Friday, February 05, 2016

Why not a female public servant on the $10 bill?

The Treasury Department is struggling to agree on a woman whose face might replace that of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill.   The leading contenders for the place of honor, evidently are Harriet Tubman, the 19th-century black abolitionist and leader of the Underground Railroad; Susan B. Anthony, the suffragette; Rosa Parks, the Montgomery woman whose act of defiance kicked off the bus boycott in that city in 1955; and first lady, political activist, and U.N. delegate Eleanor Roosevelt.  The selection of any of those, I would like to suggest, would reflect changes in our view of history that have nothing to do with feminism—and that would contribute to one of the most serious national problems we face today namely, our general contempt for politics and political leadership.  The reason is that none of those worthy women made their name mainly as public servants.

Until the late 1960s, I would argue, Americans, while differing on specifics, were generally united in their respect for their nation’s democratic experiment and the leaders who had begun, continued and extended it.  The generations that made the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution were keenly aware that they were introducing a new form of government into the modern world and desperately wanted it to succeed.  Lincoln cast the Civil War as an attempt to preserve that new form of government—to insure “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”   Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson attempted to make democracy work in the industrial age, and Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War cast the United States as the defender of democracy on the world stage.  Until the Vietnam War, most Americans saw their role in that light as well.  Thus, Americans found it completely natural to put Presidents and a few other political leaders on their currency.  Neither women nor black Americans, of course, enjoyed full citizenship until the twentieth century, but for the most part, this did not make them reject the premises of the United States as such.  Instead, it simply made them eager to become full and equal participants in the democratic experiment, as indeed, eventually, they did.

Unfortunately, two thirds of the way through the twentieth century, at the moment that this process seemed on the verge of completion, entirely different views took hold on both sides of the political spectrum.  The right, initially represented by Barry Goldwater, began to view the federal government as the enemy of liberty.  The left, represented initially by student movements, saw both the whole government and American society as evil from the beginning, an oppressor of nonwhites, women, and poorer Americans.  Their views widely popularized by the historian Howard Zinn, whose People’s History of the United States argued that all change from the better had come from the bottom of society, not from political elites.  The left’s only heroes, from that day forward, were activist members of oppressed groups—people such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Rosa Parks.  The left for the past five decades has been obsessed with moral purity, and that is indeed easier to find among activists devoted solely to the pursuit of justice than among the men and woman who have the largely thankless but absolutely necessary job of governing us all.  The profound results of these opinion shifts now stand out in bold relief: a general contempt for our political leadership and our political parties, especially among young people.  That is one of the major reasons for the rather shocking turn that this year’s Republican presidential nominating contest has already taken.

Thus I would like to suggest that Hamilton be replaced, not by any of the four leading candidates, but by a female public servant.  It is true that Eleanor Roosevelt did hold an important government position after her husband’s death, as chief delegate to the new United Nations, but it is also true that she became a national figure because of her husband’s election, which she very cleverly exploited for her own political purposes.  The selection of such a woman is complicated by a provision in law: no living person can have their portrait on our currency.  Strong candidates such as Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote some very important opinions in a long career as our first female Supreme Court Justice, and Nancy Pelosi, who occupied the chair of Speaker of the House for four critical years and was ultimately perhaps the person most responsible for the passage of the Affordable Health Care Act, cannot be selected because they are both very much alive.  We must look further back in our history.

My first eligible candidate, then, would be Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the cabinet.  Ms. Perkins was far more than the woman who broke that particular barrier.  A long-time political activist in New York State, she was appointed Secretary of Labor by Franklin Roosevelt, and served in that position for the whole of his presidency.  At no time in our nation’s history was that job more important.  The Depression and the New Deal led to the most rapid growth in unions in our history, and the Labor Department was expanded to include the National Labor Relations Board, which set up procedures to decide whether, and by whom, workers in specific firms or industries would be unionized.  Of course, very few people today would be able to identify Frances Perkins—but one could argue that that is an argument for, rather than against, making her a presence in our daily lives once again.

A second candidate would be Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, born in 1897, who represented Maine as a Congresswoman from 1940 through 1949, and in the Senate for the next 24 years.  During the Second World War she took a keen interest in promoting the role of women in the military, helping to start the WAVES, the women’s branch of the Navy, but also emerged more generally as an expert in naval affairs.  A moderate Republican, she was not opposed to much of the New Deal, and fought the existence of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  After her election to the Senate, she became one of the first members of that body to speak out boldly and frankly against the wild accusations of another Republican, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.  She was, in short, exactly the kind of courageous, independent-minded public servant, devoted to the public good and to the rights of her fellow Americans, that we desperately need more of today.  In 1964, she ran for the Republican nomination for President and was the first woman ever to be placed in nomination at a major party convention.  A maverick to the end, she supported the Vietnam War, but voted against President Nixon’s nominations of two white southerners, Clement Haynesworth and Harold Carswell, to the Supreme Court. Both nominations failed.

The selection of Perkins, an important cabinet member in a critical period, would be somewhat parallel to the man she would replace, Hamilton, who never rose above Secretary of the Treasury.  The selection of Smith, a legislator, would be a new departure, but a very welcome one, helping put more attention on the possibilities for doing good and defending the rights of Americans within the legislative branch.  Already, as I have noted, we have other good living female candidates, and in the next few decades many more will emerge.  But the choice of Perkins or Smith would remind us all of an increasingly inconvenient truth.  While activists may inspire us, we ultimately must depend on the men and women with the fortitude to secure election or accept appointment to high office, where they and they alone will make great decisions that shape our lives.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sanders, Clinton, and the Mainstream "left"

The battle for the soul of the Democratic Party and the future of the United States has been joined.  On Monday, in the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton may seize the electoral  momentum that eluded her eight years ago.  If she does, even the very likely victory of Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire will not be likely to derail her, with a string of southern primaries coming up.  But if she does not, if Sanders wins the first two contests, and if Elizabeth Warren responds by endorsing him, the analogy I posited some months ago between 1968 and 2016 will become more apt.  For the second time in eight years Hillary will be fighting from behind against a candidate with far more support from younger voters (though not, at least as yet, from minority voters.)  If Sanders gets the momentum, his nomination will become a distinct possibility.

 I shall come in a moment to the issue of what I see at stake, but first I want to discuss the reaction of Boomer and Xer liberal journalists to these developments.  It appears to be almost unanimous.  One after another, the pundits of the mainstream "left"--whose views increasingly resemble those of that nearly extinct species, republicanus moderatus--are lining up behind Clinton.  To oppose Sanders, they argue, is a sign of maturity.

Jonathan Chait, in New York Magazine, writes that the evidence for Sanders's essential argument: "that the problems of the American economy require far more drastic remedies than anything the Obama administration has done, or that Clinton proposes to build on"--is "far weaker than he assumes."  Dodd-Frank has weakened, though not destroyed, the big banks, he claims, and the ACA has reduced the number of uninsured.  Chait is also nervous about the economic consequences of raising the minimum wage too high, and complains that Sanders doesn't pay enough attention to foreign threats.   Ezra Klein declares on that Sanders's single-payer plan for health care is "not a plan at all," and complains that it relies too heavily on taxes on the rich and that it has no role for the states.  Two weeks ago, my local paper, the Boston Globe--now owned by hedge fund manager John Henry--fired a double shot across Sanders's bow.  Joan Vennochi identified Sanders's outrage as "his greatest strength," but also his greatest weakness, one that reminded her of Donald Trump and would prevent him from working with Republicans in Washington, and Michael Cohen, echoing her paragraph by paragraph, says Sanders "doesn't understand how politics works."  Dana Millbank of the Washington Post strikes an avuncular pose, assuring us that while he "adores" Bernie Sanders and find Hillary Clinton a "dreary" candidate, "Democrats would be insane to nominate him."  And last but hardly least, Paul Krugman, who has been the only highly visible voice of New Deal Liberalism for at least sixteen years, argues today that the white working class is so disaffected that a coalition of the economically weak has now become impossible and that Obama/Clinton style liberalism on social issues and palliative measure on the economy is the best that we can hope for.

Now from one perspective, these commentators, I might argue, are proving me right.  On December 4 last, in probably the most important post I have ever put up there, "The Fourth Great Crisis in American National Life," I argued that more that 35 years of ceaseless Republican struggle had led us into a new Gilded Age, that Barack Obama had lost the last chance to reverse the course we were on when he came into office, and that even the nomination of Bernie Sanders was not likely to reverse the tide.  I am quite certain that none of these commentators read that piece, which I spent the better part of a year trying and failing to place in a major outlet, But they are saying the same thing that I did: that the United States in 2016 no longer has any room for genuine New Deal liberalism.  The difference between me and the rest of them is this: while I view it as a tragedy that the nation will take decades to recover from, they seem to be quite at peace with it.  Nor, given the surprising strength of the Sanders campaign, am I quite willing to give up yet.

Let's spend a minute on some key substantive issues.  Yes, Dodd-Frank--or something else that we do not understand--has apparently imposed some limits on irresponsible financial behavior, and we have had, as yet, nothing like another crash.  Personally I am among those--and there are many--who are not confident that we shall be able to say the same in 2026, say, but even if we can, that simply means that the system which Sanders rightly describes as "rigged" will be functioning more smoothly.  The system is "rigged" for the reason that Piketty identified nearly two years ago: it systematically channels the proceeds of economic growth into the capital accounts of the very rich, not into the pocketbooks of the lower 90% of the population.  And indeed, there are increasing signs that the growth or decline of our GDP is linked more closely than ever to the fortunes of the very rich.  That is why some commentators are arguing that the fall in oil prices that has put billions into the pockets of American consumers might in the net be bad for the economy--because it is hurting the oil giants and the industry that supplies them.  Chait, Millbank, Vennochi, Klein, Krugman and myself all were born into a relatively equal world thanks to the New Deal and its aftermath--as Krugman, at least, used to  understand.  Now they are willing to turn their back on that world, because they are rejecting the only candidate who wants to re-impose the measures (including Glass-Steagall) that made t possible.

As for the ACA, it has provided insurance to millions of people who did not have it, which is a good thing.  The achievement is threatened, however, by drastic increases in many premiums and deductibles which will deprive many of them of real economic security.  And as Sanders points out, in the end, the ACA did nothing about the overall cost of health care, which is notoriously at least double the cost in other advanced countries.  Sanders cleverly (and accurately) calls his plan "Medicare for all." Now that I've been on Medicare for a few years myself, I better understand how our health care system works.  Because the government pays for Medicare, doctors and hospitals have been forced to provide seniors with care at relatively low rates of return.  (The pharmaceutical industry, as far as I can tell, does just as well out of seniors as other patients.)  Insurance companies, doctors and hospitals make their profits--profits which simply don't exist in other advanced countries--by charging working Americans and their families much more.  That increases generational income inequality and can't be good for America's future  This is the problem which Sanders, and Sanders alone, wants to do something about.

The ACA is like the earned income tax credit, which both Democrats and Republicans have relied on to help the growing numbers of working poor over the last several decades.  Rather than ensure that everyone is paid a true living wage, it tries to get low wages nearer that standard by giving them a big break on their taxes.  That, of course, increases the size of the "dependent" population, the "47%" Mitt Romney complained about four years ago.  And that has negative political consequences.  The system hurts working families, and they will be vulnerable to appeals by Republicans to their resentment of people whom feel do not work unless the system changes.

Krugman hints at, but does not develop, another aspect of the failure of liberalism of the Clinton variety.  While Sanders, he says, believes that money is the root of all evil, Clinton believes that money is not "the whole story."  "Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right," and this  difference of emphasis "matters for political strategy."  What this initially seemed to mean, to me, was that Clinton was going to rely on appeals to women and minorities in both the primaries and the general election, which certainly seems to be the case.   But Krugman takes this in another direction. "If the divisions in American politics aren't just about money," he writes, "if they reflect deep-seated prejudics that progressives simply can't appease, such visions of racial change [as Sanders proposes] are naive.  And I believe that they are."  The Trump campaign has proven to Krugman, it seems, that racism and sexism are so deeply ingrained in America that the union of the lower classes has become impossible. (He feels homophobia has drastically lessened as a political force.)  There are internal contradictions in this position: if they are really that powerful, then how can Clinton possibly win by stressing these issues? Isn't it entirely possible that the white working class has gone Republican precisely because they don't think the Democrats care about straight white males?  But in any case, it is the most appalling surrender to a dreadful vision of America that I have ever seen, one of which Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy would never have been guilty.

In the climactic scene of the indispensable book and film, Primary Colors, the composite figure Libby Holden berates Jack and Susan Stanton (Bill and Hillary Clinton) for betraying the ideals they all shared when they helped nominate McGovern in 1972.  We were young then, Susan replies. We didn't understand "how the world works."   As Hillary's record of speaking engagements and public positions makes all too clear, she understands only too well how today's world works.  One can cast one's self as a fighter for the middle class and a crusader on social issues, so long as one takes care not to offend powerful economic interests and disturb the distribution of income.  I can't help but wonder whether Chait, Vennochi, Cohen, Millbank, and even Krugman also can't help but trust a system which, for whatever reason, has found a very nice place within itself for them. Yet whether that strategy can get her the nomination and the White House in 2016 depends on whether the world has passed her by.

The wild card this year is the Millennial generation, which simply cannot shut its eyes to the inequalities of our economic system because it is being so much affected by it.  Even highly educated Millennials can't afford homes in major metropolitan areas.  They are burdened with debt and uncertain prospects.  Strauss and Howe, writing in the 1990s when the oldest Millennials had not even reached puberty, expected them to save the nation and the world like their GI grandparents.  As I have said many times, the GIs did it under the leadership of the Missionaries, led by FDR,while the Millennials will not do so under the leadership of the Boomers.  (It is no accident, by the way, that the only representative of New Deal liberalism in the Presidential race is old enough to remember FDR's death and its impact on the adults on his life.)  But they could do so at the ballot box.  Their parents have forfeited their trust and they want something new.  Bernie is offering it.   That is the coalition that could conceivably get the United States back on a different track.  This may not be likely,  but if it will be delighted to have had my post of December 4, 2015, proven wrong.  And in any case, I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for keeping the ideals of an earlier era alive, when almost no one in my generation cares enough to do so.

Friday, January 22, 2016

How the United States Preserved Itself

Over the last few weeks, I became utterly absorbed in another book that has been sitting on my shelf for many years--the memoirs of General William Tecumseh Sherman.  The civil war was my first serious historical interest, going back to when I was 10 years old, and I have intermittently found it a very consuming topic.  This time, however, I was reading it through a new lens.  First, I was aware that it represented a great national crisis comparable in significance to the one we are passing through now.  And secondly, I was alert to generational cues in Sherman's personality and approach to life.  I found plenty of both.

In fixing generational boundaries, Strauss and Howe were bound to make some debatable decisions, all the more so since some such boundaries are much clearer than others.  Sherman, born in 1820, fell technically into the last two years of the Transcendental generation, which produced the political leadership of the Civil War, including Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Seward, Thad Stevens, and many more.  Such men, like the Missionary generation (born 1863-83 in my opinion) and the Boomers, saw issues in moral terms, and therefore naturally led the nation into a war over slavery.  But one does not have to read very far in Sherman's memoirs to realize that he belonged to the Gilded generation, a Nomad generation like Generation X.  While he clearly had an intense sense of individual honor and responsibility, he had almost no interest in broad moral questions at all.  He was an intensely practical man, making his way through a chaotic age and a chaotic war according to his own lights.  His prose can be riveting but it is never inspirational. 

Growing up in Ohio, Sherman secured an appointment to West Point and graduated in 1840. He served in Florida, subduing a few remaining Indians, and then was sent to California in the Mexican War.  He saw practically no combat there, but became involved in the organization of a new government in the midst of the discovery of the gold fields, with all their huge consequences.  He left the Army in 1853, became the manager of a bank, and remained in California until 1857, when he moved to New York.  Although California was admitted to the Union in 1850 it had no continuous communication with the East.  Sherman describes numerous trips he and his family made from coast to coast, taking steamers to Panama and Nicaragua and traveling across one or the other to reach a boat on the other side.   Several times he saw, or experienced, the foundering of ships.  Running a San Francisco bank in the 1850s, when fortunes were made and lost overnight and there was of course no regulation of banks at all, was a frightening enterprise, and Sherman describes at length how he and his bank survived a panic because they had carefully maintained adequate reserves.  I couldn't help thinking that that experience had been excellent training for battles like Bull Run, Shiloh, and Atlanta, where Sherman kept his nerve and stayed focused on the critical point just as Clausewitz, whom he never seems to have read, would have wished.  Later, he became involved in politics for the only time in his life when a vigilante committee literally took control of San Francisco in defiance of constituted authority.  Sherman was willing to lead the state militia in an effort to crush it, but he was betrayed by a cowardly governor, and had to wait until the vigilantes had essentially burned himself out.  But he had experienced anarchy.

Yet Sherman showed very little interest in the consuming political question of the 1850s, slavery.  He was quite shocked in the early 1850s when he visited Washington and General Winfield Scott, the commander of the army, told him the country was on the verge of Civil War.  In 1860, when the secession crisis began, he was living in Louisiana, running a military school.  His friends and neighbors supported secession in the wake of Lincoln's election and felt sure that the North would do nothing about it.  Here Sherman's own attitude emerged, almost instinctively.

For Sherman the issue could not have been simpler: the South was denying legally constituted authority, and must be put down and restored to lawful obedience.  The alternative, he firmly believed, would be to sink into continental anarchy, like Mexico to the South.  While he clearly approved of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 as a means of crippling the South, he had certainly not been an abolitionist before the war.  He blamed politicians, not slavery itself, for driving the nation into the war.  But he never felt the slightest sympathy for the rebel cause, and although he quickly realized that the vast majority of white southerners stood behind the Confederacy, he was determined to do his part to put them down.  And so he did.

Although Sherman was at the first battle of Bull Run outside Washington, he spent the rest of the war campaigning in the West and in the Deep South.  The bulk his memoir is, of course, an account of his campaigns.  He quotes many of the reports and letters he wrote at the time, and one immediately realizes that writing was one of the most important parts of a commander's job in that war.  Every commander at least down to the regimental level wrote a continuous stream of reports that had to be consolidated into other reports at the next level of command.  Sherman's reports are dry but concise, and they show a remarkable command of the English language, which was undoubtedly improved by his study of various foreign languages at school in Ohio.  (Sherman had been one of the best students in his West Point class, although he never was appointed to any position of authority because of his unmilitary bearing and demeanor.) 

Having spent 20 years teaching high-level military history, I was fascinated by the military problems Sherman discussed, which were almost unique in history.  The campaigns in the West were fought over enormous territories and involved huge logistical problems.  Sherman shows at length how he and the other commanders, including Grant (who remained in the West until early 1864) used river steamers and railroads to keep their armies supplied.  As they moved deeper and deeper into the South in 1863--to Chattanooga, and thence in 1864 to Atlanta--it became more and more difficult to keep supply lines open with Confederate cavalry and armies maneuvering in their rear.  That is why Sherman, in the late summer of 1864, after capturing Atlanta, decided to march to Savannah on the Atlantic coast and live off the land as he did so, severing his supply lines and communications with the outside world.  This was an extraordinary logistical feat.

Sherman, of course, is known for his brutality, which he identified bluntly as an inevitable part of war.  His most controversial step during the war was not the March to the Sea, but his decision in mid-summer 1864 to order the complete evacuation of the civilian population of Atlanta while he turned it into a military base.  He had seen, he writes, how many men and resources were consumed in policing and providing for civilians in other occupied southern cities such as Memphis, and he was determined to be free of that responsibility now. The March to the Sea, however, was not an attempt to terrorize the population.  Sherman laid down clear rules, which his troops, for the most part, seem to have obeyed.  Every day foraging parties went out of seize food for men and horses (whose requirements were if anything even greater), and other detachments systematically destroyed the Confederate railroads and industrial establishments. But unless the civilian population actively decided to obstruct his troops--especially by burning supplies before the Yankees could get their hands on them--they were left alone.  When the soldiers found provisions ablaze, they burned the farmer's house and barn in retaliation.  Sherman realized that the South was not going to submit gracefully, and he believed it had to feel the pain of the war to be brought to heel, as indeed it was.

After reaching Savannah at Christmas 1864 Sherman opened new supply lines via the sea and shortly began marching north once again.  His troops had to cross numerous rivers, whose bridges were invariably damaged or destroyed by the Confederates, and each division carried pontoons with them, which they used to remarkable effect.  Sherman's troops actually fought relatively few battles and they were on a smaller scale than those taking place in northern Virginia.  He relied mostly on maneuver, on flanking the enemy to force him out of his position.  By the end of the winter of 1864 Sherman planned eventually to march to Petersburg to join Grant's siege of Lee's army, but in the end that was not necessary. 

Sherman was one of the most self-reliant individuals I have ever encountered in history and the Union needed men like him to win.  The Northern government and armies were shot through with destructive jealousy at the highest level, something which even Lincoln did not do enough to stop.  Generals moved freely in and out of politics, and certain subordinate commanders felt they could disobey orders because of their political patronage.  Eventually Sherman managed to assemble a fully loyal team.  But the "every man for himself" spirit that dominated the Gilded Age was very much apparent during the war.

In 1869, when Grant became President, Sherman became the commander of the Army and so remained for 14 years.  He does not give a detailed account of the Indian wars, but summarizes their stakes succinctly.  The Indians, he said, went to war against transcontinental railroads because they recognized that the railroad would destroy both the buffalo and the Indian way of life that depended upon it.  They were right, says Sherman, but he obviously regarded this simply as the inevitable course of history that it made no sense to try to prevent.  Today, of course, political correctness requires us to regret both the end of the plains Indians' way of life and even the conquest of California in the Mexican War, but we ought to recognize that we owe our own enjoyment of the United States as they are to men like Sherman who did not share our reverence for the world they found before them as it was.

The United States, I am convinced, faces another crisis of national unity, one which will play itself out over the next ten months. This will undoubtedly fill up many of my posts here, starting with one next week.  We surmounted the last one, I can now see, because of men like Sherman, who fought and often died simply to preserve the Constitution, our great experiment in popular government.  That was how Lincoln originally framed the conflict, and that vision--not abolition--was what drew men like Sherman to the colors and kept them there.  It was not easy to maintain the Northern armies, and Sherman complained periodically that the draft was not being administered firmly enough.  There was a great deal of opposition to the war in the North as well as the South and he surely approved of harsh measures against it there. 

Today, many Americans feel just as deeply, in different ways, about issues like global warming and gay rights, taxes and benefits, immigration and terrorism, and the future of health care as many Americans in the 1860s felt about slavery.  But I wonder how many share a Sherman-like devotion to the authority of the federal government as such, and would put their lives on the line to maintain it.  Sherman's generation was old enough to have known men who fought in the Revolution, and thus to feel a personal stake in preserving their achievement.  None of us, however, has any personal connection either to those who won American independence or those who maintained American unity in the Civil War.  We are already two nations in many ways and this election is likely to prove us more so than ever.  How we shall meet this challenge I do not know.

Friday, January 08, 2016

ISIS and the clash of civilizations

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria now rules a substantial piece of territory within the borders of those two states, administering its own form of justice, persecuting religious minorities, collecting taxes, and exploiting natural resources.  It maintains a capital in Raqqa, in northern Syria.  It evidently has forces fighting in Afghanistan (where they have been the subject of a chilling Frontline documentary), in Libya, in the Sinai peninsula, and elsewhere.  Although the media still avoids talking about this very much, ISIS descended directly from Al Queda in Iraq, which did not exist until George W. Bush, with very little idea of what he was getting into, decided to invade that country in 2003. It routinely kidnaps, holds for ransom, and beheads foreign nationals.  And it has adherents in western nations, including France and the United States, who have committed mass murders on its behalf.  With every such attack, the pressure to take drastic action against it grows.

The question of how the United States and the other nations of the world should respond is, in my opinion, a very challenging one to which there is no simple answer.  It is easy enough to argue that ISIS represents a great evil and thus must be destroyed.  Some are already willing to argue that to destroy its leadership, we should even ignore the human rights of the population of Raqqa and other ISIS strongholds, just as we did the populations of German and Japanese cities during the Second World War.  Even President Obama has identified ISIS as a threat to world civilization that must be "degraded and defeated"--but he insists that the United States can play only an auxiliary role in that process, and his own military steps have been relatively cautious.  The recapture of Ramadi by Iraqi government-supported forces, assisted by American air power, suggests things are moving in the right direction--but very slowly.

ISIS does undoubtedly represent a threat to civilized values as serious in character--if not in scale--to those posed by Germany and Japan in the Second World War, or by Communism under Stalin and Mao.  Two of those four regimes were destroyed by allied coalitions; the other two survived for decades and collapsed, or changed, mostly because of internal pressures. Other at least equally serious threats to western civilization in earlier periods include the Mongol and Ottoman Empires.   History does not, in short, support the idea that we must attempt to destroy certain regimes simply because of their evil nature.--or that we can do so.  We need a broader kind of test  for action.

In my opinion, we need answers to at least two sets of questions.  The first is, how much of a threat is ISIS, really, to the centers of western civilization in Europe and the western hemisphere?  Is their goal of a universal Caliphate a more serious possibility, for example, than the Communist goal of world revolution?  Is the West their real target?  And the second, which for me remains critical is this: what would the result of drastic military action be?  Would it serve what Clausewitz identified as "the ultimate objective" of war, "which is to bring about peace"?  Lacking either the necessary language skills or a detailed knowledge of Islam and the Middle East, I can't provide definitive answers to any of those questions, but I can, I think, provide some alternative possibilities.  

To understand the nature of ISIS's threat, we have to put it in the proper context.  And the critical issue, to me, is this:  is the context a clash of civilizations between radical Islam and the West, or is it the battle within Islam between increasingly radical Sunnis and Shi'ites?  I cannot be sure, but for the sake of argument and making us all think, I am going to suggest that the latter interpretation is correct.  That would have profound consequences for what kind of action we can expect against ISIS and what would be the consequences.

The current battle between Shi'ites and Sunnis dates at least back to 1979, when radical Shi'ites seized control of the Iranian government.  Saddam Hussein unleashed a war against Iran to years later partly to protect his own position as a Sunni dictator in a majority Shi'ite nation.  In 1991, George H. W. Bush, James Baker, Colin Powell, and even Dick Cheney realized that overthrowing Saddam would unleash a Sunni-Shi'ite civil war within Iraq, and declined to do so.  Twelve years later, George W .Bush made the mistake they had avoided, with disastrous consequences.

As I documented at length here beginning late in 2004, the overthrow of Saddam led almost immediately to the fracturing of Iraq along religious lines, with the majority Shi'ites now in the ascendant.  A third player, the Kurds--of whom more later--also took advantage of the situation to establish what amounted to an independent state.  In the late 2000s, American strategy temporarily won Sunni tribes in eastern Iraq over to the government side against Al Queda in Iraq, paving the way for the American withdrawal upon which, it is well to remember, the Shi'ite Iraqi government insisted.  But as soon as we were gone, Shi'ite repression of the Sunni areas began. Al Queda in Iraq mutated into ISIS, and, with the help of former Ba'athist officers, developed substantial military capabilities.

Meanwhile, the Sunni-Shi'ite civil war had spread to neighboring Syria, where a Sunni majority revolted against the Shi'ite Alawite regime of Hafez Assad.  Despite the Bush Administration's experience in Iraq, the Obama Administration pushed the idea that Assad's removal could lead to human rights and democracy in Syria, instead of another bloody religious civil war.  ISIS took advantage of that vacuum as well.  The regional powers are apparently viewing the situation in Syria, as they did the one in Iraq, entirely through the prism of the Shi'ite-Sunni conflict. Iran still supports Assad, while Turkey and Saudi Arabia still insist that he must go.    In the last few years, a third front has opened up in Yemen, where a Shi'ite revolt toppled a Sunni government.  Saudi Arabia is waging an air campaign against the Shi'ite rebels, whom Iran supports.

The question that we really must answer is this: does ISIS care more about war with western civilization or war against Shi'ite Islam?  Does its incitement, and perhaps planning, of attacks in France and the United States, and its beheadings of western hostages, represent its primary goals, or are these propaganda and recruiting tools designed to seize the mantle of the true representative of Islam against the West?  The same questions, actually, arose with equal force with respect to Al Queda, although I don't think most Americans ever realized it.  About a decade ago, I asked an officer from a Persian Gulf state at the War College where Osama Bin Laden would want to set off a nuclear weapon, if he could get his hands on one.  I was wondering if the answer would be Israel or the United States. Instead, he replied without hesitation, "Saudi Arabia." Bin Laden's struggle, I came to realize, was really a tribal battle within Saudi Arabia.  By attacking the United States in 2001, he hoped he could induce us to intervene further in the Middle East and discredit his real enemies, our Arab allies.  ISIS, which undoubtedly would love to overthrow the Saudi government as well, may be playing a similar game.

Now the Obama Administration's current strategy against ISIS depends on convincing both Shi'ite and Sunni governments to treat it as the principal threat, more important than the opposing branch of Islam in general.  From where I sit, without access to any diplomatic traffic and without language skills, this does not appear to be working.  Just as we have to ask whether ISIS's real target is the West or other Muslim governments, we must ask whether those governments regard ISIS as their most important threat.  The Saudi government undoubtedly fears ISIS but also knows that ISIS is popular among much of its own population.  It is using its air force against Shi'ites in neighboring Yemen, not against ISIS in neighboring Iraq.  Observers of the Saudi Kingdom have also suggested that the government executed a leading Saudi Shi'ite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, partly because it was executing several dozen Sunni extremists at the same time and wanted to shift the focus of the majority population to the supposed internal Shi'ite danger.  The Iranian response has brought an all-out religious war that much closer to the region.  Turkey, meanwhile, seems much more concerned with both removing Assad in Syria and crushing the resistance of its own Kurdish minority than it does about ISIS.  The Egyptian government is fighting ISIS, but within Egypt. 

What the peoples of the Middle East desperately need is an easing of Sunni-Shi'ite conflict that will allow them to live in peace.  Unfortunately, there is really no sign of any movement in that direction, with the possible exception of the international peace initiative for Syria, whose prospects are extremely uncertain.  And that, it seems to me, is something we must consider before taking drastic military action against ISIS.  There is no immediate prospect of any rearrangement of the borders and internal politics of the Middle Eastern nations that would reflect American values, because none of the major combatants in the struggle are fighting for American values.  Were the military capabilities of ISIS destroyed, others would try to fill the resulting vacuum, and the result would not be peace.  It might not even be better than ISIS.

Some believe that the destruction of Raqqa would send an unmistakable message to the Muslims of the world that their direct challenge to western civilization cannot work.  But such a response--unlike our current use of specifically targeted air and drone strikes--would be vastly disproportionate, and I do not see how it could reduce hatred of the West among the Islamic world.  And if we are going to face a real long-term clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, it seems to me that it will have to be similar to the one that occurred between the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and sometime early in the 18th century when the Ottoman Empire definitely fell behind the West and ceased to be a major threat. 

Because of ISIS, the rise of militant Islam, and the immigration of millions of Muslims into Europe and the United States, the West faces a continuing domestic terrorist threat.  There will be more attacks like those in Paris and San Bernardino in years to come, although I would not venture to guess how many more.  Governments will have to find ways to act against aliens or citizens who have become acolytes of ISIS or other militant groups, but nothing will be foolproof.  That, I would argue, is the price of living in a huge, densely populated, interconnected world with an internet and largely open borders.  Leveling Raqqa, in my opinion, would not solve that problem.  The real challenge for the governments of the West is in many ways an intellectual one: to accept that their values have not, and will  not, prevail in large parts of the world for some time to come.  Yet the West has survived and thrived under such conditions for many centuries in the past, and can do so in the future.  That, at any rate, is my opinion.