Archive for May, 2011


By Gil Troy, National Post, 5-24-11


Tim Pawlenty: Could be last man standing

Believe it or not, just as we finished with Canada’s mercifully brief -but far too frequent -national election campaign, the first American presidential debate for 2012 took place. Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party hosted a candidates’ forum on May 5 in Greeneville, S.C., a mere 18 months before Election Day.

Former governor Tim Pawlenty was the only A-lister present; other participants included Rep. Ron Paul, tycoon Herman Cain, former senator Rick Santorum and former governor Gary Johnson. The Ronald Reagan Library postponed its debate, originally scheduled for May 2, until September, when presumably more candidates will have announced.

Of course, a Reagan debate on May 2 would have been better poetically, both because of its overlap with the Canadian contest, and because, more than 30 years after his inauguration, Ronald Reagan -or at least his iconic reputation -remains the standard by which Republicans judge their candidates.

On the Democratic side, it is safe to assume that some future historians will begin their account of the 2012 campaign with the death of Osama bin Laden. Whether it proves a boost to Obama’s campaign or not, it is a significant historic move that arrived just as the Republican party is beginning to prepare for the coming election.

We can, of course, expect that this campaign, like all the others, will feature high-minded calls to focus on substance -even as candidates, journalists and, let’s face it, voters, succumb to base appeals and debates. Such spectacles are a necessary part of democratic politics. But we should hope that the inevitable rhetorical fireworks don’t eclipse the important debates that should dominate the coming campaign.

Americans should be debating at least three fundamental questions: What kind of government do they want, what kind of military do they need and what kind of leadership have they been getting?

Although Obama and the leaders of the Tea Party do not agree on much, they have been addressing this first basic question for months. In a recent speech on deficit reduction at George Washington University, Obama spoke of two threads “running throughout our history” -one of rugged individualism, with a belief in free markets, and “a belief that we are all connected … that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.”

It is too facile to caricature the Republicans as the individualists and the Democrats as the communitarians, but Republicans are individualists -who believe in a strong national defence. Democrats like Obama are communitarians -who understand that a strong economy must be free. How precisely to weave the two threads together is one of the central challenges of modern governance, and of the upcoming election.

Regarding the military, there are practical, tactical questions along with abstract ideological dilemmas. Especially in an age of cutbacks, the military must justify the huge chunk of the budget it devours. And America’s partial involvement in the attempt to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi is a suitable launching pad for wider-ranging discussions about when the United States should resort to military force, what kind of force the U.S. should engage in, and whether American foreign policy should be realist or idealistic. All these questions again feed into the broader issue of just what kind of country America will be.

Finally, this election will be a referendum on Obama. It is hard making a re-election campaign about anything else but the incumbent. And especially considering the tremendously high hopes Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign stirred in 2008, the overwhelming challenges Obama has faced since winning and the continuing questions about just what are his core ideals, the election is likely to pivot around him and his job performance.

Amid all the predictions and speculation about the final result, candidates, commentators and voters have an opportunity to debate the serious issues facing the United States today. Whether any and all tackle these three key questions will be the true measure of the upcoming campaign’s success.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University. His latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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The Reagan Revolution (A Brief Insight) [Hardcover] By Gil Troy

Available Now! Amazon.com — Barnes & Noble

The Reagan Revolution (A Brief Insight)

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Product Description

Two decades after Reagan left office, debate continues to rage over just how revolutionary his presidency was. This book tackles the controversies and historical mysteries that continue to swirl around his legacy, while providing a look at some of the era’s defining personalities, ideas, and accomplishments. Today, Reagan remains the most influential president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his legacy continues to shape American politics, diplomacy, culture, and economics.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Sterling (May 3, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1402779046
  • ISBN-13: 978-1402779046

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By Gil Troy, 5-2-11

Osama bin Laden died a spectacular failure. While his predecessor Yassir Arafat proved that terrorism can work, bin Laden proved terrorism’s limits.  Osama killed more people more flamboyantly than Arafat.  But, under Arafat, the Palestinians blasted their way onto the world’s agenda.  Osama’s nihilistic terrorism was so destructive it hurt his cause, miring Islamism in a bog of death and destructiveness.  Osama’s blood-splattered biography taught the world important lessons, including:  

We cannot escape history:  Too many Americans awoke on September 11, believing we were enjoying a holiday from history.  Communism had collapsed.  The Dow Jones was rising. Electronic gadgets were proliferating.  Serious thinkers and superficial commentators were claiming that Americans transcended history—using “history” as a euphemism for troubles.

Al Qaeda terrorism abruptly ended America’s post-Cold War idyll, highlighting even a super-power’s vulnerability in the modern world.  But the post-9/11 assumptions that this mass trauma would make American society serious proved as false as the September 10 assumptions that peace and prosperity would last forever or that anyone could escape from the various forces large and small which accumulate and shape us—which we then call history.

We can defeat terrorism:  Even before September 11, but certainly after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the conventional wisdom imputed far too much power to terrorists.  These big bangs in New York and Washington, as well as the latest wave of Palestinian terror that had started a full year earlier in Israel, seemed to be harbingers of perpetual attacks.  But two leaders who were not afraid to be hated, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, showed that reacting to terrorist attacks was not enough.  Pushing back militarily, hunting terrorists down, keeping them on the defensive, was the best way to prevent future attacks.  Terrorists have trouble planning attacks on the run or under bombardment.

Islamists—and eventually the Palestinians—also suffered from their own, often-overlooked, version of blowback.  Suicide bombings of office buildings and cafes, buses and bar mitzvahs triggered mass revulsion.  The terrorists lost what little romance they cultivated in the 1960s and 1970s, appearing to be barbarians who hurt their own cause.  Ten years later, Al Qaeda has nothing to show for its spectacular mass slaughter in 2001; even Hamas is more likely to deny a terrorist attack than take “credit” for it.

Islamism is evil:  Prior to 9/11, the statement was doubly problematic.  Many of our greatest thinkers recoiled from such judgmental proclamations, especially concerning any non-Western phenomena.  The crime of 9/11 was so dastardly it shocked many—not all—back into a language of good and evil, right and wrong.  And, as politically incorrect as it may be, many recognized that this fight was not just against a tactic—terrorism—but an ideology—Islamism.

Islamism is a Jihadist, holy war-oriented, perversion of Islam, rooted in some Koranic teachings, but ignoring others.  Despite their fury against Bin Laden’s brutal Islamism, few Americans attacked Arab-Americans or Muslim-Americans.  George W. Bush deserves tremendous credit for repudiating such bigotry.  American-Arabs and Muslims also helped themselves.  Most are neither Islamists nor jihadists.  The nineteen hijackers were foreign infiltrators not homegrown terrorists.  And anyone who examined America’s Arab and Muslim population encountered law-abiding citizens, many of whom sought refuge in the United States from this fundamentalist fanaticism.

Israel is not the problem:  Bin Laden’s own words demonstrated his hatred for the West, and for America’s military presence in Saudi Arabia.  He only redirected his Jihad toward Israel after 9/11, in a bid for popularity.  As with this year’s Arab spring, the facts from the Middle East disturbed the conventional wisdom in the West.  Nevertheless, so many supposed experts continued buying Palestinians’ propaganda line that solving their conflict is the keystone to world peace, when their future is not even the central regional challenge.

Democracies are resilient:  September 11 resulted from a dramatic American intelligence failure.  Following September 11, Americans feared terrorism would triumph.  President Bush made many, significant mistakes—or, as Republicans preferred to say it, mistakes were made.  Yet, like Londoners in the 1940s, or Jerusalemites in the 2000s, Americans showed a grit and a grace, a unity and a sense of community, a softness in their hearts and a toughness in their spirits, that ultimately defeated the terrorists and healed the country, even as over 3000 families, friendship circles, neighborhoods, communities continue to cope with unfathomable losses.

Presidencies often converge:  For all their differences in tone, style, and ideology, Presidents Bush and Obama have responded in remarkably similar ways to their respective presidencies’ biggest crises.  Bush looked downright Democratic in turning on the stimulus spigot to spend America out of its economic trauma.  Obama has looked downright Republican in assassinating America’s enemies whenever and wherever he can.  Perhaps, it is worth ratcheting down the rhetoric, just a bit, and understanding that responsible democratic leaders often have more limited options than it seems, and that responsible leaders often act responsibly, regardless of ideology.

In the great American musical “South Pacific,” the main character asked a soldier, “We know what you are against, what are you for?”  Bin Laden failed because he defined himself by what he opposed, while what he promoted was so chimerical, it made him look delusional and dastardly, addicted to death, with no plan for life.

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