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The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, January 1989 Vol. XXVI Number 6

George Bush will be our next president. What does it all mean? 

Or, more precisely, what messages did the election give to the American people onto the president -elect himself? 

The election campaign was a “dirty” campaign. The real issues were ignored while Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance dominated the headlines. And undertones of racism were apparent in the consistent attempt to identify the Democrats with Jesse Jackson and the blacks.  

Bush did not win the election because of his personal charisma or extraordinary skills. Nor did he win because of the peculiar ineptness of Michael Dukakis. His victory was due to the public belief that the Reagan years meant prosperity and that he was the chosen successor to carry on the Reagan formula for economic success. The mantle of the ever-popular Reagan was his greatest asset. It is highly doubtful that any Democrat would have been successful in persuading American voters to “change horses in midstream.” 

But Bush was assisted by other factors than Reagan. His campaign managers, especially Jim Baker, were brilliant. They recognized that the issues of crime and patriotism were more important to the American public than the real issues of deficits and trade and imbalance and programmed their candidate to play them for all that they were worth. And the never articulated identification of the Republicans is the party of the whites was no mean boost. 

Bush confronts many serious problems as he assumed the presidency. Not only does he face the fact that the growing national deficit threatens the economy with imminent ruin. He also has to deal with the domestic issues of drugs, environmental pollution, healthcare and educational subsidies – as well as the foreign policy issues of disarmament, Central America and the Middle East. During the campaign he never provided any real indication of how he would deal with these problems.  

His diverse constituency presents another headache. He has to maintain a balancing act among the diverse groups that supported him. Satisfying economic conservatives, social conservatives, anti-communist and libertarians simultaneously is no mean feat. 

So what is the message of the election? 

The election confirmed the fact that the presidency has become Republican preserve. It has become increasingly more difficult for Democrats to win the presidential race. From Roosevelt to Johnson the White House was chiefly Democratic territory. But Nixon reversed that political tradition. Now the Democrats are the underdogs who always have to try harder. The South, which was once a secure base of the Democratic party, has now become a Republican preserve. In fact the Democrats no longer have any secure presidential base except in the dispersed black (sic) population. America is now condemned to divided government-a Republican president with a Democratic Congress. 

The election revealed that the country is not ready for an ethnic president. The Republicans, true to their Anglo-Saxon tradition, pick two impeccable WASPs to represent their position. In the South and in the West these American credentials are still significant. 

The election proved that the Democrats are “liberals” even when they do not want to be. No matter how hard Dukakis tried to avoid the label, he finally had to own up to it – even though it was humiliatingly too late. The message to the Democrats, at least in the presidential race, is to own up to their liberal traditions and to make them attractive. Trying to pose as conservatives with better management skills does not work, even if it is true. 

The election manifested the changing nature of the presidency. As a media phenomenon, the president has to be designed and trained. He is less and less an autonomous leader with a mind of his own. He has become the invention of campaign advisers and media consultants who write his speeches, create his slogans and determine what opportunistic twist his ideology should take. Bush is the prisoner of his staff and will continue to be after his inauguration. Undoubtedly, Jim Baker will share the presidency. 

The election has some very special and important messages for Bush. 

It reminds him that most of his constituency-including his yuppie supporters-voted for his economic program and not for the social program of the religious right. The power of the fundamentalist crazies was not as great in this election as it was eight years ago. 

It tells him that the choice of Quayle hurt him. His victory would have been more overwhelming had he not committed the blunder of choosing the Indiana lightweight. The best service he can perform for the American public is to keep Quayle either unemployed or busy with trivial ceremony duties – and, above all, refuse to die. 

It warns him that his victory was hardly a mandate. Congress remains solidly Democratic. Both domestic and foreign policies, if they are to work and not to be trapped in stalemate, need to be bi-partisan. If his old moderate and conciliatory skills return – and his recent staff and cabinet appointments seem to indicate that – important bridges of cooperation can be built. 

Above all, the election reminds him that peace is very popular. Gorbachev rescued Reagan from the disaster of Irangate by handing him the gift of detente and disarmament. Republican popularity is now tied to an appropriate response to Gorbachev and the peace initiative. Only the hard-core anti-communists still want to hear Cold War rhetoric. 

In fact, Bush, like Reagan, enjoys the good fortune of mazzel. He has been elected to the presidency at a time when the old big power confrontations are beginning to disappear and when peace is breaking out all over. If he takes advantage of his good luck, he may end up presiding over one of the most significant presidencies of this century. He will never thank Gorbachev for his mazzel. But he ought to.  

The Rabbi Writes: Bush or Clinton

The Jewish Humanist, October 1992, Vol. XXIX, Number 3

Bush or Clinton? 

Ever since the frightening Republican convention the choice has been very clear to me.  The economic agenda which won the victory for Ronald Reagan in 1980, has been abandoned.  The social agenda of the radical right, with its hatred of feminists, atheists, homsexuals and Jews, has taken its place at the center of the Republican stage.   “Family values” is the front cliche for all this hatred and meanness. 

The social agenda of Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson will win the hearts of a large vocal minority of the American people.  But it is not high on the priority list of most Americans.  Most Americans are worried about the economy and about their jobs.  Most Americans belong to the vulnerable and battered middle class who are experiencing a fall in their standard of living and who are losing hope in the economic future of America.  Most Americans now belong to “unconventional” families where women are forced to work outside their homes and where the traditional support systems are no longer available, even through prayer.   

The setting of this election is a terrifying economic recession.  This recession does not appear to be a short-run relapse like the recessions of the past.  It is a symptom of a major structural fault in our economy as it encounters new technology and international competition.  People are frightened and apprehensive.  They need to be assured about their jobs and their homes.  They need hope.  That was the genius of Reagan.  He always conveyed hope. 

This election has been both tedious and exciting.  The endless primaries were tedious.  The arrival and departure of Perot was exciting.  Perot was a major threat to both Bush and Clinton.  He seemed to have the power to galvanize the moderates among both the Republicans and the Democrats around a single candidate.  The moderates are the American Center, the largest potential political bloc in this nation.  The moderates are the people who are wary of the social agenda of the Right and the welfare agenda of the Left.  The moderates are the American middle class whose support is essential for a presidential victory.  If Perot had brought them together into a third party, he would have radically altered the character of American politics.  But he turned out to be an enormous disappointment, a billionaire eccentric with megalomaniac manners and with a skin too thin for ordinary politics. 

Of course, political campaigns are no cup of tea.  If an age where television images dominate and privacy is impossible, running for public office is akin to running naked in the streets with all your warts and pimples exposed.  There is no question anymore that is outrageous.  There is no personal detail that the public does not have the right to know.  Democracy and equality have removed any possibility of remaining a mysterious aristocrat.  Sleeze is the gossip of the masses turned into a political weapon.  You have to be a monk, starting in the womb, in order to plan a successful political career.  Or you have to be bland enough to have avoided doing anything interesting. 

The Republican concession to feminism is to have two wives offer their endorsement of their husbands.  Women blame the “kosherizers” of the social agenda.  Mean spirited Marilyn Quayle and her limited husband are two of the best reasons to vote for Clinton.  What if something should happen to Bush and these two darlings of the religious right should take over the White House? The thought is terrifying. 

Now the Clinton alternative is not all roses.  Clinton is an attractive, bright man with enormous political savvy.  He is smart enough to know that victory goes to the candidate who captures the Center.  Roosevelt sailed to victory with the Left and the Center.  Reagan made a winning team out of the Right and the Center.  Clinton has to do what Roosevelt did.  And he has a recession to help him get to the White House. 

Clinton’s stand on the social agenda is clear and morally correct.  He is in favor of privacy and personal choice.  He supports the protection of those who deviate from the traditional norm. 

His economic program is more vague.  He wants to tax the rich and relieve the burdens of the middle class.  He wants to use the government to mobilize the economy and to create jobs.  He wants to save money by reducing military spending.  He wants to replace welfare with workfare. 

All of these goals are commendable.  But they do not really address the central overwhelming problem, the crushing burden of debt which eats up more and more of the national income.  With an aging population the greatest burdens of our society are the middle class entitlements for health and retirement that expand relentlessly.  Continuing that process will not be easy, especially with the promise of unusual health care.  The test of his success, if he is elected, will be to stimulate the economy sufficiently to meet the challenge of these burdens. 

In the end, I support Clinton because I will not support a candidate who has sold his soul to the radical right and its reactionary social agenda.  I do not know whether Clinton will be better for the Jews than Bush.  After all, the reason the Shamir government fell and the peace initiative of Rabin could begin was, ironically, the relentless pressure brought by Jim Baker to resist the demands of the Israeli Right.  But the Israel agenda is not the major issue that we American Jews must confront in this election.  We need a president who will not be the prisoner of the crazy Right or the crazy Left.  We need a president who is willing to live with social changes that cannot be reversed and confront the fundamental economic issues that frighten the American public.  We need someone who will project sanity, caring, intelligence and hope.   

Given the options, Bill Clinton is our best choice. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1991, Vol. XXVII, Number 10

Bush boo-booed.  He made a serious mistake.  The failure to support the Kurdish rebels against Saddam Hussein may blow away the fruits of victory. 

Bush had Hussein on the run. The dictator’s army was in disarray, his image of power was shattered, his control of his country was vanishing.  Very little effort would have been required to topple him.  One day more of fighting to prevent the remnants of the Republican Guard to escape (sic) the American trap with their equipment.  An order (seriously meant) to shoot down Iraqi helicopters flying over Kurdish territory.  Military supplies sent to reinforce the Kurdish rebels. 

The opportunity for victory was given up.  Americans stood passively by to watch Hussein crush the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions, even though most people understood that there would be no Allied or UN triumph until Hussein fell.  Bush’s continuous appeal for the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator was an acknowledgment of that reality. 

Why did Bush make the decision he did? 

The nicest (although naive) explanation is that he did not want to exceed the mandate of the UN which authorized the expulsion of the Iraqis from Kuwait, but did not sanction interfering in the internal affairs of Iraqi politics.  Going beyond the mandate would anger the Russian and Chinese and undermine the possibility of future cooperation.  And after all, if we are morally obliged to overthrow the government of Iraq, are we not also morally obliged to intervene in other countries with governments equally dictatorial?  Once we start with internal political rearrangements where would we stop? 

A more realistic explanation is that the State Department feared that Iraq was falling apart.  They feared that Shiite fundamentalists, under the control of the Persians, would take over the country.  They feared that Kurdish rebels, proclaiming an independent Kurdistan, would threaten the goodwill of our Turkish and Syrian allies, who have substantial Kurdish minorities whom they repress.  They believed that a dismembered Iraq would be a source of chaos and turmoil in the Middle East, that only a strong military tyranny can hold Iraq together and that the only available military able to perform this task was the Sunni officer corps of the Baath Party.  Surely, they reasoned, some ambitious general, aware that America will allow the old military to stay in power, would choose to overthrow Saddam and his immediate circle of ruthless supporters. 

But the State Department reasoning is false.  And it led to a fatal decision. 

The prestige of the United Nations was not enhanced by the refusal to intervene.  It was diminished.  The man who chose to defy the United Nations is still in power with a substantial army to support him.  The United Nations cannot arrange to remove all aggressive dictatorial governments.  But it should not hesitate to do so when it has the power and the opportunity to accomplish the task, especially when the government in question is a source of potential future defiance. 

The cooperation of the Russian and the Chinese will not be the result of American caution.  It will flow from the perception that the United Nations is working and that America is serious about creating a new world order in which defiant oppressors will not only be punished but will also be removed from power. 

Chaos is not the only alternative to Saddam Hussein and military dictatorship.  Both the leaders of the Kurdish insurgents and the Arab Shiiites have publicly stated that they do not want to dismember Iraq and have pledged their cooperation in creating a democratic coalition government.  The Iraqi Kurds know that an independent Kurdistan is unacceptable for their Turkish and Persian neighbors.  They are willing to settle for a regional autonomy within a united Iraq.  The Iraqi Shiiites know that a dismembered Iraq would deprive them of the oil revenues they need for their own development.  And, being Arab Shiites, they do not want to fall under the control of their Persian co-religionists. 

What harm could have come from attempting to create an alternative coalition government to Saddam Hussein, which would have included Kurds, Shiites and opposition Sunnis?  Such a coalition would have received the support of Turkey and Iran.  Even the Russians and the Chinese would have been reluctant to support Saddam Hussein in the face of his collapse and the endorsement of major Middle Eastern powers.  But the alternative needed the direction and orchestration of the United States. And they were not forthcoming, even though the euphoria of military victory would have provided the momentum. 

The Bush government was obsessed with the fear of being sucked into a long and inconclusive civil war from which the Americans could not easily extract themselves and in which mounting casualties and inconclusive results would undermine American popular support.  But their fear was exaggerated and misplaced. 

What will America now do with a resurgent Hussein?  How will it counter his provocative and unrepentant propaganda?  How will it ensure compliance with the terms of the permanent ceasefire after its troops are withdrawn?  After all, the reason military action was taken was because economic sanctions were not working? (sic)  What guarantee do we have that they will work now?  And who will serve as the protectors of the Kurdish insurgents and Arab Shiites who were encouraged to rebel by American propaganda?  Why should Israel be persuaded to make concessions to the Palestinians, if the Americans are unwilling to force the Iraqis to make concessions to their Kurds? 

Image is not trivial.  The image of a strong victorious determined and idealistic America, which was so strong at the time of the military victory, is vanishing.  In its place has emerged the image of a contentious, fearful and confused America that is only concerned with its immediate vested interests and is unable to protect its own allies.  In the long run such a vision is not good for the long-run vested interests of America and the new world order Bush so loudly touted. 

The moment of opportunity has passed.  We are now into damage control. Living with regret is indeed useless.  But those of us who expected more of Bush have a right to be mad.  Wasting victory is not easy to take. 

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, February 1991, Vol. XXVII, Number 7

I am writing this message on January 11, four days before the UN deadline for Saddam Hussein to pull out of Kuwait. 

I do not know what will happen.  I do not know whether Saddam will choose to withdraw from Kuwait or to fight.  I do not know whether there will be war or peace. 

But what I do know is that I support the policy of George Bush (for whom I did not vote) in the Gulf crisis.  No other alternative seems able to do what needs to be done. 

Why do I support the Bush policy? 

I support Bush because Saddam Hussein is a major threat to world order.  The end of the cold War is no guarantee of a peaceful planet.  Ambitious rulers of ambitious Third World countries, armed with the sophisticated weapons of the West, can ultimately prove as provocative and as dangerous as the Soviet Union.  The Muslim world, in particular, dominated by the rival ideologies of religious fundamentalism and national socialism, has the potential for widespread defiance of peaceful coexistence.  The issue is more than oil.  If Saddam Hussein succeeds in holding onto Kuwait and proceeds to develop nuclear weapons, he would have no compunction to use or share, the message will be clear.  Any tinpot dictator, with guts and guns, can do what he chooses to do without any fear of effective reprisal.  The dream of a functioning United Nations, within the framework of a peaceful and disciplined world order, a dream that the end of the Cold War seemed to be turning into a reality, would be completely shattered.  Whether Kuwait was a feudal tyranny or not is completely irrelevant.  It was invaded and annexed against the will of its people. 

I support Bush because he has not chosen to make the punishment of Iraq an exclusively American action.  Not only has he mobilized the support of our traditional allies but he has also secured the endorsement of the United Nations.  The confrontation with Iraq is not an American confrontation.  It is the confrontation of the world community with a recalcitrant nation.  Even many Arab nations have joined this international effort.  The crime of Saddam Hussein is not the violation of American economic interests  The crime of Hussein is against world order and against the United Nations which embodies that ideal.  I am not naive about the Western fear of losing control of critical oil fields.  But I am aware that most actions have more than one motivation.  The American obsession with oil does not diminish the callous rejection of peaceful coexistence engineered by Saddam and his Iraqi devotees. 

I support Bush because economic sanctions will not work to persuade Hussein to withdraw. If there is no military threat, lowered standards of living and deteriorating military equipment will not be sufficient to persuade a fanatic regime to surrender, especially if the Iraqi people see themselves as the vanguard of an Arab resistance movement.  In time holes will open in the embargo circle as the nations of the world weary of their vigil and the Arab people come to revere Saddam as a successful symbol of defiance of “Western Imperialism”.  The threat of military action is not intended to produce war.  It is intended to persuade the adversary to avoid war.  But if there is no military ultimatum, a determined adversary, inured to suffering, will find no reason to change the course of his action. 

I support Bush because waiting for our allies to make equal sacrifices is to abdicate our responsibility.  Whether we like it or not, our role has been and continues to be parental.  Parents cannot afford to be peevish, withdrawing into a corner until the children choose to behave.  It is certainly true that nations like France, Germany and Japan, who will benefit mightily from American sacrifice, ought to be doing more than they are doing.  But their refusal to fulfill their moral responsibilities does not absolve us from fulfilling ours.  Hopefully, in time, our role as the leader of the democratic nations will become less parental and their role will become more mature.  I do not prescribe to a prevailing libeeral critique that American leadership is nothing more than Western Imperialism and that American foreign policy is devoid of any idealism.  On the contrary, despite our many deficiencies, the only great power with any willingness to defend the maintenance of world order has been America.  The invasions of Grenada and Panama were not the invasion of Kuwait.  They enjoyed the overwhelming support of the people of these nations, who viewed the military action as liberation. 

I support Bush because a conflict with Iraq is not the same as the war in Vietnam.  The war in Vietnam was part of the Cold War, a war against the powerful Soviet Union and, therefore, unwinable (sic).  (It is amazing that Saddam chose to invade Kuwait after the Cold War had come to an end and after his Soviet allies were willing to come to his aid.) But Iraq stands virtually alone, devoid of powerful allies and assaulted by hostile Arab powers.  Iraq stands against the world.  Her vulnerability is far greater than Vietnam.  If the legacy of Vietnam in America is that we are no longer willing to engage in any military action short of the defense of American territory from aggressive assault, then the legacy is dangerous.  As the one remaining world power, we have world responsibilities.  The defense of world order is one of them. 

I hope that by the publication of this message Saddam has chosen to withdraw from Kuwait.  If he has, it will be because of the threat of military action.  But if he remains in Kuwait, the military alternative, painful as it appears to be, is the only effective answer to this provocation. 

Whether there is peace or war it is clear that the Gulf crisis is inevitably linked to the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the minds of both our Arab and European allies.  The resolution of the gulf (sic) crisis must ultimately lead to an American initiative, under the aegis of the United Nations, to find a solution to the Arab-Jewish struggle.  The disciplining of Saddam may have positive consequences in other parts of the Middle East and lead to the resolution of other conflicts.