Bob Schwartz

Month: August, 2013

Masters of War

Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
There may be a few too many Bob Dylan albums, depending on whether you are a completist/fanatic. The number of albums, somewhere north of infinity, is supplemented this week by the release of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10 – Another Self Portrait (1969-1971). On the other hand, this is what you would expect, and some would hope for, from a continuingly productive artist with a long and storied career.

Bob Dylan may be old school—maybe ancient school—but there are at least two things to note. For a time, he was one of the two most significant pop music artists in the world, matched only by The Beatles. And while his free form musical poetry combining the personal and the social may have owed something to folk music and beatnik coffee houses, it was something new, and is strangely part of the soil in which rap grew.

Masters of War is a track from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963. As a recording, it couldn’t be farther from current slick production values. It is a young guy strumming a guitar, singing in a way that then and now is pretty idiosyncratic. But like a lot of the great Dylan works, it grabs you and won’t let you go.

It is a song about war, but it isn’t an anti-war song; listening to it reveals that, and Dylan later confirmed it. It is about the people behind the curtain, the people on the battlefield, the people caught in the crossfire. War is a serious business, but it appears we are chronically not taking it seriously enough. Maybe we have to fight sometimes, maybe we don’t, but for God’s sake, let’s put our motives on the table for everyone to see, and let’s act, if we have to, from the deepest reaches of heart and mind. Elsewise, Dylan says, even Jesus would never forgive what you do.

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead

Syria and the Fog of Or Else

Rhetoric is no substitute for reasoning. Or strategy.

President Obama may soon be undertaking a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons or going to Congress with the case for such a response.

His speculation yesterday that Syrian chemical weapons might end up in an attack on America, therefore implicating our national interest, is far-fetched. But it is a necessary thing to say, given the way that matters have developed.

The U.S. stood by as President Assad brutally attacked his own people so that he could maintain power in Syria. Despite the fact that the U.S. has always tried to steer global events subtly or not so subtly, intervening in the internal strife of sovereign nations is a “red line” that we are reluctant to cross. This doesn’t mean we haven’t crossed it. It just means that if and when we do this, we do our best to make a colorable, principled case for acting under exceptional circumstances.

There are three other reasons why we’ve held back in Syria, now and over the past two years. There is our very shaky track record of Middle East intervention. There is a book-length list of potential consequences of such intervention, starting with a more violent and destabilized Syria and ending with a more violent and destabilized region and world. Finally, we have no express idea of what we want and how we want to accomplish it, without which ill effects are all the more likely if we do choose to act.

Hints of chemical weapons allowed Obama to employ his own red line: no chemical weapons—or else. Because of world history and established international agreement, certain weapons of mass destruction are deemed so out of bounds that action is semi-automatically called for. That is, using chemical weapons trumps sovereignty. The international community might stand by for the internal slaughter of thousands, no matter how inhumane, but it is quasi-obligated to answer when certain civilized conventions come into play. In other words, the chemical weapons would offer a license to act, even if the other inhumanities didn’t

A license to act—if we knew what we could reasonably achieve, if people believe that it is worth losing lives to enforce the ban on chemical weapons, if it is actually about chemical weapons, if acting doesn’t make matters worse, if we knew exactly what we planned to do and how we would deal with all the possible aftermaths. None of which is clear now. None of which is likely to be clear anytime soon.

Welcome to the fog of or else.

Steve Lonegan: I Personally Like Being a Guy

Steve Lonegan
I’m strictly a male male
And my future I hope will be
In the home of a lovely female
Who’ll enjoy being a girl having a guy like me.
Apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, I Enjoy Being a Girl

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.
Abraham Lincoln

Newark mayor Cory Booker is running for the U.S. Senate seat from New Jersey, left empty by the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg in June. Booker’s Republican opponent in the October16 election is Steve Lonegan.

Booker is unmarried, does not talk about his sexuality, though he has made reference to girlfriends past. He is, along with many politicians and Americans, a supporter of marriage equality. There has been discussion and innuendo that Booker may be gay, something he has not directly addressed.

Enter candidate Lonegan, who is twenty points down in the polls, and very unlikely to win, whatever he throws at Booker. Without comment, here are some of the remarks made by Lonegan in an interview with Newsmax.

Maybe one comment: Lonegan’s “I personally like being a guy” is one of the stranger things said in the midst of political discourse. And that is saying something.

“It’s kind of weird. As a guy, I personally like being a guy. I don’t know if you saw the stories last year. They’ve been out for quite a bit about how he likes to go out at 3 o’clock in the morning for a manicure and a pedicure…Maybe that helps to get him the gay vote, by acting ambiguous. That I can’t address. All I know is I don’t like going out in the middle of the night, or any time of the day, for a manicure and pedicure. It was described as his peculiar fetish, is how it was described. I have a more peculiar fetish. I like a good Scotch and a cigar. That’s my fetish, but we’ll just compare the two.”

A final comment: Steve Lonegan, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And then again…

One Direction of A Hard Day’s Night

This Is Us - A Hard Day's Night
This summer marks the anniversary of A Hard Day’s Night, released in July 1964. That isn’t exactly a round-numbered anniversary, but the upcoming release of One Direction’s This Is Us movie brings it to mind. According to the film’s producers:

ONE DIRECTION: THIS IS US is a captivating and intimate all-access look at life on the road for the global music phenomenon. Weaved with stunning live concert footage, this inspiring feature film tells the remarkable story of Niall, Zayn, Liam, Harry and Louis’ meteoric rise to fame, from their humble hometown beginnings and competing on the X-Factor, to conquering the world and performing at London’s famed O2 Arena. Hear it from the boys themselves and see through their own eyes what it’s really like to be One Direction.

The Beatles weren’t the first pop stars to create a movie to exploit and enhance their popularity and to satisfy the insatiable appetite of fans. Elvis had been doing if for years, with some decent creative results. But A Hard Day’s Night turned out to be something new and completely else. It combined great writing and direction with four young men who were personable, lovable, witty, and who were also the most artistically successful performer/songwriters of the 20th century (which wasn’t yet proven in 1964). In some ways, it couldn’t help but be at least okay (as for okay, see Help, the Beatles’ second movie). Instead it was outstanding, considered a great movie in it’s own right, and an inspiration for pop movies to come.

A Hard Day’s Night is not a documentary; it’s a non-documentary fictionalized chronicle of a television appearance. If you’re a movie fan, a pop music fan, or both, see it, even if you’re neutral on the Beatles. And if you’re a 1D fan, here are some of the critics’ takes on four British lads who’d never been in a movie before, but had knocked around in front of audiences for years, in some of the sleaziest dives in Europe. All these years later, A Hard Day’s Night is still on all-time lists (99% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes)—as, of course, is the music.

“Not only has this film not dated, it may even look fresher than it did in 1964; the zigzag cutting and camera moves, the jaunty ironies and pop-celebrity playfulness, are all standard issue now on MTV and its offspring.”

“It’s a fine conglomeration of madcap clowning in the old Marx Brothers’ style, and it is done with such a dazzling use of camera that it tickles the intellect and electrifies the nerves.”

“To watch the final concert segment is to look back decades and realize, as you do seeing vintage footage of Duke Ellington or Frank Sinatra or John Coltrane, that it’s never really gotten any better.”

“The music video by which all other music videos must be judged. And none top it.”

“No previous rocksploitation film had ever done so splendid a job of selling its performers.”

“An hour and a half of pure, chaotic bliss.”

One Direction’s This Is Us opens on August 30. Your turn, lads.

Syria and Foreign Incoherence

Red Line
America may not have had a coherent foreign policy since the end of World War II. And the beat goes on.

Incoherence doesn’t mean that there haven’t been successes. It doesn’t mean that other countries have done better in that time. And it doesn’t mean that the era has been an easy one: the world is more complex and diffracted than ever.

Coherence means an open, intelligent discussion about principles, followed by an open, intelligent discussion about taking action or withholding, and about the consequences and aims of the paths we choose or avoid.

Our policy seems to be driven by overwhelming ideology, good intentions and self-interest—none of which are exceptional or indictable, but all of which should be expressed in a much bigger and more sensible and realistic context. We ought to know what we’re about and candidly tell our citizens what we’re about. And when we don’t know what we’re doing—hard as that is to admit—we ought to say so.

Harry Truman was the last President to have a foreign policy named after him, in that case the Truman Doctrine. In 1947 he warned that the U.S. and the free world could not stand for Greece and Turkey falling into Communist hands (though he never used the word Communism):

It is necessary only to glance at a map to realize that the survival and integrity of the Greek nation are of grave importance in a much wider situation. If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East….

It would be an unspeakable tragedy if these countries, which have struggled so long against overwhelming odds, should lose that victory for which they sacrificed so much. Collapse of free institutions and loss of independence would be disastrous not only for them but for the world. Discouragement and possibly failure would quickly be the lot of neighboring peoples striving to maintain their freedom and independence.

Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East.

March 12, 1947

(A digression: The reason Greece was considered vulnerable to insidious forces in 1947 is that it was broke and falling apart. Presumably, without a Communist threat looming, Greece 2013 is no longer considered as significant.)

That black-and-white view was in some ways a vestige of the black-and-white war we had just finished—and won. But soon after that speech, global gray was the new black-and-white. Empires were crumbling, new nations were being made. In the year of the Truman Doctrine alone, two of the world’s most populous nations changed course: India became independent, Mao won a revolution in China—events representing more than a third of the world population. The following year, the Middle East (and history) came unglued forever with the creation of Israel. We could pretend that all this was part of some simple monolithic history, but that really made no sense.

And yet we proceeded with a dyadic us-versus-them model for decades, mostly inexplicably and unquestioningly. Korea was supposed to stop the Communism; the military result was a bloody stalemate and status quo, the economic result a Chinese hegemon. Vietnam was supposed to stop Communism; we lost the war, and Southeast Asia is a geopolitical hodgepodge. Soviet Communism crumbled, partly because of a changing world and culture, partly because being a Russian non-Communist economic and political oligarch is much more lucrative than being a party apparatchik.

When we were attacked by the Muslim Middle East, our policy was to strike back, just as we had after Pearl Harbor. Never mind that the policy was sixty years old, and that the complexities of the world could not possibly be much affected by those approaches. Sadaam Hussein is dead, and Iraq is descending at some speed into chaos. Afghanistan is or soon will be about where we found it. Osama Bin Laden is dead, but just as with the Taliban, even if Al Qaeda is diminishing, movements with other names are already rising up to take its place.

All that is preface to our incoherence in Syria.

It is easy to see why the chemical weapon “red line” matters and why proving that it has been crossed matters.

The brutality of World War I made us rethink just far we would go and where as a ‘civilized” world we would draw the line. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibits their use. The community of nations has, more or less, stood behind this and its successors.

(Another digression: If the world had considered the real possibility of atomic weapons in this period between the wars, would these also have been put in the same prohibited category as chemical and biological weaons?)

The reason for taking such care about making sure the line is actually crossed of course goes back to Iraq. Having cried wolf so recently, the U.S. could not stand having its credibility questioned, internally or externally, on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

But as the drumbeat for “doing something” gets louder in the wake of the U.S. now being completely confident that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime, so many questions are not being asked, and if asked, not discussed or answered.

If we are already confident that thousands are killed, tens of thousands injured, hundreds of thousands displaced, and a nation is being destroyed from inside, why was the imperative waiting for this line at all? There is a global political answer, of course, which is that chemical weapons are a bigger and less assailable common ground upon which most or all can agree. That is indeed a pragmatic strategy, but we also have to talk about moral imperatives, no matter which way the discussion goes.

What exactly can and should we do? And if we do act, what do we expect and hope will be the result? And if we do act, what are the potential consequences?

Our leaders can talk about the red line in Syria, but they should stop pretending that this amounts to coherent and deep consideration. The three questions of actions, expectations and consequences should be the topic that consumes us. If we have principles and doctrines, let’s put them on the table and inspect them and see how aspirational and practical they are. If we believe in sovereignty in some cases but not others, let’s make sure that we know what the cases are and why the distinctions matter. If we do or don’t intervene in foreign political matters or insurrections or civil wars, let’s talk about it and how we act or react.

Instead, what we get are red lines and, in the case of Egypt, the sight of the U.S. being unwilling to call a coup a coup, and otherwise being paralyzed in figuring out what to do or say, so that “subtle” back channel goings on can go on.

Subtle goings on or silence can also may mean that you don’t know what to do or say, or that you don’t want the greater citizenry to hear what you are actually thinking. Maybe our leaders really aren’t very good at being statesmen. Maybe that citizenry isn’t up to the task of having discussions about what we believe, what we can accomplish and what we can’t. The only way to know this is to have it out in the open.

We seem to be more comfortable in the black and white and red line world of the Truman Doctrine. That wasn’t even a true picture of the world seventy years ago, and it definitely isn’t today. Can we talk, without slogans, without the fairy tale that the world of 2013 is a place that will resolve to our political and moral satisfaction soon—or ever? Before we make one more mistake, we have to find out.

Lee and Nancy: Summer Wine and Some Velvet Morning

Phedre - Alexandre Cabanel
When Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra got together in the 1960s to create pop music (he to write and produce, she to perform and record), who could know that this very day, music fan, you would discover one of those tracks and go “pretty cool”, while the other would elicit “what the heck is that?”

Nancy Sinatra was firstly famous as Frank Sinatra’s daughter, and then as the singer of a string of big hits, most notably These Boots Are Made for Walking. She was never a great singer, but her voice did have an appealing quality (genes count for something), and the material and production were often irresistible.

Lee Hazlewood was the source of many of those hit songs. And then he began performing and recording some of his songs as duets with Nancy Sinatra. If you think that Boots or Sugar Town are all there is to Nancy Sinatra, a couple of these duets just have to be heard.

Summer Wine – Hazlewood’s songs leaned toward country pop, and Summer Wine was a duet in the vein of Jackson from Johnny Cash and June Carter, and scores of other such duets. His pop sensibilities make this work, as does the contrast between his gruff baritone and Sinatra’s sweet not quite innocence. How good is the song? Good enough for it to be well covered even now, including a 2010 collaboration between Andrea Coors and Bono.

Some Velvet Morning – If Summer Wine is cool pop, Some Velvet Morning is something else. Hazlewood is sometimes identified as Cowboy Psychedelic, and the accent here is on psychedelic—in the best possible way. To this day, people argue about whether the song means something or nothing. As usual, reading lyrics don’t do songs justice. But if you want to think about it and listen, consider this:

Some velvet morning when I’m straight
I’m gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra
and how she gave me life
and how she made it in
Some velvet morning when I’m straight

Flowers growing on the hill
Dragonflies and daffodils
Learn from us very much
Look at us but do not touch
Phaedra is my name

Some velvet morning when I’m straight
I’m gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra
and how she gave me life
and how she made it in
Some velvet morning when I’m straight

Flowers are the things we knew
Secrets are the things we grew
Learn from us very much
Look at us but do not touch
Phaedra is my name

Some velvet morning when I’m straight
Flowers growing on the hill
I’m gonna open up your gate
Dragonflies and daffodils
And maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra
Learn from us very much
And how she gave me life
Look at us but do not touch
and how she made it in

(Phaedra, by the way, is a tragic figure of Greek mythology, in love with her husband’s son—which probably has nothing to do with the song. Or does it? Who can tell with a highly educated psychedelic cowboy?)

In 2003 The Telegraph named this the best pop duet ever:

1. Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra
Some Velvet Morning, 1968

Most pop music is quickly forgotten. All too rare are the songs that endure, whose sheer otherness takes your breath away, even 30-odd years after they were conceived. Some Velvet Morning belongs in that company. Around the time that Frank Sinatra sang Somethin’ Stupid with his daughter Nancy, she was making other duets which brought a hipper, bolder edge to the format, and which would influence countless subsequent pairings. Nancy conducted these with Lee Hazlewood, a laconic Oklahoman who had masterminded her kitsch anthem of women’s liberation, These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.

In 1967, he recorded songs with her for possible inclusion in her first TV Special, Movin’ With Nancy. One, incredibly, was Some Velvet Morning – one of the strangest, druggiest, most darkly sexual songs ever written. Somehow, perhaps as a sop to the new demographic opening up during the Summer of Love, it made it on to the show. There are “flowers” and “daffodils”, but it’s hardly Sonny and Cher. Hazlewood’s sonorous, old-manly tones tell of “Phaedra, and how she gave me life, and how she made it end”, the reverberating bass sounds surrounding his echoey voice like storm clouds.

The music changes to a skipping, childish rhythm, and Nancy chimes in as Phaedra, innocent but ever more menacing as the verses are intercut more regularly. It’s a song whose mysteries have occasioned numerous covers, most recently by Primal Scream, with Kate Moss “doing” Nancy. None, though, can rival the macabre atmosphere of the original – ambitious, beautiful and unforgettable.

As always, those are just words. The music is in the tracks. Please listen.

How to Innovate: Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t

Willie Keeler

Here’s a bit of advice on innovation from baseball great Willie Keeler, who played in the majors from 1892 to 1910.

Batters usually hit to the field on the side of the plate they bat from. Right-handed batters stand on the left side of the plate and usually hit to left field. This is known as pull hitting. Some batters can time their swing so that they can hit to the opposite field—that is, right handers to right field—and this is appropriately known as hitting to the opposite field. In either case, when fielders know the tendency of the batter, they can be positioned to best catch the ball.

The greatest batters can hit the ball wherever they want, leaving fielders having to guess and work for every out, and leaving those hitters with awesome statistics.

Keeler was one of those greats. He was called “Wee Willie” because he was only 5’4-1/2” tall and weighed 140 pounds. That did not stop him from compiling a .341 career batting average (14th all time), hitting over .300 16 times in 19 seasons, and hitting over .400 once. If you’re not a baseball person, just trust that this is really good.

How did he do it?

He advised keeping the ball away from opposing fielders. “Keep your eye clear, and hit ’em where they ain’t.”

So if you are starting or renewing a business, starting or renewing a career, no matter how “wee” you think you are, take it from someone who knew. Hit ‘em where they ain’t.

Education Epic: The ACT Chapter

ACT College Readiness 2013
The epic of American education goes on, success and failure, part triumph, part tragedy. Today’s chapter is the release of a report from ACT about the college readiness of American high school students. The ACT, along with the SAT, is the test used by colleges to determine admission of individual students. In various states, one or the other test predominates; college-bound or college-aspiring students take at least one, at least once.

States and school districts are increasingly using these scores as a standardized measure of just how well (or poorly) they are doing—so much so that some states are now paying for and requiring all students, college track or not, to take the tests.

Today’s ACT report could generously be characterized as equivocal (the ACT press release headlines: “ACT Points to Improvement Efforts and Calls for More Action”) but that is sugar coating. You will see the report covered both nationally and locally; you can read the state numbers and see whether and how they are being spun or faced head on. You can also read the report yourself.

You will come across a small collateral matter that is meant to explain, not excuse, the drop in scores in some places. Previously, those students that had been granted extra time to take the test as an accommodation for disabilities (10% of ACT takers) were not included in the aggregate score; now they are. ACT had not revealed this before, and it is now a mini-tempest of its own. States, districts and disability advocates call this previous exclusion discriminatory and inappropriate. For whatever reason, the fact is that this cohort did score lower than average, something—one might speculate—that ACT knew, and kept out of the statistics so that they would not look quite so bad.

They look bad. Here are some highlights from the ACT press release:

ACT Points to Improvement Efforts and Calls for More Action, Especially for Underserved Students

IOWA CITY, Iowa—College and career readiness problems persist among U.S. high school graduates, with the majority ill-prepared for success at the next level, according to the latest edition of nonprofit ACT’s yearly report, The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013. ACT, however, points to solutions and ongoing efforts that could help improve student readiness in the future.

Only 39 percent of ACT-tested 2013 graduates met three or more of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. Conversely, 31 percent of graduates did not meet any of the benchmarks. ACT research suggests that students who don’t meet the benchmarks are likely to struggle in relevant first-year courses at two- and four-year colleges, which increases their risk of not succeeding in college. “Once again, our data show that high school success and college readiness are not necessarily the same thing,” said Jon Whitmore, ACT chief executive officer. “Too many students are likely to struggle after they graduate from high school. As a nation, we must set ambitious goals and take strong action to address this consistent problem. The competitiveness of our young people and of our nation as a whole in the global economy is at stake.”

The research-based ACT College Readiness Benchmarks specify the minimum score students must earn on each of the four subject tests that make up the ACT® college readiness assessment (English, math, reading, and science) to have about a 75 percent chance of earning a grade of C or higher in a typical credit-bearing first-year college course in that subject area. ACT research suggests that students who meet the benchmarks are more likely than those who do not to persist in college and earn a degree….

Largest, Most Diverse Group of Test Takers Ever

The ACT report examines the ACT scores of a record 1.8 million students, 54 percent of the U.S. graduating class. It was the largest and most diverse group of graduates ever to take the ACT, the nation’s leading college entrance exam, and also likely the broadest in terms of academic preparation. This is due in part to an increase in the number of states and districts that administer the ACT to all students, not just those who were preparing to go to college. This year’s report includes 29 states in which 50 percent or more of graduates took the ACT and 12 states in which 90 percent or more took the assessment. As more students take the ACT, the data obtained from scores better reflect the entire U.S. graduating class, providing a glimpse of the emerging educational pipeline.

The national college-readiness level of 39% is, like most national aggregates, a bit misleading. In some states, that readiness level according to the ACT is about 18%.

Aside from the “steps are being taken” happy mantra, there is something good to say. In state after state, for the first time since standardized test scores have been the centerpiece of our education policy, the tests are being made appropriately stringent, playing scholastic hardball rather than softball or T-ball. This has caused scores to drop, even in some of the most sought-after school districts. Admitting you have a problem may be the first step, but admitting the actual depth of the problem is the second. As today’s ACT report indicates, we are indeed in deep.

Analogies to Egypt

Rosetta Stone

Who doesn’t love analytical analogies—situations past that bear a resemblance to current circumstances and might offer at least a little usable insight.

The current state of Egypt, like many situations in the new global age, is a bit sui generis—a unique thing of its own that we neither know how to classify or handle. For some, it is like going to watch a sports competition where you don’t exactly understand the game, don’t know nearly enough about the teams, and yet are being expected to choose sides—to root for somebody.

Here are a few of what we might call impressionistic analogies: examples from recent history that won’t withstand close scrutiny as directly related scenarios, but do have a certain similarity that at least gives us food for thought.

Iran – The impending release of Mubarek by the military government—ostensibly because the fraud case leading to his arrest would not hold up—brings to mind Iran and the last Shah. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the Shah and ended the West-friendly dynasty that the U.S. had long supported. One of the small but historically high-profile early incidents was President Jimmy Carter allowing the very ill Shah to seek medical help here in 1980—a factor in the subsequent hostage-taking, that in turn was (just one) of the reasons that Carter was not re-elected.

The U.S. is not alone in having to bet on somebody in turbulent times. Leaders are both real and symbolic in these contests. In Iran, our betting on the Shah—who was like us, who we understood, and who wss not like “them”—has proven disastrous. In the case of Mubarek in Egypt, what we wanted with him all those years was stability and moderation, but when it became apparent during the Arab Spring that we were looking decidedly anti-democratic, we opted to cut him loose and hope for democracy to follow. When that democracy started looking theocratic, possibly militantly so (Muslim Brotherhood), we were very confused and concerned—and so were the remnants of Mubarekism still in or near power. Military and stability or democracy and “adventure”. The Egyptian military made their decision, but we seem unable to decide. Will the military try to re-install Mubarek, or just leave him as a symbol of better days. Do we wish that we had handled Iran better, maybe helping to ease out the Shah and autocratic rule? It probably would not have prevented theocracy, but we didn’t try.

Iraq – Iraq, like Egypt, is another example of wanting to act strategically, while looking like the “good guy” and trying to figure out what a good guy looks like or acts like in these times. We supported Saddam Hussein, we refused to topple him, we toppled him, we executed him. All hell broke loose, and that fire may burn for generations. Whatever our skill at playing a real-world version of Risk globally, our track record in the Middle East is atrocious. At this point, we may want to consider where we stand relative to the historic record of the British and the French. (Note: We seem to have a bizarre predilection for following in their footsteps with little more, or even less, success than they had. See, e.g, Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.)

Latin America – Our experiences in Latin America may serve as the most interesting of these tenuous analogies. The policy and history is easy to understand. We feared (still do) the incursion of Communism into the continent. We would support just about anybody who promised to keep the threat of socialism/Communism down. This put us in bed with a very bad lot, alliances that have had two lasting impacts. American fingerprints are all over the legacy of some despicable regimes. And now that many of those regimes are in the dustbin of history, residual anti-Americanism lingers on.

None of these alone, or even taken together, may offer much guidance in figuring out what to do in Egypt. Maybe a general lesson is that being powerful is not the same as being smart or being right. Maybe it’s that America is not as powerful as it thinks—back then, or even more so now—in a world it does not fully understand (again, ask the British and the French).

Egypt today is not that different from Egypt two years ago, or Syria now, or Iran or Iraq or Latin America. America has to expressly define and transparently decide how to stack our values and principles. Do we want American-style democracy or are we willing to settle for one of its other versions? Do we want democracy no matter what the results, or are we willing to trade democracy for authoritarian rule? Is authoritarian rule better than democratic or quasi-democratic Islamism, socialism or Communism? What is regional or global stability worth? What is peace worth? What is a Syrian or Egyptian or American life worth? Could billions in Egyptian aid, aside from whether or not we continue or suspend it, be better used to help Americans in an age of sequestration and austerity?

Grown up questions for grownups at the table.

Obama Must Renounce His Hawaiian Citizenship

Ted Cruz Birth Certificate

Now that we’ve (mostly) agreed that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, there’s one final step: he must renounce his Hawaiian citizenship to legitimately serve as President of the United States.

That’s actually not right. Hawaii was a state when Obama was born there, and before that, it was an American territory (remember Pearl Harbor?).

But it is a splashy way to introduce the latest chapter in the story of Ted Cruz as possible presidential candidate.

Ted Cruz, U.S. Senator from Texas, was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada to an American mother. The question of whether he is qualified to be President arises from Article Two, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which restricts the presidency to “natural born Citizen[s]”. Even though there has been a colloquial understanding that this means “born in the U.S.A.”, the point has never been litigated, and there is a growing sense that it simply means born American, rather than naturalized.

There is no dispute that Cruz was an American citizen at birth, being born of an American citizen, even if abroad. But after he released his birth certificate this weekend (see above), to answer speculation that he might not be qualified, a new wrinkle has cropped up. As indisputably as he is an American citizen, it now appears that he is—at this very moment—also a Canadian citizen. A number of experts on Canadian law are making it clear that when you are born in Canada, citizenship is automatic. You can renounce it later on if you choose, as some do. But right now, Cruz is both an American and Canadian citizen, able to vote in Canadian elections and even run for office there. (Note how weirdly complicated this would have been had he been born there before 1947, when his birth would have made him both an American citizen and a British subject: God Save the Queen.)

It isn’t clear whether Cruz has long known he was also a Canadian citizen, whether he secretly participates in Canadian ceremonies, whether he privately exhibits the legendary Canadian civility and sensibility, whether his support of the XL Pipeline was specially motivated, whether his plan to bring the U.S. government to a halt is meant to make his Canadian homeland look better by comparison, whether he still has feelings for Her Royal Highness, given that he is a citizen of the Commonwealth, if not the United Kingdom.

There is a political issue here, though one that Cruz might be able to turn to his advantage. He might be able to continue his Senate role as a dual citizen (at least it’s Canada, not Russia), but the presidency is another matter. If he does choose to renounce, he could do it on an ideological basis, pointing out how the socialist leanings of his homeland to the north have left it far behind the achievements of free market America, and how, unless America is careful, it will end up exactly like Canada—the land he chose to leave at the age of four, precisely because he knew that America was the true land of freedom and opportunity. Not to mention a whole lot warmer, particularly in Texas.