Monday, August 30, 2010

Making excuses (Or: How national security politics has killed the blog)

If you're a frequent reader, you'll surely have noticed the drop-off in posting frequency lately. There are a lot of reasons for that, and I could sit here and compile a list of excuses that would be alternatingly sensible and pathetic, but I'm not going to do that. I'm just going to highlight a trend that has certainly impacted the way that I think and write lately, one that's more worrying to me than my own personal laziness.

As Schmedlap has noted before (several times, probably), most of us don't read national security blogs or follow security analysts and commentators on Twitter in order to get our daily dose of partisan domestic politics. I completely agree with him on this one. I'm not particularly interested in what my dentist has to say about gay marriage, or how my rugby coach feels about constitutional interpretation, or really even what my colleagues in the office have to say about the stimulus bill. Domestic politics, as everyone knows, are right alongside religion as just one of those things you don't generally want to get into with people you don't know very well. Ideology, upbringing, socioeconomic class, ethno-linguistic group, etc etc -- there are a whole bunch of factors that impact an individual's politics and often make that class of beliefs entirely obscure to reason and rational argument, so it's usually best to just skip the whole thing.

Our present problem is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to talk about national security without brushing up against politics. The two subjects have never been entirely firewalled from one another, of course; the way people felt about the country's general approach to the Soviet Union during the Cold War was largely informed by questions of ideology, and a big chunk of the security issues that have sprung out of the stultifyingly-labeled "post-9/11 era" have broken along party or ideological lines. It's sort of the very nature of a world in which we view "homeland security" as an extension of national defense, really. We've had the luxury as Americans, in our relative geographic isolation, of viewing the physical security of our territory as almost an afterthought to the category of issues that we discuss under the heading of "national defense"; this latter subject mostly pertains to forward defense, or the defense and/or protection of American interests and installations abroad. September 11th changed that to some degree, but the politicization of terrorism and security in the intervening decade has done far more to bring down that wall of separation. Security demagoguery and the easy, thoughtless employment of scare tactics mean that every issue has a public safety component -- even immigration and the construction of houses of worship.

So why is this a big deal now, you're wondering? Well, hopefully you're not wondering, because it's pretty obvious. The Park51/"Ground Zero Mosque" controversy -- along with recent poll results showing that a significant chunk of Americans (and a near-majority of Republicans) are confused about the president's professed faith -- has offered an interesting window into the way that ethno-sectarian bias and amateur theology inform the politics of many, many putatively "scared" Americans. The way that so many national political leaders (on both sides of the aisle, I should note) have hewed to simple nativist narratives and trampled on the true meaning of the American political ideal has driven home for me just precisely how inextricable politics are from the national conversation about security and defense. Just this morning I had the unfortunate experience of overhearing half an hour of CSPAN Radio's "American Journal" on the subject of immigration and the border fence, and the ease with which so many callers are willing to declare an occasionally porous border to be a "national security issue" or a "problem for the military" or a "massive opportunity for terrorists" has helped to underline this fact.

While the blog has suffered, I'm spending a lot more time lately expressing my feelings about all of this on Twitter. That's not necessarily a good thing for the blog, because it keeps me from writing longer-form things on occasion, but it's allowed me to broaden the network of people with whom I interact and to get a two-way exchange going instead of just screaming into the wind. I've met a number of really interesting people and been exposed to issues, opinion, and analysis that I otherwise wouldn't have been. It also means that my thinking and writing have reached a slightly greater audience, and some of those people are really mostly politics people who just like a side of national security in the morning. (This has the added effect of sometimes delivering ego-boosting moments like the one I had on Friday, when Adam Serwer linked over here and called Ink Spots an "excellent national security blog you should be reading." Which is really cool, but sort of makes me point for me: Serwer blogs for the American Prospect -- a no-bones-about-it partisan publication -- on civil rights and criminal justice, two issues which now brush up against national security but are very definitely not a part of my area of so-called expertise.) That's fine, and I enjoy the exchange, but I'm not sure it's helped in the big picture. I also fear that the self-selection of blog reading exists at an accelerated, micro-level with Twitter, and so I'm hearing and seeing and talking with a whole lot of people with whom I already generally agree.

Anyway, this is long enough, so here's the tl;dr version of everything you see above: It's hard to talk about how to defend this country and advance its interests when it seems the very nature of what this country is and what it will be in the future is in question. More than any other excuses I can make about being busy at work or harried at home or travel or other priorities, I keep coming back to this: It's just not very fun right now.

BRIEFLY ADDED: Just after posting this, I read this column by E.J. Dionne. I was expecting to hate it, but it actually turned out to be pretty good. The most interesting part: in criticizing the president's disdain for "politicking," Dionne writes that "[i]n a democracy, separating governing from 'politicking' is impossible. 'Politicking' is nothing less than the ongoing effort to persuade free citizens of the merits of a set of ideas, policies and decisions."

Then I saw a tweet by Patrick Barry in response to this post: "Sadly, greatest near-term [national security] challenge may be moving past divisive shouting that prevents real debate on security." Which is a sentiment that I generally agree with.

But here's the problem: if Dionne is right (and I think he makes a compelling case), then partisanship and division is essential to the proper functioning of the American polity. But it just doesn't work for national security, and what seems to have been the tacit historical acceptance of that fact by all parties to the conversation is now being ignored.

23 comments:

  1. I think it's very difficult to keep politics out of national security discussions because military affairs (in particular) and foreign policy are extensions of politics. The supposed "nonpartisan" discussions of military topics inevitably fall to operational and tactical points of how military systems work or why some battles are successful and others fail. But at the strategic level, yeah, kind of hard to not note the source and objectives of a particular national security approach are political in nature.

    I don't think that's a bad thing, necessarily, but just hard to perhaps blog about strategic issues in short, pithy posts that don't veer off into political bashing. Just have to find that middle ground where one can point to a particular political persuasion and note what's happening and why.

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  2. "As Schmedlap has noted before (several times, probably), most of us don't read national security blogs or follow security analysts and commentators on Twitter in order to get our daily dose of partisan domestic politics. I completely agree with him on this one. I'm not particularly interested in what my dentist has to say about gay marriage, or how my rugby coach feels about constitutional interpretation, or really even what my colleagues in the office have to say about the stimulus bill. Domestic politics, as everyone knows, are right alongside religion as just one of those things you don't generally want to get into with people you don't know very well. Ideology, upbringing, socioeconomic class, ethno-linguistic group, etc etc -- there are a whole bunch of factors that impact an individual's politics and often make that class of beliefs entirely obscure to reason and rational argument, so it's usually best to just skip the whole thing."

    I completely understand the sentiment, and this month has been particularly bad. But it must be clear how this could just as easily be read as putting your head in the sand, eschewing substantive intellectual debate in favor of group-think.

    Why should you only talk about politics with people who agree with you, or from the same socio-economic class, or the same upbringing(???).

    I mean really, you can advocate for counter-insurgency, a policy which *kills human beings*, but you can't handle talking about gay marriage with your dentist?

    Don't get me wrong, I understand the frustration and friction that talking politics can cause, but to simply shut it out seems not only cowardly, but dangerous for your country.

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  3. But it just doesn't work for national security, and what seems to have been the tacit historical acceptance of that fact by all parties to the conversation is now being ignored.

    I'm a bit taken back by that statement. I think what you wrote is where fact and perception diverge. 9/11 and December 7th, 1941 were political anomalies. Republicans frequently bashed Roosevelt's conduct of the war. Pre-war was even more fractured (see the link below). It's like the fog of history has shrouded the years 1940-1945 in some big kumbaya hugs all around non-partisan lovefest when it wasn't. But somehow over the years, maybe it was the yearning for the "good ol days" of less venomous attacks during the 40's during the McCarthy witchunts for the '50's, that started this divergence where everyone thinks that once we enter a major conflict there is some unwritten rule that both parties shut up. Maybe there's a good book out there on this, if not, somebody ought to write on. I'm sure a read of the Chicago Tribune archives from the 40's would throw a bit of water on things.

    Now I'm not disagreeing that wanton baiting vice competing policy statements is a bad, bad thing (maybe that's what you meant?) but to say that once we enter a major conflict the only way we've been able to (historically) fight them is to entirely demur to the President is incorrect.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_First_Committee

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  4. Josh -- You've misunderstood my point. I'm not suggesting that I don't care about politics, or that I don't care about talking and thinking about politics. My point is that when engage with people on those issues, I do so with the understanding that their viewpoints are molded by a great many factors that go beyond rationality or utility.

    On the subject of national security, I tend to hope that rationality and utility come first.

    This isn't a post about why politics are so bad. It's rather about how the intrusion of unwarranted "national security" or "public safety" concerns into our domestic dialogue impedes our efforts to have a sensible conversation about the issues, and alternatively, the corrolary: that the intrusion of ideology into national security means that we draw worse conclusions and potentially devise worse policies.

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  5. Now I'm not disagreeing that wanton baiting vice competing policy statements is a bad, bad thing (maybe that's what you meant?) but to say that once we enter a major conflict the only way we've been able to (historically) fight them is to entirely demur to the President is incorrect.

    Not sure where this conclusion came from, but it has absolutely nothing in common with what I believe.

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  6. But somehow over the years, maybe it was the yearning for the "good ol days" of less venomous attacks during the 40's during the McCarthy witchunts for the '50's, that started this divergence where everyone thinks that once we enter a major conflict there is some unwritten rule that both parties shut up.

    I must've been unclear in the way I framed this, because I've noticed some misunderstanding. (Not surprising considering that I didn't exactly plan this out, but just spewed into the text editor and clicked "POST".) So let me try to clarify.

    I don't want everybody to shut up and get behind the president on security policy, believe me. In fact, I mean to make the opposite point: that screeching about "security" and "safety" and "terrorism" has hampered the debate about how best to ensure our security. That both sides appeal to the basest feelings of the electorate in order to win political points and win elections. (For bipartisan examples, see Congressional willingness to line up in support of the Bush administration on everything from the Iraq war authorization to the many depredations justified in the name of counterterrorism, or the ease with which the Obama administration continues to justify the Afghanistan war as necessary to prevent al-Qaeda jetliners from flying into U.S. skyscrapers.)

    This is consistent with the general abdication on behalf of our political leaders of both parties of their RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAD, the requirement to develop a narrative justification for national security policy that doesn't appeal to irrational fears or sop to general insecurity and ignorance, but rather helps move the electorate towards a more sophisticated understanding of what constitutes REAL security, of what the true purpose of American foreign and security policy is, rather than relying on a comic-book morality to justify the spectacularly expensive actions taken in the name of our "security."

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  7. With all due respect, you and Schmedlap get under my skin a bit with all this talk of partisanship, as if we're dealing with two participants equally to blame for the tenor of the dialogue. The problem isn't the lack of bipartisanship generally, it is that one of the parties has been overrun by lunatics. I mean, that has to be pretty obvious, no? You can't really believe both parties are equally to blame, can you?

    You want to see the level of dialogue improve? Well, one way to do it is to systematically call out those who diminish the quality of discourse. Yeah, it is easier to adopt a "pox on both houses" approach. Easier and comfortingly self-righteous. But it is also lazy and ineffective.

    Sorry to be testy about this, but this false equivalence is maddening.

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  8. With all due respect, you and Schmedlap get under my skin a bit with all this talk of partisanship, as if we're dealing with two participants equally to blame for the tenor of the dialogue.

    False equivalence? I think by "you and Schmedlap," you actually mean "Schmedlap." If anything, I tend to get more criticism from folks for singling out Republicans than for anything like what you're referring to.

    One reason you may be confused on this is that I'm critical of the way that this White House is continually let off the hook for the purported crisis in civil-military relations. That's got nothing to do with partisanship, but rather the opposite: I'm drawing attention to the fact that the Obama adminstration really hasn't been that different from the Bush administration on this issue (or the matter of executive power, or in aggressive troop commitment with unclear goals and endstates as a means to conduct counterterrorism, etc.).

    When you talk about stuff like the mosque issue, yes, of course, obviously the Republicans are the huge, massive, determinative bulk of the problem. But it would be irresponsible to ignore the Reids of the world and the way that they are complicit in what's going on, or not to criticize the president for politically motivated cowardice in walking back his initial comments on the subject from the iftar dinner.

    There's no false equivalence here, as I'm not suggesting everyone's equally to blame. But the president has unique responsibilities, and so does the party that controls Congress. It's ludicrous to suggest that they ought not be held responsible just because the Republicans are much worse on the issues in some objective sense.

    The point that I'm making isn't about partisanship, or even about bipartisanship. It's about a responsibility to the truth and a responsibility to be loyal to the ideals of this country, not just to win votes.

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  9. While I agree with that to an extent, Bernard, that's a rosy view you have of the left. While I wouldn't qualify it as "lunacy" (which much of the scare tactics on the right consists of), the left's "Afghanistan is the good war" mantra has caused what most here would argue was a poor decision devoid of real strategy. And that put 30K more troops unto the breach, not just drumming up support from the ignorant in an election year. I'm not saying that this is equatable to the race/religion baiting going on, just saying it's not just the right that uses politics in national security for their own purposes.

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  10. I also have no problem admitting that:

    1) I think that everyone's political priorities can essentially be reduced to a single issue, and if you were to do that with me, my issue would be national security/foreign policy

    2) The foreign and security policy of the Obama administration, at least from a rhetorical perspective, is much more in line with what I'd prefer for the country than what could have been expected of a possible McCain administration

    3) In spite of facts, 1) and 2) I voted for McCain

    4) In spite of everything written above, Democratic retention of the House would be my substantial personal preference, both for the impact of the election on the career trajectories and personal happiness of those closest to me and for what might be expected from the 112th Congress on foreign policy and civil liberties

    5) I am certain to suffer criticism from some quarter or another for whatever admissions I might make about my own party affiliation (Independent) or those of my partner and many of my closest friends (Democrat) or the vast majority of people to whom I was exposed for the bulk of my upbringing and education (Republican).

    So let's not worry about whether I'm favoring one side or another, ok?

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  11. I dunno man, seems to me that even in the post above you found a way to toss in that this a problem on both sides of the aisle, etc. And even if your response, you felt obliged to bring in Reid who is, yes, a coward, but clearly a follower rather than a leader in this movement.

    Look, we live in a democracy. Living in the democracy means you have to win votes. The problem isn't being responsive to the public. The problem is that the Republican party is deliberately pursuing a policy of "idiocracy." Yes, some politically vulnerable, morally weak Democrats are trying to get a piece of that pie. And they shouldn't. But surely the architects of the lunacy need to get a much larger share of the blame.

    We have two groups at play -- those maliciously dividing the country for partisan reason, and those too frightened to stand up for what they believe. I don't personally feel that insisting on always condemning both is useful. It does, whether you mean to or not, imply an equivalence on both sides. And I reject that argument.

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  12. Oh yeah, and for whatever it's worth: in spite of my protests, I'm continually referred to as a "liberal [or progressive] blogger" by those with political inclinations, something that I'll admit I find hilarious but which likely makes my girlfriend swell with pride in light of her 2008 prediction that "I'll make you into a Democrat in ten years."

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  13. We have two groups at play -- those maliciously dividing the country for partisan reason, and those too frightened to stand up for what they believe. I don't personally feel that insisting on always condemning both is useful. It does, whether you mean to or not, imply an equivalence on both sides. And I reject that argument.

    No, it really doesn't.

    Why do you demand intellectual honesty and a fair accounting of the problem from anonymous bloggers but not from elected leaders?

    Why is it important to you that I clearly identify those who are the "architects of the lunacy" and make sure they get "a much larger share of the blame," while you seem indifferent to the president's responsibility to LEAD the country, to effort to move the electorate to a more sensible place on the issues rather than governing by referendum.

    Yes, the sane people need to win elections in order to govern sanely. Does that mean we should ignore their own insanity in order to assure that end?

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  14. "while you seem indifferent to the president's responsibility to LEAD the country"

    I'm absolutely not indifferent. I would just argue two points:

    (1) As a practical matter, Obama has bent over backwards to try to be balanced and reasonable -- even in the face of wild provocation. Even when the Tea Party lunatics were portraying him as an African witch doctor, he resisted calling them out for obvious racism. When Sarah Palin resorted to blood libel in the "death panels" smear, he again refrained from calling her a lying demagogue, though that would clearly have been an accurate label. He has tried to lead by example, making arguments based on fact, and actually trying to engage the other side -- a difficult task in itself since most of the other side's criticisms are matters of overheated fantasy.

    (2)That said, he's under no obligation to commit political suicide simply to make a point. You may call that craven, and I might agree. But in the end, craven is not as bad as malicious.

    Also, "Why do you demand intellectual honesty and a fair accounting of the problem from anonymous bloggers but not from elected leaders?"

    Well, now, in fairness, I don't think anyone has ever before accused me of giving the powerful a pass. I've been pissing people off left and right with what I think are demands for intellectual honesty. But yeah, as a practical matter, you do get more of the brunt of it than the president because, well, you seem to pay some attention to me, while the president doesn't. That said, if Mr. Obama were to honor me with an audience, I like to think I'd have more than a few choice words about his Afghan policy, his tendency to hide behind his generals, his decisions to keep Republicans in some of the most important positions in government (DoD and the Fed), etc. etc.

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  15. Gulliver,

    I think you might find this essay useful and interesting.

    On the comments between you and Bernard:

    "Keeping score" is one of the sure-fire methods to identify a partisan since their allegiance is to the "tribe." Criticism of the tribe is only allowed once one has established bona fides as a tribal member or otherwise proven themselves in the battle against the enemy. In such cases, arguments on the merits are secondary considerations to determining allegiance. Gulliver's crime is therefore clear - he can't credibly criticize Democrats until he meets the litmus test of sufficiently bashing the Republicans. Naturally, it's Bernard, not Gulliver, who determines when the required GOP-bashing threshold is met. Bernard's an honest guy, so he's unlikely to move the goalposts, but most partisans aren't.

    I don't comment very often on blogs anymore primarily because of these kind of rhetorical tactics. It's hard to seriously argue issues with people who are more interested keeping score on who you're criticizing (and how much your criticizing them) instead of debating what you're saying the merits. Arguments should ideally stand on their own. Unfortunately this is close to impossible for partisans whose first instinct is the schoolyard wail of "he did it first" or "he's worse."

    And Bernard, just so I'm clear, I think the GoP is comparatively much worse - the key word being "comparatively." For me it's like saying I'd rather contract herpes than HIV - both suck, but one sucks a lot worse.

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  16. Andy -- Thanks for the excellent link.

    Interestingly, Brink Lindsey just left Cato, and there's been a lot of buzz lately about the apparent two-way rejection of Lindsey's "Liberaltarian" idea.

    Weigel // Foster // Lawler

    Anyway, thanks for your comments.

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  17. Yeah, I heard about the "purge" - par for the course in these times unfortunately.

    Keep the faith and thanks for your blog.

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  18. "he can't credibly criticize Democrats"

    No, no. You're missing my point. Call the Democrats cowards. Call them ineffective. Call them naive. Call them big-government liberals. Call them whatever.

    But don't pretend that bipartisanship requires always criticizing both sides equally. There are some issues on which I think the Democrats are worse than Republicans, but I don't feel the need to append "but the Republicans are bad too" each and every time I complain about something the Democrats do.

    I'm just saying, make judgments. Don't engage in lazy "both sides are bad" arguments just because it allows for a posture of superior detachment.

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  19. It cracks me up that you think all of us are the ones "missing the point."

    I'm just saying, make judgments. Don't engage in lazy "both sides are bad" arguments just because it allows for a posture of superior detachment.

    What, you think this is some lack of moral courage? That's bullshit. What you're saying is meaningless unless there's some real value to be gained from "making judgments." I'd rather be accurate than conclusive.

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  20. In fairness, I said "missing MY point" not "missing THE point." I think I am allowed to clarify my own arguments, no?

    In regard to the "lack of moral courage" issue. No, I don't think it is a lack of moral courage. It is however, intellectually lazy. But I don't think Broderesque fetishizing of bipartisanship is a character flaw.

    And yes, there is real value to be gained by making accurate judgments. It is absolutely critical for people of intelligence and good will to repeatedly and continually call out the lunatic circus that passes for the Republican party nowadays. Making vague, blanket declarations about how our leaders ought to behave better is precisely an example of a meaningless and pointless statement.

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  21. It is absolutely critical for people of intelligence and good will to repeatedly and continually call out the lunatic circus that passes for the Republican party nowadays. Making vague, blanket declarations about how our leaders ought to behave better is precisely an example of a meaningless and pointless statement.

    Oh, the irony!

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  22. Thanks for this. You make some good points, but don't go quite as far as I would.

    I think that a degree of division and partisanship is good for the country, as it builds checks and balances into the system. I believe what is going on now is far beyond simple healthy partisanship. Not only has it taken on a level of viciousness beyond reason, but it's not even really about anything a lot of the time. Be divided on substantive issues, debate those issues, passionately support your position: this process I can support. But it seems to me that these days it is more division for the sake of division. The Republicans in Congress often come off like simple obstructionists, opposing President Obama just because he is President Obama, not because of any particular fault they are finding with his policies.

    An even greater and more disturbing divide for me is the divide between politics and governance. It seems that system more and more prioritizes election or re-election over governing or policy, and this is a great disadvantage to most people, as the elections are usually won by those with the most money, giving those individual people and corporations (also individual people, according to the Supreme Court, but with far more money even)with money to put toward lobbying and campaigns far more influence. It seems like very few in power are willing to take a stand on the hard issues - to tell Americans that we might just have to make sacrifices in the shorter term to ensure the long term good, that war has a price that shouldn't be paid by only 1% of us, that we might need to be inconvenienced in order to leave a chance for a better future for our children and grandchildren - to risk their re-election in order to do the right thing.

    To return to your point, about national defense/national security. The Bush Administration was not the first to use national security as a scare phrase to get their way, but they raised it to an art form. The 'you're with us, or you're with the terrorists' attitude and rhetoric made it un-American to disagree with anything the administration wanted to do, and people went along with it. After 9/11, there were never enough voices speaking out against that attitude, and those who were could be shouted down with that emotional refrain, rather than challenged in reasoned debate. There is nothing wrong with serious debate about national security issues, based on genuine concerns and issues; unfortunately the vocabulary has been co-opted for emotion-based and reactionary rhetoric, while the substance all too often goes by the wayside. And I see what you mean: that is not any fun.

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  23. Wow, I didn't realize I was internet famous. Or, at least, two-blogs famous.

    I more or less agree with the original post, probably not surprising given that it begins by agreeing with me, at least in part. But I admit that my eyes started to gloss over after a few of the comments.

    I like reading Ink Spots, Bernard, SWJ, et al on issues related to national security. I have no interest in the views of those people on domestic political issues. If I want those views, I'll head over to political websites. Likewise, if I want nat'l security views, I'll come here rather than the political websites. It's about knowing your role - something that increasing numbers of people don't seem to know. I thought that was the gist of your take - if so then I agree.

    Bernard, I'm glad that I get under your skin on these issues. I'm sure you know your strategy and civ-mil stuff, but you're completely wrong on domestic political whatnot. I know I can't talk you out of your partisan fetish, so it is some consolation in knowing that I at least annoy you a little bit. If you don't think the Democrats are as crazy as the Republicans - just a different kind of crazy - then you're too far gone to salvage and my only hope is to continue annoying you.

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