from five decades of disastrously dogmatic communism that made the Cuban economy into a ruin. Maybe they can start catching up to Haiti — most people there can’t afford a cell phone either, but at least it isn’t illegal to buy one. Well, at least Cuba’s economy is moving in the right direction.

That is not something you can say about Cuba’s politics. Raúl’s Havana has not moved one inch in the direction of democratic pluralism.

There is nothing resembling an independent judiciary or free elections. Only one political party is permitted to take part in elections — or even exist.

Neither is there freedom of expression — all media are owned and operated by the government, which will harass or imprison people who print unauthorized publications, run a Web site or merely speak up in public to protest the absence of freedoms. Nineteen journalists are still imprisoned for committing free expression, five years after the “Black Spring” crackdown. Criticizing the system is considered an act of subversion.

And lest anyone think Raúl is a closet Democrat, an editorial this week in Granma, “Official Organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba,” said that “there will be no room for subversion in Cuba.”

It was an attack on exiles in Miami who support Cuba’s always-harassed, in-and-out-of-jail dissidents. In Havana last week, some of the best-known ones announced an “Agenda for the Transition,” and called for national reconciliation.

If the Raúl crowd is sincere in modernizing the economy, it is just as sincere in avoiding democracy. Instead of praising the regime for reform that is merely economic, the international community must ratchet up the pressure for political change. It can unleash a demand for freedom from inside Cuba that the regime cannot control.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

After “Enforcement First,” What Comes Second?

“Enforcement first.”

It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? I mean, with all those illegal immigrants running around, the last thing we want is enforcement last ... right?

The phrase sounds so forcefully no-nonsense that 10 Republican senators last month formed something called the “Border Security and Enforcement First Caucus.”

The group wants to “let Americans know that some in the U.S. Senate are continuing to make sure that the laws already on the books will be enforced ... push for stronger border security and interior enforcement legislation, and work together in the U.S. Senate to defeat future legislation that offers amnesty.”

That’s not “enforcement first,” which even in its law-’n’-orderish bluntness implies there’s something that comes second. No, what these guys want is enforcement only.

And that is going to fail. Significantly, none of the founding members is from a border state.
That’s because a lot of people near the border know that building fences and raiding restaurant kitchens are not going to solve the problem. Only comprehensive immigration reform, combined with sensible enforcement, can significantly lower the number of illegal entries or even begin to do anything about the more than 12 million people living and working in the United States illegally.

The fence, in particular, is a colossal waste of money. Like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has said, “If you’re going to build a 12-foot wall, you know what’s going to happen? A lot of 13-foot ladders.” That is what people do when they can earn far more money to feed their families on the other side of the fence.

Yet the Bush administration, which supported comprehensive reform before going weak in the knees after too many punches from the right, insists on spending nobody-really-knows-how-much on a border wall. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office last year estimated it would cost $2.1 billion for 700 miles, and more recently the Congressional Research Service (which works under the Library of Congress and also is nonpartisan) said maintenance over a projected 25-year life span of the fence could run as much as $49 billion. And that’s for 700 miles, remember, out of a border that’s nearly 2,000 miles long.

The rush to squander that money has reached such a frenetic pace that last week Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, waived any and all laws that might slow “the expeditious construction of barriers,” claiming that Congress gave him the authority to ignore any regulation he doesn’t like, including those that protect the environment as well as those that protect private property.
So, the United States government will disrupt wildlife, trample landowners’ property rights, and make itself look like an East Germany in reverse, all to spend untold billions on a border wall most would-be illegal immigrants will get past anyway. And that’s to say nothing of people who entered through legal means then overstayed their visas — border fences will have zero effect on the 40 percent of illegal immigrants expected to come in like that.

If somebody can point to a domestic policy that is more fraudulent, please let me know. At least it’s a good time to invest in companies that make 13-foot ladders.

This monument to politicians’ desperation to look like they’re doing something about illegals is a result of last year’s failure to pass a comprehensive immigration-reform bill. The legislation, a version of a bill originally co-sponsored by John McCain and Ted Kennedy, called for almost 14,000 new Border Patrol agents during the next five years, more electronic surveillance, tougher sanctions for employers who hire the undocumented and a requirement for tamper-resistant, biometric green cards.

But it was not enforcement-only: The bill allowed people here illegally to become citizens if they had no criminal record, paid a fine and went to the back of the line. An earlier version also increased the number of people permitted to come, raising legal immigration to a level more in tune with the demands of the economy.

After reform went down in Congress even McCain started talking about enforcement first. Nearly a year later, all we have is plans for a wall.
Well, doesn’t that look like “enforcement first” already won? And if we already got it, will the Senator from Arizona speak to what comes second?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What Does McCain Know, and When did he Know It?

One of my first thoughts after the shock of seeing the World Trade Center come down was, “I’m glad there is a Republican in the White House.”

You remember how it went. Everybody wanted military action. And national security was a Republican specialty. So the whole country and pretty much the entire world got behind George W. Bush.

One year later, I was already sorry there was a Republican in the White House.

“[After the attacks] the international community grieved with the horrified citizens of the United States ... Washington had a historic opportunity to enlist the world in a campaign against terror, an exceptional moment in history,” I wrote on Sept. 11, 2002, a time when the Republican in the White House, and the one in the Pentagon, were blustering their way into the Iraq disaster

“[M]uch of that good will and cooperation is gone overseas, thanks in no small part to the Bush administration’s inability to see the United States in a global context -- as the only superpower, yes, but still as a part of the international community, part of the larger world beyond America’s borders.”

It’s been downhill from there. A BBC poll said this week that in 34 nations surveyed, 35 percent of respondents said the United States had a positive influence on world affairs, and 47 percent said it had a negative influence. We did not do as well as Russia and China. But hey, we beat North Korea and Iran.

And it was an improvement. The year before, the negative rating was five points higher and the positive four points lower. Why the change? Steven Kull, of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (which helped conduct the survey) told the BBC that “as the U.S. approaches a new presidential election, views of the U.S. are being mitigated by hope that a new administration will move away from the foreign policies that have been so unpopular in the world.”

The move away from those policies is a given if a Democrat wins. But what if it’s John McCain this November?

McCain has, in more than one prepared speech, acknowledged that over-reliance in the unilateral use of American military strength has grievously damaged American interests.

“[T]he United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone,” he said in a speech last week in Los Angeles “We must be strong politically, economically, and militarily. But we must also lead by attracting others to our cause, by demonstrating once again the virtues of freedom and democracy, by defending the rules of international civilized society and by creating the new international institutions necessary to advance the peace and freedoms we cherish.”

The speech has been seen as a repudiation of what the Bush team did for the past eight years, but McCain has been saying this kind of thing for a while. A year ago he said at VMI, “The many complex challenges we face require more than a military response. This is a contest of ideas and values as much as it is one of bullets and bombs.”

Yet when McCain speaks extemporaneously, the insightfully nuanced view of his prepared speeches sometimes gives way to something that looks and sounds like Bush. There was the puerile Beach Boys humor of “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” And there was that puzzling moment in Jordan, a few days before the Los Angeles speech, when he charged that Iranian intelligence was “taking al-Qaida into Iran, training them and sending them back.”

Of course, al-Qaida and Iran are not only enemies of the United States -- they also are enemies of each other. Yet McCain’s mistake appears to be more than merely a slip of the tongue, because he went on to insist it was “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaida is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that’s well known.” It wasn’t until Sen. Joe Lieberman leaned in to whisper something that McCain said, “I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaida.”

It was shocking to hear such a mistake from a presidential candidate supposed to be an expert on foreign policy. Is the best hope of Republicans to gain back credibility on national security just another George W. Bush but with better advisers?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Censorship Instead of Prison Is What Passes for Progress in Cuba

Where is Cuba moving under Little Brother?

In an easterly direction. Decisions made by the Cuban government in the past few days suggest there is truth to the speculation that Raul Castro is simpatico toward China’s brand of Market-Leninism.

Slowly, quietly (don’t want to wake up Big Brother), the Cuban government has lifted some of the more ridiculous economic restrictions beloved by Fidel. At the same time, it continues to crack down on free expression, although in a more subtle way than when Fidel ran things.

New policies regarding technology encapsulate what’s going on.

Earlier this month, the regime authorized the sale of electronic equipment like small kitchen appliances and computers.

Yes, it is true: Up until the decree, it was illegal to just go out and buy a toaster. If that old Sunbeam in your family since 1956 broke down, you ate cold Cuban bread until assigned a replacement toaster. Ah, the march of freedom.

Of course, a toaster is just a toaster. A computer, though, is a dangerous thing. Like Information Minister Ramiro Valdes famously put it last year, the Internet is “the wild colt of new technologies that has to be tamed.”

Not to worry about runaway horses. “The echo of the drumbeat announcing the imminent sale of computers, DVD players and other electro-domestic appliances has reached my ears,” writes Yoani Sanchez of Generacion Y, the most popular dissident blog written from inside Cuba. “Like all the latest rumors, it comes from foreign countries. In the stores around my neighborhood nobody knows about this flood of technology.”

And no wonder. The change in policy was leaked to Reuters and the Mexican news agency Notimex, but has yet to be mentioned in Cuba’s state-run media. Besides, few Cubans can afford to buy a computer -- which the stores they are permitted to shop in don’t have on the shelves anyway.

So, no computers to buy and no money to buy computers. But if your cousin in Miami sends you a few bucks and you are lucky enough to track down an old Pentium, go for it!

Oh, well. Being able to buy a computer without worrying about legalities is progress of a sort. It’s the “Market” part of Market-Leninism.

The “Leninism” part comes in what you can do with it.

A 2006 report by Reporters Without Borders called Cuba “one of the world’s most backward countries as regards Internet usage,” with “less than 2 percent of the population online.”

Cuba’s government, says the report, “has more or less banned private Internet connections. To visit Web sites or check their e-mail, Cubans have to use public access points such as Internet cafes, universities and ‘youth computing centers’ where it is easier to monitor their activity.

Internet policy has not changed since the report was issued, two months after the older Castro got sick and temporarily gave up power. Still, those scary wild, wild horses are dragging tech-savvy Cubans away from the grasp of the Interior Ministry. People who manage to get online download files to flash drives, which then circulate among friends and friends of friends. Yoani Sanchez updates her blog by sneaking into hotel cyber cafes, verboten to Cubans, pretending she is a tourist. You can read her in Spanish at; an English-language version,, is very nicely translated but a couple of postings behind.

Of course, being that so few Cubans have Internet access, the majority of visitors to her blog come from outside Cuba. But it seems even her handful of fans inside the island are a perceived threat. Her latest postings charge government censors are blocking her site from users in Cuba, or making their access excruciatingly slow.

In the “Black Spring” of five years ago, 75 independent writers and librarians were imprisoned for terms of more than 20 years. Some were found guilty of having “published counter-revolutionary writings on an Internet Web page.”

It’s a threat that hangs over Yoani Sanchez and other brave Cuban bloggers. Will creeping Sinoization mean they get blocked instead of thrown in jail?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Brilliant Speech Will Not End Debate About Pastor

Barack Obama was two-for-three Tuesday in Philadelphia: He hit two home runs, then struck out.

What he said about race relations in general was practically unprecedented in American public life, free of the ideological baggage and ethnic one-upmanship that characterizes race talk in the United States.

Sounding like an old-fashioned Reaganesque patriot, standing before a backdrop of American flags in a building across from Independence Hall, he lauded the Founding Fathers who “launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy.” Yet he minced no words in saying the Constitution they wrote “was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.”

He did not shy away, either, from saying that black anger about discrimination “keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition.” Nor was he afraid to sound like a conservative when he insisted “the African-American community” must take responsibility for our own lives -- by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children ... they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”

He even seemed to justify the “resentment” some whites feel “when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced.”

Which did not mean he let white people off the hook: “In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination -- and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past -- are real and must be addressed.”

It was a performance full of nuance and paradox, an acknowledgement of the nuance and paradox inherent in a history of American race relations that cannot be understood without the shades of gray that accompany black and white.

Obama also was successful in explaining what was so deeply objectionable about Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s 9/11 conspiracy theories, about his apparent belief that a murderous U.S. government sells drugs to poor blacks, about his call for God to “damn America.”

“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country -- a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.”

Wright’s comments, Obama said, were “wrong and divisive.” A few days ago, after the scandal broke, he used the phrases “categorically denounce” and “reject outright.”

Strong stuff. Yet in that Philadelphia speech Obama also said of the now-retired pastor: “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

Those arguments are so weak as to be unworthy of the nuanced and obviously paradox-capable mind Barack Obama clearly owns.

Breaking ties with Wright (if that is what “disown” means) may well be the equivalent of breaking ties with radical elements in the black community, but it is certainly not the same as breaking ties with the black community as a whole, which ought not be defined by the extremist few.

And as to his grandmother -- Obama actively sought out, then knowingly accepted Jeremiah Wright as a powerful presence in his life for 20 years. The grandmother came with the family.

One reason Obama won’t “disown” Wright is that it can’t be done, at least not in a way that allows Obama to keep credibility. If he did not “disown” the pastor for 20 years, what reason other than political expediency could there possibly be for doing it now?

Two out of three is not bad. But the game is not over. And up to bat next is Hillary Clinton.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Shame of Torture

Back in 1996, Bob Dole kept asking, “Where’s the outrage?”

Today, does anybody remember what there was to be outraged about?

A few voices are crying “outrage” once again. The difference is, this time it’s for real. But who is paying attention?

Maybe we are too busy watching “American Idol.” And distracted by economic woes. And entranced by Hillary-Obama. And worn down by the war. And -- more telling -- fearful of another terrorist attack.

The American president has told the world that the United States will torture people.

That is what it comes down to. Put aside euphemisms. It’s not that the world’s most powerful country reserves the option to use “specialized interrogation procedures” or “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

What it is, is that our great democracy has sunk to tormenting people in its custody. Torture used to be the province of nasty dictators who were enemies of the United States, often because the United States had the moral authority to demand they stop.

Now, dictators can point a finger right back. And it won’t be mere propaganda.

That should be enough to send a wave of revulsion sweeping across the entire country. And I mean the entire country, not just among Democrats looking to score partisan points, and not just among earnest liberals who believe even terrorists have human rights

Conservatives too, should be something near apoplectic. Under George W. Bush, the United States has become less powerful, less able to have its way, than at any time since Jimmy Carter’s administration. And that’s even though in the months that followed the 9/11 attacks, global sympathy put the United States at the height of its influence in world affairs. The Chinese, the Russians, the Saudis -- they did not protest taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was a commanding position, unforgivably frittered away by unwise use of American power

Which explains why conservatives cannot bring themselves to see the serious damage done in the past seven years. Under Carter, the United States lost power through weakening of the military and indecisiveness in the civilian leadership -- failures traditionally associated with the left and therefore easy for the foreign-policy right to recognize and criticize.

In contrast, the failures of the Bush administration are the product of misapplied right-wing philosophies. So conservatives have a hard time seeing these policies as failures.

Invade Iraq with little international support and with disregard for understanding the local culture? We can do that -- we have a great military.

Torture people to get them to talk? We can do that -- we are Americans who hold the moral high ground.

The follies committed in Iraq are so self-evident, even conservatives understand the gravity (the “surge” is but an admission of the injudiciousness that preceded it). But the folly of torture has yet to get universal condemnation from the right, except for mavericks like John McCain

Quoting international nongovernmental organizations criticizing U.S. policy is not the best way to win conservative hearts and minds. But Human Rights Watch says there is an “absolute, unequivocal prohibition against torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of any person, including terrorist suspects. The right to be free from such mistreatment is one of the most fundamental and unequivocal human rights.”

“Absolute.” “Unequivocal.” Once upon a time, American officials agreed absolutely, unequivocally. They no longer do.

Torture is not even a practical necessity. Expert interrogators from the FBI and the military believe it doesn’t work, because people will lie to stop the pain. The Army’s field manual recommends 19 techniques that range from sophisticated deceptions to appropriately aggressive good cop/bad cop. So nobody is “coddling terrorists.” And as to the “ticking time bomb,” experts say it’s a fantasy

“I’d be hard-pressed to find a situation where anybody can tell me that they’ve ever encountered a ticking bomb scenario,” former FBI interrogator Jack Cloonan, who questioned al-Qaida suspects, told “Foreign Policy” magazine. “When it happens on ‘24’... it makes us all believe it’s real. It’s not. Throw that stuff out. It doesn’t happen."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Will the Moderate Latin Left Stop Chávez’s March to War?

The stupidest war in the world right now is the one being waged against the Colombian state by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

You look at other conflicts and you can sort of understand: Country X thinks country Z stole its land and wants to get it back; or tyrant A can be ousted only by force; or group B wants to behead everyone who doesn’t worship god C.

You don’t have to agree with any side in those wars -- you can believe, for instance, that group B consists of medieval lunatic murderers. Still, you know why they are fighting.

Such is not the case in Colombia’s four-decades-old conflict. The country has been a democracy all those years, with a vigorously free press and competitive elections that have resulted in left-leaning presidents some years, right-leaning presidents other years (as is the case now).

But FARC takes part in no elections, unlike the former guerrilla group known as M-19, which had a far-left agenda similar to FARC’s but disarmed and entered the Colombian political process in the late 1980s. Instead, FARC devotes itself to kidnapping people, selling cocaine and killing innocent civilians in attacks on small country towns. It was declared a terrorist group by the European Union and the governments of Colombia and the United States.

The conflict remained ostensibly local until last week, when the Colombian armed forces struck a FARC base inside Ecuadorean territory and killed Raul Reyes, one of the top two or three FARC commanders. According to Colombia’s national police chief Gen. Oscar Naranjo, documents seized at the camp say that FARC operatives are in the market for uranium, and that Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez sent the group some $300 million.

Naturally, Ecuador protested Colombia’s violation of its territory. Just as understandably, Colombia protested Ecuador turning a blind eye to terrorists in Ecuadorean territory. Chavez and his Ecuadorean ally Rafael Correa withdrew their ambassadors in Bogota and closed Colombian embassies in their capitals.

Then sabers got rattled. Chavez ordered troops and tanks (as many as 200) to the border, and Ecuador sent troops, too. South America is at the brink of a war the likes of which it has never seen.

There have been wars there before, bloody ones too. In the War of the Triple Alliance, fought from 1864 to 1870, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay defeated Paraguay and killed nearly its entire male population of fighting age. About a decade later Chile fought Bolivia and took land Bolivia still claims. As recently as 1995 Peru and Ecuador had a brief shoot’em-up with about 100 total killed over a disputed border.

But never has there been a war between nations that was a direct result of competing global political ideologies. The current crisis has the potential to start the first one. Even if FARC is nothing more than a very big, well-armed gang of drug-dealing thugs posing as Marxist-Leninist ideologues, Chavez’s rantings about Colombian President Alvaro Uribe being a lackey of the United States guarantees this will not be your average South American territorial war.

Which is why Chavez’s yawners about imperialistas Yanquis now take an ominous tone. Is he crazy enough to go to war with Colombia?

It doesn’t look as if Colombia is going to give him an excuse. Uribe has refrained from massing his own troops on the borders, an attempt to de-escalate the crisis. Besides, since Colombia’s extraterritorial excursion was on Ecuadorean soil, not Venezuelan, what is Chavez doing in the middle of this?

Venezuelan Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel laid it out at a Caracas press conference this week: “It is not against the people of Colombia, but rather the expansionist designs of the empire,” he said, according to The New York Times.

It’s a Chavez fantasy: defeat the United States by defeating Colombia.

It is up to the sane left in Latin America -- Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Michelle Bachelet in Chile -- to tell Chavez that the region will not accept his attempt to turn South America’s stupidest war into its most dangerous. It will have to say, in the king of Spain’s famous phrase, “Why don’t you shut up.”