Monday, July 11, 2016

The Right-Wing Benghazi Obsession: A Shameful, Irresponsible Waste of Time

[T]he eighth investigation into the Benghazi attacks has finally issued its report, the culmination of a massive wasted effort that can only be seen as a Republican political vendetta against Hillary Clinton  . . . In essence, the panel came to the same conclusion that the previous seven investigations had reached: that while there were serious security gaps at the American consulate in Benghazi and at a separate annex run by the CIA, American forces could not have reached Benghazi in time to save the Americans. – Carol Giacomo, The New York Times, June 29, 2016
Any review of what happened in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, must begin with an understanding of some basic facts. The U.S. government manages and oversees U.S. embassies, consulates, and diplomatic facilities in virtually every country around the world, employing thousands of diplomats, Foreign Service Officers, military and intelligence personnel, and others. Many of these facilities are located in dangerous and unstable places and sometimes bad things happen. The temporary mission facility in Benghazi was but one of over 300 trouble spots in which U.S. missions were located at the time of the attack in 2012. While it is incumbent upon the government to do everything it can to protect its people and property, there are limitations on how much protection can be provided and what events can be foreseen.

Not including Iraq and Afghanistan, in the past 15 years alone, there have been approximately 21 attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions abroad, including 13 such incidents during the Bush administration (e.g., the 2008 attack on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in which three people died; the 2008 attack on the American embassy in Yemen in which 10 people died). Every such incident is painful and tragic. In most of these attacks, it is likely that more could have been done to prevent or respond to them. Inevitably, more such incidents will occur in the years ahead. They are the unfortunate cost of engaging diplomatically in a dangerous world and are part of the price of being a major world power. But they should never be turned into politically-generated scandals.

As someone who has spent 18 years as a federal prosecutor and the past ten years conducting internal investigations on behalf of a global investigations firm, I have followed with interest and dismay the investigations – nine in total – into the tragic events of Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. That night, Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in a terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate facility, a temporary mission outpost, stationed there. I have always been convinced that Benghazi was a tragedy. It was not a scandal.

Soon after the attack, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appropriately convened an internal Accountability Review Board (ARB), chaired by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen, to review what happened the night of the attack and make findings and recommendations in the hope that such an event would never be repeated. The ARB interviewed over 100 witnesses, reviewed thousands of pages of documents and hours of security video, and did the same things my firm would have done had we been asked to conduct the review. The ARB’s report in December 2012 criticized the State Department for several security lapses it had failed to correct in advance of the attack. The report also recommended steps the Department should take to enhance security and to prevent such events from happening again.

In essence, the State Department did what any responsible organization should do following a critical incident. It conducted a thorough review, determined what went wrong, and recommended measures to decrease the likelihood of future occurrences. To her credit, Secretary Clinton accepted full responsibility for the lapse in security that occurred that night. The State Department implemented the recommended security enhancements. Indeed, the procedures put in place since the Benghazi attacks fundamentally changed the manner in which U.S. embassies and consulates operate abroad.

In normal circumstances, that would have been the end of it. But Fox News and congressional Republicans were feverish with conspiracy theories, smarting over President Obama’s re-election, and unwilling to let what was an attack on U.S. assets located in a dangerous part of the world be treated as anything other than a chance to make political waves.

It has always been difficult for me to comprehend precisely what it was about the Benghazi incident that got a certain element of the Republican Party and the right-wing media so up in arms. That they would try to exploit it during an election year – the attack occurred less than two months before the 2012 presidential election – is disappointing, though not surprising. But that it would drag on for nearly four more years and include eight separate congressional investigations is so beyond the pale that I am at a loss as to explain this obsession.

Benghazi quickly became a right-wing code word. Initially it was all about undermining the legitimacy of President Obama and his administration. When that failed, the onus of Republican attacks eventually shifted toward undermining Hillary Clinton’s presidential election chances. First it was suggested that then UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who went on the Sunday morning talk shows five days after the attack, had intentionally misled the public about the cause of the attack, allegedly downplaying the “terrorist” nature of it. Then it was suggested that U.S. officials had intelligence of the pre-planned attack and failed to share that with personnel in Benghazi. Another suspicion concerned the widely-held belief among the conspiracy buffs that President Obama or someone in the administration had ordered would-be rescuers to “stand down” rather than head to the facility to try to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues. Republicans claimed that the President or the Secretary or both had acted with indifference to the attack and failed to adequately respond; that they lied about the attack and tried to cover-up the administration’s response. None of the allegations turned out to be true, but despite multiple investigations refuting these sordid allegations, the shrill cries of “Benghazi” continued unabated.

President Obama and Vice President Biden conferring with
national security team on the night of September 11, 2012
Only ten years before, it seemed that the nation behaved better. One year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when nearly three thousand people died in Lower Manhattan, on a field in Pennsylvania, and along the banks of the Potomac River, President George W. Bush and both parties of Congress established an independent, bipartisan panel to examine the facts and circumstances surrounding the September 11 attacks. The 9/11 Commission reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents and interviewed more than 1,200 witnesses in ten countries. It held 19 days of hearings and took public testimony from 160 witnesses. The panel sought at all times to remain independent, impartial, and nonpartisan. The findings and recommendations of The 9/11 Commission Report were immediately accepted as a credible and unbiased effort to understand what happened and to safeguard the nation against future attacks.

Now consider how the Republican Congress handled the events of Benghazi. Ever since four Americans died in the attack on the temporary mission compound in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, there has been one congressional investigation after another and nearly four years of wild and unsubstantiated partisan accusations; millions of dollars wasted on what can only be considered a political witch hunt. And yet, the Republican-controlled investigations have mostly come to similar conclusions – that while there were shortcomings in the pre-attack intelligence and the security of the U.S. facility in Benghazi, there was no official wrongdoing, no stand down orders and no cover-up.  

The eighth and (hopefully) final congressional investigation into Benghazi lasted longer than the congressional inquiries into 9/11, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the attack on Pearl Harbor. And while those historical inquiries were conducted in a bipartisan and non-political manner, the most recent investigation, led by South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, was highlighted by the admission of Republican Kevin McCarthy that the whole point of the investigation was to bring down the poll numbers of Hillary Clinton [McCarthy on Fox News, September 2015: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”] Thus, the 800-page report released by the Gowdy committee has no credibility.

So, what exactly are the Republican critiques with Benghazi? The one that is repeated over and over again, that seems to have the most lasting appeal, are the so-called “Susan Rice talking points.” Republicans contend that, on September 16, 2012, five days after the attack, when then UN Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday talk shows, she deliberately downplayed the involvement of al-Qaeda and suggested that the attack was the result of a spontaneous protest in reaction to an anti-Islam video. The video at issue was a 14-minute movie trailer about a film called Innocence of Muslims produced by an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian living in the United States. The film included offensive depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and was posted on You Tube as early as July 2012. It was then dubbed in Arabic in early September 2012. Demonstrations and in some cases violent protests erupted throughout the Arab and Muslim world over the next two weeks, resulting in hundreds of injuries and more than 50 deaths.

Here is what Rice told Jake Tapper of ABC News on This Week with George Stephanopoulos on September 16, 2016:
Well, Jake, first of all, it's important to know that there's an FBI investigation that has begun and will take some time to be completed. That will tell us with certainty what transpired.  
But our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous -- not a premeditated -- response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.  
We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to -- or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in -- in the wake of the revolution in Libya are -- are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there.  
We'll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms, but that's the best information we have at present.
Rice made similar statements on the other Sunday talk shows that morning as well. The Republicans have always been apoplectic that Rice allegedly blamed the attack on spontaneous protests in response to the anti-Islam video, even though some in the intelligence community suspected even then that the attack was carried out by mostly al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists. First, note what Rice said: “it's important to know that there's an FBI investigation that has begun and will take some time to be completed. That will tell us with certainty what transpired.” And then again: “We'll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms, but that's the best information we have at present.” Rice stated clearly that she did not have all of the facts and that more was likely to come out.

Second, the White House talking points upon which Rice based her comments were consistent with the talking points that had been provided by the CIA. As typically occurs in all rapidly moving crises, American intelligence officials were sifting through conflicting information to determine what had happened four to five days earlier. CIA analysts had written a report stating that the evidence suggested the Benghazi attack grew spontaneously out of the protests. Later, a senior CIA editor with no direct knowledge of the Benghazi events but who knew about military weaponry added a sentence noting that the weapons possessed by the attackers suggested the attack was planned. Secretary Clinton received one report that Ansar al-Sharia was involved. Then that group disavowed any role in the attack. On September 13, 2012, a CIA report entitled, “Extremists Capitalized on Benghazi Protests” assessed that the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi “began spontaneously following the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo.” 

In fact, protests had erupted in many parts of the Arab world as a result of the anti-Islam video, with the largest and most notorious protest occurring in Cairo. Other conflicting accounts concerning involvement by al-Qaeda and alleged connections or lack thereof between al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia continued to come in. As is often true in response to fast-moving events, much of the early information was not entirely accurate or consistent. (See House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence report, November 21, 2014: “Much of the early intelligence was conflicting, and two years later, intelligence gaps remain.”)

The intelligence community assembled the information into talking points for Rice to use on the Sunday morning talk shows. Her statements that morning were consistent with those talking points. Were the talking points edited by State Department officials? Of course, but this is standard operating procedure for government officials in both major parties. But as an intelligence official explained to one congressional panel, "The points were not, as has been insinuated by some, edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations, or play down that this was an attack." This official noted that there were "legitimate intelligence and legal issues to consider, as is almost always the case when explaining classified assessments publicly.”

To this day, as noted by the House Select Committee minority report on June 27, 2016, “it remains unclear precisely what motivated all of the individuals in Benghazi on the night of the attacks.” Former CIA Director David Petraeus testified, “I’m still not absolutely certain what absolutely took place . . . and to be candid with you, I am not sure that the amount of scrutiny spent on this has been in the least bit worth it.” Former CIA acting director Mike Morrell testified that the CIA chief of station in Libya believed at the time that the anti-Muslim video might have motivated the attackers. As the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported on January 15, 2014:
It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks or whether extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. Some intelligence suggests the attacks were likely put together in short order, following that day's violent protests in Cairo against an inflammatory video, suggesting that these and other terrorist groups could conduct similar attacks with little advance warning.
A lengthy and detailed New York Times investigation published in six parts in 2014 concluded, based on extensive interviews and reviews of official documents: “The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.” However, it was “fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating [Muslims].” Indeed, Ahmed Abu Khattala, who was captured in June 2014 by the U.S. military in connection with his role as a suspected ringleader of the Benghazi attack, "told fellow Islamist fighters" on the night of the attack "and others that the assault was retaliation for the same insulting video" mocking Islam that inspired demonstrations in Cairo.

Much has also been made of certain emails showing that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others seemed to have come to different conclusions about the nature of the attack than was stated in some of their public statements. But Clinton has explained that she personally changed views several times in the week following the attack about the possible motivations of the attackers, including about whether there was a protest and whether the attacks were preplanned. Here, I find Clinton’s own statements, made in her book Hard Choices, reflective of common sense and the reality described above:
In the heat of the crisis we had no way of knowing for sure what combination of factors motivated the assault or whether and how long it had been planned. I was clear about this in my remarks the next morning, and in the days that followed administration officials continued to tell the American people that we had incomplete information and were still looking for answers. There were many theories-- but still little evidence. I myself went back and forth on what likely happened, who did it, and what mix of factors--like the video--played a part. But it was unquestionably inciting the region and triggering protests all over, so it would have been strange not to consider, as days of protests unfolded, that it might have had the same effect here, too. That's just common sense. Later investigation and reporting confirmed that the video was indeed a factor. All we knew at that time with complete certainty was that Americans had been killed and others were still in danger.
Finally, although there is less consistency and a great deal of partisanship in some of the congressional reports on this issue, multiple congressional investigations concluded that, while the talking points may have been flawed in underplaying some of the intelligence about the involvement of terrorist groups in the attack, they were not significantly edited or altered from the original CIA talking points. See Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report, January 2014 (The “CIA talking points were flawed but . . . painted a mostly accurate picture of the [intelligence community's] analysis of the Benghazi attacks at that time."); House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Report, November 2014 (concludes that the CIA, which was dealing with conflicting intelligence reports from multiple sources, was primarily responsible for editing Rice's talking points and using what the report called "imprecise language" to describe the incident.). But see House Foreign Affairs Committee Report, February 2014 (criticized "the extent to which senior State Department officials repeatedly objected to the inclusion of any information that might cast the Department in an unflattering light.")

So it appears that the Susan Rice talking points were not that far off the mark. But even if Rice overstated the spontaneous nature of the attack, or downplayed the pre-planned nature of it, she made clear it was a fluid situation and that a lot more needed to be sorted out before final conclusions could be drawn. This was hardly the stuff of national scandal.

That the administration somehow tried to make people believe the Benghazi attack was not a terrorist act in an effort to help Obama get re-elected has never made much sense to me. After all, Obama was the President and a U.S. diplomatic mission was attacked under his watch, resulting in four American deaths. He would be held responsible regardless of the precise cause of the attack. Was there something magical about the word “terrorism”? Was the presidential election really going to be decided on whether a violent attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi resulted from a terrorist attack vs. an out-of-control protest scenario or, as Susan Rice actually said on September 16, 2012, “individual clusters of extremists” armed with heavy weaponry? As Secretary Clinton said at a subsequent congressional hearing:
With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again. Senator, now honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information.
She was absolutely right. Really, what difference did it make in those first few days whether it was a pre-planned or spontaneous attack? As Ambassador Stevens’s sister, Dr. Anne Stevens, said in an interview with The New Yorker published on June 28, 2016, “it doesn’t matter” what the initial thinking was “about why the attack occurred. It’s irrelevant to bring that up again and again. It is done for purely political reasons.” (“Chris Stevens’s Family: Don’t Blame Hillary Clinton for Benghazi” by Robin Wright, The New Yorker, June 28, 2016).

But according to the Fox News spin doctors, the president refused to say that the attackers were “terrorists” because to do so would undermine his chances for re-election. In fact, three times in the two days following the attack, the President called it “an act of terror.” Within eight days of the attack, on September 19, 2012, Matt Olsen, the then Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified before a congressional hearing that the Benghazi incident was a “terrorist attack.” Two days later, so did Secretary Clinton (speaking to reporters before a meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar): “Yesterday afternoon when I briefed the Congress, I made it clear that keeping our people everywhere in the world safe is our top priority. What happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans.” Some cover-up.

Those obsessed with Benghazi are also convinced to this day that someone in the administration ordered U.S. military forces to stand down from any effort to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues. They also believe that U.S. officials concealed intelligence information about a pre-planned attack with personnel in Benghazi. As noted below, even the Republican controlled inquiries have consistently refuted these false allegations.

Were would-be rescuers ordered to stand down rather than head to the facility to try to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues? Fox News, among others, repeatedly advanced the myth that someone in the Obama administration ordered CIA and American military personnel to “stand down” thus hindering their ability to save the Americans in the diplomatic mission in Benghazi. The evidence clearly shows otherwise:
  • House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Report, November 2014 (“Appropriate U.S. personnel made reasonable tactical decisions that night, and the committee found no evidence that there was either a stand-down order or a denial of available air support.")
  • House Republican Conference Progress Report, April 2013 ("The progress report finds that officials at the Defense Department were monitoring the situation throughout and kept the forces that were initially deployed flowing into the region. No evidence has been provided to suggest these officials refused to deploy resources.")
  • House Armed Services Committee Report, February 2014 ("There was no 'stand down' order issued to U.S. military personnel in Tripoli who sought to join the fight in Benghazi.")
  • Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report, January 2014 (“There were no U.S. military resources in a position to intervene in short order in Benghazi to help defend the Temporary Mission Facility and its Annex on September 11 and 12, 2012. . . . The Committee has reviewed the allegations that U.S. personnel, including in the [Intelligence Community] or [Department of Defense], prevented the mounting of any military relief effort during the attacks, but the Committee has not found any of these allegations to be substantiated.”)

In fact, CIA operatives arrived on the scene in less than 30 minutes and rescue efforts helped save the lives of several personnel at the compound that night. Even the Gowdy Report acknowledged that President Obama and then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gave clear orders that night to deploy all available military assets. Any military assets that failed to arrive on the scene were due to military command decisions and logistical deployment capabilities, not to administration orders. Whatever one thinks of the response time of U.S. forces, the surviving Americans were evacuated from the consulate facility and, along with the CIA Station Chief, flown to safety.

Did U.S. officials have intelligence that predicted the attack and did they fail to share such information with personnel in Benghazi? This allegation has also been repeatedly proven false.
  • Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report, January 2014 ("There was no singular 'tactical warning' in the intelligence reporting leading up to the events on September 11, 2012, predicting an attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi on the 9/11 anniversary.")
  • House Armed Services Committee Report, February 2014 ("The majority members note the absence of an imminent threat in Benghazi.... In Benghazi, U.S. forces were confronted with the unexpected.")

Was it known that Benghazi was a dangerous place with a lot of risk? Of course. Did the administration have advanced warning of the attack and then do nothing to prepare? No.

It is true that nearly all the investigative reports have been critical of the State Department's pre-attack planning and security. But in this respect the congressional investigations only confirmed what the ARB had found within three months of the attack. In response to the ARB report, the State Department took responsibility for the security lapses and implemented recommendations to improve security and reduce the chances that such an attack would happen again. Why we needed eight more investigations to come to this same conclusion is beyond me.

Finally, it is worth comparing the congressional reaction to Benghazi to the congressional response three decades before when a series of far more tragic events occurred during the administration of Ronald Reagan.

On October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with explosives into a U.S. Marine compound, killing 241 American servicemen (13 more later died of injuries). The Beirut bombing was the single deadliest attack on U.S. Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima. The suicide bomber easily entered the compound because a vehicle gate was left wide open and the U.S. military command had ordered the soldiers on guard to keep their weapons unloaded. To make matters worse, the attack occurred only six months after terrorists had bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including seven CIA officers and ten other Americans.

Unlike today’s Benghazi-crazed Congress, the Democratic controlled House of Representatives, led by Speaker Tip O’Neill, did not call for President Reagan’s impeachment or accuse members of his administration of nefarious conspiracies or wrongful actions. Instead, a bipartisan House committee was convened to conduct an investigation into what went wrong at the Marine barracks in Beirut. The investigation was completed in three months. Although the final report found “very serious errors of judgment” by officers on the ground and recommended better security measures against terrorism in U.S. facilities all over the world, that was the end of the congressional inquiries.

But the story did not end there. In March 1984, three months after the congressional report was released, militants kidnapped, tortured, and eventually murdered the CIA station chief in Beirut. And when, in September 1984, terrorists again bombed a U.S. government outpost in Beirut, President Reagan acknowledged that the security precautions previously recommended by Congress had not yet been implemented. “Anyone who’s ever had their kitchen done over,” remarked President Reagan, “knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would.” Now just imagine if President Obama or Secretary Clinton had said something like that. Yeah, precisely.

In 1984, the Democratic Congress did not play politics with tragic attacks on Americans in Lebanon. The Beirut bombings and the deaths of 254 Marines were not significant factors in the 1984 presidential elections, and there were no allegations of grand conspiracies and cover-ups. There was no Darrell Issa or Trey Gowdy falsely accusing the administration of stand down orders and neglect of Americans abroad. There was one congressional investigation, not eight. Official reactions to the far more tragic series of Beirut bombings were qualitatively and quantitatively different than the right-wing media and Republican response to Benghazi. In 1984, no one in Congress would have even contemplated multiple investigations – the last one at a cost of $7 million – convened because a small group of House Republicans were frustrated that prior investigations failed to damage the presumptive Democratic nominee for President. As noted by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker (“Ronald Reagan’s Benghazi,” May 5, 2014), if one compares the Reagan administration’s security lapses in Beirut to those in Benghazi, “it’s clear what has really deteriorated in the intervening three decades. It’s not the security of American government personnel working abroad. It’s the behavior of American congressmen at home.”

It is long past time for the Benghazi-related witch hunts to end.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Going it Alone: Trump, Brexit and the Dangers of Nationalism

The policies pursued by the West have sometimes been flawed and sometimes failed, but the system that linked America and Europe in a common defense and common political cause ended the Cold War, reunited Germany, built a new Europe and sought in one way or another to address every other major threat. A crucial brick in that system is now in danger of being removed. – New York Times editorial, June 25, 2016
Admittedly, when I first heard the term “Brexit” a few weeks ago, I thought it was the name of a new breakfast cereal. Not for a moment did I believe that Britain would actually vote to leave the European Union. By a vote of 52 to 48 percent, after a contentious campaign that exposed the divisions in British society based on age, education, class levels, and geography, Britain has sought to go it alone. The world today is less secure; shaken is the foundation of our postwar alliance.

The concept of European unity arose from the ashes of World War II with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars that had plagued the continent. Anyone with a respect for history understands that to support European unity is to support peace and cooperation among neighbors. Inspired by visionary leaders like Konrad Adenauer and Winston Churchill, what would become the European Union underpins the postwar global order and is an anchor of global democracy. Consisting of 28 (soon to be 27) member states and “founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights” (Article 2, Treaty on European Union), its policies aim to ensure the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital.

It should come as no surprise that Donald Trump, having arrived in Scotland to inspect his golf course, quickly declared that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union was a “great thing”. Like his supporters in the United States, Trump said, the voters in Britain were exercising their “sacred right” to take back their country and their borders and choosing “to reject today’s rule by the global elite.” Indeed, the impulses behind the vote for Brexit share many parallels to Trump’s appeal with certain elements of American society.

The “Leave” campaign exploited deep-seated resentment of the European “elite” and made emotional appeals to British nationalism and a sense of lost independence. But like much of Trump’s appeal in the United States, the Brexit vote at its heart was about immigration and xenophobia. The Brexit vote was a referendum not so much on Europe as on migration and fear of the Other. As Jonathan Freedland has written in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books:
The argument was seductively simple. Membership of the EU requires each state to accept the free movement of people between EU countries. Therefore the only way to halt hundreds of thousands of EU citizens coming into the UK was to get out of the EU. Only that way, in the words of Leave’s powerful and defining slogan, could we “take back control.” There are differences of course: the Leavers did not voice overtly a desire to keep out Muslims, as Donald Trump does. But “take back control” was for Brexit what “build a wall” is for Trump: a three-word promise that taps into a seething geyser of anti-immigrant sentiment.
Proponents of the Leave campaign ignored appeals to facts and evidence, including data showing that migrants positively contribute to the British economy, adding far more in tax revenues than they receive in welfare payments. Dismissed outright were rational, policy-based arguments for why Brexit would result in economic instability and increased social and political division. Indeed, when the International Monetary Fund, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, and Britain’s independent Institute of Fiscal Studies each offered objective analyses of the likely economic and political consequences of Brexit, they were ridiculed and accused of elitism. “The people of this country have had enough of experts,” declared Michael Gove, a leader of the Leave movement. As with journalists and the “establishment” at a Trump rally, to be considered an “expert” became the ultimate insult. The Leave movement was marked by lies and half-truths, including a campaign ad falsely claiming that Britain sends £350 million a week to the European Union. “As with Trump,” noted Freedland, “this disdain for the elite and for authority rode in harness with a slippery approach to the truth.”

We are living in interesting, if perilous times. I worry for the future of the United Kingdom, for European unity, and for the United States. An anti-intellectualism fed by a disdain for experts, facts, knowledge, history, and established institutions of government has been fueled by the simmering anger of a mostly uneducated, bitter, and resentful strain of citizens who feel that the forces of progress are stacked against them. This is something we have seen before: Ideologically and politically motivated forces exploiting the fears of less educated, less skilled workers who have been displaced by globalism and technology and fomenting resentment against immigrants, foreigners, the global elite, and those unseen power brokers conspiring to make their lives miserable. What worries me, though, is the potential for a strong-willed narcissist to stir and manipulate popular resentment, for this is how demagogues rise to power and fascism rears its ugly head. As conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin (with whom I rarely agree) noted in Sunday’s Washington Post, “Coupled with a sense that their country – much like themselves – has been disrespected and buffeted by ominous forces, the temptation is to indulge in conspiracy theories, blame outsiders, and resort to political nihilism.”

Britain’s shocking referendum proves that such feelings and trends are not unique to the United States. Right-wing populist movements exist throughout Europe – in France, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland – each seeking to “take their country back” and restore order in a chaotic world. The same wave of fear and resentment that Trump is riding in the United States – promising to ban Muslims, to build a great wall and get Mexico to pay for it, to deport 11 million illegal aliens, to “make America great again” – correlates closely to the Leave movement’s appeals to fear of war-torn refugees and open borders, and to xenophobia and racism. As foreign correspondent Trudy Rubin noted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “nearly every Leave voter I met believed that Brexit would effectively wall off Britain from foreigners and would somehow permit the country to renew its historic standing in the world.” Unfortunately, this is precisely the opposite of what will happen.

The Brexit vote immediately plunged the United Kingdom into uncertain economic terrain. The value of the pound plummeted and Britain’s international standing and body politic were shaken. Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union, already has pledged another independence referendum and placed the future of the UK itself up in the air. I don’t see how any of this is good for Britain, for Europe, or the world economy.

Trump, of course, thinks all of this is fine. As does Vladimir Putin, who has hoped for years that something would come along to divide and destabilize Europe. Brexit is a gift to Putin, who is giddy over the thought of European unity dissolving over national rivalries, infighting, and a weakened international governing structure. As an article in the Sunday Times noted, Britain’s decision to leave the EU threatens to undermine “the postwar consensus that alliances among nations are essential in maintaining stability and in diluting the nationalism that once plunged Europe into bloody conflict – even as nationalism is surging again.”

The 20th Century has seen what happens when a strong leader takes advantage of popular fear and resentment and promises to “take back control” from perceived enemies and outside forces. No one knows this better than German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who commented after the Brexit vote: “The idea of European unity is the idea of European peace . . . after centuries of terrible bloodshed [this] is not to be taken for granted. In Europe we still feel the effect of wars.”

Since World War II, the United States and Britain have led the way in reducing the potential for international conflict. By promoting free markets, supporting international governing structures, bolstering military alliances, strengthening NATO, and funding international development and financial organizations, we have together overseen seventy years of European peace and prosperity. All of that is weakened by Britain’s exit from the European Union and stands as a stark warning of the dark forces brooding in America.

“There are lessons here aplenty for Americans contemplating their own appointment with nationalist, nativist populism in November,” writes Freedland. Complacent Democrats, cynical Bernie supporters contemplating sitting this election out, and establishment Republicans still bruising from the shock of Trump’s rise may believe there are not enough angry white voters who feel left-behind to win an election. “But Brexit suggests that when that constituency can be allied to a conservative cause that has millions of other, more ideologically-motivated devotees, victory is possible. It suggests that hostility to migrants, a cynical trampling on the truth, and a cavalier disdain for expertise can work wonders, such is the loathing of anything that can be associated with the ‘elite.’ And it suggests that even great nations, those whose democratic arrangements were once regarded as a beacon to the world, are capable of acts of grievous, enduring self-harm.”

The right to vote is sacred and must be nourished and respected. Once votes are cast and the results are tallied, you cannot later claim that you did not truly understand the consequences. “It was already clear before the Brexit vote that modern populist movements could take control of political parties,” wrote former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the New York Times. “What wasn’t clear was whether they could take over a country like Britain. Now we know they can.” The challenges of globalization cannot be met by building walls and closing off borders. With Donald Trump and the November election on the horizon, let Brexit be a wake-up call to the United States.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Live Life with Joy and Passion: Some Graduation Advice for My Youngest Daughter

Hannah at Senior Awards Ceremony, American University Honors Program
This is the hard work of life in the world, to acknowledge within yourself the introvert, the clown, the artist, the homebody, the goofball, the thinker. Look inside. That way lies dancing to the melodies spun out by your own heart. – Anna Quindlen
Dear Hannah:

Four years come and go, swiftly, like the changing seasons. When college ends, there is the sense that something significant is over, a phase of life, something safe and protected. Graduation ceremonies help us declare that another milestone has passed and something new is about to happen. A life remains to be lived and experienced.

Earlier this month, you graduated from college, joining older sister Jen among the ranks of American University alumni. On a cool Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C., I sat in the bleachers of Bender Arena and proudly watched you in a sea of blue cap-and-gowns as you received your degree. Your smile that day warmed my heart. As your father, I know first-hand just how hard you worked to get where you are today. And I could not help but admire the beautiful and diverse collection of young men and women who graduated alongside you.

By traditional measurements, you (like your sister before you) are on a path to a successful life. You did well in all of the areas needed to build a good resume. You earned high grades and academic honors, gained valuable internship experience, published a number of essays and poems, and held student leadership positions. All of your hard work, the long hours in the library and the late night study sessions were rewarded with distinctions of high praise, with summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. For these honors, you should be immensely proud, for you earned them through individual effort and achievement. But unfortunately, while these distinctions signify academic success in college, they will not guarantee a life filled with joy and passion. Now you must engage the world outside of academia and begin to develop a life of your own.

On the morning of your graduation, I gave you two small books by Anna Quindlen, a writer and former columnist for The New York Times whom I admire for her wit and wisdom about everyday life. Both books originated from commencement addresses Quindlen has given over the years, and each contains a wealth of good advice that I hope you take to heart and occasionally come back to when you feel adrift.

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself,” suggests Quindlen in Being Perfect. Like many young women in today’s world, you tend to internalize the many and varied societal pressures to perform at levels of perfection that are not sustainable or possible. Trying always to be perfect is counter-productive. We learn from our mistakes, not our successes. Besides, as Quindlen notes in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, “It’s so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.”

When I graduated college in 1981, I also claimed good grades and academic honors (which you easily exceeded). But as I quickly discovered, once I landed my first job, no one really cared how well I did in school. Later in law school and in every job since then, I learned that there will always be people who are smarter, more talented, and more driven than me.  As Quindlen notes:
When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life.
American society has a remarkable ability to resist change. Since the Industrial Revolution, many Americans have preached the Gospel of Success and bought into the belief that success equals money, wealth, fame, power, and prestige. Our educational system does little to resist these conventional parameters. Colleges and universities market success by touting their famous alumni and most generous donors. Donald Trump has built his entire presidential campaign on a series of inflated half-truths, boasting of how “successful” he is and defining success by how much money he has made and how famous he has become. And yet, if the Donald drops dead tomorrow, the world will remember him only for his boastfulness, not for any meaningful achievements.

But Donald Trump’s version of success – the egotistical, narcissistic version that our celebrity and sports-obsessed culture embraces – is morally and spiritually bankrupt. Americans love successful people, as long as they are winning (in sports), young and good looking (in television and entertainment), and ostentatiously wealthy (in business). We know that not everyone can be a super-rich celebrity, but we nevertheless connect success to having a high-paying job, knowing the “right” people, living in the “best” neighborhoods, meeting and marrying a “successful” life partner, raising smart and “successful” children, and advancing the legacy of one’s good family name.

Except for a rare few, real life does not actually work this way. If you dig beneath the surface of most lives – even conventionally successful ones – you will find deep-seated insecurities, personal failings, rejected job offers, family struggles. Life is messy and complicated. Most of us are learning as we go. Everyone, even those who appear on the outside as if they have “made it,” stumble and fall many times. Whatever success they have achieved has been due to their willingness to pick themselves up and try again. Luck plays a much greater role in our lives than many of us care to acknowledge.

As young women, you and Jen will continue to face challenges and obstacles with which I never had to contend. The world is a far different place than when I graduated from college 35 years ago. Women then were only beginning to make strides for equality in law, medicine, business, and academia. Today, there are many women doctors and lawyers, CEOs, television anchors, clergy, Senators and presidential candidates. Due to the pioneering spirit of earlier generations of women, Jen and you can advance further and pursue your interests and dreams in ways almost unheard of a half-century ago. At the same time, you should not underestimate how much antagonism there remains against women and how many people would like to “make America great again” by returning to the “good old days” when women (and African Americans) were second class citizens. Our advertisements, our movies, our television shows, even a certain presidential candidate, continue to objectify women and value them only by how they look in a bathing suit.

As your father, I want you and Jen to be happy, healthy, and engaged with the world. I want you both to be comfortable with who you are. Understand that you are loved by many people and admired by those who count. You are smart, generous, and kind. Don’t ever diminish those qualities. Always work to improve yourself and enlarge your capacity for compassion. Develop dreams, but don’t be trapped by them. Life is not something that starts when you are older, after you have achieved more milestones. This is life. Embrace it, welcome it, accept it, and build on it.

Remember that success in life is not tied to how much money you make or your status in the social hierarchy. True success is how much love and compassion you are able to spread in this world, whether you have transformed the lives of the people around you and the community in which you live and work. As Anna Quindlen suggests, “If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all.”

As much as we try, it is not easy to find one’s direction in life; a sense of purpose that gives meaning and fulfillment to our everyday existence. But as the writer Omid Safi recently told the graduating class of Colgate University:
Know your heart well enough to know what recharges you. It is going to be different for every single one of us, and it is going to be different for each of us at each point in our lives. For some of us it may be prayer, meditation, music, yoga, a really good book, walking in the woods, a wonderful conversation with a beloved friend, sitting down with your family, silence, a great poem . . . if that is what nurtures your soul, learn it. Make it a habit. Make time for it. And if you find that you are running on fumes, recharge yourself.
“Your education is a dress rehearsal for the life you choose to lead,” said the late Nora Ephron at a Wellesley College commencement address several years ago. “Be the heroine of your own life, not the victim.” Life is messy, but you should embrace the mess. The future will be complicated and unpredictable. But you always have the power to move your life in another direction. The things that are most important to you today may be less important in ten or twenty years. Don’t be afraid to shift course. As Anna Quindlen advises, “Think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.”

Most of all, be true to yourself. The best years of your life are ahead of you.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Growing, Learning, Thinking: The Value of Religious Pluralism

I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility, of contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God . . . – Abraham Joshua Heschel
In The Book of Lights, Chaim Potok writes about a Jewish army chaplain in Korea and Japan in the 1950s who confronts challenging questions about the meaning of his faith. In one scene, the chaplain and a Jewish soldier watch an old Japanese man praying at a Shinto shrine. “Do you think our God is listening to him?” the rabbi asks his companion.

“I don’t know . . . I never thought of it,” replies the soldier.

“Neither did I until now,” says the rabbi. “If [God]’s not listening, why not? If [God] is listening, then-well, what are we all about?”

The rabbi’s questions are profoundly important ones for people of every faith. Does God listen only to the prayers of one particular faith? Do we all worship different Gods or the same God in different ways? What kind of God would refuse to listen to the prayers of this Buddhist man?

“If prayer is a human response to God,” asks Lutheran theologian J. Paul Rajashekar in Engaging Others Knowing Ourselves: A Lutheran Calling in a Multi-Religious World (Lutheran University Press, 2016), “then aren’t all prayers offered by people irrespective of their faith convictions legitimate responses to God? Are their responses to God whether in prayer or in their articulation of religious beliefs any less legitimate than our own?”

Despite two centuries of Christian mission and evangelization, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population continues to adhere to other beliefs or no belief. Christians are taught to believe that Christ died for all people, and yet, some Christians continue to struggle with whether God is accessible to those who choose a different path. Does God hear only the prayers of those who accept Jesus as savior? Christians often talk of reaching the unreached. But unreached by whom? Do we assume God is absent in the lives of others?

In December 2015, Lacrycia Hawkins, a political science professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, posted a photo of herself on Facebook wearing a hijab, or traditional Muslim head scarf. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims,” she wrote, “because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Although a seemingly innocuous statement – after all, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each espouse monotheism and trace their common lineage to Abraham – Hawkins was immediately suspended from her tenured professorship and later terminated by confidential agreement. According to a Wheaton College press release on December 16, 2015, the professor’s “expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” conflicted with the college’s Statement of Faith because Muslims do not accept God’s revelation in Christ.

The Wheaton College controversy reflects a long history of Christian hostility toward other religions. That there exist competing belief systems is disturbing to some. But the more we learn of other religions, and the more we engage with and understand people of other faith traditions, the harder it becomes to justify claims of absolute truth. Pluralism implicitly questions the legitimacy of religious claims that there exists only one true way to achieve salvation or enlightenment.

Many religious people are threatened by theological and doctrinal differences and view other faith traditions as in opposition to one’s own faith. This insecurity results in an inward focus that shies away from difficult questions and ambiguous answers. However well we think we know our own religious traditions, we are often wrong in what we assume about others. Religious illiteracy breeds misunderstanding and a tendency to notice only the bad traits of other religions – acts of religiously-inspired terrorism, for example – and the good points of one’s own faith.

Contrary to what the administrators of Wheaton College may think, it violates our monotheistic concept to think there is a Muslim God, a Jewish God, and a Christian God. As Professor Hawkins understood, to accept that God hears the prayers of all people regardless of one’s religious tradition is not to suggest that theological differences are meaningless or insignificant. But differences do not necessarily imply right or wrong. The goal of religious pluralism is mutual understanding, not conversion.

I have suggested in past writings that one’s religious affiliation is mostly determined in the first instance by the happenstance of birth. We typically adopt the religion of our parents. In light of this, how do some confidently claim exclusive possession of God’s truth? Most often, claims of exclusivity are based on Scripture, such as the Christian Gospel John at 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”). Theologians have long debated the contextual meaning of this and similar passages and there is good reason to think the text is less clear than most Bible-quoting Christians acknowledge. Of course, other faiths make their own claims of absolute truth based on their holy books. Because we live not only in a multi-religious society, we also live in a multi-scriptural society. There is not one scripture, but many. How does one properly navigate conflicting claims of scripture? Is one Holy Book necessarily more authoritative than another?

I recently attended a course on religious pluralism at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. During one class, we watched a film entitled, The Asian and Abrahamic Religions: A Divine Encounter in America, which explores the surprising similarities among the Asian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) and the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The film contains scenes of prayer, of worship, of wedding celebrations and funerals in places of worship across the country – in churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras, and many others. In watching the film, it occurred to me that the various religions are simply different human interpretations and manifestations of the divine. Although each faith has adopted different symbols and styles of worship, different words to describe God or the search for enlightenment, all provide a communal experience, a sense of order, an attempt to more deeply understand the world and find meaning in life.

As noted by our professor, J. Paul Rajashekar, a Lutheran theologian originally from India, the specific faith claims of different religions are often based on cultural, linguistic, and social distinctions. Christians often speak in terms of salvation, but this is specifically a Christian term and there is no singular understanding of what salvation means in the Bible. Other faiths use terms such as enlightenment, atonement, harmony and rebirth. Hindus seek spiritual oneness. Sikhs speak of moving from darkness to light. Buddhists strive for wholeness and nirvana. Each religion offers a view of life and a guide to living. In reality, it matters less what one believes, than how one’s faith is practiced in relation to others.

If we allow ourselves to grow and be challenged, there is much to learn from persons of other faiths. To engage in dialogue, to listen and understand what others believe, is to acknowledge our shared humanity. Pluralism invites dialogue and engagement with others. To take seriously the faith of others allows us to explore the richness of our own faith. To ignore or refuse to learn about other faiths is to deprive us of the opportunity to grow, think, and learn. Is this what God desires?

Sometimes we confuse faith with ideology. Pluralism challenges all claims to absoluteness and exclusive truth. It is perhaps why exposure to pluralism, to multi-religious societies, breeds fundamentalism – particularly Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, Christian fundamentalism is a 20th Century American phenomenon that coincided with increasing religious diversity in American society.

Christian fundamentalists and some conservative evangelical Christians love to cite the Bible in support of their beliefs. But what many refuse to acknowledge is that our understanding of scripture is influenced by 2,000 years of history and how it has been interpreted. The Bible has been translated in nearly 2,500 languages and there are over 900 different English translations of the Bible. Each version contains linguistic differences that deviate further from the original sources. Similarly, religious creeds and doctrines are merely human attempts to comprehend a mystery that transcends human understanding. In the words of Professor Rajashekar, “Some theological questions will always remain unanswered on this side of humanity.”

Perhaps all we can do is search for God’s presence, in whatever form, whatever language, in light of our human predicament. To engage in inter-religious dialogue requires courage and a commitment to more deeply understand our own faith. It requires a willingness to listen to what others believe and profess. Doing so may allow us to better understand who we are and what we believe. As the late Rabbi Heschel advised, “The world is too small for anything but mutual care and deep respect; the world is too great for anything but responsibility for one another.”