Tue 27 Jan 2009
It’s wonderful having opinions, especially if they’re not constrained by facts or reality. It’s why I think it’s so important to have quality newspapers available to keep us informed through both stories, in theory just presenting us with factual information, and opinion pieces, which provide us with not only factual information but perspective. While stories are important, it’s the opinion pieces where I really learn about the world. It’s where I can begin to see the gray the exists between the black and the white. The Washington Post’s Outlook section this Sunday was a wonderful case in point. It provided with information that helped refine my picture of the world in a number or areas. There was nary a piece that didn’t in some way change my opinion of the issue addressed. I think I read Outlook cover to cover on Sunday. I won’t link to all of the pieces today, but to a good number of them. What did I learn?
I learned more about Israel’s dilemma in dealing with its neighbors where its decisions are often in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” category. The piece, Israel Must Stop Fanning the Flames That Will Consume Us, by David Grossman explained why the author thinks the recent, and perhaps just postponed, war in Gaza has been a mistake and is likely to have done more harm than good. It is valuable information on the road to meaningful “opinion.” I really can’t imagine forming an relevant opinion without having this kind of perspective.
On the financial crisis, in Sebastian Mallaby’s What OPEC Teaches China, I received a perspective on the relationship between the crisis and Chinease economic policy. It was important new information. Likewise in David Ignatius’ Scary Financial Movie I learned additional things about the damage being done to the banking system, and the role of that in our financial crisis, by the toxic assets that are corroding the system. I received a perspective that supported my evolving view of what the developing economic “stimulus” plan should look like in a Washington Post editorial entitled Priming the Pump. I agreed with the Post editorial staff that there is much that is good and some that is not in the House stimulus bill. Unfortunately there is much that simply isn’t “stimulus”. And, that is not or at least should not be a partisan issue. Republicans are right to object.
In Teacher on a World Stage by Jim Hoagland I was given the opportunity to think about how President Obama is going to be received by the world and, particularly, other world leaders. Most of these leaders are enthusiastic now, but will he ask too much of them? As Hoagland puts it in his concluding sentence: “There is no reason to think that the political earthquake Obama launched in the United States three years ago will stop at the water’s edge or has already run its course.”
Concerning Guantanamo, Karen J. Greenberg in a piece entitled When Gitmo Was (Relatively) Good, informs us that at its infancy, the Guantanamo facility as run by the original military task force under Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert had the makings of utilitarian facility to house enemy combatants. This was because Gen. Lehnert felt he had little choice but to meticulously follow “the Uniform Code of Military Justice, other U.S. laws and, above all, the Geneva Conventions.” He also invited in and worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross to improve conditions. All that changed under directives from Donald Rumsfeld and the rest is history. President Obama has announced that the facility will soon close. The column leaves us with the impression, however, that the Guantanamo story could have been different had the original rules been followed. In such an event President Obama might not have had to announce its closure in the first week of his presidency. It could have remained an viable option for America to house “the worst of the worst”, which now must still be dealt with in some other workable and acceptable way.
Finally, there was a piece by George McGovern entitled Don’t Lose Your Way in Afghanistan, Mr. President. While I’ve rarely ever agreed with George McGovern and credit him, more than anyone else, for my decision to become a Republican in 1972, he offers a perspective on Afghanistan that is important. A similar perspective is also communicated in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War or the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It is essentially a message that military might alone cannot win a war such as the war being waged in Afghanistan and the remote regions of Pakistan. There must also be significant amounts of humanitarian assistance in the form of food and the building of educational facilities to come out on top. While McGovern would argue for a complete end to military involvement, I would argue for both but with a much increased emphasis on the humanitarian side.
Americans have a number of problems in staying adequately informed. First, we don’t really care about much other than America-focused news and all too often that is of a superficial nature, overly-focused as it is on sports and entertainment. Second, we don’t read newspapers, and the internet, while amazing, can’t substitute for a newspaper as a one-stop source of comprehensive and reliable information. Third, the newspapers we do read in our small towns and even most of our large cities in America are pretty terrible when it comes to presenting important national news and opinion. There are really only a handful of really good newspaper in the U.S. today and far too few Americans read any of them. It is why I put such little stock in public opinion polls. It is because the “opinion” that is reflected in these polls is so substantively deficient that it will rarely tell the country’s leadership what it should do or what the right thing to do is. It will tell them what is “popular”. It’s why at times I feel like throwing up my hands and screaming. Yet I don’t and for now I persist in my Quixotic quest by writing this column. What I am convinced of is that there is almost always a “right thing to do”. Getting there is the challenge. It takes abundant information and a good faith effort. Our hope is that we seem to now have a president who seems genuinely inclined toward trying to achieve the right thing. His challenge is in “leading” an America and indeed a Congress that doesn’t have enough information nor the desire to amass enough information to contribute to, let alone not sabotage, that effort. We can only hope that Obama keeps aiming high and resists the temptations himself to do the politically expedient.