Friday, March 17, 2017

It didn't start with Trump

For some time now, students of Strauss and Howe have been arguing about when the current crisis began.  When 9/11 occurred a web forum discussing their ideas had already been operating for four years,and it certainly felt as though "this was it." The rhetoric of George W. Bush, who talked about the Global War on Terror as a generational struggle (or, in the words of some Neocons, "World War IV"), contributed to that view as well.  Yet Bush's decision to cut taxes instead of raising them and his inability really to get the bulk of the country behind him seemed to indicate that the crisis might lie ahead.   Then,in the last year of his Presidency, came the financial crisis, 79 years, remarkably, after 1929.  That certainly seemed to be "it," and Neil Howe has stuck to that date ever since.

One advantage of the 2008 date is that it allows for speculation that the crisis might last into the late 2020s, and thus, that we need not take current events too seriously. You may feel, as so many of us do,. that we're headed in the wrong direction right now, but there's still more than a decade to turn around.  Yet I am more and more convinced that the Crisis began in 2001, if not, indeed, a year earlier, at the time of the 2000 elections, when the Republicans revealed their determination to disregard all law and precedent in order to get back into power and resume rolling back the work of the previous century.  My reason relates to my view of what the crisis is: a series of events that puts a new order, and a new political constellation, in place, and sets the country on a new course.  9/11 did that.  The financial crisis most definitely did not.

We find ourselves where we are for many reasons,  The first, and biggest, probably, is the surge of individualism and selfishness that began in the mid-1960s as a reaction to a long period of strong authority and conformism.  Some of this was necessary, and all of it, apparently, was probably inevitable, but five decades later, the idea of every man and woman for him or herself has clearly deprived us of the cohesion and consensus that it takes to make our society function, if not indeed to hold it together at all.  One function of a Crisis or Fourth Turning is to renew civic virtue and cooperation as the nation copes with internal or external threat.  That was what Bush II was trying to do after 9/11, and what Barack Obama might have done, but didn't do, when he came into office.  Alas, Donald Trump's new budget is only one more confirmation that 9/11 defined the threat that we would face over the next couple of decades once and for all.  Unfortunately, it defined it wrongly.

To carry out 9/11, Bin Laden had to infiltrate 16 men into the United States, where some of them secured crucial pilot training.  Anyone who bothers to read the relevant sections of the 9/11 Commission's report will have no trouble understanding why nothing remotely similar has occurred since.  Even before that signal event, it was extremely difficult for al Queda to get the personnel they wanted into the United States.  Since then it has obviously become much harder, and not one terrorist act has been perpetrated or even attempted, as far as I know, by some one who had been recently infiltrated.  We could, in short, have coped with the threat of terrorism originating in foreign lands without creating the Department of Homeland Security or the enormous military-intelligence complex that now dominates suburban Washington, D.C. (and which will get a bit bigger, apparently,. under the Trump budget.)  But this, of course, was only part of our response.

Fueled by a post-Cold War fantasy of ruling the world, a resentment of Arab states that would not obey the US, and devotion to the interests of the State of Israel, the Bush Administration also seized upon 9/11 as an excuse to begin a string of endless wars in the Middle East.  These wars, too, could have brought the country together and created a new consensus--if they could have been successful. Broad strategic problems, however,. doomed them almost from the start.  Overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq was well within our capabilities, but establishing stable, friendly regimes in those countries--much less democracies--was far beyond them.  Sixteen years and many trillions of dollars later, our side is losing the war in Afghanistan, while the sectarian Iraqi government is destroying the country's second-largest city, Mosul, in order to save it.  But that was not all.  The fantasy behind those wars: that we could solve terrorism, and other problems as well, by replacing Middle Eastern autocrats with democracies, has continued to be a principle of our foreign policy ever since, with increasingly disastrous consequences.

I have several excellent reasons to believe that the Bush Administration expected to follow the Iraq war with similar strikes against Iran and North Korea. (None of these reasons relates to anything I learned at the time at the Naval War College.)  That did not happen, but the Obama Administration resumed this disastrous policy in response to the Arab spring.  Like Iraq, Libya went from dictatorship to chaos as a result, triggering a refugee crisis in Europe.  In Egypt the United States collaborated, first, in the overthrow of a dictatorship and its replacement by a new democracy,. and then, it would seem, in the overthrow of a newly elected leader by the military, which restored the old regime.  In Syria President Obama rightly avoided intervening yet again, but nonetheless made the end of the Assad regime a national objective.  Shi'ite and Christian Syrians, as it happens, believe that Assad's fall would mean their massacre, and the evidence of Iraq suggests that they are correct.  Meanwhile, using drones, the United States is now identifying and killing "bad guys" from Pakistan to many parts of Africa, even though these targeting killings haven't been any more successful in bringing peace to any areas than they have been for the Israelis who invented the tactic.  And we have never had a serious national discussion of this "strategy" and what it is actually doing for us or for the countries where we are applying it.  We have appointed ourselves judge, jury and executioner for the whole Islamic world.

And now, the endless Middle Eastern war has been linked to a critical domestic issue, immigration.  The immigration problem has very deep roots indeed.  One of its main causes, I would suggest, is the decline in our citizenry's birth rate, which, along with mass incarceration, has created a labor shortage that immigrants have come to fill.  And we have needed those immigrants:  Thomas Piketty argued three years ago that it is only because of immigration that US economic growth has been stronger than that of the EU.  Unfortunately, a very real effect of the terror war inside our own society has been to divert enormous attention and sums of money into these useless wars, instead of focusing on very real problems.  Those wars have contributed to the occasional terrorist attacks here in the US--always carried out by Muslims who have been living here for some time--which have allowed the Republicans (who have repeatedly blocked immigration reform) and now Donald Trump to arouse fear and hatred around the issue.  The war on terror is a divisive issue, not a unifying one.

It has however had another effect. These endless wars, fought by a volunteer army, have, as Andrew Bacevich pointed out, turned our military and veterans into sacred cows before which we all must bow down.  And thus, yesterday Budget Director Mulvaney announced a budget that shifts more than $50 billion from various domestic programs to the military and homeland security.  As in 2001, the supposed terror threat (which will inevitably be "validated" in theory by another domestic attack at some point) has become an excuse to divert federal resources away from helping the American people.  Meanwhile, foreign war looms again as a means by which a Republican administration will try to keep the country behind it,

The hopes that Rex Tillerson, a man who has headed one of the world's largest corporations, might be an effective voice for reason in the new administration are fading fast.  He immediately acquiesced in proposals for drastic cuts in the State Department budget--one of the largest cuts, proportionately, to be proposed. Yesterday he made a statement pointing clearly in the direction of war against North Korea, a move that could have incalculable consequences.  Steve Bannon, as I pointed out back in November, believes in great wars as an inevitable part of a Fourth Turning.  And given that Trump's policies will surely leave the American people worse off, he and the President have few other choices to diver their attention.

I have not, as you can see, been able to stick strictly to my resolution to comment on the new Administration only every other week, but I have not focused on the news of the day. Nor should any of us.  It has taken a long time--and a lot of mistakes on all sides of the political spectrum--to get us where we are today.  Every major American institution needs a lot of help.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Breaking News - Trump, Putin, Jeff Sessions and the Russian Ambassador

My brother Charles just posted a series of tweets by a statistician known as Carolyn O., who decided to do a nexis-lexis search to identify events surrounding Jeff Sessions's September 8 meeting with Ambassador Kislyak--the one that Sessions spontaneously denied while Al Franken was questioning him.  The results were quite astonishing and I'm summarizing them here.

On September 2, President Obama met with President Putin at a G-8 Summit.  They discussed US sanctions against Russia that Obama had imposed the day before, and Putin described them as an obstacle to cooperation between the two nations.

Five days later, on September 7, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, suggested for the first time that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee.

On the very next day, September 8, Trump told a Russian TV correspondent that he did not believe Russia was behind the hack, and Sessions met with Kislyak. Trump also said publicly that, "If we had a relationship with Russia, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS?" And on that same day, Trump and Pence made a whole series of statements praising Putin's leadership style. and on the same day, Tass announced, "Moscow expects Washington to display political will on building good relations with Russia after the presidential election," quoting Dimitry Peskov.

Now I can't post all this without registering a caveat.  Moscow time is about 8 hours ahead of Washington time, and thus it seems very unlikely to me that the Russian spokesman, Peskov, could have issued his optimistic statement as a direct response to whatever went on between Sessions and Kislyak.  But it seems that, in the wake of a difficult meeting between Obama and Putin, Trump went on the offensive seeking better relations with the Russians, Sessions's meeting with Kislyak was part of this, and the Russians did their part.  The question, of course, is what did the Russians do--or promise not to do--to secure Trump's good will and suggestions of a better relationship?

Carolyn O. did a fantastic demonstration of what is possible with open source research.  I did this post, exceptionally, because as far as I could tell with a google search 15 minutes ago, no news organization has yet picked up this story.  You read it here first!


Thursday, March 02, 2017

The 1930s and the 2010s - Politics and Economics

For the past 12 years here, I've been trying to provide long-term perspectives on current events.  During that time the great crisis in American life and world affairs has deepened.  This paradoxically makes it harder to stick to a long term perspective, since one so easily becomes absorbed by the news of the day.  But I am going to try to do so, partly by trying to post about the Trump Administration only once every two weeks.  And today's post will involve a glimpse into the past and into the future, rather than a look at today's headlines.

It also involves the third-rail comparison between Trump and the current Republican Party on the one hand, and Hitler and the Nazis on the other.  But I am not going to suggest that Trump plans to do away with our civil liberties, put millions of Americans into camps, or commit mass murder, or that he is going to  unleash a major war, even though I regard that as slightly more possible.  Instead the comparison will focus on one very important similarity between Trump and Hitler.  Both have gotten into power largely by protesting against the impact of economic change.  And my comparison goes to the question of whether Trump has any chance of actually restoring the economy that has slipped away over the last half century.  As it happens, Hitler and the Nazis also promised to do that--but in practice, they did the opposite.

My text today is a remarkable book from the late 1960s, Hitler's Social Revolution, by a very fine historian, now retired, David Schoenbaum.  Schoenbaum taught for decades at the University of Iowa and wrote at least three different works of modern German history, each concerned with a different era, as well as a study of US-Israeli relations.  His place within the department has now been taken by a scholar specializing in gender and sexuality issues in modern Germany--a very typical change in today's history departments.

Germany in the interwar period was very different from the United States during the last two or three decades, but both societies included large groups suffering from the impact of economic change.  In Germany, these included farmers hurt by low prices and international competition and a large new white collar class of clerks and retailers who often lived on proletarian incomes.  By 1930, the year of the first big Nazi electoral success, Schoenbaum argued that the Nazi core was brought together by various fears: "fer of the department store, frear of communism, fear of the Poles, fear of further decline in the price of farm commodities, and 'the politics of cultural despair' [a reference to far right opposition to the modern world in general.]  As I write this piece, I am increasingly troubled that no contemporary academic, to my knowledge, has produced a comparable breakdown of who is behind Trump, and why.  But surely many of his voters were motivated by fear of further job losses, fear of immigrants, fear of Islam, and fear and hatred of political correctness.  There is, by the way, one critical and somewhat encouraging difference between Nazi followers and voters and Trump's. The Nazis were disproportionately young; Trump supporters are disproportionately old.

Both coalitions were in part protesting long-term economic and cultural changes.  In the German case these changes included the growth of great retail chains like department stores, the development of world agricultural markets, and the disruption of currencies caused, ultimately, by the First World War.  The contemporary United States is at a completely different stage of development. Our small farmers and small shopkeepers ceased to be a political force decades ago, the working class has been devastated by foreign competition, outsourcing, and automation, and service workers, not office workers, are the fastest growing part of our economy.  In addition, although both 1930s Nazis and today's Republicans rail against minorities, the immigrant presence in today's United States is much, much larger than the minority population of Germany in 1933.  As a matter of fact, successive German governments had used high tariffs to insulate Germany from some of the impact of globalization for more than 50 years by the time Hitler took power, and the Nazis went even further in that direction by trying to create an autarchic German economy.  The United States on the other hand has been moving towards freer and freer trade for about 80 years now, and it is very unclear whether Donald Trump will actually be able to change the role of trade in our economy to any significant extent.

Hitler, like Trump, came to power promising to help all economic sectors of the nation, and especially to protect those who had been losing ground.  The Nazis had also stood firmly for the preservation of the traditional status of women, who had been advancing into the professions at a rapid rate.  But none of these promises, as Schoenbaum showed at great length, came true, even before the catastrophe of the Second World War.  "In 1939," he wrote, "the cities were larger, not smaller; the concentration of capital greater than before; the rural population reduced, not increased; women not at the fireside but in the office and the factory; the inequality of income and property distribution more, not less, conspicuous; industry's share of the gross national product up and agriculture's down." Traditional elites remained in charge of major institutions.   Schoenbaum might have added, as I found in my own research on that decade, that while the Nazis had ended unemployment, the whole population had continuously to deal with shortages of basic consumer goods and foodstuffs such as butter because of tight controls on foreign trade.  This undoubtedly caused enormous frustration among the Nazis' original constituencies and indeed among the whole lower half of the population. They could however no longer express their dissatisfaction either at the polls or in print, since they lived in a police state, and the war gave everyone new and much bigger problems to worry about.

It is very likely, in my opinion, that Trump's followers will be similarly disappointed: that in four or eight years we will have fewer industrial workers, not more; that illegal immigrants will remain a huge presence in our economy and society, if indeed they have not been given some legal status; that the financial industry will be even more powerful than it was before;  that health care will be harder to come by for ordinary Americans; and that the white proportion of our population will have continued to shrink.  The question is whether the Trump Administration can keep dissatisfaction under control by continuing a daily propaganda campaign against its enemies in the media and the Democratic Party and by mobilizing resentment against political correctness and its political manifestations.  It seems very likely to me that law enforcement will eventually by unleashed against demonstrators, but I do not foresee a police state.  As in the case of National Socialism, those not belonging to our national community may face the biggest problems.  There may indeed by large-scale deportations of immigrants, although in the long run I doubt very much that their presence will be substantially reversed.

Both the elevation of Hitler to the Chancellorship in 1933 and the election of Donald Trump represent tremendous failures of democracy in modern western nations.  In both cases, a barely sufficient coalition of disaffected voters has put a dangerous man, leading a dangerous movement, in charge of a leading nation.  While I continue to believe that our danger is the lesser of the two, it remains real enough.  And Trump's inability to deliver on behalf of the men and women who elected him will only increase that danger.


Friday, February 24, 2017

War in the age of democracy, past and present

For reasons that shall eventually emerge, I have been reviewing my work as an historian over the whole of my lifetime, and have been most recently looking at Politics And War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler, which appeared in 1990.  While it is not my favorite among my books, I do think it was my most remarkable achievement.  For more than ten years previously I had been reading very widely indeed in the literature of European international politics in four periods of general war: 1559-1659, 1661-1713, 1792-1815, and 1914-45.  The book told much of the story of those conflicts, but that was not its main purpose. Instead, I tried to define the essence of international conflict in each period by asking two questions: what were nations (or men) fighting about, and were they able to achiever their goals?  Those questions ultimately turned the book into a meditation on the nature of modern politics and its discontents.  Such a book, if successful, should remain relevant 27 years later, and I would argue that it has.

In each of my four periods, I argued, conflicts revolved around one or two fundamental issues.  From 1559 through 1659, I argued, monarchs in Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and England fought in vain to impose their will upon their aristocracies.  Conflict in that era combined civil and foreign war, disrupting economies, crippling whole nations, and achieving very little.  In the era of Louis XIV (1661-1715), by contrast, war became the province of monarchs. Louis XIV managed to tame his aristocrats and enlist them in his own wars, and indirectly helped his fellow monarchs do the same.  He also fought--for most of his reign--for much more limited and achievable goals.  His era set the tone for conflict in most of the 18th century, allowing Europe to make remarkable economic, intellectual and artistic progress.  In the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era, the ideas of the Enlightenment--that the state could be reconfigured along rationalist lines--unleashed the ambition of monarchs, both to remake institutions at home and extend their power as far as they could abroad.

"The era of the two world wars, I wrote, "witnessed new attempts to transform European society according to abstract principles, with tragic and horrifying consequences."  Two ideas--the demand for great empires, most notably within both Imperial Germany and Nazi Germany, and the attempt to create homogeneous national communities all across Central and Eastern Europe--drove the two world wars.  They did so even though economic progress was coming far more from international trade than from empires, even for imperial nations like Great Britain and France, and even though the populations of those regions were too mixed to create homogeneous national states without ethnic cleansing and murder on a gigantic scale.  But another, deeper problem emerged, relating to the demands of modern democracy. "Modern societies," I wrote, "demand that wars be fought to a brilliantly successful conclusion, and wartime governments have become hostages to realities far beyond their control. ... War has been harder to begin, but also much harder to end, in the era of democracy."

I wrote those sentences with the two world wars in mind, and modern society has changed enormously in the last 70 years.  After the Vietnam War, the United States gave up conscription and shrank its army, and most nations around the world have followed suit.  Even with anarchy spreading around the world, today's conflicts do not approach the scale of those that began 100 years ago.  Yet Vietnam, where the US intervention lasted nearly eight years, showed how hard it was to end even a clearly mistaken war. It took more than half a century to the United States to end its economic war on Cuba, which had had no result.  President Obama courageously reached the nuclear deal with Iran, but did not dare even try to resume diplomatic relations  And we are now in an age of endless war, comparable, in one sense, to the 16th and 17th centuries.  We have begun wars for unattainable objectives, such as functioning democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan--and those wars are more than halfway through their second decade.  In an attempt to fight terror, we have spread anarchy.   While our capabilities have shrunk, our pretensions have increased: to spread democracy and western ideas of human rights literally all over the globe. And while our public hardly feels the same stake in Iraq and Afghanistan as the European publics did during the First World War, it is much less engaged, and therefore less likely to protest the interminable conflicts.

The dreadful crimes and sacrifices of the Second World War, including not only the Holocaust but also the ethnic cleansing of millions of people by the victors after the war was over, did provide much of the world--and the whole industrialized world--with more than half a century of peace.  We are now at sea, with the political order that grew out of that war in headlong retreat in the United States and Britain, and threatened all over the EU.  Much conflict lies ahead, and it may be decades before the world achieves a measure of stability.  Perhaps by then, a new realism about the possibilities of international affairs will have emerged.