Tag: conflict

How to Make ‘Bless’ and ‘Love’ Fighting Words

I’m no theologian, but when a religious group asks God to bless something, I’m pretty sure that’s a sign they like it. So if some other folks show up and say they love that same thing, we’ve got a clear case of mutual agreement. They’re not going to fight over whether the thing in question needs a blessing or a loving—unless the setting is a public school.

Stall Brook Elementary School, outside Boston, recently told parents that they were editing the song “God Bless the U.S.A.” for an upcoming student assembly, and that their children would instead sing it as “We Love the U.S.A.” A furor ensued, and it wasn’t over the loss of assonance in the refrain. After a great sound and fury the school has relented and will allow, but not require, children to sing the words “God Bless.” Other children and parents, it seems, will be free to sing “We Love” if they prefer. So that will sound nice.

This captures, in small, a great problem with public schooling: compelled conformity. In every community in the country, there is only one public school district. It is the official education organ of the state. As such, it cannot engage in devotional religious activities under the First Amendment. More than that, it cannot possibly reflect the diverse values and preferences of every family. It just can’t. And that’s why we encounter these endless battles over the place of religion in the classroom and in plays, pageants, and ceremonies. It’s why the teaching of history and even of reading and math are fraught with conflicts over content or methodology. And it’s unnecessary. Totally unnecessary.

A truly free society needs a well-educated citizenry. It does not need a government monopoly on k-12 schooling. In fact, it needs to not have a government monopoly on schooling. Fortunately, there is a wonderful alternative to the monopoly status quo—a system that can ensure universal access to a quality education without forcing parents or taxpayers to violate their convictions. That alternative is education tax credit programs that cut taxes on families who pay for their own children’s education and on donations to nonprofits that subsidize tuition for the poor. These programs exist, they work, and they won’t make us fight over blessing or loving the U.S.A.

Ortega Picks On Costa Rica to Rally Support At Home

For the past couple of years, Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega has been desperately seeking to subvert his country’s constitution and feeble democratic institutions in order to stand for re-election next year. Since the Nicaraguan constitution bars him from running for a third term (he was president in 1985-1990), Ortega tried unsuccessfully to have the constitution amended by the National Assembly, where his Sandinista party lacks a majority to do so. However, through judicial shenanigans facilitated by a Supreme Court and an Electoral Tribunal packed with Sandinista allies, Ortega is likely to run again next year. Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal and The Economist have documented the case.

Despite seemingly getting away with it, Ortega faces strong challenges at home from the independent media, civil society groups, and the opposition parties, which have all bitterly denounced his illegal maneuvers. His candidacy might be assured; his re-election not so.

Enter my home country: Costa Rica.

Unfortunately throughout both countries’ histories, it has become a norm that the Nicaraguan political class picks conflicts with Costa Rica in order to distract attention from domestic problems and rally nationalist support at home. Ricardo Jiménez, a Costa Rican president in the early 20th century, once said that Costa Rica had three seasons during the year: the rainy season, the dry season, and the season of conflicts with Nicaragua.

This time around hasn’t been different. Approximately 20 days ago, a dredging project of the San Juan River, whose right bank serves as the border between both countries, led to an incursion of the Nicaraguan army into Costa Rican territory. The conflict area is an uninhabited island (approximately 60 square miles) at the mouth of the San Juan River. Aerial pictures show the destruction of tropical forest in the island—which is part of a protected area in Costa Rica—in what seems like an effort to detour the San Juan River at the expense of Costa Rican territory.

Costa Rica has had no army since 1949, so the government of president Laura Chinchilla has to rely on international pressure to get the Nicaraguan army out of the occupied territory. Costa Rica’s bitter complaints at the Organization of American States have been met with calls from other members, and from the ineffectual secretary general of the organization, José Miguel Insulza, for both countries to engage in endless dialogue and solve this “border dispute.” This is not a border dispute, though. Costa Rica has provided dozens of official documents and maps, including maps produced by Nicaragua’s own government, the official texts of the Cañas-Jeréz Treaty that defined the border and subsequent arbitration awards, and a recent ruling by the International Court of Justice. They all show that the occupied area is indeed Costa Rican territory. As the OAS shows its incompetence, Nicaragua continues its military presence and deforestation works on Costa Rican soil.

Unfortunately Ortega’s move has paid off. Nicaragua’s independent media is now full of headlines supporting their government against what they call “Costa Rica’s expansionist agenda.” The opposition parties have also rallied behind Ortega, providing their votes for the unanimous approval of an increase in the military’s budget (this is the first time Ortega has gotten a unanimous vote in Congress). Pro-government mass rallies have been staged in Managua. Facing no external pressure to withdraw, Ortega is likely to continue or even expand the occupation of Costa Rican territory well into next year when he heads to the polls for reelection.

In the meantime, impotency has taken hold in Costa Rica. Some murmur about the wisdom of giving up the army decades ago, although most Costa Ricans still pride themselves on being a pacifist country with a longstanding civilian tradition. However, calls are growing for the government to give up diplomacy and ask a third country to intervene with troops through the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. There is a realization that San José needs to draw a line in the sand with Managua. Appeasing Ortega will probably result in more conflicts in the near future.

It is still too early to tell what’s next. Costa Rica says it will bring the case to the UN Security Council in case the OAS fails to deliver. However, Russia’s veto is likely given Ortega’s close relationship with the Kremlin. Tellingly, the Obama administration has stayed mostly silent on the issue.



What War Does to Our Society

The Department of State recently released newly declassified documents covering U.S. policy toward Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from January 1973-July 1975. At a State Department conference commemorating the release of these documents, diplomat, strategist, and Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger bemoaned the torment that consumed a generation of Americans as the conflict wore on. The insight Kissinger provides–possibly unintentional–underscores why assessments of war should go beyond critiques of its political and geostrategic ramifications; they should also extend to the various ways that war affects our society and public more generally.

In Kissinger’s somber assessment of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, he said he regrets that what should have been straightforward disagreements over the U.S. approach to Vietnam became “transmuted into a moral issue – first about the moral adequacy of American foreign policy altogether and then into the moral adequacy of America.”

He goes on to say, “To me, the tragedy of the Vietnam war was not that there were disagreements—that was inevitable, given the complexity of the (conflict)—but that the faith of Americans in each other became destroyed in the process.”

Kissinger called himself “absolutely unreconstructed” on that point.

“I believe that most of what went wrong in Vietnam we did to ourselves,” he said, adding, “I would have preferred another outcome—at least another outcome that was not so intimately related to the way that we tore ourselves apart.”

Disappointingly, much of what Mr. Kissinger said is true.

Certainly, much of the burdens associated with our foreign policies do not affect the average person; they are absorbed by America’s all-volunteer military. Still, wars and debates over wars have the power not only to tear our society apart, but also to destroy our faith in each other in the process. These factors are latent, ignored, and often misunderstood, but are detrimental to our country nonetheless.

In this respect, criticism of war should not end at an aversion to deficit spending. Certainly, increased public debt and diminished civil liberties are enduring, adverse effects of war. As writer Randolph Bourne famously declared during World War I, “War is the health of the state.”

But in addition to expanded government power, wars also become a template for regimentation in other areas of life. As we witnessed in the lead up to the war in Iraq, war can erode what should be the public’s normal propensity to question authority and lead to a herd mentality that demands blind obedience to state authority.

Over time, and through decades of continual foreign intervention, wars can radically alter our national character and transmogrify the spirit and moral temperament of our society. Sadly, such a perilous path could doom our nation to a fate that befell history’s other predominant great powers.

Check out the most recent volume of State Department reports on Vietnam. You won’t be disappointed.