Camp David Summit

One of the biggest recent news stories is Trump’s cancellation of a surprise summit with Taliban leaders and the Afghanistan president at Camp David. I am no longer surprised at the criticism towards the President, but I was shocked this time at the nature of the criticism. I assumed the disapproval would come from canceling a meeting that had potential to end the conflict, but instead he was chastised for agreeing to hold the meeting in the first place, especially at Camp David. Congresswomen Liz Cheney tweeted that no member of the Taliban should ever set foot at Camp David and she is a Republican. As always, I am not here to comment on the president’s foreign policy decisions, but historically speaking Camp David has always been used for meetings such as this, especially when dealing with Middle Eastern Issues.

After years of war and conflict between Israel and the Arab nations, Egypt and Syria both launched an attack against Israel in 1973 which became known as the Yom Kippur War. Caught by surprise, the Israelis were initially pushed back. Eventually they called up reinforcements and turned the tide back in their favor and won the war.
Not able to defeat Israel militarily, the Arab nations of OPEC went with plan B and used the war to justify driving up oil prices. They also refused to sell oil to the U.S. until Israel pulled out of new lands and recognized Palestinian rights. Henry Kissinger began flying to the Middle East to broker a peace but found it difficult to get the sides to meet. Israel did not want to give up land and Arabs nations did not want the Palestinians thinking they were forgotten.

To solve the crisis, President Jimmy Carter invited Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a two-week secret meeting at Camp David. The three men worked towards a peace that saw the passage of the Camp David Accords, in which Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula as well as from Gaza and the West Bank. Gaza and the West Bank were allowed to self-govern, setting up a possible separate Palestinian state and a recognition of Israel’s right to exist by Egypt. Though Sadat won a Nobel Peace Prize, the rest of the Arab nations, including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Yasser Arafat, denounced the Accords. The peace plan was partly responsible for Sadat’s assassination.

Jump forward several years. After the first Gulf War, relations between Israel and the Palestinians were still non-existent. H.W. Bush tried to bring both sides together, but Israel refused to talk directly with Arafat and the PLO. Arafat was a Palestinian who grew up in both Israel and Egypt. He first made a name for himself smuggling in arms to the Palestinians to use against the Israelis. In 1958 Arafat founded Al Fatah, a militant freedom fighting organization to some, a terrorist organization to others. Al Fatah has been responsible for many terrorists strikes in Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon, though they saw themselves as revolutionaries defending their people. In 1964 Al Fatah took over control of the PLO, which is an umbrella organization for many different Palestinian liberation groups and Arafat became the chairman. It is understandable why Israelis refused to meet with the PLO who they saw as terrorists.

However, in 1993 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat secretly met in Oslo. They surprised everyone when they announced they had reached an agreement known as the Oslo Accords. Then in 2000 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Arafat, and President Bill Clinton met at Camp David to work out a further peace. Nothing came from the meeting, but it was seen as a minor success in that they were at least talking.

For us today it is difficult to compare Arafat to the Taliban leadership. By the time he died, he was celebrated by some, but for years he was seen as a leading terrorist. To Israel, and even some Jordanians and Lebanese, he was always seen as a terrorist. To America, the Taliban is a serious terrorist threat.

I am not saying whether or not Trump should have invited the Taliban to Camp David. Each can judge that. What I am saying is that historically Speaking bringing together different sides, even if those sides are responsible for violence, is not a new concept at Camp David. Presidents Carter and Clinton are celebrated for doing much the same thing as a way of creating peace in the Middle East. Today we are in such a rush to criticize that we don’t always think first. Maybe before our leaders go on the attack, they should study their history first.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Electoral College

There has been a lot of talk lately about the Electoral College. If you read social media, you will see many opinions on why it should or should not continue to choose the American president. Those who want to retain the Electoral College tend to focus on the numbers and how several cities have larger populations than some states and if the College is removed, basically a handful of states will choose the next president. One post even claimed that the reason the Founding Fathers instituted the College was to protect the smaller states from the domination of the larger ones. Though I support the Electoral College and agree removing it will hurt smaller states and should remain intact, historically speaking, protecting the small states was not a reason for the Electoral College. Protecting the government was.

I have stated before in this column that the purpose of the Constitution was to address the two major fears of the Founding Fathers: too strong central government and too much democracy. I have used many quotes over the years, but with “Hamilton” playing in my city recently it seems appropriate to use his words to explain the need for the College; “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government.”
If you examine the original Constitution, not the amended one today, you will notice that the “people” are only represented in the federal government by members of the House of Representatives. As for the other two elected positions, Senators were elected by state legislators and the President was elected by the Electoral College. The people had little say in the government, and this was not by accident. The Founders feared a demagogue, a man who had such popular support of the masses that he could turn into an emperor, just as Caesar had done.

To guarantee the masses had no say in choosing the president, they were not asked. There was no primary system to choose who the candidates were. Powerful men, like Hamilton and Jefferson, wrote letters to fellow party members pushing for their man. Then a small group of these men met in a caucus and choose who their party supported.
As for the election, the Constitution states that each state should choose electors. The number comes from the number of Congressmen and Senators a state has. It does not say how those electors are chosen. For the first several elections the electors were appointed by state legislators. Once chosen, the electors voted for a president by meeting with other electors from their state. Each wrote down two names, at least one not from their state. These ballots were sent to the Senate for counting. Whoever received the most votes became President and the candidate with the second highest votes became VP. This would become problematic with men from different parties serving together so it was remedied by the Twelfth Amendment, where the President and VP are elected separately.

As you can see, the people had no say in this process and they would not until the 1820s when more democratic ideas began to spread and some states started to choose their electors by a popular vote. When enough states went to this system, the result was Andrew Jackson, the demagogue the founders feared. The first political convention to pick the President, instead of a caucus, came in the 1830s with the Anti-Masonic Party who ran on stopping government corruption, or “draining the swamp” in modern terms. They saw caucuses as undemocratic and decided to let the people or states choose in an open convention. Shortly after, all parties followed suit, fearing they would look undemocratic to the newly empowered masses.

Today the system is similar, but much more democratic. Primaries choose the candidates long before the conventions. Electors are now chosen by the people in all states and the electors vote for the popular winner of the state. There are state laws requiring both these changes, but it is interesting that no federal law does. If a state chooses to, it can still use the old system

There is nothing about protecting smaller states from larger ones. The Founders could not have envisioned the population we have in our cities today or that the city populations would ever grow larger than the rural populations. That did not happen until after 1900. They did not know the U.S. would expand across the Contentment or have such things as low-population fly-over states.

There are many good reasons to keep the Electoral College, and those arguments should be made, but make sure you have your history correct if you are going to use the Founders in your reasoning.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.