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Gary Hart: The most dangerous phrase in Washington is ‘do something’

A friend sent me a link to “Matters of Principle,” former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart’s blog the other day. Actually, it was Hart’s 4th of July entry, but I didn’t read it until yesterday and it made me wish I had read it sooner and followed Hart more regularly. But some of the wisdom in the post has held up pretty well, a week later, and I suspect it will also be worth a look-see by Independence Day next year, so I’m offering you this link to the full piece right here; it isn’t long. And it case you don’t click through I’ll paste in my favorite passage below.

It was titled “People of Paradox,” meaning us, the American people, and was about the enduring but conflicting strains of U.S. history, like the tension between constant conservatism and progressivism, and wanting to help our neighbors but to promote self-reliance, and wanting to fix – or maybe rule – the world but not liking conflicts that drag on and come to ambiguous conclusions. The pitfalls of these contrary wishes sound so obvious, but so hard to resist.

Here’s my favorite passage:

Nowhere is our ambivalence more prevalent than in foreign venues. The most dangerous phrase in Washington is “do something.” During the Cold War when a disturbance virtually anywhere in the world took place, it was a “communist takeover” and we must “do something.” We did something in Vietnam and seven years later left after 58,000 American and over a million Vietnamese had died. Now it is the complex Syrian civil war and, despite the sincere hesitancy of senior military commanders, many hawks are heard to say “we must do something.”

When doing something turns out badly, the interventionists disappear or blame the party in power for not “doing more.” A former Secretary of State might say: ‘What do we have this big military for if we’re not going to use it.’ But serious students of military affairs know that, in local indigenous conflicts, our military, if it is used at all, must be used as a scalpel, not a hammer. The first question a senior military commander asks is, What’s the exit strategy?

Our ambivalence about the use of military power abroad is not just the outcome of Vietnam and Iraq. It is the changing nature of warfare. Some politicians, who should know better, are still saying we should have won in Iraq. But national conflicts based on ancient sectarianism, tribalism, and ethnic nationalism do not lend themselves to permanent “victory” for U.S. interventionist forces as they did in World War II. There is no surrender ceremony and signing of documents.

A belated happy 4th of July to all from your humble and obedient ink-stained wretch, and have I mentioned recently that the Continental Congress, in Congress assembled in Philadelphia in 1776, actually voted for independence on July 2. It only took them until July 4 to finish torturing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/13/2016 - 10:20 am.

    Wow! GH!

    A blast (fragment) from the past. As for the July two-day reconciliation process: [sigh].

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/13/2016 - 12:18 pm.


    Decades ago, I read an op ed piece in the Wall Street Journal about the Branch Davidian siege in that has stuck with me ever since. In broad terms, it talked about how the decision was made to end the siege violently because the besiegers were getting tired. Bear in mind, this was a case where the lives of lots of innocent people, including children, were at risk. And the siege did end disastrously with the deaths of 79 people according to the internet.My intent is not to blame anyone, but this was a situation where 79 people died needlessly because the law enforcement authorities got tired and made the mistakes tired people make.

    The lesson I take from that is that indeed patience is a virtue, and being patient is not doing nothing.

  3. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/13/2016 - 01:50 pm.

    Politicians: to “do something” in Washington is dangerous

    So they don’t do anything.

    What we have right now is what political corruption looks like. Career politicians and their empires bought by lobbyists. 365 days a year, 24/7 campaigning doesn’t leave anytime to accomplish anything. Claiming failure before anything new is even tried in the gun control issue because the NRA has the politicians hands tied behind their backs. The great John Boehner used to say before many of his comments “What America wants is ….”If he was talking in terms of what America really wants his party wouldn’t be in complete denial and turmoil. The next political claptrap we will be hearing during the political cycle will be, they all work across the aisle. If that were true we wouldn’t have gridlock. The salary for a member of congress is $174,000 each plus benefits. I suggest we are not getting our money’s worth. They owe us a rebate for at least 8 years of non-performance. Let the voters vote on what the politicians should be paid on a yearly basis. There wouldn’t be so many non-productive politicians willing to hang around then. Nothing is going to change in Washington until the campaign finance laws are changed and Citizen’s United, a totally misnamed law, is repealed. Not until then will the everyday citizen get their country back from the elite. The upcoming election will be a good time to start the overdue House and Senate cleaning. Elections are not effective enough. Term limits need to be imposed to stop the career politicians who use the US government as their sugar daddy. Washington may not do anything but the voters can do something to change Washington.

  4. Submitted by Tom van der Linden on 07/13/2016 - 03:59 pm.

    Good blog

    thanks for recommending hart’s blog.

  5. Submitted by Ellen Hoerle on 07/13/2016 - 05:21 pm.

    My favorite passage

    was in the replies to Gary Hart’s piece.

    Paul Borg wrote: “As long as We as a Nation continue to avoid facing the truth of our experience and instead, hide behind artificial constructs with which we seek to replace that same experience, we will continue to wander in the illusion of that paradox of which you speak. Wisdom comes with Experience that has not been filtered by Lies.

    “Wisdom comes with Experience that has not been filtered by Lies.”

    We are a nation that is lying to itself on a grand scale. The primary voters of the Republican party have nominated a presidential candidate whose sole political strategy is to lie, lie, lie and lie some more about anybody or anything. The tragedy of this is that 14 million voters so far believe every lie he tells. But that’s because they have been believing the lies Republicans have been telling them for 40 years–what’s a few more?–about what works economically, about military spending and military adventures, refusing to admit that some problems can only be solved by a strong federal government and instead lying to American people that the only solution to our problems is smaller government.

    We will not get better government until we stop lying to ourselves about the reality of now.

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