Thursday, December 23, 2021

Chilean Déjà vu?

If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave
 —Chilean president-elect Gabriel Boric upon being elected on Sunday
Is history repeating itself in the Land of Poets?

In Chile’s 1970 presidential election, the choice was narrowed down to extremes on the left and right. There was a popular, moderate incumbent president (a Christian Democrat), but under the constitution in effect at the time he was not allowed to run for re-election. Instead, his party’s standard-bearer was a weak candidate, so the choice boiled down to right and left. In those days Congress determined the winner of the three-man race, and the Christian Democrats threw their support to socialist Salvador Allende. His election was followed by three years of instability caused by (depending on your point of view) either Allende’s radical reforms and policies or by his opponents’ overreaction to them. In 1973 he was overthrown by a military coup, and a junta ruled the country for the next 17 years.

Superficially, something similar to 1970 seems to have just happened again. But there are key differences. Under a different constitution—one written originally under the Pinochet dictatorship—a first-round presidential election on November 21 drew several candidates from a variety of parties across the political spectrum. The largest single vote-getter was the Republican Party’s far-right nominee José Antonio Kast with 27.91 percent of the vote. Not far behind was the far-left candidate of Apruebo Dignidad (an alliance whose name means “I approve of dignity”) Gabriel Boric with 25.72 percent. Given the overall makeup of the first-round voting and the opinion polls, it was no surprise that, in the second-round vote held this past Sunday, Boric was the winner—although the margin of his victory (more than 11 percent) was indeed notable.

Boric’s party is the left-wing Social Convergence, and his coalition has the support of Chile’s Communist Party. Do we need to worry about a right-wing reaction as happened in 1973? Probably not. One major difference between Boric and Allende is that Boric actually received a majority mandate from voters. Perhaps even more significant is that there has been a huge generational shift in Chile. Protests in the streets in 2019 led to the election of a Constitutional Convention after a plebiscite in which 78 percent of voters chose to replace the country’s current charter. Given the makeup of the elected convention, the new constitution will be much more leftist-oriented than any in the country’s history.

Sometimes it helps us North Americans to draw comparisons between the United States and other countries. For example, we might say that electing Gabriel Boric as president of Chile would be comparable to Americans electing… who? Bernie Sanders? Elizabeth Warren? Comparisons like that are not ideal because, for one thing, what is considered left-wing in the U.S. is often much different than what the label represents in other countries. For another thing (and to be unkind) Sanders is as old as dirt, and Warren is no spring chicken either. It is a strange feature of U.S. politics these days that the American political duopoly keeps throwing up geriatric candidates to the voters. As a result, the de facto leaders of America’s left in government are dinosaurs from another age.

This is not the case with Gabriel Boric. At 35, he barely met the minimum age qualification to run for president. A former student leader while studying law at the University of Chile, he was in the forefront of the protests leading to the Constitutional Convention. He and those around him are of an entirely new generation which sees the world much differently than their parents and grandparents did. While the appeal and lure of socialism have long tantalized certain segments of previous generations, anyone who spends much time around young people these days knows that as a political philosophy it is much more mainstream among that age group than it has ever been before.

During his campaign, Boric repeatedly promised to “bury neoliberalism,” i.e. free-market capitalism. That is unsettling for those of us who associate free markets with democracy and personal freedom. On the positive side, though, he cites as his models Europe’s Nordic countries (which are firmly capitalistic, despite what some may think) and Uruguay—as opposed to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which was Allende’s model.

Decades from now, will Chileans be happy with their political choice? Maybe. Maybe not. In any event, they will at least know it was their own choice and not, as in North America, a legacy bequeathed them by elderly leaders who will by then be long gone.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Declining Post-sectarianism

President Higgins Formally Asks DUP Are They For F***ing Real
 —Headline on the Irish satirical newspaper web site Waterford Whispers News, September 16
Many of us worry about what looks like increasing rates of sectarianism or divisiveness or polarization or whatever you want to call it. It seems like every issue or challenge that arises—the pandemic, extreme weather events, elections—immediately requires people to go to separate corners and politicize the atmosphere.

Is it ironic or inevitable that the division appears to get worse when things are actually going relatively well. To be sure, there are plenty of things to worry about, but many of the things people are anxious about—climate change, economic collapse, failure of democracy—tend to be looming things which, in some cases at least, may not even happen. Many are concerned about racial and economic inequality, but these problems are by no means new and, when viewed from a long historical perspective, actually seem to be on a trajectory, even if much too slow for those concerned, for getting better.

What worries me, among other things, is the polarization. It seems to be a phenomenon that waxes and wanes over history. Paradoxically, major wars—or more specifically, their aftermaths—appear to foster unity. Long-lasting, prosperous peacetime seems to give people time and space to dig into their differences.

A big part of the polarization problem is that it is human nature to readily perceive prejudices in others but not to recognize them in ourselves.

Ireland, a relatively small country, makes for an interesting laboratory for the armchair amateur social scientist. A century ago the island lived through a violent rebellion and war for independence and then a bloody civil war. In the process, the island was partitioned and two communities settled into an uneasy co-existence. Much of the past century was marked by violence from paramilitary groups and from the British military. Thankfully, since1998 there has been a peace agreement. Violence has not been completely eliminated, but it has been vastly reduced. Free trade and travel within the European Union, if not exactly equivalent to reunification, fostered a sense of unity on the island. That progress has been challenged in recent years by a narrow majority of United Kingdom voters deciding to leave the European Union, taking Northern Ireland with it.

Tensions have risen over issues of trade between and among Northern Ireland, the Irish republic and Great Britain—as well as the prospect of the return of some form of border controls. All this has been going on against a backdrop of centenaries for the events that resulted in independence for 26 of 32 Irish counties and the island’s partition.

At the birth of the current century, there was much salutary rhetoric over respecting and celebrating the diverse communities on the island. With the advent of Brexit, however, there has been at least a partial return to the old recriminations back and forth between unionists/Protestants on one side and nationalists/Catholics on the other. To be clear, those labels are generalizations and simplifications. The sectarian division is more accurately described as being between those who bear residual resentment toward the old colonizers and those who identify with the old colonizers. In other words, this is people harking back to their tribal roots and narratives.

The latest flashpoint in the tribal divisions is an inter-denominational service scheduled two weeks from now in the Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh. Described by the organizers as a “service of reflection and hope,” its purpose is to commemorate the island’s partition on its centenary and, thus, the formation of Northern Ireland. Among the various dignitaries invited were Queen Elizabeth and Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins. The latter has politely but firmly—and in the face of some criticism, defiantly—declined.

Usually, it is the unionist politicians who come off looking like intransigent dinosaurs, clinging to their fundamentalist religion and traditions in the face of a changing world. This perception really doesn’t do justice to how far the late firebrand Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party came to make peace with Sinn Féin, the political arm of the insurrectionist Provisional Irish Republican Army.

President Higgins’s decision to rebuff the invitation has been supported by a large majority in the republic. There is no way the president should have to “celebrate” the partition of his country, say his defenders—despite the fact event organizers have been clear it’s not a celebration. Unfortunately, the same logic could be used to justify all manner of intransigence on both sides of the sectarian divide. If both sides had stubbornly and consistently clung to such logic, there would have been no Good Friday Agreement ending the North’s Troubles.

The fact that the president’s position looks perfectly justified and reasonable to most of the republic’s citizens is a useful illustration of how much easier it is to recognize prejudice in others than in oneself.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Running for the Exit

I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.
 —Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, writing about Joe Biden in his 2014 book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

[T]he likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.
 —President Biden, discussing Afghanistan in a press conference on July 8

This is a foreign policy catastrophe, the likes we haven’t seen in decades, I’m afraid, internationally
 —Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, commenting on the Afghanistan situation in a radio interview on Monday
In the lead-up to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was much media speculation about how much it might, at the end, resemble the country’s chaotic retreat from Vietnam in 1975. As it happened, there were a lot of similarities. From panic at the U.S. embassy, among others, to desperate last-minute crowding at the capital’s airport, there was plenty of fodder for déjà vu for those of us who remember well the fall of Saigon.

For one thing, the endgame was set up by a peace treaty. In the earlier case, it was the Nixon Administration’s pact with North Vietnam, which resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize for Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973. In the current situation, it was the Trump Administration’s agreement with the Taliban a year and a half ago. In both cases, those pieces of paper were tossed aside once a subsequent U.S. administration pulled troops out suddenly. In 1975 it was the Ford Administration, which had little choice after Congress cut off all Vietnam funding. Today it is the Biden Administration, which announced four months ago the drawdown of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.


One difference between the two situations is the reaction of America’s hard political left.

“Ho Chi Minh puts a lot of hope in our hearts,” declared a woman attending a spontaneous celebration in April 1975. “As we practice the philosophies we believe in we forget that there are other people who believe in the same thing but practice it differently because of their environment. The greater struggle lies ahead.”

Added a war veteran-turned-anti-war-activist, “It’d be so far out to be there right now.” He was referring to the capital of soon-to-be-absorbed South Vietnam, which had just been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

The above quotes are from a 46-year-old event in Isla Vista, the densely populated student ghetto abutting the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California. They were chronicled in the student newspaper The Nexus, and yes, I was the hack scribe who reported them. A similar event had been held weeks earlier to mark Cambodia’s surrender to the Khmer Rouge.

Some of the people at the April event were there simply to express relief at the final end of the war and the U.S.’s involvement in the region. Others were wholeheartedly celebrating a U.S. defeat at the hands of Communists. For others, the celebratory mood may have been more about something more general: a former colony casting out a Western superpower.

I can’t imagine that very many on the political left today are celebrating the Taliban’s victory. I no longer have the contacts I did during my Seattle days, so I’m not really sure. If any are celebrating, though, it cannot be without mixed feelings. While the new rulers of Afghanistan have done their best to project a more presentable image as their return to power loomed, their track record and unabashed world view suggest their rule will be a disaster for anyone who cares about western liberal democratic values in general or the rights of women and minorities in particular. In my experience, though, the hard left tends to see such rights and social issues not as ends in themselves but mainly as issues to exploit tactically in their ultimate aim: to see the that right people end up in charge.

To be clear, when I talk about the “hard left,” I’m not talking about people who vote for Democrats. My experience with hard-core leftists is that they mainly vote for fringe candidates in protest or, more often, don’t vote at all. If they do vote for a Democrat, it’s usually grudgingly and/or tactically. They do, however, show up en masse at demonstrations and protests, which sometimes results in generating enthusiasm and motivation for Democratic-leaning voters.

While the hard left is definite minority in America, it’s hard not to notice that views once considered on the political fringe have infiltrated the mainstream. A sign of this is the ardent media coverage—both left and right—of the so-called “squad,” a half-dozen Representatives who, according to opinion polls anyway, are well to the left of most Democrats—let alone most Americans.

As for Afghanistan, those of us who have seen this movie before know pretty much what to expect. In North America and Europe there will be reflections and recriminations about how the occupation of the country began and why it turned out the way it did. In Southwest Asia there will be strife and misery and perhaps yet another refugee crisis. (For years after the fall of South Vietnam, waves of so-called “boat people” flooded out of the country.) There will be heartbreaking tales of people, mainly women, whose lives and opportunities will be set back to a previous century. One also has to ask if Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will go back to being a haven and base for international terrorists.

In the last presidential election, we were told a vote for Joe Biden was a vote for returning to normalcy, sanity and competency. Things are definitely back to what’s considered normal in Washington, and I suppose the capital is as sane as it’s ever been—for whatever that’s worth. Competency? Even if you think ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was a good idea, you still have to wonder if the terms of withdrawal couldn’t have been negotiated better and whether the actual exit could have been handled more competently.

Watching Biden on countless Sunday morning news programs in the 1990s and 2000s, it was always clear to me he considered himself a foreign policy maven. Yet, to anyone paying attention, it was also clear that his ideas—which were just that, since as a senator or even vice-president he had little discernible influence on actual policy—were always a little off from establishment foreign policy thinking. Whether it was his idea of splitting Iraq into three countries or advising President Obama not to pull the trigger on Osama bin Laden, he always seemed oddly contrarian.

Reportedly, Biden overruled his top military advisers in following through on the Trump Administration’s deal with the Taliban. You have to wonder what that says about his judgment as he faces upcoming crises with places like Iran and North Korea.

Biden’s real strength was always in domestic politics, and that probably tells us more about his handling of Afghanistan than all his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Apparently, polls said that getting out of Afghanistan ranked as very popular among U.S. voters. If it remains popular after this fiasco—even after heart-wrenching footage of people clinging to taxiing aircraft in Kabul—then maybe the president will have succeeded on his own terms.