Friday, June 26, 2009

Personal Aside: The U. S. Needs a Good Dose of Calvin Coolidge “Do Nothing” Passive Domestic and Foreign Policy.


NOTE: It may seem to you that I’ve changed direction on domestic and foreign policy issues—but I haven’t. Winning the Cold War demanded the utmost in activism…and I still stand with scholar Bernard Lewis of Princeton who says that George W. Bush was right to take the battle to Iraq, Lewis saying that this is the first time in many centuries that someone had the guts to stand up to the Muslims. But at the same time, I think we must remember that this activism is atypical…and that normal reaction to foreign and domestic problems—as per the post-election revolution in Teheran and our own economic meltdown—requires a bit of a return to Calvin Coolidge’s quiet calm. Tell me if you agree. Anyhow, here goes.

Have you ever thought what would have happened in
recent U. S. history if presidents and Congresses had followed Calvin Coolidge’s suggestion? It was this: When certain crises appear, consider this course: “Shut up and do nothing.” He didn’t mean always do nothing but when danger looms, take a breather and see what doing nothing can do for you—and the nation.

Initially when the recent Iranian revolution popped after obvious vote fraud (something a Chicagoan like me has been raised with) Barack Obama seemed to be applying the Coolidge formula brilliantly. Confronted with the deadly choice of (a) supporting the revolution in Iran aligned against a rigged presidential election or (b) keep inviolate his option to try to negotiate with the Ahmadinejad people for a nuclear arms deal, Obama did the right thing—something Coolidge would have done.

The election was held June 12. On the 13th, an estimated 100,000 Iranians stormed the streets to protest vote thievery, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had a perfect Coolidge response: “We are monitoring the situation.”

Wonderful. That’s exactly what Cal—of whom I’m exceedingly fond since I was born the year he declined to run for president again--would have said. That’s the kind of detachment a mature republic deserves. The next day after the rioting began, Sunday, Joe Biden had another wonderfully Coolidge-like statement: “While there are doubts about the outcome, I don’t think we’re in a position to say” anything further about the vote-counting. And Obama played golf which is not what Coolidge would have done: he’d have taken a nap—but you get the drift.

The following day—Monday—Obama had his first comment. He started to get a little action-oriented…moving away from the originally brilliant White House Coolidge stance. “I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we’ve seen on television over the last few days,” he said. But then he reversed course to the original Coolidge-ism:
“We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran.” Smart guy: maybe he’s learning something.

Tuesday Obama allowed that there was “amazing ferment” inside Iran. A little descriptive—but still pretty much Coolidge. Then he made a brilliant comment—remarking on the differences between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his presidential rival, Mir-Husseini Mousavi: “The difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised.” Brilliant, nicely said. Dead wrong but nicely said, exactly as circumspect as Coolidge would have done. Originally there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two Iranians but the riots in the streets had turned Mousavi into a Yeltsin—definitely preferable to us…but just like Coolidge, Obama wouldn’t express a preference even if he had to tell a fib to the press. I thought: this new president from my Chicago is lying diplomatically and is finally getting the hang of this thing. But no. Somebody had to come along and spoil it.

Guess who? The Republicans in the Senate were beating the rhetorical war-drums (you’d think they’d have learned). Remember John McCain, who way back in February, 2008 said he thought “war with Iran is inevitable”? Yes, that John McCain. He said he thought Obama should express disapproval of Ahmadinejad trying to steal an election. And there was cracker-sounding Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (the guy who when George W. Bush had named Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court advised the GOP to “sheddup!”) saying Obama was “timid” for not strongly supporting Iran’s protesters. “The President of the United States is supposed to lead the Free World, not follow it,” he said. That lead the Free World stuff comes from Theodore Roosevelt and his third cousin Franklin.

So goaded by pressure from the Republicans, Obama left the camp of Calvin Coolidge and began echoing the preemptory interventionists. Now along with most everyone else, I rejoice at the revolution against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. What I disagree with is the continual drumbeat from those who say Obama should have at the outset issued a statement brimming with stentorian rhetoric saying that we overwhelmingly take sides over there. Let this ex-foreign service officer point out that far too often this country has taken sides, trumpeting our morality on free elections and incursions. When will we learn? We didn’t have to shoot our mouth off: the people on the streets know what the U. S. attitude toward Ahmadinejad is. But because Obama heeded the activists in the Congress who have nothing more than crude domestic politics in mind, as I write this, the Ahmadinejad forces are saying that the U. S. is behind the coup.

I well remember the 1956 Hungarian revolution where students began demonstrating against the Communist government on Oct. 23, 1956. The mood was ripe for change; Stalin had died three years before; Nikita Khrushchev had spoken out against Stalin at the 20th Party Congress. The course for us to have followed is do nothing and shut up! But the State Department under John Foster Dulles gave great encouragement to the students and workers who initiated the spontaneous Hungarian revolution. Unfortunately the insurgents felt that the United States would enter the fray on their side against the USSR. This was not to be but all of us understood their rising expectations.

Letting rhetoric control our better sense, we recklessly encouraged them to take even greater risks by unwittingly leaving the implication that we would almost join them in the streets. Inflamed by our official rhetoric, the Soviets sent their troops and tanks in to crush the Freedom Fighters who were disappointed that we didn’t join them—but of course we could not. The Revolution died on Nov. 4th and there were many hard feelings of abandonment by the U. S., caused by our preemptory and militant statements of support. It wasn’t until 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall that the Soviet Union finally collapsed. I’m still not sure what we gained by sounding off and strutting our stuff militaristically.

Repeating this for emphasis: In this Iranian rebellion, I think that until recently Obama has pursued the correct course by endeavoring to do nothing and striving to keep his mouth shut. But pressed by the militant Republicans in the Senate he has taken a more aggressive stand—which I am sorry to see. Doing nothing and keeping our mouth shut is not always the best course in foreign affairs but when a revolution is decimating one’s enemies, it is. In essence, we should plain and simple shut up and do nothing, allowing the Iranians to fight it out for themselves.

Where we got into trouble that last time we fooled around with Iran, in 1979, was due to that weak reed Jimmy Carter. He had campaigned in behalf of international human rights which he had insisted he would insist on the world to follow like the Baptist Sunday school teacher he was. But having spoken out for idealism, when push came to shove, under Carter we did something and didn’t shut up. He delivered a toast to the Shah and called Iran under his leadership “an island of stability in the Middle East” which enraged the dissidents. That was the last straw for the fundamentalists.

Enraged, they toppled the Shah in February, 1979. The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, applied for permission to enter the U. S. to be treated for cancer at the Mayo Clinic. To grant him entrance sounded like the decent, humanitarian thing to do. Tell you what Calvin Coolidge would have done: he’d have said, “not here, baby! Go to some other renowned clinic like in Switzerland. You’ve got the money! Keep out!”

Carter was torn. On one hand, he wanted to be an action president. He wanted to do something, to show he was a humanitarian. But on the other he faced a divided government. His national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski argued we should be humanitarians and accept the Shah in the U.S. On the other hand, the State Department and Secretary Cyrus Vance wanted us to deny admittance to the Shah. Carter wobbled and in the end his Sunday school nature triumphed. He came down on the side of admitting the Shah to Mayo’s, being supported in that stand by the public adherence of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Council on Foreign Relations Chairman David Rockefeller, the Standard Oil billionaire heir no less. Standing with Kissinger and Rockefeller really charmed the mullahs.

That action—doing something and not shutting up…giving the okay for the Shah to go to Mayo… prompted Revolutionary Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who had been exiled by the Shah for 15 years to excoriate us as “the Great Satan,” adding that agreeing that the ex-Shah come here was evidence of American “plotting.” And that, in turn, led to the takeover of the U. S. embassy on Nov. 4, 1979 by 500 Iranian students with the Ayatollah Khomeini supporting it.

The occupiers bound and blindfolded 52 Americans in the embassy consisting of tourists, embassy guards and staff and paraded them before photographers, also demanding the Shah be returned to Iran for trial and execution, the unfreezing of Iranian assets in the U. S. and apologies for alleged interference in the internal affairs of Iran. Carter applied economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran and ended oil imports from that country in November, 1979—all the while negotiating with them behind the scenes, latching on to a deal proffered by one top Iranian official and granted minor but humiliating public concessions only to have it vetoed at the last minute by Khomeini. The U. S. was being made a fool of.

Then Carter decided to really do something. He approved a “rescue plan” for the hostages. On April 24, 1980 eight helicopters, called Operation Eagle Claw, flew from an aircraft carrier to an airstrip in eastern Iran to rescue the hostages by force. None of them reached their destination: two helicopters didn’t make it to the desert rendezvous through mechanical failures, another had one of its main rotor blades fractured and was abandoned in the desert. The remainder were engulfed in a sandstorm, one crashing and killing eight servicemen.

The mission was called off and afterward Khomeini’s prestige skyrocketed in Iran as he praised Allah for interceding. The Shah died at Mayo’s; Carter’s prestige descended to the basement; his secretary of state resigned because all the while he disagreed with the helicopter mission. Ronald Reagan took advantage of the massive blows to U. S. prestige, defeated Carter handily and, surprisingly, 20 minutes after he was sworn in as president, all the hostages were released by Iran to U. S. custody.

Now lest you think I endorse doing nothing at all times rather than act, that’s about right. I will make an exception for Iran in 1953 when a pro-Communist premier moved to seal off the oil fields and confer its assets on the USSR: a decision started under Truman and ratified by Ike. Without it, a crucial balance in the Cold War could have swung to favor the Soviet Union. But in politics the pressure to do something, do anything, say something, say anything no matter what, is irresistible. It takes a Cal Coolidge to stand up to that pressure, to point out that doing something is not always warranted. As in this current Iranian crisis. And that’s why I say Obama’s initial decision to shut up and do nothing and let the Iranian revolution take its course without our fingerprints being on it, would have been the right decision.

The “Stimulus” Oversold.

Now let’s look at something else…a fateful domestic policy where pressure was placed on two presidents—Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama—to do something, anything! . That’s the ill-fated “stimulus package” initiated by Bush and enlarged by Obama. Last week a poll released by The Washington Post showed that “barely half of Americans are now confident that President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus measure will boost the economy.” It says, “What was once a clearly positive assessment of the program among independents (56 to 39 percent) is now an almost even split (50 to 47 percent).” Why are they concerned? “Almost nine in ten Americans say they are `very’ or `somewhat’ concerned about the size of the federal deficit and independents now say they favor smaller government with fewer services to a larger government with more services by a 61 to 35 percent margin.”

Republicans shouldn’t unduly blame Obama. The initial impetus for “stimulus” came from George W. Bush. As good as he was on social issues, his treasury secretary Henry Paulson (of Barrington Hills, a suburb near Chicago) pushed the panic button, joining with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke that if Congress didn’t authorize massive gobs of “stimulus money,” an economic meltdown would occur. Twitchy Paulson who looked like he could wear out a suit from the inside seemed to be hooked up to an electric current, saying excitedly that large banks had to accept the bailout funds to strengthen the banking system. The most ridiculous statement came last week from Scott Talbott, a lobbyist with the Financial Services Roundtable:

“Even if it [TARP] didn’t do anything, it helped restore investor confidence,” he said. Huh? But Coolidge would say: “TARP was never necessary for well-run banks. From the outset it was contrived by banks that were incompetently managed and underwater. Fly-by-nights were stampeding Congress to bail out their friends on Wall Street.”

Would Calvin Coolidge have bought the federal bailout program? Absolutely not. He’d certainly have waited, and waited and waited so that the public clamor would die down rather than the country experiencing what it does now—buyer’s remorse. And he’d be right. “I think there’s little evidence that the TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) money so far has had any measurable effect in the economy, especially when you talk about what the Fed has been doing,” said Josh Bivens, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute—and, friends, that’s a leftwing group.

But always with these things there’s a panic button pushed. It started when both parties prodded government to encourage banks to make home loans to consumers who could not afford to pay them back: Coolidge wouldn’t have allowed it. These mortgages were bundled together, sometimes with solid loans and sometimes just with additional sub-prime mortgages and sold to Wall Street investors. And in turn these investors often resold these “mortgage backed securities” to other investors…and eventually, as homeowners began to default on mortgages, investors discovered they were holding assets that were losing money. As large numbers of investors joined in unloading these assets the mortgage-backed security market impacted most corners of the country’s banking and financial services. As banks were severely impaired, they started hoarding capital, stopped lending to businesses—and as result many business have had to lay off employees.

Coolidge wouldn’t have supported government encouraging consumers who can’t afford to own homes to take loans. It’s as simple as that. If he were to rise out of the grave at Plymouth, Vt. and take over the presidency today, he’d say TARP should be ended, that the federal government should not intervene to save firms which make bad business decisions. Interesting that the common-sense New England latch-key thrifty wisdom is coming to be popular once again.

In Summary…

As 2010 approaches, it’s time to get back to the fundamentals of old foreign policy and economic religion—with very, very few exceptions even in case of dire emergencies. The Republicans have made many mistakes but those among them who decide to return to the foreign and domestic policies of Calvin Coolidge will get my vote…and likely be greeted as long-lost saviors of the American people.

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