Friday, April 29, 2016

Prospects for November

I have been rather quiet about the election for many weeks, partly because Bernie Sanders turned me once again into a partisan rather than an observer.   Sanders is right: his campaign accomplished an extraordinary amount.  Its greatest achievement was to show via polls that a candidate like him, committed to social democracy for all Americans and a fundamental reshaping of the US along western European lines, could command broader support in the nation than a representative of the status quo like Hillary Clinton.  The Democratic establishment, however, includes the mainstream media, which generally ignored him, and has very real ties to critical constituencies, especially among minorities. In addition, the younger voters who are Sanders's base do not seem to have shown up in sufficient numbers.  Some of my younger friends expect them to transform the Democratic party in the next four or eight years anyway, but without any leadership from the older generations I do not know how they can do so. 

Clinton seems likely to face Donald Trump in November, and this week, the contours of the race re taking shape.  Trump, as many noted during the key Republican primaries, has a knack for finding his opponent's jugular.  He is beginning to do so once again, by accusing Clinton of playing "the woman card."  Many of her supporters, the New York Times informs us this morning, are welcoming Trump's stratagem, and indeed, Clinton herself picked up the challenge in her Tuesday night victory speech. That reflects the reality in which she and her supporters have been living for about thirty years.  But how it will play with crucial voters is a very open question.

Let us be clear.  For several decades, it has been dogma among the Democratic elite and its allies in journalism and academia that unfairness to women, minorities and gays is the biggest problem facing the United States.  This view has its roots in the late 1960s, when a generation of young liberals, rebelling against their parents, seized upon these flaws in American society as proof of their own superior virtue.  Within these circles, any suggestion of sexism, racism or homophobia is as detestable as advocacy of racial equality was in the white South 100 years ago.  I have believed in fairness all my life, and I certainly favor equal rights for all those groups.  But the exclusive emphasis on the problems of those particular groups has inevitably alienated many white men--and more importantly, it has taken away from broader, very serious economic and social problems that affect us all.  We now have far too much income inequality, and a financial and tax system which makes it worse every year.  We imprison far too many people, regardless of their race and gender.  Our infrastructure is crumbling for all of us.  While the Democratic Party worries about who has seats at the head table, the foundations of the dining hall are crumbling, and too many Americans lack basic resources.

I doubt very much that anyone in the  Clinton campaign will see this post, but if they do, I would like them to think about this.  They are not running a support group for nonwhitemales; they are trying to elect their candidate to the White House.  One can run an academic department based on the principal that no one will dare disagree with you, but one cannot run an election campaign that way.  Every position the candidate takes has to be evaluated based upon the reactions of voters--particularly critical voters.  And I doubt very much that the politically correct vote is large enough to elect any President.

Donald Trump's misogyny and xenophobia will induce many normally Republican voters to stay home or vote for Hillary Clinton.  But given our electoral system, the question is, where are those voters?  In my opinion, most of them are in reliably blue states in New England, the mid-Atlantic region, and the west coast.  Those states are going for Clinton and with Trump (or Ted Cruz) leading the Republicans they will go for her by larger majorities.  But the election will be decided in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa.  Any sensible campaign will have to target the swing voters--male and female--in those states.  I am not in the least convinced that emphasizing equal pay for women, family leave, and more attention to minorities is the way to get those votes.

Donald Trump has wrecked the establishment of his own party and gotten most of the way towards its nomination by appealing to the disaffected voters for whom the establishment has done less than nothing for the last 35 years.  There are a great many of those voters in the key states.  A Trump Presidency, I feel sure, will do nothing for them.  But Trump is appealing to them by stressing truly national issues: immigration and trade agreements.  He is arguing, as Clinton is not, that the country is fundamentally going in the wrong direction.  Like Sanders, he can argue that she has welcomed trade agreements and financial deregulation, and thus helped get us where we are.  And I am confident that some of Clinton's Goldman Sachs speeches, which she carefully kept under raps during the primary season, will leak during the general election campaign, and that they will show her thanking Goldman for the fine things that it has done for the American economy.  Trump will accuse her of being part of a corporate establishment that doesn't care about average Americans, and that accusation will contain more than a grain of truth.

And what of the Democratic base? Yes, black voters in particular turned out for Clinton in overwhelming numbers in the primary, even though younger black people, like their white counterparts, favored Sanders.  But will they turn out in November in numbers comparable to their support for Barack Obama?  Will less well off women be energized by the prospect of a female President?  I don't know.  What I do know is that a Democrat like Sanders who appealed impartially to all Americans based on economic issues would have been in a much stronger position facing Trump--and it is probably too late for Clinton to adopt that stance, even if she wanted to.

Clinton leads Trump narrowly in national polls at this point, but narrowly.  (I would note, however, that given the polarization in the country, the danger that we might face a repeat of 2000,. in which a candidate lost the popular vote but took the electoral college, is quite real.)   But if she wins by emphasizing the problems of women and minorities, the polarization in the country will get even worse, and might even lead to serious attempts at secession.  From time to time, commentators have compared Clinton to Richard Nixon.  The comparison in my opinion is apt.  Like Nixon, she has never been deterred by setbacks from pursuing her dream.  She, not her husband, is the real "comeback kid."  And like Nixon, she has grasped that however unpopular she may be within the opposition party, she could remain a key figure by cultivating her own party's base.  What she needs now, however, is Nixon's political horse sense.  "Let's get a woman on the ticket," Nixon remarked to William Safire in 1994 shortly before his death. "It hurts the Democrats, but it wold help us."  That is the kind of realism the Clinton campaign needs--especially when it comes time to pick the Vice President.  The swing voters of the eight states I listed above need to know there will be a place for them in Clinton's America, and a white male on the podium beside her would help.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

How we got here--a case study

Earlier this week, the reporter Cokie Roberts wrote an outraged op-ed for the New York Times, complaining that Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew had reneged on his promise to replace Alexander Hamilton--whom she called "a philandering liar who was the first Secretary of the Treasury"--with a woman.  Lew has now responded to her and other critics by announcing that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, although not for at least another four years, while various black and female activists will go on the back of various bills.  (White male activists have evidently contributed nothing to the progress of the United States.)  Ms. Roberts spoke for a great many women of four different generations, but her column had a special meaning for me. As it happens, I have known her since I was 16 years old, although it has been about a decade since I have seen her.  What is more important today, however, is the similarity in our backgrounds.  We were both Washington brats, because our fathers pursued careers in public service.  Mine was a senior bureaucrat and diplomat under several Democratic administrations, while hers was a long-time Congressman from Louisiana who became the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives.  That background taught me to take public affairs very seriously, and readers here know I have never given that habit up.  But although she has spent her career in journalism, she apparently has cast that habit of mind aside.  The reason her evolution deserves a post has nothing to do with our acquaintanceship.  It is because her views are highly characteristic of what passes, today, for the liberal elite.

This is the second time in the last 20 years that Ms. Roberts has, shall we say, brought me up short.  The first occasion was during the Presidential campaign of 2000, when Al Gore was dueling it out with George Bush in what turned out to be one of the most fateful elections in American history.  The panel of pundits on the ABC Sunday show was discussing the last debate between them, in which they had sparred over health care, and specifically, over a patient's bill or rights.  Bush had claimed to support one; Gore had attacked Bush for failing to endorse the Dingell-Norwood bill before Congress, which would have guaranteed one.  Sam Donaldson decided to educate the American public about the provenance of the bill, and the following exchange took place.


DONALDSON: Well, you talk about the message. I mean, remember during the last debate, Gore kept talking about 'the Dingell/Norwood bill, the Dingell/Norwood bill.' And we thought, as a public service, we'd just show you who Dingell and Norwood are. Let us tell you about them. Representatives of Dingell and Norwood introduced the Patients' Bill of Rights favored by Gore and the House of Representatives. John Dingell, from Michigan, is the longest-serving Democrat in the House. His father, who was a House member before him, was a sponsor of Social Security in the '30s, and pioneered the idea of national health insurance back in 1943. Charlie Norwood from Georgia, a Republican, is a dentist. He served in Vietnam and was first elected to the House in 1994 as part of the Republican revolution. So that's who Dingell and Norwood are. Now I'll tell you...
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But the important...
ROBERTS: Yeah, but...
DONALDSON: But there's a guy named Greg Ganske who's also on the bill. It's actually the Dingell/Norwood/Ganske bill.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But the import--the important point...
DONALDSON: But I don't have time to start telling you about him.
ROBERTS: He's from Iowa.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The important point there is that George Bush didn't answer the question about the Dingell/Norwood bill, which is a Patients' Bill of Rights that allows people to--the right to sue.
ROBERTS: Actually, I don't think that is the important point there.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
ROBERTS: Because that's not what comes across when you're watching the debate. What comes across when you're watching the debate is this guy from Washington doing Washington-speak.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But it's...
ROBERTS: And you know, it's having an effect not just at the presidential level, but at the congressional level as well. Because the Republicans did a very smart thing, which is that they voted for their version of a Patients' Bill of Rights, and they voted for their version of prescription drug coverage. So they get to go out and tout all these issues, and then the Democrats are left saying, 'But you didn't do Dingell and Norwood.'

Now Cokie Roberts's father Hale Boggs had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1940, served one term while the United States was preparing for the Second World War, went into the Navy after losing his re-election bid, and served once more in the House from 1946 until his death in a plane crash in Alaska in 1972.   During that long career, he had to take positions on the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin Acts of 1947 and 1959, which severely cut back on the rights of organized labor, and the McCarran Act, which tried to force the Communist Party underground.   Liberals, interestingly enough, seem to have stopped naming their favorite pieces of legislation after legislators, but in the 1930s, they had passed the Norris-LaGuardia and Wagner Acts, which had increased the rights of labor, and the Wheeler-Rayburn Act,. which had forced holding companies to divest themselves of public utilities.  Congress had also passed the Glass-Steagall Act, which had recently been repealed at the time of the 2000 campaign, and which we have subsequently had time to regret.  Hale Boggs had also been involved in deliberations on civil rights bills (which he, a representative from Louisiana, had opposed), on the interstate highway system, the space program, Medicare, poverty programs, and much more.  He and my father came from a generation that took politics and legislation very seriously, and which,. as a result, managed to do great things.  Al Gore's father, Albert Gore, Sr., belonged to that generation as well.

Now sadly, what Ms. Roberts said in 2000--that to many Americans, the reference to Dingell-Norwood sounded like a "guy from Washington doing Washington-speak"--probably had an element of truth.  But to me, then and now, that was something for journalists (and historians) to fight against, for the simple reason that a citizenry that no longer cares about the legislation Congress does or does not pass will yield the field to lobbyists and contributors who still do.  Yet Cokie Roberts was not only accepting, but welcoming, the new world of the 21st century in which journalism--especially tv journalism--began pandering to an uninformed public.  Indeed, the implication of what she said was that politicians would be foolish to try to do educate voters.  And I was amazed that someone with her background could take such a position--but there it was.

There is a real link, it seems to me, between what she said in 2000 and her attack on Hamilton this week.  In my opinion as a historian there is no one who more deserves to have his picture on US currency than Hamilton, for the simple reason that he created the financial structure of the United States., and in so doing defined the relationship between the federal government and the economy in lasting ways.  He created the first Bank of the United States, the ancestor of the Federal Reserve, to allow public finance to proceed more effectively.  When Washington asked Hamilton and all his other cabinet members to give him written opinions as to the constitutionality of the legislation that created the bank, Hamilton's reply kicked off the debate on the role of the federal government that has dominated politics ever since, arguing that it fell under the Constitutional provision enabling Congress to pass all legislation "necessary and proper" to carry out its enumerated powers.  While Jefferson argued that the Bank obviously was not necessary to collect taxes or borrow money, since the government was already performing those tasks, Hamilton replied that the bank would enable it to perform them far more effectively, to the benefit of all.  He carried the day, and the same philosophy has informed activist periods of American government ever since.  

But this, and the rest of Hamilton's historical role, means nothing to Cokie Roberts, who wants him eliminated from our currency because he cheated on his wife.  This is not an entirely new idea for her either: I have heard her on the air bragging that when female reporters first went on the campaign trail, it forced their married male counterparts to restrict their extramarital sexual activity--or at least to be more discreet about it.  Denying, in effect, that Hamilton had any serious ambitions in public service at all--surely a remarkable statement to make about one of the key figures at the Constitutional Convention and one of the authors of the Federalist papers--she says that "All he ever wanted was to be 'in'," that is, a member of the establishment, and that only his marriage into the Schuyler family allowed him to do achieve that goal.  In fact, while Hamilton, like so many great statesmen in every modern nation, led less than an exemplary personal life, he was a key figure in our early history, one to whom we do owe some of our most important institutions.  Paul Krguman has pointed this out today as well.

What people like Ms. Roberts (not to mention most of the current historical profession) have utterly forgotten is that issues like racial and gender equality only have any meaning at all within the context of an established system of law, government and society.  If we continue to treat those blessings as a given and to ignore how we secured them, we shall lose them--something which is already happening, thanks to the influence of corporate power.   That, as it happens,. was a danger that another President, Andrew Jackson, warned us of most eloquently, but he is being downgraded as well because of his ownership of slaves and his role in the ethnic cleansing of Indian tribes.  To me, there is a nice symmetry involved in the presence of Hamilton, who founded the US bank and favored financial power, on the $10 bill, and Jackson, who killed the Second US bank, on the $20, but that's because I think the relationship between government and banks remains important.  Indeed, it seems to me, retrograde fellow that I am,. that it turns out to be  very important to all Americans, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation.  

Cokie Roberts is far more in touch with the ethos of contemporary liberalism than I am--even if Bernie Sanders has provided a most welcome echo of the traditions in which I was raised.  And yes, the elite of our society is more open to women, minorities and gays than it has ever been.  We are also nearing the point where white maleness alone will define--negatively--virtually ever major figure in American political history.  But we shall still be faced with the task of finding political leaders who, whatever their demographic characteristics, can manage our affairs with the skill and vision of the great leaders of our past, who bequeathed us our country and our institutions.  And at the moment--based upon the course of this year's election--we seem to be unable to do so.  Trashing Alexander Hamilton will not help.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Life at the Top, 2016

Last year, a new book, Primates of Park Avenue, by a Gen X anthropologist and Manhattan resident named Wednesday Morgan, created a minor sensation.  The book detailed the lives of wealthy young parents on the upper East Side, of which Ms. Morgan used to be one (she has now moved across the park.)  I waited until now, when it was readily available at the library, to read it, and I was rather fascinated by it.  It is a window into a world very few of us actually get to see--and while the author has an interesting perspective on it, it is not by any means the only possible one.

What Morgan did in the book was to use the tools of anthropology--particularly the kind that is done in the field--and primatology to analyze the behavior of what he describes as her tribe.  That tribe is not defined by blood--although if it has any nonwhite members, we never hear about them--but rather by wealth and location.  It consists of the women (and she consistently regards the men, including her own husband, as part of an entirely separate tribe) who live in upscale Upper East Side apartments or townhouses while they raise their children.  They are, of course, extremely wealthy--indeed, they probably all belong to the 1%, although I don't believe Morgan ever uses that term.  The book is very short on economic analysis, and never puts numbers on the incomes that support the lifestyles it describes.  It includes only one detailed discussion of finances, which I shall come to in a moment.  The book is well and cleverly written, largely because Morgan obviously loves her discipline of anthropology and enjoys putting it to a new use.   But Morgan does not allow American history, literature or economics to intrude into her discussion, and this is the gap that I would like to try briefly to fill.

The book can be read, to begin with, as a commentary on the failure of feminism at the upper reaches of American society.  Forty years ago, educated upper middle class women rebelled against the notion that they had to spend their time raising their children, keeping their houses perfectly clean, lunching and shopping with friends, playing bridge, and managing their families' social lives.  They also wanted to earn their own money.  These were very worthy goals, and they are still the goals of many middle and upper class women, even though American society has not done as much as advanced European countries to make it possible to achieve them and allow both men and women to combine careers and family life without too much stress.  But Morgan's primates have entirely abandoned these goals.   Although there are scattered references to a few of them having unidentified careers--and although Morgan stresses that she remains a writer--most of them obviously do not have jobs at all.  Like their counterparts from the GI generation, they are focused on their children--who are much more numerous than among the middle class--their clothes, their social interaction with one another, and their vacations and vacation homes. Although all of them, I would assume, attended elite colleges, I do not think that any of them is ever described as having any serious intellectual, political, or artistic interests.  What does distinguish them from earlier generations is their obsessive focus on their own bodies and exercise. This is not completely new, of course, but only in the last thirty years as working out become a huge industry, and they are among its most devoted customers.  And all this costs money.  The one detailed accounting that the book contains deals with the cost of maintaining the proper personal appearance of an Upper East Side wife, broken down into hair and scalp, face, body, and wardrobe, both for daily use and vacations.  It totaled about $100,000 a year, and Morgan and the friend who drew up the accounts concluded by promising not to tell their husbands.

The social mores of the tribe are intimidating, and the opening chapters of the book concern the rituals of breaking into it.  The atmosphere among the mothers dropping off their kids at their schools and pre-schools every morning is reminiscent of high school corridors--an analogy Morgan does use--but it also reminded me of the Versailles court under Louis XIV, or 19th-century Paris society as described by Balzac.  Everyone is sizing up each other's appearance, and who speaks to whom is the critical question of almost every day.  Status, now as then, comes from having the right clothes, the right accessories, the right kids, and the right husband--usually a leading hedge fund manager who can help other people's husbands.  I couldn't help wondering, too, whether the atmosphere inside the kids' private schools resembles what Orwell described in his great essay, Such, Such were the Joys, in which boys bragged shamelessly about their vacation homes and servants and compared their fathers' incomes.

And here, to me, was the real value of this book as a document.  We are hearing more and more about inequality nowadays--although I'm afraid it's going to get significantly worse before it gets better--but we are focused, understandably, on its impact on the less well off.  This book raises the question of what it does to the more well off--what the lives of the 1% are actually like.  In my opinion there is absolutely nothing appealing about the lives of these women and their children, or, probably, most of their husbands, either.  As Morgan eventually realizes and discusses at length, the women's lives are ruled by anxiety.  The anxiety is no less real because it is of their own making.  They are worried about having less than perfect children, less than perfect clothes, and less than perfect bodies.  In this atmosphere it is obviously very difficult to form genuine close friendships (as the playwright Clare Booth also pointed out 80 years ago in The Women), although Morgan did so, late in the book, as a result of a personal tragedy, a pregnancy she lost in the last trimester. Their fears and the money their husbands earn support entire industries staffed by the middle class, including an army of nannies (who make as much as $100,000 [sic!] a year), personal trainers, hair stylists, drivers, and the teachers and administrators of private schools.   Nor do they seem to know or care much about what is happening in the wider world.   They do spend a good deal of time organizing and attending charity events, but many of them, such as school fund raisers, relate directly to their own lives.  In one interesting exception to the rule, Morgan and her husband, at the outset of the book, are determined to buy an apartment in a good public school district for their young son.  (She subsequently adds another one.)  They pursue this goal even though it severely restricts their choice of apartments.  But  they got over this vestige of egalitarianism: at the end of the book we are informed that the family has moved to the upper West Side, where their sons' private school is located.

The husbands, meanwhile, are busy manipulating money at investment banks, hedge funds, and (less commonly, it seems), law firms.  Doctors, interestingly enough, seem to be much less common at the upper reaches of our society than they used to be.  The relations between husbands and wives, Morgan tells us, do not seem to be particularly close, and I learned to my amazement that many of their social events practice gender segregation, with the men and women eating separately.  Some of the men have affairs, but Morgan, perhaps out of loyalty, gives no indication that any of the wives ever do. 

This, then, at the topmost reaches of our society, is the impact of the last 40 years: a society similar to the upper middle class of the 1950s, in which men spent all their time making money and women spent all their time spending it.  Fortunately (I think) for children such as myself, parents then assumed their kids would grow into normal healthy adults in the normal course of events, and entrusted them either to public or much, much cheaper private schools.  We were treated as objects of mass production, not artisanal masterpieces, and given the time to find some things out about ourselves.  Since finance had in mid-century ceased to be a primary source of wealth, the upper middle class had to practice professions or make things, which in turn employed other people.  Great fortunes had been shrinking, not growing, in the first half of the twentieth century, and inequality was both less blatant and less obvious.  Morgan's book shows what the lives of our new educated, moneyed elite are like, and it's far from clear to me that they are doing anyone much good--including, amazingly enough, themselves.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Obama and Eisenhower



As Andrew Bacevich pointed out in his 2010 book Washington Rules, a consensus view of the United States’ role in the world has generally prevailed among bureaucrats, politicians, military officers and opinion leaders since the end of the Second World War.  That view instinctively assumes that any conflict around the world bears upon US interests, and that American military power can and must provide the solution.  While in the wake of the Vietnam War a few leading civilian and military figures called for a reassessment of our assumptions, they quickly faded from view, and when in 1979 Jimmy Carter told his countrymen that military power was not the solution to our energy problems, he was almost laughed out of office.  The end of the Cold War briefly left the foreign policy establishment at sea, but large scale human rights violations and chaos provided new pretexts for intervention in places like Somalia and Yugoslavia.  Then came 9/11, and suddenly, any turmoil in the Muslim world became grounds for American intervention.  Fifteen years later, we find ourselves in the midst of an endless war.

Only weeks ago, Jeffrey Goldberg published a long interview with President Barack Obama in the Atlantic.  The interview seems to me unprecedented: I cannot remember a sitting President sharing his private thoughts on the US and the world at such length at any time in the past.  Both surprising and revealing, it has drawn astonishingly little comment, perhaps because so much of our attention is focused on the election, but it tells us a lot about where we are, how we got there, and, crucially, where we shall probably be in another year or two, after the President has left office. 
 
I have been very critical of Barack Obama in these pages, especially since July of 2010.  Elected at a critical moment in American history, he missed his chance, I believe, to reverse the domestic course that the United States was on.  Rather than trying to replace the economic system that had developed since the 1980s—marked above all by the growing power of capital—he simply tinkered with it to get it back on its feet.  He did not provide enough immediate help to the American people, resulting in the loss of the House of Representatives and the end of any possibility of serious reform for the rest of his term.  Even his signature achievement, the Affordable Health Care Act, simply enlarged a terribly flawed health care system, rather than trying to reform it.  I have also written that in many ways he continued the foreign policies of his predecessor.  Yet it is clear from the interview that I underestimated him intellectually, and that the two of us, who have never met, actually agree on a great deal about the state of the world, where it is headed, and what the United States can and cannot do about it.  That, however, is only half the story.  Obama’s world view is smarter and more sophisticated than those of his immediate predecessors or his most likely successors, but he has done little to introduce it to his countrymen, and he has not even stuck to it at one or two crucial junctures in his presidency.  In the end, the interview confirms my view of Barack Obama as a tragic figure caught in one of the great crises in American history.  

Goldberg’s article begins with a long account of Obama’s 2013 decision not to intervene in Syria after the Assad regime was found to have used chemical weapons.  Like John F. Kennedy when he refused to send combat troops to South Vietnam and start a major war there in 1961—as I have shown in American Tragedy—Obama reached that decision against the advice of nearly all of his senior advisers, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who insisted that he had no option but to enforce the “red line” that he had laid down.  Obama later explained his decision to Goldberg in words that echoed Bacevich.  “Where am I controversial?” he said. “When it comes to the use of military power.  That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”  

The restraint Obama showed over Syria reflects a broader sense of the limitations of US power that comes up again and again.   While he completely rejects isolationism and believes that only the United States can set a truly international agenda, he does not want an all-encompassing one.  “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery,” he said. “We have to choose where we can make a real impact  . . . There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”  That last sentence is a direct slap in the face of his U.N. Ambassador, the academic Samantha Power, whose book, A Problem from Hell, argued that the US could and should stop genocide anywhere in the world, but the President obviously trusts his own opinion.  The President also spoke realistically about the balance of forces in Syria, where the foreign policy establishment and interventionists like John McCain have assumed from the beginning that the US could transform the situation by standing up mythical groups of pro-US rebels.  “When you have a professional army,” he said to Goldberg, “that is well armed and sponsored by two large states [Iran and Russia] who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict …The notion that we could have—in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces—changed the equation on the ground there was never true.” 

In Syria the President disappointed Sunni allies in the Middle East and the government of France, but at another point in the interview, he echoed JFK once again talking about the importance of allied support.    “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris . . . .We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”  Kennedy in the same way argued in 1961 that the United States should not intervene in Laos or South Vietnam without the support of major European allies.  Johnson, faced with the same situation, concluded that the allies were simply wrong.  Different attitudes towards allied support also distinguished the foreign policies of the first President Bush from the second.

And Obama, has taken positive steps that defy the traditional consensus on specific points of foreign policy.  Both the Iran nuclear deal and the resumption of relations with Cuba went against conventional foreign policy wisdom and drew heavy opposition.  Privately he also questions whether nations like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are truly allies of the United States, and he obviously has grave reservations about the policies of the Israeli government, but those views have not fundamentally changed American foreign policy on his watch.  

The President also has a sense of history and an ability to put the news of the day in perspective—a talent that has been lacking among bureaucrats, military leaders, politicians and pundits since 9/11.  ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” he told Goldberg. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” Regarding the Middle East, he was evidently seduced into optimism by the Arab spring protests in 2011, and he demanded the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which has had disastrous consequences.  Now he has become more skeptical—even about the Turkish government, which he once viewed as a model—but he still looks to some “reformation” of Islam to bring the region into the modern world.  He also deeply and frankly regrets the intervention in Libya, which Secretary of State Clinton talked him into, because it reduced another Middle Eastern nation to chaos and opened up another opportunity for ISIS.  He resisted the calls of his second Secretary of State, John Kerry, to take military action in Syria simply to demonstrate American credibility, the shibboleth that led the US (and Kerry himself) into Vietnam and kept us there for many years.

Nor is this all.  The President has kept the threat of ISIS to the US in perspective.  ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” he told Goldberg. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” He has remarked that more people drown in bathtubs in the US than are killed by terrorists.  His cool rhetoric is reminiscent of another one of his heroes, Dwight Eisenhower, who refused in the late 1950s to become alarmed about a “missile gap” which he had excellent reasons to believe did not exist.  Obama also thinks that the US has to focus more on the more functional parts of the Third World, such as Southeast Asia and Latin America, rather than focus exclusively on the Middle East.  And in that region itself, he seems to understand that the Sunni-Shi’ite regional war that is being fueled by Iran and Saudi Arabia is the critical problem tearing the region apart, and that it has to be resolved by those nations themselves.  “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” he says. “An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East 

The President has also thought long and hard about the other great powers of the world.  While he believes Putin’s Russia is on a dysfunctional course, he also told Goldberg bluntly that Ukraine is of vital importance to Russia, but not to the United States, and that we cannot therefore expect our wishes to prevail there.  He also said that the United States will be less threatened by a thriving China than by a China in turmoil, a position with which I agree. 

 Exactly how Obama developed his iconoclastic views remains something of a mystery.  The President lived in Indonesia as a child, but that was a long time ago, and that seems to be the only time in which he immersed himself in a foreign culture.  He does not seem to care much about Europe.  Goldberg does not seem to have asked him what books have influenced him, and he does not volunteer any answers.  But he has thought very carefully about the interplay of long- and short-term factors in history and his sense of the limitations of US power is, in my opinion, far above average for an American political leader.  

What, then, is missing?

          Skeptical though he is, the President may still be too optimistic.  He clearly  believes that the world as a whole is on a path to progress, and that movements like ISIS are an unfortunate detour, provoked by economic and cultural turmoil, that will not change the course of history if we keep our heads.  He rejects Samuel Huntington’s idea of a clash of civilizations, even though he knows from his own experience that Islam is much more traditional and conservative even in Indonesia, where he lived, than it was fifty years ago.  Believing as I do that world civilization reshapes itself every eighty years or so, and that change does not always point in the same direction, I am not so hopeful.  The question of how we will deal with the Muslim world if it becomes increasingly radicalized remains open.   Europe faced that challenge from the 15th through the 17th centuries, and I believe western civilization could again, but we have no blueprint for doing so.

Even in the short run, though, Obama in practice has been a disappointment in two critical ways.  To begin with, as he freely admits, he has not consistently followed his own instincts. In 2009 he allowed the Pentagon to talk him into escalating in Afghanistan, and in 2012 he let Hillary Clinton persuade him to strike at Qadaffi.  Both decisions had fateful consequences and helped keep American policy in the Middle East on the same fundamentally counterproductive course.  He will leave both of those problems to his successor.

The second problem is more general and more serious.  Because he has been inconsistent—and because he has been reticent in most of his public statements—Obama has not sold an alternative vision of American foreign policy to the American people, much less to our political and foreign policy establishment.  In No End Save Victory I documented how Franklin Roosevelt, beginning in 1937, reshaped his fellow citizens’ views of the threats the nation faced and the proper responses to them.  Kennedy put forth a new vision of US foreign policy in his last year in office, calling for true peace instead of confrontation, and Nixon did something similar during his first term.  Ronald Reagan, of course, carefully restored the atmosphere of the Cold War.  But Obama has not tried to reshape American attitudes in a sustained manner.  He obviously feels responsible for what he has done—but he is willing to leave the future to others, and specifically to Hillary Clinton, who showed clearly during her time as his Secretary of State that she shares the traditional postwar assumptions of U.S. foreign policy.  That will make Obama’s legacy rather fleeting.  Unless Bernie Sanders manages to secure the nomination and win the election as President, it is extremely likely, in my opinion, that the US will be involved in another major military action in the Middle East by 2019.  New excuses will inevitably arise, and the impulses which Bacevich documented and Obama chose to reject will triumph once again.

By the time I had finished Goldberg’s article I had begun to think of one of my favorite historical passages.  It comes from George F. Kennan, perhaps the greatest diplomatic thinker the US has ever produced, who was also skeptical about the assumptions of postwar American foreign policy and our ability to move history in our preferred direction.  Kennan in the second volume of his memoirs gave a lengthy and moving account of his dismissal from the Foreign Service by John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, who, Kennan argued, had to get rid of him to distance himself from the containment policy Kennan had explained to the American people—all the more so since Dulles, though he had attacked the idea of containment, knew that he would have no alternative but to continue the policy.  That in 1953 brought Kennan’s formal careers to an end, but the Administration continued to consult him from time to time.  After telling this story, Kennan shared some most interesting observations about Eisenhower, who in my opinion was the President that Obama most wanted to emulate.  And indeed, Obama, like Eisenhower, would have been far more effective when the nation was winding down from one of its great crises, rather than in the midst of one.   Kennan’s appreciation of Eisenhower’s personal qualities and of his impact upon our history has stood the test of time, and while Eisenhower and Obama differ in many ways, certain critical similarities outweigh the differences.  Someday, if serious history survives, I suspect that a sensitive historian will see Obama in somewhat the same way.  

“Dwight Eisenhower,” wrote Kennan, “was in fact, and remains in the light of history, one of the most enigmatic figures of American public life. Few Americans have ever had more liberally bestowed upon them the responsibility of command, and few have ever evinced a greater aversion to commanding.  His view of the presidency resembled more closely the traditional pattern of the European head of state than that of his own country.  In manner as well as in concept of the presidential office—the concept of the President, that is, as the supreme mediator, above politics, reconciling people, bringing them together, assisting them to achieve consensus, softening the asperities—he would have made an excellent crowned head. . . 

“For all these reasons, there was a tendency in some quarters to view Dwight Eisenhower as an intellectually and politically superficial person whom chance, and the traditional love of the American voter for the military uniform, had tossed to the apex of American political life.  The impression was quite erroneous.  He was actually a man of keen political intelligence and penetration, particularly when it came to foreign affairs. Whether he used this understanding effectively is another question; but he had it.  When he spoke of such matters seriously and in a protected official circle, insights of a high order flashed out time after time through the curious military gobbledygook in which he was accustomed both to expressing and to concealing his thoughts.  In his grasp of world realities he was clearly head and shoulders (this required, admittedly, no very great elevation) above the other members of his cabinet and official circle, with the possible exception of Foster Dulles, and even here he was in no wise inferior.

“Dwight Eisenhower’s difficulties lay not in the absence of intellectual powers but in the unwillingness to employ them except on the rarest of occasions.  Whether this curious combination of qualities—this reluctance to exert authority, this intellectual evasiveness, this dislike of discussing serious things except in the most formal governmental context, this tendency to seek refuge in the inanities of the popular sport—whether this came from laziness, from underestimation of himself, or from the concept he entertained of his proper role as President, I would not know.  But it is my impression that he was a man who, given the high office he occupied, could have done a great deal more than he did.”