You have to feel sorry for Lithuania and its three million inhabitants. Lithuania may be the largest of the three Baltic countries, but it is still only as big as West Virginia. It may be a member of the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Schengen Agreement, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but it still has a 422-mile border with Belarus, a Russian lackey state.
Lithuania and the other Baltic states were part of the Russian empire for centuries and suffered under Russian Communist domination for 50 years. Being a part of historic Russia is not an experience the Lithuanians want to repeat.
The Lithuanians, 150,000 of whom are Russian-speakers, have provided moral support to the Ukrainians in their struggle with Russia, but only limited tangible support: “elements of armaments,” according to Linas Linkevicius, the Foreign Minister of Lithuania, and mittens for freezing Ukrainian hands, knitted to mark the occasion of Lithuania’s presidency of the European Union.
Now, as the Lithuanians watch the European Union’s quarter-hearted resistance to Russian war-making in Ukraine—against the backdrop of NATO’s decades-long history of being underfunded, and the Obamic “strategic patience” of the United States—their future looks as cold and bleak as the Ukrainians’ bare hands if Vladimir Putin decides to move to “protect” the Russian-speaking population in Lithuania and reintegrate the country into historic Russia.
Meanwhile, Greece toys with abandoning, or being abandoned by, a failing experiment known as the euro (which Lithuania adopted only this January 1), and Britain contemplates leaving another failing experiment known as the European Union. And coming soon: an adult discussion of what exactly the North Atlantic Treaty requires its signatories to do. Feeling sorry for people may not be seen as an adequate reason to go to war, at least not with a country that has 1,600 deployed nuclear warheads. Sixty-six years after its founding, NATO may be closer to failure than the euro and the EU.
At a small dinner in Washington recently, a knowledgeable Lithuanian made the case for Western support for Ukraine, including lethal but defensive weaponry. Inferentially, he was making a similar, prospective plea for Lithuania. He supported NATO maneuvers and said they should not be regarded as provocative. What was provocative, he said, was inaction—the failure to prepare
Asked about the value of the NATO guarantee to Lithuania, he in turn asked what options Lithuania had.
There’s a major problem with the NATO guarantee—a problem that must keep all the Baltic peoples awake during the long bleak Baltic winter nights. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that the parties agree that “each of them … will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
But what kind of action so unequivocally constitutes an attack that the 28 members of NATO will agree that it is an attack and therefore warrants action? We have seen, in Ukraine, a preview of Russian activity that has deniability — at least for those who want to find a reason not to act.
Greece, which joined NATO in 1952, has been cozying up to the Russians and will have no trouble finding such a reason.
But Greece may not be the only recalcitrant country. Other Europeans disagree on what, if anything, to do about Russia. People at the eastern edge of Western Europe tend, as you would expect, to be more nervous about Russia than are café sippers at the Deux Magots in Paris or Madeira drinkers at Boodle’s in London. Many Europeans have more local concerns: unemployment is 10 percent in the EU overall, but higher in France, Italy, and Portugal, and much higher in Spain (24 percent). Some Europeans argue that Ukraine had an elected government that was overthrown in a coup, which makes the claim to legitimacy by the current crop of Ukrainian politicians tenuous. Our knowledgeable Lithuanian friend disputed that interpretation.
A senior European diplomat told me recently that many Europeans thought Putin was just being a “good Russian” and that the Ukrainians were a rum bunch. (Whether those Europeans, or their grandparents, thought Hitler was just being a “good German” we don’t know.) I asked him if he thought the Russians would invade any more countries, e.g., Lithuania or other Baltic countries, expecting him to say no. He said he thought they might.
He said he thought the real, if longer-term, threat to Europe was China, but that a more immediate threat was immigrants—essentially an unlimited number of immigrants from North Africa. Not black Africans. Muslims. Americans, he said, have only Mexican immigrants to worry about, and they do not present the existential threat to America that North Africans (but not Russians) do to Europe, and to Western civilization.
That view may shock some Americans, especially those who are NATO-centric. They may be reviewing their pocket editions of the North Atlantic Treaty, brushing up on the argument for full-scale opposition to any new Russian “incursions,” if not with boots on the ground, at least with bombs from the air. Or at the very least, with crippling economic sanctions.
But our Lithuanian friend was against the most crippling economic sanction, that of banning Russia from SWIFT (the international payment, clearing, and settlement system). He said that that was too radical a measure, that it would have negative consequences for everyone, and that there were other banking actions that should be tried first.
Given the reluctance of the European countries to invoke Article 5, what are the odds the U.S. would? Slim. What the treaty means to the U.S. is probably, for now, only what a strategically patient President Obama, channeling his inner Humpty Dumpty, chooses for it to mean—neither more nor less. After all, a man who has no qualms about changing the country’s immigration law on his own should have no problem wiggling out of even an obvious NATO treaty obligation.
Wall Street too will be unenthusiastic, especially about economic sanctions. Like hippies who’d rather make love than war, the wolves—and crony capitalists—of Wall Street would rather make money than … anything. Lenin knew that.
But even Main Street Americans are likely to think that Lithuania is, after all, you know, well, kind of, a long…way…away.
In which case, it may turn out that the North Atlantic Treaty is a relic and type of our ancestors’ worth, but not a good guide to their descendants’ behavior.
A serious question, which will be raised again, and again, by disturbances and conflicts, actual and threatened, in the North Atlantic Treaty area and in other areas of the globe, is: Should the U.S. be guided by treaties or only by what is seen to be in its immediate national interest? Treaties are important. But their importance tends to be in inverse proportion to the power of the signatory. Of course, honoring the commitments of a treaty may be in the national interest even if, or perhaps sometimes especially if, the particular action required by the treaty seems not to be.
We are already up to our ankles in Ukraine. The question is, once we begin providing assistance, which means we’ve joined the fight, when do we stop? If we send mittens or Meals Ready to Eat, do we also have to send, eventually, tactical nuclear weapons? And if not, why not?
One answer to that question may be that we should provide some weapons to the Ukrainians in order to raise the cost to the Russians of their aggression, on the theory that if you make something more expensive, you get less of it—though maybe not in this case.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top military commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove, said last week, “We see Mr. Putin is all-in, and they will proceed till their objectives are accomplished.”
If we are prepared to be up to our knees in providing assistance, shouldn’t we be prepared to be up to our keister? But according to Gen. Breedlove, even that may not be enough.
Which raises again the question: Is going part way, but not finishing the job, worse than doing nothing at all? Doesn’t it give false hope, waste resources, and make us look fickle? If the U.S. is not prepared to take the last step, should it take the first step?
The answers to those questions may be numbing, but they should make us be more careful in the future about entering into treaties. If we husband our guarantees, they will be more believable—especially if they are seen as closely related to our national interests.
The United States has several strategic national interests, some more important than others. The three primary interests are protecting this country from the nefarious activities of: China, Russia, and Muslim terrorists.
Securing the territorial integrity of Lithuania, or of Ukraine, against Russia is strategically necessary only if the Russian activity is understood as one more step in a long-term Russian strategy, which is likely to succeed, of destabilizing Europe (whatever that means). That is certainly contrary to U.S. interests. But it is not clear yet that even a Baltic Dinner—a Russian three-course meal consisting of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—would force the conclusion that Russia, an economically failing kleptocracy, presents such a threat to U.S. security that intervention, even if only by the imposition of crippling economic sanctions, is required.
But that leaves open the question: Is U.S. intervention required because of our expressed obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty even if Russia’s actual activity does not (or does not yet) present a threat to our security?
The Russians, no doubt, are nasty people (by which of course we mean Putin and Co. are nasty people), and the Ukrainians may be a rum bunch too, as some Europeans say, and, for all I know, the Lithuanians are a bad lot, though our knowledgeable Lithuanian was an awfully pleasant fellow. But U.S. policy cannot be based on who’s naughty and who’s nice, but only on what will produce peace and security, for us.
Our Lithuanian dinner companion described himself as an optimist. But I couldn’t think why, given the options, and he didn’t look optimistic as he left us, and we felt sorry for him as he walked out into the cold, dark Washington night.
It’s been cold in Washington for days. But it may be even colder in Lithuania, and in the other small countries on Russia’s border, for many years to come.
Daniel Oliver is Chairman of the Board of Education and Research Institute and Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C.
The soul of the Republican Party, always assuming it has a soul, is back in play. Arthur Brooks has written a piece in Commentary decrying conservatives’ reluctance to articulate a social justice agenda. Peter Wehner lauded the piece in his column in Commentary. Power Line’s Paul Mirengoff dissented from Wehner’s defense of the term “social justice,” and Wehner responded.
Inside baseball? Perhaps. But it’s spring training for the big game in 2016, and that game will decide, in the short term at least, the fate of the nation.
Brooks lays out his view of the problem. Under Obama’s policies, the rich have been getting richer—they’re all Goldman Saxons now. Meanwhile, the poor are suffering—indeed, have become desperate. A smaller percentage of Americans are employed than at any time since the Jimmy Carter daze, and a higher percentage are on food stamps than in 2009—almost 50 percent more, Brooks says, although he doesn’t mention that food stamp eligibility requirements have been reduced in recent years. Clearly the president has failed to achieve his goals, but that won’t stop the Democrats from campaigning on issues like income inequality. What conservatives need, Brooks says, is a social agenda of their own.
Some of what Brooks says may be true, though it is simply not clear how many people are really, really poor. Nevertheless, as we have witnessed for years, conservatives are portrayed (by the left-wing media, to be sure) as hard-hearted. Then they lose elections. Then the left-wing (or kind and gentle compassionate Republican) victors promote more bad policies, and the cycle repeats.
With a few exceptions, that is what’s been happening for the last, oh, 60 years. Since the launching of National Review in 1955, government has grown relentlessly, with, perhaps, three exceptions: Reagan’s reduction of the top income-tax rates, welfare reform in the 1990s, and victory in the Cold War, which allowed us to reduce military spending (but did taxes go down?). Other than those victories, conservatives have been losing ground, under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Whatever conservatives have been doing, it hasn’t been translating into votes for their presidential candidates recently, or into policies (with those three exceptions) for decades. In sports, when you’re losing, the proper strategy is to change your game. That, expressed differently, may be what Arthur Brooks is saying.
Brooks’s game-changing solution is for conservatives to “articulate” a social justice agenda of their own. Based on his interviews with actual poor and vulnerable citizens, he says that what the poor truly need is: transformation, relief, and opportunity.
By “transformation” he means “personal, moral transformation,” the constituent parts of which are faith, family, community, and work. “Relief” is programs that provide cash, some with incentives attached (e.g., the Earned Income Tax Credit), some without. “Opportunity” means, essentially, better education.
But it isn’t immediately clear whether Brooks’s argument relates to a need for new programs or only for new packaging.
There isn’t a goal that Brooks suggests that hasn’t been part of the conservatives’ agenda for years, though they may not have been calling it social justice. As for specific programs, Brooks doesn’t propose a single one in his 5,500-word piece. Looking at welfare reform, he says only that “the beginning of an answer … lies in the welfare reform movement of the 1990s.” Yes, and remember how that was vilified—until it was successful; and even then, under Obama, some of the reforms were undone because it didn’t seem, to some people, socially just to impose work requirements on the poor.
Social justice turns out to be a double-edged sword.
Even so, Peter Wehner supports social justice, although he concedes that Friedrich Hayek believed the term was a “hollow incantation,” an “empty formula.” Wehner quotes Irving Kristol: “Can men live in a free society if they have no reason to believe it is also a just society? I do not think so.” Kristol said that man “cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.” But distributed by what agency? There are only three possibilities: the market, individuals, and the state. In most of the world the state distributes. In most of the world people are miserable. It is not obvious that a reasonable man, looking around, would prefer to live in a “just” society than one in which he was free.
And what, on earth, are “morally meaningful criteria?” Wehner refers us to Psalm 33:5, which in his preferred translation says, “The Lord loves social justice.” But unless the Lord has decided to concern himself with groups instead of individuals (will He—finally, after their 12-year losing streak!—be pulling for Army next year?) “social justice” refers to the actions of individuals—which, yes, would include individuals acting as a group, but only as uncoerced members of a group.
Paul Mirengoff would seem to agree. He says the concept of social justice just doesn’t make sense. Justice is “individual-centric.” “When a person goes to court,” Mirengoff says, “… our system strives to provide him with a result that is fair given what he has done or failed to do.” Yes and no.
Mirengoff may be right about the concept of social justice not making sense, but his example sounds more like social justice than he probably intends. A person’s day in court is supposed to provide him with justice, which may or may not be fair. What we hope is that at least the justice system is fair. For example: Suppose a plaintiff is clearly in the right, but he has waited too long to file his claim, and so it is denied. Is that fair? Perhaps not to the plaintiff, but it is to the defendant, who would otherwise be liable indefinitely. That’s why we have statutes of limitation.
Still, Mirengoff’s instincts are good. He says, “The pursuit of social justice may also lead to action that is inconsistent with justice, such as granting racial preferences or expropriating someone’s property for ‘the greater good.’” Correct. But then he says he agrees with Wehner that “any society that fails to dispense some measure of sympathy and solicitude to others, particularly those living in the shadows and who are most vulnerable to injustice, cannot really be a good society.”
But the issue is not dispensing sympathy and solicitude, which Peter can scatter luxuriantly without diminishing Paul’s supply. The issue is taking a portion of the finite number of dollars Mr. and Mrs. America have so they can be redistributed to Ms. Welfare Mother and her third illegitimate child, whose father was last seen starring in a security-camera video. Mirengoff doesn’t say, specifically, whether he approves of that redistributionist policy. He does say that “vulnerability to injustice can be countered by the rigorous pursuit of simple justice.” But what does that mean? Being poor is a form of injustice? The question is: Does Mirengoff favor, say, food stamps, or does he not?
Perhaps Mirengoff’s point is that if a society is going to claim that it is just for the state to help the poor, it must also claim that it is just for the state to tax the non-poor in order to redistribute their wealth—and therefore we have no need to call that taxing and redistributing “social justice.” But he doesn’t say that, and so we are left wondering which if any welfare programs Mirengoff would have society support in order to be the good society that Wehner describes.
Wehner does not describe the individual programs a society should adopt in order to be socially just, but we can make some guesses by looking at his record as a member of the compassionate conservative Bush administration, which gave us No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug program, and nation-building in Iraq.
Wehner concludes the debate by saying that his differences with Mirengoff are more about semantics than about ends. But that isn’t clear, because Mirengoff doesn’t say what programs or policies his non-social justice polity would sanction. If none, then Mirengoff and Wehner are poles apart.
Where does that take us?
Back to Arthur Brooks. Conservatives may fret over Brooks’s piece because they may think he has a whole packet of social justice reforms up his sleeve.
That, I think, would be to misread Brooks. He is talking about semantics: how conservatives should sell the policy goals, and policies, they have supported, if inarticulately, for years. He must be talking about semantics, because if he’s suggesting that conservatives haven’t been in favor of the policy goals he recommends, he… hasn’t been paying attention.
Brooks says that for too long conservatives have been against things instead of “for people.” Perhaps, but they may have taken their cue from the Ten Commandments, eight of which are negative, or from the Bill of Rights, which is a negation of government power. Our founding documents were crafted specifically to protect us from people like Barack Obama.
Conservatives know the value of faith, community, and work. Heaven knows they know the value of family and of education—look at the efforts they have made to promote various non-governmental solutions to the problems in these areas. And their proposal for Social Security is not to abolish it but to privatize it. Brooks may think that conservatives have been insufficiently articulate, and given their presidential and policy track record, he has a point. But is his point augmented or diminished by Gallup’s finding that 72 percent of Americans describe themselves as either conservatives or moderates? Have conservatives done well, and would they have done better flying a social justice banner? Or worse?
Mirengoff says there are dangers in marching under a social justice banner, and he’s right. One danger is that liberals always have bigger banners. Home ownership for the poor, achieved by requiring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to lower their underwriting standards, was the social justice cause of the last decade. Describe and discuss (use only one blue book).
In addition, many people won’t understand what the social justice banner means. Just explaining how much conservative programs would benefit the poor is not likely to sway voters who neither trust conservatives nor understand why government is, or should be, limited.
Finally, one gets the sense that Arthur Brooks thinks a conservative social justice agenda might play well in the liberal press. If so, Houston, we have a problem.
Maybe, just maybe, the way to capture the public’s attention is to fly a freedom banner and propose something truly new: a massive—20 percent? Wow!—reduction in welfare programs and regulations. Scrap agricultural supports. Abolish the Department of Commerce. Eliminate OSHA. That may be too libertarian for most Republicans, but those kinds of ideas seem to have traction on the campuses. And couldn’t such a program be described as justice, maybe even social justice? If a time limit on filing a claim in court is justice for potential defendants, why isn’t not having to pay taxes to support a thousand wasteful social programs justice for working people?
Well, maybe Brooks is right: Perhaps it’s just semantics after all. Conservatives can continue to care about the nation as they have since, let’s say, 1955, but in public they must emphasize their “sympathy and solicitude” for the poor. Maybe. Maybe not.
What if the Republican Party renamed itself the Sympathy and Solicitude Party. That would shake up 2016, which, conservatives should remember, is an away game. They’re all away games. The sportscasters are the New York Times and the Washington Post and their affiliates, and all the ads will be for liberal candidates.
Brooks is saying, I think, that conservatives have the products. They just need to create better ads. That’s one way of looking at it.
Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. In addition to serving as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan, he was Executive Editor and subsequently Chairman of the Board of National Review.
Last Friday afternoon, Makayla Darden, an eight-year-old girl, was hit by a stray bullet in Southeast Washington. Unlike Trayvon Martin, she was not instantly adopted by President Obama.
Two men, Karie Brown, 19, and Nathaniel Patten, 21, also of Southeast Washington, have been arrested and charged with assault with intent to kill while armed.
Last Friday was St. Valentine’s Day.
There were 91 murders in the District of Columbia last year (not counting the 12 people gunned down at the Navy Yard). The figure is up from 2012 (when Washington ranked eighth in murders per capita among American cities), but down from previous years, which may dampen the public’s interest in crime news from Washington’s more crime-ridden neighborhoods. Crime, whether it’s up or down, takes place primarily “somewhere else,” in the . . . lower-class neighborhoods of Washington: not the part where President Obama sends his children to school.
Government in Washington, D.C., known as “self-government,” would be a late-night television joke to someone with no feelings for what can accurately be described as the underclass. The government’s corruption and incompetence are as obvious and permanent as the two large warts on your grandmother’s nose—and it’s just not terribly polite to talk about them either.
But the dysfunction is real. And the Washington Post (give it at least one star) even has a feature: “D.C. corruption scandals: A primer.” Click on any button and learn how the city fathers steal from the people.
But of course that’s not street crime. It’s only thievery, and does thievery, even high-level thievery, really affect ordinary people? Can’t we spin the facts, the way former mayor Marion Barry did years ago, when he said Washington would have one of the lowest crime rates in the country—if it weren’t for the murders.
Let thieves be thieves: we adults care—with Hillary—about the children.
So how are the children doing? According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2011 Washington, D.C., had the worst high-school graduation rate in the country.
Fortunately for President Obama’s children, their school’s graduation rate is 100 percent. He can afford the tuition of $35,288 (which includes a hot lunch). He can also afford to be relentlessly ideologically opposed to school choice. As is, you will not be surprised to learn, the National Education Association (the teachers’ union), for which school choice is a cross fashioned from garlic.
As the figures show, violent crime is trending down in the District. But probably not illegitimacy, now so rampant as to be normal—70 percent among blacks, almost three times the level of the 1960s. Today, it’s not illegitimacy that’s déclassé. It’s the word “illegitimacy” itself. “Out-of-wedlock” is the quaint mot du jour. Liberal Progressives (President Obama’s forebears), who in the 1960s promoted a reinterpretation of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children law, may not have caused the increase in illegitimacy, but they made having illegitimate children financially viable, even profitable.
A search of the news accounts of Makayla Darden’s shooting turns up no mention of a father. Only a mother, a grandmother, and an aunt. The statistics tell us that even if her father and mother are together, it’s not likely that her friends live in two-parent homes.
Fortunately for President Obama’s children, their parents are married.
A few years ago, a middle-class white person asked a middle-class black one in the adjacent bus seat whether he had any thoughts on why the black community they had just visited was so dysfunctional. The black person looked back in astonishment: “My mother is a lawyer. My father is a doctor. I have absolutely nothing in common with these people.”
One has the sense that President Obama might have been the person occupying that seat.
Meanwhile, Makayla Darden fights for her life in a Southeast Washington hospital, in critical but stable condition. And if she recovers, she will return to a community President Obama seems to have absolutely nothing in common with.
By the way, how did you spend St. Valentine’s Day?
Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.