Monday, September 29, 2008

Political Questionnaire

This list of foreign policy questions some smartypants drew up for Sarah Palin, with the more than strongly implied suggestion that she would not be able to answer them, attracted my interest, since it also suggests that all responsible grown-ups who would call themselves educated (people who are clearly brilliant in some demonstrable way I think would be exempted) ought to know the answers and have nuanced opinions on each of these topics. As longtime readers will know that I am on occasion overcome with longing to be one of these people I thought I ought to give it a try. The reader will have to take my word for it that I will not cheat to find the answers; I believe being fraudulent about the extent of one's knowledge is a more deforming moral failure than is commonly believed anyway, and as so little is at stake here besides I have no temptation to do so.

1. In a broad and long-term sense, would you have responded differently to the attacks of 9/11? Well, yes. To be honest, at the time I found the hysterical response of the American public more shocking and disconcerting than the fact of the terror (though I was surprised that the terrorists managed to succeed, so far as they did). I am not impressed by Muslim terrorist organizations as posing a threat to the American people on any significant scale (I say this so that in the event I am randomly killed some day as the lone, absurd victim of a ridiculous suicide bomb attack people won't say "he underestimated the threat"). If the goal of these groups is really to kill and terrorize Americans and Jews on a large scale, then their tactics are stupid and their results pitiful. The Virginia Tech killer took out as many people as it sometimes takes 15 or 20 suicide bombers to dispatch of in Israel. That their operations are primitive is of less concern, for if they were committed to an intelligent, realistic long term plan of violence they could still be dangerous. But I have seen no evidence that they either as smart or as determined as this would require. If I had been convinced that the Al-quaeda group were absolutely responsible and constituted an ongoing threat of course I would have agreed with going after them, though being of that sort of liberal strain that is very reluctant to go to war and not comfortable with the idea of open-ended military actions as a way of life I would probably have been inclined to push for a rather brutal policy once the decision was taken, to forestall criticism, achieve or not achieve the stated objections quickly and decisively, and get out. I would have encouraged a more sober tone of patriotism than what we got in 2001. I also certainly would not have gone crazy pushing through lots of unsettling security legislation such as happened also.

2. Is Iraq a democracy? I am pretty sure it does not merit the name.

3. What's the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite? I have read the answer to this like 10 times, and I really don't have the slightest idea. One of the sons or grandsons of Mohammed formed his own sect, I believe, but I can never remember over what issue this took place, or what, if anything, beyond this is the cause of the continuing hostility between the camps onto this day. For that matter I can't explain the differences between Methodists and Baptists and Pentecostals and Seventh Day Adventists--what the Catholic hierarchy tidily groups under the heading of "absurd religions", either. I know one of the groups--I believe the Sunnis--are the dominant sect in Iran, and although a majority in Iraq were ruthlessly suppressed during the Saddam Hussein era. Most of the rest of the Muslim world, including the homeland of the religion (I almost said church; good Lord!) and its leading authorities in Saudi Arabia, belongs to the other sect (I believe the Shiite). There most be something profoundly unengaging to the Western mind in whatever the difference is, because no one seems to be able to keep it straight.

4. What is your preferred plan for peace between Israel and Palestine? A two-state solution? What about Jerusalem? I was asked this question 20 years ago in a law office in Portland, Maine during my alumni interview for Columbia University (needless to say, I didn't get in). Being at that time in some ways--politically anyway-- an even less formed version of the being I am now, if such a thing is conceivable, and completely failing to take into consideration, or even to realize, that my interviewer was a Jewish man of a certain age, I said something to the effect that all religious conflicts in minor countries (and I included Northern Ireland in this assessment) seemed petty, of about the same level of significance as gang warfare in Los Angeles, and that it annoyed me to see the differences of what were essentially neighborhood thugs treated like matters of the highest international importance. I was of course jealous at the suggestion I perceived to be everywhere that the lives of people in these conflicted places were both more interesting and more worthy of respect than my own. In this I have, one might say, learned the lesson that it was necessary I must learn, but I am still not reconciled to it.

So twenty years on, have I got a better opinion? Well, as for the peace plan, I don't see as there can be any peace plan without some degree of reasonable compromise on the part of the Palestinians, which, at least from the Jewish-dominated point of view I am mostly exposed to (Arab points of view, even when available, usually being, how shall I put it, somewhat incoherent to the Western political sensibility in one or more major points) do not appear to be forthcoming any time soon. I have never understood why Israel should be expected to evacuate the territories seized in 1967 and return to the 1948 borders. Israel is, or always has been anyhow, the stronger power, and what exactly are the other countries supposed to be offering them? Peace, as an American President would define it? I don't think it's likely. The only plausible argument I have heard for Israeli concessions is the insistence by many people, some of whom I find reasonably credible, that the Israeli authority is arrogant, heavy-handed and oppressive beyond what is necessary, and therefore must be opposed on moral grounds. However I would have to look into the matter a great deal more before signing on to this point of view.

5. How do you feel about French President Nicholas Sarkozy's recent visit to Syria? Do you believe the United States should negotiate with leaders like President Bashar Al-Assad? I don't know to what the visit of the French president specifically pertained; however, it is well known that politically the French have a long tradition of attraction to and fascination with rascals of all sorts--it stimulates their especial craving for intellectual danger. If we could appreciate and humor this requirement a little better, I believe it would do wonders for our relations with that nation, which on the whole I think is inclined to friendly feelings for us. As to the Syrians, sure, if they are willing to make grave concessions to our interests on the matters by which they offend us so egregiously, negotiate with them. If they are not, then don't. It's Syria. Romantic land, great crusader castles, Damascus an ancient city harboring profound stories and secrets of a noble race and all that, but how much does the United States really stand to lose by having strained relations with its government?

6. Nearly 40 percent of the world's population lives in China and India. Who are those countries' leaders? Back in the day, when Nehru and Chairman Mao, true international superstars who even inspired their own fashion lines in the West (no mean feat for a pair of avowed socialists), were running the show, such a question would have been considered an insult by the most superficial newspaper reader. Even in the 70s the likes of Deng Xiaoping and Indira Gandhi had enough star power to lodge themselves in the consciousnesses of the quasi-alert. Today? I think the Chinese leader's name is something like Xi Hutong(?) They showed him several times in the audience during the Olympics. He looked like a typical middle-aged Chinese guy in a suit, an aspiring technocrat, whatever he might actually be as the office of Chinese head of state evolves toward that goal. India's leader I have no idea. I would assume he is a pragmatist committed to the similar program of building infrastructure, making nice with corporations and the other leading organs of the global economic order, encouraging wealth creation/accumulation on the one hand while politically managing both the national ambition to seek India's place in the sun internationally and the masses of hundreds of millions who are left further and further behind their countrymen at the forefront of growth.

7. Do you support the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, which would lift restrictions on sales of nuclear technology and fuel to India, a country which hasn't signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty? I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about this one. Ideologically and instinctively, and as the question is worded, of course I would say "No!" But perhaps it is somehow necessary, i.e., we need the money, India will be under threat of domination or partition by hostile powers if we don't let them have the goods, perhaps a donation from the nuclear technology industry was the source of my college grant money and I owe them a favor. I will have to confer with my advisors and see what the story is here.

All right, I give up. I'm not going to answer all 20 questions.

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