In Khizr Khan’s inspirational story, a mighty river flows

Khizr Khan, father of fallen U.S. Army Capt. Humayun S.M. Khan, speaks as his wife Ghazala listens at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Maybe sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of our greatness and of the things we hold dear as a nation, but which we take for granted. Maybe it takes someone like Khizr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who chased his American dream and is living it.

You remember Khan. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, the Gold Star father of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat in Iraq fixed a stern gaze at the television camera as if it were a portal into the American consciousness.

With his wife Ghazala beside him, Khan pulled a copy of the U.S. Constitution from his jacket and ripped then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his proposed Muslim travel ban and his rhetoric on immigrants. Then Khan famously asked if Trump had even read the founding document.

“I will gladly lend you my copy,” he said as the audience roared. “In this document, look for the words liberty and equal protection of the law.”

An electric moment, it rocketed Khan to national prominence.

As we now know is his standard impulse, Trump took to Twitter to fire back. Never mind that attacking the grieving parents of a U.S. Army captain who had given his life for his country seemed outrageously undignified, beneath what we expect of someone wanting to be president.

Khan wasn’t surprised, he told me before an appearance last Saturday morning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin: “We had known (Trump’s) caliber and his mentality and his lack of empathy, his lack of compassion.”

Today of course, Trump is the president of the United States. Khan isn’t shrinking from the spotlight, either. He is traveling across the country with a newly published book, “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice.” The event at St. Andrew’s, where he spoke to a few hundred people about the book and about his life, was his 175th event since that fateful, life-changing night in Philadelphia.

“I’d rather be with my grandkids,” Khan told me with a warm smile. “But it’s for a good purpose — to share a message of unity and hope. We are lacking that now.”

But not Khan. His faith in America remains resolute. “The book,” he said, “is a tribute from (our family) to the goodness of America. We are expressing our gratitude.”

Later inside the school auditorium, Khan, wearing a dark suit and a Gold Star lapel pin, deftly wove his life story before a rapt, diverse audience. A Harvard-educated lawyer he spoke in a low, soothing timbre, and reminded them that among the things Americans cherish most are the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

“Human dignities,” he called them. “The founding document gave me these dignities. In Pakistan I did not have freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom to address my grievances in a court of law and due process.”

Life led from a seat on a small cot at his rural Pakistani home with no electricity to his current home of Charlottesville – yes, that Charlottesville in Virginia, where a rally of white supremacists exploded in deadly violence August 12.

In the moonlit darkness of his Pakistani home, Khan’s grandfather offered the young boy wise counsel, paraphrasing one of Rumi’s seven advices. “He told me, ‘So what if you are thirsty. Be a river for others,’” Khan said.

In Charlottesville, three days after the ugly violence, the Khans joined other families in walking the same route the neo-Nazis had taken. Like his grandfather, Khizr Khan had his own lesson to impart.

“We showed our children that these were not American values,” he said. “We stood together to show them that this is the real America.”

Some Americans have blamed Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants for emboldening white supremacist protesters. Khan didn’t address the criticism.

The Khans didn’t intend to accept the Democratic convention’s invitation to speak. Confidantes had warned them there would be backlash, and they were right. Khan receives much hate mail – most of it unsigned and with no return address – and he must travel with great precaution.

But they could not ignore the concerns of their Muslim neighbors’ children, who with Trump’s talk about banning Muslims from entering the U.S., were reluctant to attend school because they feared their parents would be gone — deported – when they returned.

“They would ask, ‘Is this possible? But we were born here,’” Khan said.

In some ways, Khan’s appearance at St. Andrews bore some of the hallmarks of both a celebrity appearance and an inspirational seminar for people thirsty for hope. A long line of people waited to have their photo taken with Khan, who exuded a quiet and gracious humility.

At times audience members fought back tears. At others they rollicked with laughter. The idea of holding up the Constitution had been an afterthought, conceived in a taxi on the way to the Democratic convention. Khan described a comical scene like something out of The Three Stooges: in rehearsing pulling the pocket-size Constitution from his jacket, he displayed the back cover, ruining the intended dramatic effect.

“Practice,” Ghazala scolded him.

In Austin and across the country, at a time when political civility has gone missing, at a time when some in America vilify those who don’t look like them, Khan might be the unlikeliest of rock stars, spinning a love poem to democratic ideals.

If he is thirsty, he is not letting on. Instead, he is a river to others.

 

 

Kissinger on Vietnam: A few mistakes, saddest moments, no regrets

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Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger speaks Tuesday night during the LBJ Presidential Library’s Vietnam War Summit.

“Why don’t you get out of Vietnam?”                                                           “Because a sudden withdrawal might give us a credibility problem.”        “Where?”                                                                                                                                                                         — French President Charles de Gaulle to Henry Kissinger, March 1969

Henry Kissinger was President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and later his secretary of state. The peace deal Kissinger negotiated with North Vietnam in January 1973 lasted long enough for the Nixon administration to finish withdrawing U.S. combat troops from South Vietnam and cynically claim it had achieved “peace with honor.” Kissinger won the Nobel Prize for his efforts — which famously prompted humorist Tom Lehrer to quip, “Political satire became obsolete when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.” Two years later, South Vietnam fell to communist North Vietnam.

Kissinger, 92, was at the LBJ Presidential Library Tuesday night for a conversation with Mark Updegrove, the library’s director, as part of the library’s Vietnam War Summit, which ends Thursday. Kissinger described the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 and the evacuation of Saigon as “one of the saddest moments of my life.” He talked about President Lyndon Johnson’s anguish at failing to achieve peace in Vietnam — Kissinger, a Harvard professor at the time, had advised Johnson — and he noted what he thought were some lessons learned from the war. (One of them: Don’t go to war unless you can describe an aim you can sustain.)

Just as Johnson inherited American commitments to South Vietnam from his predecessors, and then tragically escalated America’s military presence there in the mid-1960s, Nixon inherited Johnson’s escalation in 1969 and tragically expanded it to Cambodia and Laos. Though Nixon began a gradual withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam soon after taking office, he and Kissinger were determined to prosecute a lost war without losing American “credibility.”

They implemented a strategy known as “Vietnamization”: Slowly remove U.S. forces from South Vietnam, train and equip South Vietnamese troops to take their place, and bomb the hell out of the enemy in the meantime. More than 21,000 Americans and perhaps as many as 1.5 million Vietnamese would die while Nixon and Kissinger kept up appearances for allies and enemies, as David Milne wrote in his 2015 book, “Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy.”

Tuesday night at the LBJ Library, Kissinger admitted “tactical” mistakes were made but said he had no regrets about Vietnam. Asked by Updegrove how he thought history would judge him, Kissinger shrugged and said his extensive record was in the hand of others to judge and that history’s judgment wasn’t an obsession for him. “I tried to do the best I could, and that’s all I can say,” he said.

Myopia and hubris mark America’s involvement in Vietnam. History’s judgment probably won’t rest on whether Kissinger tried the best he could. It likely will rest on whether he ever acknowledged that what he thought was right might have been terribly wrong. Tuesday, he gave no indication he will ever consider such a thing.

From the archives: How the power gap is coloring U.S.-Europe relations

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A Macedonian army vehicle reinforces a gate that migrants have tried to storm to enter Macedonia from Greece. On Monday, the European Union began sending Syrian refugees and other migrants in Greece to Turkey to try to curb migration. (Boris Grdanoski / AP)

Ross Douthat’s latest New York Times column, an edited version of which appeared in Tuesday’s print edition of the American-Statesman, revisited Robert Kagan’s well-known 2002 essay, “Power and Weakness,” which Kagan later expanded into a short book, “Of Paradise and Power.” Kagan analyzed how the United States and Europe had diverged after the Cold War, and how the American war on terrorism and the divisive debate over the Iraq war had brought the differences between the two into sharp relief.

Here’s how Kagan began “Power and Weakness”:

“It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world. … (O)n major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less. And this state of affairs is not transitory — the product of one American election or one catastrophic event. The reasons for the transatlantic divide are deep, long in development, and likely to endure. When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats, defining challenges, and fashioning and implementing foreign and defense policies, the United States and Europe have parted ways.”

In his column, Douthat sees, “in this time of political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic,” an emerging Mars-Venus reversal of the Bush-era alignment Kagan explored — a reversal taking shape even though the United States remains the world’s only hyperpower and Europe is still militarily weak.

“It’s too soon to say Europeans are actually from Mars once again,” Douthat writes. “But the Continent’s Venusian idyll has taken blow after blow: the euro crisis, the aggressions of Vladimir Putin, and now the convergence of mass migration and Islamist terror. Nationalism is returning, border fences are going up. The center is weakening, the far right is gaining power. The Mediterranean and the Russian marches are zones of conflict again, and ancient habits — French military adventurism, Little Englander separatism, a tense relationship with Islam — are resurfacing.”

Meanwhile, Douthat writes, “if nationalism is making Europeans more militaristic, in America it’s inclining us to lay down the burdens of empire, to retreat into a self-sufficient Arcadia all our own.”

I’ll let Douthat’s column stand without comment, but it prompted me to revisit “Power and Weakness” as well as a Q&A I did with Kagan that was published in the Statesman on March 16, 2003, four days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In light of Douthat’s column, I thought the Q&A worth rescuing from the archives:

That Europeans and Americans no longer share a common view of the world has never been more obvious. The debate over Iraq has divided the strategic alliance that held the West together throughout the Cold War, and there are concerns it will not survive.

Even if present tensions ease, the fundamental disagreement about the use and legitimacy of force between the United States and its major European allies will remain, because America is militarily powerful, Europe is not and the powerful and the weak approach foreign affairs differently. For the powerful, force is always an option; for the weak, who cannot rely on force as an instrument of foreign policy, the emphasis must be on international rules, organizations and negotiation.

Robert Kagan examines this power gap in “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order,” an expanded version of his influential essay “Power and Weakness” that appeared last summer in the journal Policy Review. Kagan’s analysis has given shape to the debate on U.S.-European relations and brought clarity to it. His take is not beyond challenge — questions and doubts arise reading both his essay and book — but it is an indispensable study for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of American and European positions and strategies.

Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.* He lives in Brussels, Belgium, and contributes regularly to the Weekly Standard and The Washington Post. He is usually lumped in with the so-called neoconservatives, a group of thinkers and writers who are generally considered the intellectual architects of a new interventionist policy that marries American power to American principles.

I spoke with Kagan last week about the rift between Europe and the United States. An edited transcript follows.

Austin American-Statesman: You write that Europeans inhabit a world where agreed-upon rules of behavior and international law trump military power. The way you describe it, it sounds like a pretty good world and it is, after all, the “paradise” of your book’s title. So why can’t the United States be a part of that paradise? Why must we remain outside it?

Robert Kagan: The United States is in effect the creator and the guarantor of that European paradise, which rests ultimately on a foundation of global security that the United States provides and the Europeans don’t have to provide. That’s the paradox: that the United States makes paradise possible for the Europeans only by not being in it itself. Because the fact is, outside the European continent, we have to deal with people like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and China and others who have not chosen the path that Europe has chosen.

Must America live by a double standard — not follow some international conventions, support arms control for others but not for itself, and so on — to achieve security? Doesn’t that expose us to charges of hypocrisy?

We’ve always been in this position; it’s not a new position. The international legal mechanisms of the United Nations have existed for almost 60 years now. The United States has done what it’s done in the world without reference to those institutions. In the real world we try to support international rules as best we can, but there are times, especially when it comes to the exercise of power, when the goal of furthering liberal international order requires that the United States be able to take some action without necessarily having the full support of an international body like the United Nations. There is no time in the past when the United States could have taken action, no matter what that action may have been, with the full support of the U.N. Security Council. And we lived in that world fairly comfortably.

I find it a bit odd for Americans, those who do, to suddenly suggest that the Security Council is the only place where one derives legitimacy for action. That’s not been the American position in the past, and it wasn’t even the European position as recently as four years ago with the war in Kosovo, which was conducted without a Security Council resolution.

Doesn’t exposing ourselves to charges of hypocrisy threaten what might be our greatest power, the power of our ideals and values?

It’s realism, not hypocrisy, to say that it is impossible to maintain order strictly through the legal mechanisms of the United Nations. A double standard is not exactly the same as hypocrisy. However, you make a reasonable point, and it’s unclear exactly what the answer is. Obviously a great deal of American power stems from the sense that America undertakes actions for the general good and not for purely selfish interests. If you look to the past, the legitimacy of American leadership in the world has always rested on the general opinion of our allies as to whether we were acting in a common interest or whether we were acting in a selfish interest.

Now on Iraq we obviously happen to be in strong disagreement with our allies. When American policy was engaged in the defense of Europe, Europeans by and large, and with some exceptions, found American behavior in the world to be fundamentally legitimate. Now that the United States is no longer engaged, at least in the immediate sense, in the defense of Europe, Europeans are finding more flaws in the American approach. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right.

Throughout the Cold War, the idea of the West was the organizing principle of foreign policy in Europe and the United States, structured to counter a threat from within Europe. But now the threat comes from beyond Europe — radical Islam, terrorism, failed states. Still, shouldn’t the idea of the West be the organizing principle of a new foreign policy to meet this new threat?

That’s a very American view. I can tell you there are very few Europeans who would see it that way because a) they just do not view the threat of international terrorism the way Americans do, and b) they have a very complicated relationship with their own Muslim populations and therefore with the Muslim world in general, and I just do not believe that what Americans see as the present threat creates a united West in anything like the same way that Soviet communism did.

For one thing, it’s a physical threat to the West, not a spiritual, ideological threat, which is what communism was. Communism was an alternative vision for the West; it was a path that the West could take. I don’t think the possibility of the West being converted to Islam is very great.

Then the West as we know it is a relic of the Cold War?

The West as a culture, as a political philosophy, as an economic philosophy and as an economic entity does exist and is very strong. But as a strategic entity, the West is a relic of the Cold War.

What do you think? How relevant are Kagan’s points 13 years later? Is the U.S.-European relationship headed toward “a kind of through-the-looking-glass version of the Iraq debate,” as Douthat suggests?

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*Today, Kagan is a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.