• Leap of Faith: Decision Making Before the Iraq War with Michael Mazarr

    Air Dates: May 13-19, 2019

    In 2003, the United States military unleashed a campaign the press had pre-christened “Shock and Awe,” the dominant and overwhelming application of American military power against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and its military.  Within weeks, U.S. forces controlled all of Iraq, and then the fighting really began.  This week on “Story in the Public Square,” Michael J. Mazarr unravels the decision making that led to what he calls, “America’s greatest foreign policy tragedy.” 

    Mazarr is author of a new book about the run-up to the Iraq War, Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy. Currently a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, Mazarr worked previously at the U.S. National War College, where he was professor and associate dean of academics.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • The Campaign I’d Like to See

    As of this writing, there are 21 declared candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president of the United States. The challenge of breaking through the field and emerging as a major candidate is daunting, but I have a modest proposal:

    Tell a story.  Tell a story about where we are as a nation.  Tell a story that challenges the narrative advanced by this president and his campaign.  Tell a story that paints a picture about the America you would create as president.  Tell a story that calls all Americans to action.   

    One thing I should stipulate up-front is that I’ve never been a fan of political leaders who go for the easy score.  I admire the leaders who speak truth to power; who aren’t afraid of difficult issues; who talk about things that need to be discussed; who speak for those who cannot—or dare not—speak for themselves.

    So I would advise a candidate looking to break out to tell a story about Americans who have been left behind in our country.  I wouldn’t tell this story with a speech or a video or a tweet storm—I would travel to places in America that have long suffered economically.  I wouldn’t care if they were in early caucus or primary states.  I’d seek out communities where the poverty grinds on the spirit of too many; where jobs and opportunity are scarce; where food-deserts threaten hunger in this land of plenty. 

    I’d advise the candidate to bring the journalists covering her campaign with her, and to linger in that place.  Spend time talking to real Americans and giving them a chance to tell their stories to a wider audience—not in staged-events or photo-ops or rallies, but in real, one on one conversations.  The candidate should ask his fellow citizens for advice about what the federal government can do to help their communities turn around.  But on these trips, the candidate’s tasks is to listen and to empathize.  Speeches and policy proposals can come later.

    President Trump boasts about a booming economy, and America is, absolutely, the wealthiest country on Earth when you measure the per-capita income of our citizens.  But that wealth is concentrated on America’s coastlines and in major cities.  Travel to places like the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, do the drive from Washington, DC to Clarksburg, West Virginia; visit cities like Buffalo, New York, or Flint, Michigan.  Travel, like Bobby Kennedy did more than 50 years ago, to the Mississippi Delta and listen to the stories of Americans who are struggling—not because of a lack of effort or desire, but because of a lack of opportunity.

    This isn’t a rural or urban thing.  It isn’t a black or white thing.  It’s an American thing.  Through our tax policies, we’re concentrating wealth at the top.  Through the way we finance America’s wars, we’re redistributing wealth from lower-income families to upper income Americans.  Because of the way we finance our healthcare, 530,000 American families each year have to declare bankruptcy.  Because of the way we finance higher education, college graduates are leaving school with more than $32,000 in debt.  They’re waiting longer to make major investments in homes and cars, and they’re delaying having children. 

    Just this week, the Trump administration proposed a new rule to change the way the government measures inflation—which seems like a sufficiently wonky policy initiative that people outside of Washington, generally speaking, wouldn’t pay much attention to, or care much about.  But they should.  The result of this proposal, over time, will reduce the number of Americans eligible for nutrition assistance—not because these Americans would suddenly be able to afford to buy food for their families, but because the government adjusted the way it calculates cost increases.  Over time, this same rule would reduce the number of Americans eligible for Medicaid through the same mathematical slight-of hand. 

    The president’s greatest political vulnerability is his empathy deficit.  A smart Democrat would grab hold of that issue and never let go.

    To borrow a phrase from another campaign and another candidate: I believe that America is great because America is good.  We look out for the most vulnerable members of our society.  We help every citizen live up to her or his God-given potential.  We help those in need, in part because we know that someday, we too may need help ourselves, but, more fundamentally, because we know that a hand-up is better than a hand-out.  This kind of leadership promises a future with human dignity—something not always on display in a policy speech, but you’d see that humanity if you traveled with my imaginary campaign to the places I mentioned, talked to Americans about the challenges they face, and listened to their stories.

    Would my candidate win the nomination?  I don’t know, but that’s a campaign I’d like to be a part of.

  • New Papers in Series on Timor-Leste Published

    Newport, RI – Today the Pell Center released two new papers on the foreign policy of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

    Finding Partners: Timor-Leste’s Evolving Security Ties with Southeast Asia, authored by Natalie Sambhi, explores how Timor-Leste’s sense of geopolitical vulnerability, as a young democracy in an increasingly rivalrous region—when coupled with a number of pressing domestic imperatives—has played a key role in shaping its strategic outlook. Ms. Sambhi is currently a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre, and a PhD student at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

    Despite the Odds: Timor-Leste’s Quest to Avoid a Debt Trap Dilemma and Achieve Democratic Stability, penned by Hunter Marston, details how Dilli might opt to confront some of its most sizable challenges—whether in terms of providing sustainable economic growth, pursuing democratic consolidation, or in fending off some of the more predatory trade policies of its larger neighbors. Mr. Marston is currently an independent consultant based in Washington DC, and a PhD candidate at Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

    “Both Natalie Sambhi and Hunter Marston are rising stars in the field of Southeast Asian studies, and these papers—in their analytical rigor, clarity and policy-relevance—are clear testaments to their expertise,” noted Dr. Iskander Rehman, Senior Fellow for International Relations at the Pell Center. “We’re delighted to publish their timely and insightful papers on the challenges confronting Asia’s youngest democracy.”

    The papers are part of a Pell Center series of short essays and opinion pieces, made possible with the support of the government of Timor-Leste, on maritime dispute resolution and the future of the Asian order.  The full line-up of papers is available at this link.

  • Disability Rights with Peter Blanck

    Sixty-one million Americans—that’s 26% of the population—live with some kind of disability.  These are our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers, and our family members.  While the Americans with Disabilities Act has improved the lives of many since it became law nearly three decades ago, Peter Blanck tells us the history and the ongoing challenges for those with disabilities can be stark. 

    Blanck is University Professor at Syracuse University—an academic rank only awarded to eight prior individuals at the up-state New York school.  He is also chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at the school.  BBI works globally to advance the civic, economic, and social participation of people with disabilities.  A scholar of the history of disability rights in the United States, and an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities today, Blanck is a highly effective scholar and advocate. 

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • It’s Not a Constitutional Crisis

    It’s easy right now to let our worries and anxieties about events in Washington consume us. A quick listen to the talking heads or a glance at some of the opinion pages would lead you to believe that we’re in the midst of a full-blown constitutional crisis.  It’s a thought that I’ve considered on more than one occasion in recent months, largely stemming from the proliferation of congressional investigations into the conduct of the president and the president’s efforts to actively resist those investigations.  But cries of crisis are, as of this writing, premature.

    We’re witnessing a test of wills and power between the legislative and executive branches of government. The leadership in the House of Representatives has opened (or breathed new life into) investigations of Russia’s attack on American democracy in 2016; the lending practices of Deutsche Bank—one of the major financial partners of the Trump Organization; the issuance of security clearances in the White House; the president’s personal finances; and, of course the Mueller report, among many others.

    In each of these cases, the president, his company, and/or his administration are resisting Congressional authority:

    • Deutsch Bank: earlier this week, the Trump Organization filed suit against Deutsch Bank and CapitalOne to block them from complying with Congressional subpoenas that may reveal financial details about the president and his business.
    • Security Clearances: while Carl Kline, the former head of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, testified behind closed doors on Wednesday about the security clearance practices of the Trump White House, the administration has thus far refused to comply with a request for documents in the matter.
    • Personal Finances: the House Ways and Means Committee requested 6 years of the president’s tax returns. The Treasury Department has so far failed to meet two deadlines to turn the documents over to Congress.
    • The Mueller Report: while Attorney General William Barr testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday about the Mueller report, he is refusing to testify to the House Judiciary Committee and the Justice Department is refusing to turn over the full, un-redacted Mueller report and its underlying evidence. Furthermore, the White House has indicated it will resist any effort by Congress to interview former White House Counsel Don McGhan whose testimony to Special Counsel Robert Mueller is among the most incriminating parts of the Mueller report.

    A week ago, President Trump proclaimed his administration would resist all of Congress’ investigations—ignoring the long-standing interpretation of Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, and a 1938 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that said “A legislative inquiry may be as broad, as searching and as exhaustive as is necessary to make effective the constitutional powers of Congress.” This is why people are nervous about the endurance of our system of checks and balances.  It’s why commentators are talking about the rule of law.  It feels under assault.  The fact that the president who campaigned in the language of a would-be king (“I alone,”) is defending executive prerogative seems unsettling.

    But we have to acknowledge that Donald Trump is not the first president to resist Congressional investigations.  As Michael McConnel noted in a thoughtful op-ed in The Washington Post, the Obama administration fought Congressional investigators in the “Operation Fast and Furious” case involving then-Attorney General Eric Holder.  President George W. Bush refused to cooperate with a Congressional investigation of his decision to fire nine U.S. attorneys in 2006.  Even President George Washington refused to share documents from his administration relating to the rout of Army forces by a force of Native Americans in present-day Ohio in 1791.  In most cases, Congress seeks information and the executive branch resists and after some negotiation and accommodation, both branches of government are able to fulfill their constitutional duties.

    This is the essential nature of divided government as enshrined in our Constitution, defended in Federalist #51, and celebrated for more than 2 centuries. The branches of the federal government—the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary are co-equal branches of government.

    In Federalist #51, Madison explains that the three branches of government were constructed by the founders to rival each other for power. “Ambition,” Madison wrote, “must be made to counteract ambition.”  The Founders were worried, principally, about the accumulation of power in any one branch of government such that conditions favorable to tyranny might arise.  Their solution, divide the powers of republican government between the states and the federal government; then divide the power of the federal government between legislative, executive, and judicial functions into three co-equal branches of government.  This is the three-legged stool we learned about in grade-school.

    I am ever-mindful of the admonition that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and we, as citizens, have to be awake, and aware, and engaged. Congress has to conduct oversight.  But executive branch resistance to that oversight isn’t new.  And so I find myself, today, taking some comfort in the idea that our system is working—as unsatisfying as that may be for some.  Yes, the system created by the founders is being tested, it’s being strained, but it is still working—as designed—230 years after it was created.

  • The World Is NOT Falling Apart, with Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko

    It’s easy to be convinced by talk show hosts, editorial writers, and politicians that American security hangs on the razor’s edge and that the world is more dangerous, now, than it has ever been. Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko remind us that the facts simply don’t match that narrative.  In fact, they tell us, the world has never been better. 

    Michael A. Cohen, a columnist for the Boston Globe, and Micah Zenko, a columnist for Foreign Policy, have co-authored Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never been Better and Why that Matters to Americans. It is a bastion of reason and optimism in a world that, for many, feels anything but reasonable or optimistic.

    From over-stated warnings about terrorism to the absence of great-power conflict in international relations, the authors take us on a guided tour of what’s right in the world and try to refocus the discussion on challenges closer to home that materially and dramatically affect the safety of Americans—things like gun violence, obesity, and the opioid epidemic.

    Story in the Public Square” broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • Impeachment and the Lessons of the Iraq War

    Whether or not to impeach the president is going to be the over-riding question in American politics for the rest of Donald Trump’s time in office.  This question is not going to flame out.  It’s here to stay, and history will judge both Democrats and Republicans by how they handle this most serious question facing the republic.

    So far, Republicans in the Congress remain publicly united behind the president.  Democrats have a greater diversity of opinions—from those calling for impeachment, now, to those who worry publicly that pursuing impeachment will cost the Democrats politically.

    Senator Bernie Sanders articulated such a sentiment earlier this week during his televised town-hall meeting. He said:

    “But if — and this is an if — if for the next year, year-and-a-half, going right into the heart of the election, all that the Congress is talking about is impeaching Trump and Trump, Trump, Trump, and Mueller, Mueller, Mueller, and we’re not talking about health care, we’re not talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage, we’re not talking about combating climate change, we’re not talking about sexism and racism and homophobia, and all of the issues that concern ordinary Americans, what I worry about is that works to Trump’s advantage.”

    As I sat on my couch, listening to Senator Sanders, my beagle curled up and snoring next to me, I had an overwhelming aversion to what he was saying.  It was visceral, tapping into some hidden reservoir of dread.  It took me a little while to place it, but when I did, it stopped me cold: Senator Sanders was channeling the same logic pursued by Democrats in the run-up to the 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

    Let’s go back.  Within months of the 9/11 attacks, the administration of President George W. Bush was saber-rattling about Iraq.  By the spring of 2002, the president had declared to reporters that his administration was going to get rid of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad.  As tensions mounted over the summer months, the question arose whether the president would seek congressional authorization to use force against Iraq.  Then in mid-September, President Bush did just that.

    The GOP-controlled House moved quickly to authorize the use of force.  In the Senate, Democrats were caught between grave misgivings held by its liberal old-guard (Kennedy, Feinstein, Leahy, and Levin) about the likely cost and outcome of the war, and those who believed that subjecting the Senate to a long-debate about the use of force would keep Senate Democrats—eager to get back to their home states to campaign for the mid-terms only a few weeks away—from talking about the issues they thought the American public wanted to talk about—especially the economy.  As The New York Times put it in 2002, “Mr. Daschle. . . . and other Democratic leaders had hoped to move the resolution quickly through the Senate to focus on his party’s core message highlighting economic distress before the November midterm elections.”  Former Senator John Edwards was quoted by Dana Milbank in The Washington Post as saying,“In a short period of time, Congress will have dealt with Iraq and we’ll be on to other issues.”

    In those critical weeks of 2002, the Democrats’ logic was profoundly flawed.  The country was never going to turn its attention to domestic, bread-and-butter issues favored by Democrats when the country was gearing up for war.  They got the politics wrong, and they got the policy wrong, too.  That’s unconscionable.  The same risk exists today.  The country is not going to stop talking about impeachment as long as Donald Trump is in office.  We can’t flip a switch and pretend we didn’t read in the Mueller report that the president instructed the White House Counsel to terminate the special counsel’s investigation. 

    The lesson from 2002 is simple: don’t duck the difficult challenges of governing out of some political calculation—especially when the issues at play cut to the core of constitutional duties. 

    Impeachment is the only constitutional mechanism to hold a sitting president accountable for misdeeds conducted in office.  Yes, Democrats want to beat him in 2020.  I get it.  But they have a job to do in the meantime, and the lesson of 2002 is staring them right in the face.

  • Human Caused Environmental Catastrophe with Elizabeth Kolbert

    Air Dates: April 22-28, 2019

    The fossil record of planet earth tells us that there have been five mass extinctions—the most famous being the fifth that destroyed the dinosaurs. Elizabeth Kolbert warns that we’re in the midst, now, of the sixth extinction and its cause is human activity.

    Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Sixth Extinction, documents the risk to species across the planet. The threat is human activity.  The fabric of life has been altered largely in part by poaching, over-fishing, and deforestation—among other human activities. The resulting loss in biodiversity is reshaping life on Earth.

    Kolbert was the recipient of the 2019 Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square, presented at a ceremony on the Salve Regina University campus earlier this spring. 

    Story in the Public Square” broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • The Mueller Report is the Public’s Information

    Information is, truthfully, the coin of the realm in politics and campaigns—it always has been—even more so now in the era of social media where memes, hashtags, and short quips can have lasting and strategic political consequences.

    Let me share with you a dark secret: since the campaign of 2016, I have marveled at the sophistication I see in the way President Trump and his political operation use information; how they’ve shaped the political information eco-system to their own purposes; and even how they’ve gamed the system to produce positive benefits for the president.  We see message-testing combined with impressive discipline whenever the people around the president find a message they think works—look no further than the nicknames President Trump gives his rivals. 

    At the core of this strategy is the ability to decide what and when things get covered.  In the 2016 campaign, then-candidate Trump’s social media campaign drove much of the dialogue online and in broadcast.  For an example, consider “Crooked Hillary.”  President Trump coined that nickname in the course of the 2016 election and stuck with it on Twitter, as well as in live events.  Here, the president’s natural ability on the stump was a boon—the mix of tense audiences, the spectacle of physical danger to journalists, and the carnival atmosphere of rallies drove an estimated $5.6 billion of free media coverage for the campaign.  When the candidate bounded up on stage to talk, it got covered—regardless of the accuracy of his remarks.  Then, messages were reinforced with online ad-buys and further echoed by an on-line community of genuine supporters and Russian trolls that further reacted to and reinforced the messaging set by the Trump campaign.

    But those are not the only examples of the Trump camp’s sophisticated use of information.  As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the Barr summary provided nearly a month of pre-release spin that the president and his surrogates declared amounted to a “total exoneration.”  Even efforts to correct those characterizations from Mueller’s typically tight-lipped team ran into the wall created by a narrative that had already been set.

    But the Trump team’s sophisticated use of information extends to the way it controls who gets that information.  While every administration rewards friendly reporters, in the Trump White House, the control and parceling of information has entered a new and dangerous phase.  Regularly scheduled White House press briefings have declined substantially so journalists no-longer get to ask questions, daily, of the White House Press Secretary.  At the Pentagon, there hasn’t been a normal press briefing in more than 300 days. 

    In controlling the flow of information, the White House controls the conversation, it controls the narrative, and it controls the public’s understanding of complex issues.  It’s not unique to this White House, but the sophistication and, frankly, ruthlessness with which the Trump administration uses information for political intent is really quite remarkable.

    Lost in all of this is the simple fact that, as a republic, our institutions, our laws, our government aren’t supposed to serve any individual political leader or even party.  They are to serve all of us.  Our government is a public thing—that’s literally what the word “republic” means.  The most important member of any republic is the citizen—that’s all of us.  And the information in the possession of our government belongs to all of us.  It should be accessible to the public through journalism and, when warranted by classification, through congressional oversight—both of which have been thwarted in this case by the attorney general.

    At every turn the White House and the president have tried to shape the understanding of what the Mueller investigation was doing.  When the report was done, Attorney General William Barr summarized 400 pages of findings in 3.5 pages–an exercise that shaped the narrative for nearly a month.  Now, the report is set to be released, and the attorney general will brief the press again hours before the report goes to Congress, before the press can challenge the AG’s claims with facts, or even ask questions informed by the contents of the report.  And even when the report is released, we expect it to be heavily redacted—further controlling the information the public has access to.  Finally, in one last effort to shape the coverage, the report will be released the day before Passover, and three days before Easter.  The media coverage and the public’s attention will be shaped by those realities.

  • Video Games with Kimberly Wallace

    If you were to compare the revenues of the highest grossing feature film in history and the highest grossing video game in history—you might be surprised to learn that the video game earned substantially more—five times more, in fact, than the film. As Kimberly Wallace tells us, video games are big business and their societal impact still misunderstood. 

    Wallace is the features editor for Game Informer, a magazine covering the video game industry where narrative story telling is a well-established feature. 

    Wallace indicates gaming is no longer the realm of single teenage boys, however, but a staple of social behavior with online communities.  Men and women play video games today and the average age of the gamer is in his and her 30s.

    Story in the Public Square” broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.