Discover more from Letters from an American
January 1, 2020
Happy New Year!
If yesterday was about looking backward and taking stock, today is about moving forward.
The biggest story today, by far, is that yesterday, on December 31, supporters of what appear to be an Iranian-backed militia laid siege to the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. The immediate cause was the US airstrikes that killed 25 in retaliation for a rocket attack that killed a US military contractor. But the larger protest was anger at American presence in the region. It was significant that the embassy is not simply a building, it is a 104-acre area, and the protesters had to push past Iraqi soldiers to take up their positions, which suggested to observers that the Iraqi soldiers agreed with the protesters.
The protest highlighted the increasing tension in Iraq between Americans, who retain about 5000 troops in Iraq, and Iran, which controls the Iraqi militias. Tensions with Iran ratcheted up when in 2018 Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits to its development of nuclear technology.
The siege conjured up memories of the 1979 seizure of the Iranian embassy by Islamic militants, as yesterday's protesters echoed their calls of “Death to America” and embassy staff hunkered down in a safe room inside the compound. It also invited comparisons to the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, as American officials were blindsided by the attack. Nervous about those comparisons, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham repeatedly noted that there would be “no Benghazis” on Trump’s watch.
In one of history's little twists, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on whose watch this has happened, was on the House Select Committee on Benghazi when it investigated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the sixth time in the House (and, for the sixth time, found no wrongdoing). This was the investigation Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) now House Minority Leader, told Fox News personality Sean Hannity was intended simply to keep Benghazi in front of voters to hurt Clinton before the 2016 election. (It has recently been revealed that McCarthy took Russian money from indicated political operative Lev Parnas.) And now, Pompeo and Trump have their own incident.
The larger crisis is that it is falling into Trump’s lap to deal with the fallout of a war that began in 2003 and has cost more than a trillion dollars, and which seems to have accomplished very little except to strengthen the hand of Iran in the area. And it is happening at a time when he is facing an impeachment trial and is more and more erratic.
Today, unexpectedly, the protesters ended their siege out of deference to Iraqi leaders, they claimed. “You have won a victory,” one of the leaders told the militias. “You have delivered your message. We will take our fight to expel U.S. troops from our land to parliament, and if we don’t succeed, we will return."
Also on the table today is that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared that he will no longer be bound by his self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests since talks between him and Trump have not resulted in an end to the sanctions crippling his country. Kim appears to be jockeying for a better position at home and against Trump, who is weakened by impeachment and his growing unpopularity.
Both of these issues illustrate the problem of trying to engage in international relations without the steady hand of professional diplomats and without allies. Both of these situations are critical, and Trump is now facing them without a strong diplomatic corps and without the support of our former allies.
The other big today story is that last night Chief Justice John Roberts released the annual report on the federal judiciary.
Roberts is in a touchy position right now. As the head of the Supreme Court, he is responsible for the health and well-being of the entire judicial system, and he cannot be unaware of the disdain Americans have conceived for Chief Justices who used the court to achieve unpopular political decisions. Roger Taney, for example (whose name is pronounced “Tawney,” for unfathomable reasons), led the court in the years before the Civil War, and has been consigned to the dustbin of history for his role in deciding the 1857 Dred Scott decision in such a way that it gave elite slaveholders control of the newly acquired American West while both denying the humanity of African Americans and the rights of poor white men. Chief Justice Melville Fuller, who presided over a slew of horrid decisions at the turn of the last century, including the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that rubberstamped “separate but equal” justifying segregation, was such an embarrassment that virtually no one even remembers him: we call his court the “Lochner Era court” rather than the “Melville Fuller court.”
Roberts was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush and presided over Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which gutted the Voting Rights Act, as well as Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (2010), which said that the government cannot restrict the amount of money corporations can give to politicians. He is a firm believer in a small federal government and the power of corporations, but he is also an intelligent man who cares about his legacy.
Roberts will preside over the upcoming Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, and he has already exchanged words with Trump over the independence of the judiciary: Trump has tried throughout his administration to sow distrust of judges appointed by Democrats, while Roberts has countered that judges must be impartial.
So Roberts’s introduction to the annual report was not idle. He began by attacking the use of propaganda and mob rule and went on to defend the independence of the judiciary. He went out of his way to praise Judge Merrick Garland-- although not by name--, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court whom Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an unprecedented attack on the presidency, refused to consider.
But most interesting to me in his report was that when Roberts talked at great length about the role of the courts to educate Americans about the rule of law, his primary example was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation. That case is pivotal in American history not only because of its role in desegregation, but because it sparked an outpouring of scholarship suggesting that society changes not because of social trends or economic or politics, but because of court decisions. In the wake of Brown v. Board, the great historian C. Vann Woodward argued that segregation itself came only after Jim Crow laws, and that popular acceptance of civil rights would come only after legal desegregation.
Roberts seemed to me to be saying that the job of reclaiming democracy and the rule of law belonged to the courts now—a major declaration at a time when Trump has a number of court cases pending, as well, of course, as his impeachment trial. I absolutely could be reading too much into Roberts’s declaration, but it seemed to me significant.
What exactly Roberts means by the rule of law, though, remains to be seen.
Kind of a rocky start to 2020, but I'm guessing it's going to be a rocky year.
Notes: Iraq siege: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/supporters-of-iranian-backed-militia-start-withdrawing-from-besieged-us-embassy-in-baghdad-following-militia-orders/2020/01/01/8280cb34-2c9e-11ea-9b60-817cc18cf173_story.html
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