Monday, May 28, 2007

Speaking of the Future

Last Friday’s entry was, for the most part, about today.

Not the date or the day of the week but about the day of remembrance once called Decoration Day ( for “decorating” tombs of Civil War dead) that falls this year on May 28.

Last Friday also happened to be the day on which West Point cadets and Annapolis midshipmen in the class of 2007 graduated and were commissioned in the Armed Forces of the United States. Commencement addresses were given by Vice President Dick Chaney to the cadets and by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to the middies.

That the entire tenor of a graduation ceremony could be set by the remarks of a commencement speaker was, at one time, not unusual. That the tenor set at West Point and Annapolis by these two high ranking administration officials clashed so sharply is indicative of the policy struggle going on within the administration over what next to do in (or to) Iraq.

As is customary, both speakers highlighted the virtues of the military academies and education. But Cheney’s list started with an odd “virtue”: a “sense of rectitude” – followed by “devotion to duty” and “acceptance of personal responsibility.” I am not sure what Cheney meant, but in the context of the administration’s overall record of mishandling contracts, ignoring or overriding internal agency checks and balances, and frustrating the constitutional process of congressional oversight of war finances and reconstruction money, for the Vice-President to trumpet “rectitude” is mind-boggling – unless he is saying that only the uniformed military have to be virtuous.

Cheney also noted that some cadets had already seen war in Afghanistan and Iraq – enlisted personnel who, on return to the U.S. applied for West Point and were accepted as cadets. And, as is Cheney’s stock in trade, he brought up September 11, 2001: the war on terror started “because the enemy attacked us first… [and] they’re working feverishly to obtain even more destructive weapons.”

Obliquely, he defends the reduction of freedom in the United States as the price of security, but says nothing about just how extensive the administration’s attack on civil liberties and human rights has been. Then came the vintage linkage to Iraq:

“America is the kind of country that stands up to brutality, terror, and injustice.”

“America is fighting this enemy in Iraq because that is where they have gathered.”

“…having removed Saddam Hussein, we promised not to allow another dictator to arise in his place.”

The last point of any significance was a statement that “the war on terror does not have to be an endless war, But to prevail in the long run, we must remove the conditions that inspire such blind, prideful hatred that drove” the 9/11 hijackers.

Nowhere is there any nod to the history of the last quarter of the 20th century and the instances of the use of U.S. military power in the Middle East.

Nowhere is there a mention of, let alone apology for, the brutality and terror perpetrated by U.S. troops (yes, a small minority) and the strenuous efforts by the administration to circumvent the rights of any person detained by the U.S. military.

Nowhere does he concede that the terrorists are in Iraq because that is where the targets (U.S. troops) are or that Iraq just might end up being ruled by a benevolent Saddam figure.

And as to “prideful hatred,” whatever Cheney may define this as, I suggest that the forces propelling the 9/11 perpetrators had more to do with the frustrations related to the social, political, and economic conditions that governments in the region have been unable or unwilling to address and the support the U.S. extends to authoritarian rulers who “are with us.”

Cheney, of course, thanked the cadets for choosing to serve their country. Secretary Gates did so too, adding that the graduates had chosen “to defend the dreams of others.” Part of that dream is contained in the U.S. Constitution which the middies (and cadets) swear to uphold and defend.

It is here that Gates diverges most sharply from Cheney. Only in the very last paragraph of the official transcript does Cheney mention the oath the cadets took when they first entered West Point and took again that morning as an integral part of their commissioning ceremony. But Gates chooses to remind the midshipmen that the oath they pledge – “to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic” – requires them to defend the various institutions enumerated or those that in the natural course of the exercise of guaranteed rights (e.g., habeas corpus in the rule of law, the right to assemble peaceably, to debate and petition government) must be secure in the national fabric. Hence Gates unequivocally states that “the Congress and the press… are the surest guarantees of the liberty of the American people.”

I read the rest of Gates’ address which focused on the traits of a competent, inspired and inspiring leader. Integrity, common decency, doing the right thing, and treating everyone with respect and dignity fall into this model. But I was drawn back to the section on the Congress and the press, so different from what most people in the military and government (outside of Congress) believe or claim they believe.

In 21 words, Gates summed the meaning of the day for those in his audience, those at West Point, and for every American: “As the Founding Fathers wisely understood, the Congress and a free press, as with a non-political military, assure a free country.”

Someone ought to tell the Vice-President.

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