Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Regarding Gerald Ford's passing

Three quick points.

1. Gerald Ford has died at a time when Internet usage is at an all-time high. There is no way to know for sure, but the amount of commentary about him may set some kind of record. Dividing the short number of days he served into the millions of words now being written about him, commentary about Gerald Ford may proportionally exceed that written about JFK.

2. Anyone younger than forty will have no mature memories of the man. That's too bad because he is perhaps one of the most decent men ever to work in the Oval Office. Not great (as one headline said, "A Ford, not a Lincoln") but utterly decent. And that decency is made even more remarkable as it stands in contrast to the corruption of the administration at the time. Nixon's vice-president, Spiro Agnew, resigned under a cloud of scandal and Nixon had to replace him with someone clean as a pin. This was before the Watergate scandal would later sink Nixon's boat.

3. Joe Gandelman has the most comprehensive summary of blogger comments I have come across. Anyone who has the patience is welcome to go there to read more. I have seen all I care to read.

Addendum, December 28

Juan Cole has compiled a lengthy string of data about the Ford years, ending with this:

All presidents make errors, and some abuses occurred on Ford's watch, though they often were initiated by Kissinger. But Ford faced with no illusions the challenges of his era, of detente with the Soviet Union, continued attempts to cultivate China, the collapse of Indochina, the fall-out of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and the beginnings of the Lebanese Civil War. Ford was right about detente, right about China, right about Arab-Israeli peace, right about avoiding a big entanglement in Angola, right to worry about nuclear proliferation (one of his worries was the increasing evidence that the Middle East had a nuclear power, Israel, and India was moving in that direction).

Ford's challengers on the Reagan Right were wrong about everything. They vastly over-estimated the military and economic strength of the Soviet Union (yes, that's Paul Wolfowitz). They wanted confrontation with China. They dismissed the Arab world as Soviet occupied territory (even though the vast majority of Arab states was US allies at that time) and urged that it be punished till it accepted Israel's territorial gains in 1967. They insisted that the Vietnam War could have been won.

But despite its illusions and Orwellian falsehoods, the Reagan Right prevailed. Ford only momentarily lost to Carter. Both of them were to lose to Reagan, who resorted to Cold War brinkmanship, private militias, death squads, offshore accounts, unconstitutional criminality, and under the table deals with Khomeini, and who created a transition out of the Cold War that left the private militias (one of them al-Qaeda) empowered to wreak destruction in the aftermath. The blowback from that Reaganesque era of private armies of the Right helped push the US after 2001 toward an incipient fascism at which Ford, the All-American, the lawyerly gentleman, the great Wolverine, must have wept daily in his twilight years.

Yep. That's how I remember it as well. The Reagan Right did prevail. And with the passing of time the Great Communicator has been lifted to a pedestal approaching sainthood. Marc Antony was not entirely right. The evil that men do does not always live after them. It is sometimes the evil that is interred with their bones.

Added December 29

From Duck of Minerva:

...many of the familiar senior figures of today's foreign policy debate got their start in the Ford administration. It was under Ford that a young Dick Cheney became the President's Chief of Staff and Don Rumsfeld became the youngest Secretary of Defense. Brent Scowcroft was National Security adviser and George Bush was director of the CIA. The experience of these men, and many others from that time, continues to have a profound impact in shaping US Foreign Policy. One need look no farther than the strong alliance between Rumsfeld's Pentagon and Cheney's office of the Vice President in shaping Iraq policy, an alliance forged in the Ford Administration.

Second, Ford really began the era of intelligence oversight by issuing Executive Order 11905. The order is perhaps most famous for its ban on assassination by US government agencies. Since their founding in the early years of the Cold War, the US intelligence agencies, notably the CIA and NSA, gave themselves a wide mandated to fight the Cold War. Some of this activity became rather questionable, and included spying on US citizens in violation of US law. However, until the mid-70's, there was no Congressional oversight of the Intelligence Community. Following high-profile investigations by Congress, several laws were passed establishing the legal framework for Intelligence oversight that we have today. Ford's executive order was the first in a series of steps to regulate what sort of spying the US can and cannot do. The order banning assassination remains in effect to this day, having stood the test of time across administrations of varied political leanings. The Global War on Terror has renewed the debate over this ban, yet it remains in force. Now, the US government still targets individuals, such as Saddam Hussein on the first day of the 2003 Iraq war, or various Al Queda terrorists. But, because of Ford's order, these efforts must pass through a complicated legal framework and justification as legitimate military targets, not assassinations. One can debate the point of this, but the fact that that debate is there at all is part of Ford's legacy.

Finally, Ford signed the Helsinki Final Acts in 1975. The Helsinki accord was formally about the end of World War II in Europe, recognizing and fixing the borders of European states, in particular the changes made by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. However, one "basket" of the accords contained key provisions about the importance of Human Rights, and when the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites signed the accords, they committed themselves, formally, for the first time, to upholding basic human rights. At the time, this was not seen as a major issue, but it would perhaps be the longest lasting legacy of the Accords. This moment marked a the entry point of Human Rights as a key issue in US foreign policy and helped end the Cold War. While subsequent Presidents, notably Carter and Reagan, would put Human Rights at the forefront of US foreign policy, Ford's signing and ratification of the Helsinki Accords made it possible for them to do so in a meaningful way. Having the USSR as a signatory to the document gave them a touchstone against which to measure Soviet treatment of their own people. Even more importantly, the Accords led to the foundation of many NGO's dedicated to monitor their implementation. In the West, the best known is Human Rights Watch (originally founded as Helsinki Watch, to "watch" the signatories adherence to the accords). In the Soviet Bloc, groups such as Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia were formed, inspired by the Helsinki Accords. These groups ability to hold their governments accountable for human rights abuses by highlighting the standards to which the governments had agreed in Helsinki was one of the key beginnings of the end of the Cold War. The modern discourse of Human Rights, government policies to uphold human rights, and international network of NGO's who monitor human rights issues owes much of its existence to the Helsinki process, a process that Gerald Ford was willing to stand up for, sign, and incorporate into US foreign policy.

Its certainly not a Truman or Reagan, Kennedy or even Eisenhower-esque legancy, to be sure, but as much of the discussion of Ford's life and Presidency will most certainly focus on Nixon, its important to remember a few of the important things he did accomplish in his brief time as President.

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