When Victor Davis Hanson Talks, I Listen — and He’s Got Me More Worried About a Nuclear Iran

When I grow up I want to be Victor Davis Hanson.  (Turns out he’s not quite five years older than me.  Note to self: Next time start earlier.)

I first became aware of VDH in the weeks and months after September 11.  Like many people, I was hungry not just for information, but for perspective.  I was less interested in the fluctuating body count than in what the future would hold.  While milling about in Citigroup’s corporate offices in midtown that awful Tuesday afternoon, wondering how to get home with the subways and trains locked down, I fell into conversation with a much-younger co-worker, who said something along the lines of, “maybe things will all get back to normal soon.”  I shook my head.  “The world changed today,” I said.

That was about the extent of my insight on Day One.  For what it’s worth, I think it’s held up pretty well.

Here’s a sample of VDH’s insight on Day One:

[O]n December 7, 1941, we declared war against the Japanese Empire after twenty-four hundred American sailors were surprised and killed on a Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor….

Today, September 11, the United States was similarly attacked, in acts every bit as cowardly and without warning.  The only difference between Pearl Harbor and the firing on the Pentagon and destruction of the towers of the World Trade Center is one of magnitude.  Ours now is the far greater loss.  No enemy in our past, neither Nazi Germany nor imperial Japan, has killed so many American civilians and brought such deadly carnage to our shores as these suicidal hijackers who crashed the very citadels of American cultural, economic, and military power in our nation’s two greatest cities. … Surely, by any fair measure of history, we should be at war now.

But are we and shall we be? This generation of Americans is at a crossroads in our nation’s history.  We must decide whether we shall continue to be the adolescent nation that fretted the last six months over the risque details of Congressman Condit’s private life while our enemies were plotting death on the scale of a Guadalcanal or Tet under our very noses.  Or are we still the children of our fathers, who accepted the old, sad truth that “the essence of war is violence, and moderation in war is imbecility.”

As you read those words now, they may seem unremarkable — nothing that you haven’t read dozens of times.  But those sentiments, part of a carefully fleshed-out essay of 1,000 words, spun forth from Hanson’s computer on September 11.

Between then and the end of 2001, VDH wrote 38 (!!) similarly thoughtful essays, published at National Review Online and elsewhere.  The essays are collected in An Autumn of War, a book available through the Amazon widget in the right column of my homepage.  More than a decade later, the essays are still worth reading, and if you order the book through my Amazon widget, supposedly I’ll get a tiny little piece of the action.  I really wish someone would do this someday so I can see if I really get a commission.  Just a thought.

Where was I?  Ah, I was making the point that VDH has a talent for producing insightful analysis in real time.  His output at National Review Online and what used to be called Pajamas Media is prodigious.  I don’t always agree with him — his criticisms of Obama sometimes seem fueled by an intense dislike that I do not share.

But he’s always worth reading, and today he’s done the best job I’ve ever seen of describing how much is at stake in Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.  (That’s right, the 600 words above are all for the purpose of setting up a blog post of the “here’s something interesting I read today” variety.  Maybe someday I’ll figure out how blogs are supposed to work.)

Onward! There are so many insights in today’s essay that it’s hard to decide what to excerpt.  But that’s the kind of choice that I as a professional blogger have to make every day.  Or once or twice a week in my case.

Otherwise insignificant nations and failed states gain credibility by shorting their own people to divert billions of dollars to acquiring a bomb. Take away that fact from Pakistan, and the United States would probably have reduced aid to such a de facto belligerent long ago. …

[I]f a head of state can feign insanity, or, better yet, convincingly announce a wish for the apocalypse, then he can, in theory, circumvent some traditional rules of deterrence. An Iranian theocrat’s supposed willingness to use his sole nuclear weapon to wipe out tiny Israel — at the cost of losing 30 million Iranians from retaliation — yields a cheap way to obtain not just parity with Israel, but potentially a nuclear advantage. …

To this day, we do not know whether North Korea has successfully detonated a nuclear bomb that is easily deliverable. But it does not matter; we need to know only that it has achieved some sort of nuclear reaction that suggests the ability to repeat it a few times. That fact prevents any sort of preemptive attack on a North Korean reactor, giving North Korea the sort of exemption that Iraq, Libya, and Syria never quite achieved. …

The reason why Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are not nuclear is not a matter of technology or finance; indeed, all four could this year alone create nukes as they do BMWs or Hondas. It is not just an American nuclear umbrella but rather a large American nuclear umbrella that assures such countries that they can rest secure without their own deterrent stockpiles. …

The danger is not the bomb per se, but rather who has it. Most of us do not worry about a democratic Britain, France, India, or Israel possessing nuclear weapons. The fright instead is over a Communist authoritarian China, an unhinged North Korea, an Islamist Pakistan, or an unstable Russia having nuclear weapons. Transparent democracies, in other words, are mostly reliable nuclear guardians; non-transparent autocracies are less so.

Read the whole thing.

Religious Liberty Clashes With Reproductive Rights in Contraceptive Mandate

Whenever I write or talk about abortion and reproductive rights, I’m careful to describe each side with the term it has chosen for itself:  “pro-life” and “pro-choice”.  It’s a simple policy decision, really — any discussion of the appropriateness of either term quickly becomes tendentious, and people have a right to decide how to self-identify.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about the terms people use.  “Anti-choice” and “anti-life” are argumentative metatags.  “Anti-abortion” seems descriptive and largely not provocative, although I understand the preference for being “pro” something.

Conversely, “pro-abortion” does seem provocative and inappropriate.  For years I told myself, nobody is really pro-abortion, but people like me believe a woman should have the right, at least under some circumstances, to decide whether to have an abortion.

I’ve been pro-choice my entire adult life, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable with it. Bill Clinton had it about right when he said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”  Abortion is a deeply personal, sometimes wrenching decision made on the threshold of life and death.  It’s much like the decision, at the other end of the timeline, on whether to remove the feeding tube or refrain from resuscitation. At both ends, I believe the choice should be made by the people who are most directly affected, and the rest of us should move along.

But there is, at the very least, something morally ambiguous about abortion, and it becomes more troubling the closer the fetus comes to viability.  I’m not particularly interested in debating when life begins — it’s enough to know that it does begin.  Barring miscarriage, disease or trauma, the fetus eventually becomes a baby.  If someone says “abortion is murder” I have no trouble ignoring them.  The slogan that clutches at my soul is “abortion stops a beating heart.”*

In recent years, it’s become clear I was mistaken in believing nobody is “pro-abortion.”  I was projecting my own values onto people who did not necessarily share them. I was utterly appalled when a prominent priest in my own Episcopal denomination proclaimed that “abortion is a blessing” — under every circumstance.

Think I may be exaggerating? Here’s the passage in question:

And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion — there is not a tragedy in sight — only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.

These are the two things I want you, please, to remember — abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Let me hear you say it: abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.

Now that same mindset — the idea that reproductive rights are absolute and trump every other consideration — is at play in the current controversy over the Obama administrations mandate that Catholic organizations must cover contraception free of charge in their employee health plans.

Personally I think the Catholic Church’s opposition to all contraception — whether or not abortifacients are involved — is silly and misguided.  Most Catholics outside the hierarchy agree.  The 98% figure floated by the White House seems to be exaggerated, but it’s safe to say the overwhelming majority of sexual active Catholics use contraception if they don’t want to make a baby.

But nobody is talking about denying anyone access to contraception.  Any person with a job that includes healthcare coverage makes enough money to be able to afford some form of reliable birth control, even if the employee has to pay every dollar of the cost.  The debate is whether a Catholic organization should be forced to pay for a product or service that the church believes is immoral.

Despite Justice Douglas’s emanations from penumbras, the Bill of Rights doesn’t actually say anything about reproductive rights.  But it does say something, explicitly and forcefully, about religion.  Liberals and Democrats would be well-advised to be more deferential to religious liberty when one of the three people most likely to win the next presidential election is Rick Santorum.

* This isn’t literally true of very early-term abortions.  But fetal heartbeat begins as early as week six — well within the first-trimester threshold established by Roe v. Wade.

The Sooner Christie Loses on Same-Sex Marriage, the Better Off He’ll Be

(Welcome, TigerHawk and Patch readers!  You can find more New Jersey posts here, more marriage equality posts here.)
The Web Goddess, who reads the left-leaning Salon so that I don’t have to, today flagged a very astute and even-handed article on the political dilemma that same-sex marriage poses for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

I argued earlier this week that although Christie will veto the marriage equality bill if it reaches his desk, the governor is fighting a losing battle.  The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  As of this week seven states permit same-sex marriage.  New Jersey will not become the eighth, but I fully expect it to be in the front half of the parade, despite Christie’s efforts.

In Salon, author Steven Kornacki captures the dilemma well:

There are two elections on the horizon that Chris Christie has a particular interest in. The first is in New Jersey next year, when he’ll seek a second term as governor. The second is in 2016, when he’ll make a logical presidential candidate — if he wins reelection in ’13 and if the Republican nomination is open. (For now, at least, let’s leave aside the idea that Christie might serve as his party’s vice presidential candidate this year.)

This makes the debate over gay marriage in the Garden State, where the Democratic-controlled Senate approved marriage equality legislation yesterday, a problem for him.

On the one hand, support for gay marriage among New Jersey voters is solid…  Christie has to be very careful as he approaches his reelection race. He doesn’t have much margin for error when it comes to alienating swing voters — one of the reasons he was so colorful and adamant in denying interest in the presidential race last year — and swing voters in New Jersey are generally fine with gay marriage.

But Republican voters nationally are not, and it will be a long time before they are (if they ever are). So if he wants to preserve his viability for ’16, Christie cannot be known as the New Jersey governor who enacted same-sex marriage. But he also can’t position himself as a hard-line, stop-at-nothing-to-derail-it opponent of it; to do so would reek of the cultural conservatism that has made most national Republicans unmarketable in New Jersey and endanger Christie’s reelection prospects. And if he gets the boot in ’13, it could sink whatever ’16 ambitions he has.

In the 2009 gubernatorial election, Christie did campaign “as a hard-line, stop-at-nothing-to-derail-it opponent” of marriage equality.  He went beyond merely promising to veto it — he promised to support a state constitutional amendment banning it.  You won’t hear The Great Man repeating that promise.  The legislature may or may not be able to overcome a veto in the current session (which lasts until January 2014), but there is zero chance that a constitutional amendment would pass in New Jersey.

I want to be careful here — I am not criticizing Christie for having moderated his stance on same-sex marriage.  I think it’s a move in the right direction.  I have no doubt that Christie honestly believes that marriage should be reserved for the union of one man and one woman. I disagree with his position, but holding that position does not make him evil.  Don’t forget, that’s precisely the position Barack Obama articulated just days before the 2008 election.  The most important difference between Obama’s pre-election stance and Christie’s is that Obama opposed tinkering with state constitutions.

Christie has every right to modulate his level of aggressiveness in supporting one-man-one-woman.  He’s promised to veto the current bill, and he has to go through with that.  But as Kornacki writes, the best thing that could happen to Christie in terms of his future political ambitions would be for marriage equality to become the law of the land in New Jersey without his fingerprints on it.  If it begins to look possible that the legislature could override a veto, look for only token arm-twisting by Christie.

Gov. Christie Will Block Same-Sex Marriage for Now — But Not for Long

Senate President Sweeney

(Welcome, NewJerseyNewsroom.com readers! You can find more posts on gay issues here, and more on New Jersey here.)

Timing is everything in politics.  In a race against the clock two years ago, with a lame-duck governor who happily would have signed the bill, the New Jersey Senate fell well short of approving same-sex marriage.  Today, with a governor who will veto the bill, a similar bill passed the Senate easily, and approval also is expected in the Assembly.

Chris Christie, who in most ways I consider an outstanding governor, lost my vote in the 2009 election solely on the basis of his promise to support a constitutional amendment to prohibit marriage equality.  Neither house of the state legislator has the votes now to override the expected veto — but that could change, and the legislature has nearly two years to override.  In the two years between Senate votes, the tally shifted from 20-14 against to 24-16 in favor.

Votes are going to shift only in one direction.  Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, abstained in the vote two years ago — effectively voting no, as any bill needs an absolute majority of 21 to pass.  This time he led the fight for the bill.  Whenever a politician changes sides on an issue, he or she has to be prepared to explain the “flip-flop.”  Here’s Sweeney’s explanation, from before today’s vote:

It was a political calculation [the first time] … you know, I didn’t want to be part of a bill that was gonna fail. And it was the wrong position to take. Because this is about civil rights, and you can’t take a pass on civil rights.

… There’s a whole lot that’s taken place since [the last vote]. Which is people like myself recognizing that this isn’t a political issue, it’s a civil rights issue, and when you talk about, well, put it on the ballot — you know, the majority will always deny the minority, in almost every example, of giving what they already have. So no, we’re not doing that. As a legislative body it’s our responsibility to do the right thing.

Here’s a thought experiment: Try to imagine a politician explaining a vote change in the opposite direction. Ain’t gonna happen.

Also today, the governor of Washington signed a bill making that state the seventh to allow same-sex couples to wed.  The Census Bureau says that in 2010 there were more than 130,000 legally married same-sex couples in the U.S., and despite the fantasies of opponents, no legislature is ever going to issue wholesale annulments.  As the number inexorably rises, same-sex marriage will follow the same arc as interracial marriage, moving from scandalous to novel to unremarkable.  There’s no going back.