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Saturday, September 20, 2014

By way of explanation, and a flashback

   As regular readers know, I make every effort to have a new post ready by the end of every week.  I am in the midst of a very hectic period, however, and on Friday, my 45th College Reunion, for which I am hosting two old friends, began.  I will make every effort to write something new tomorrow or Monday, but meanwhile, I will repeat perhaps the most important post I ever did here, on July 4, 2010.

The Regeneracy may not be televised

William Strauss and Neil Howe, the authors of Generations and The Fourth Turning, grew up, as I did, in the shadow of the Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War. As they explained to a group of their acolytes in the late 1990s, they began early in that decade to write a book about American generations, focusing on what each of them had contributed to our national life. Both had been involved in government for about a decade, and both had lived through the cultural cataclsym of the 1960s and early 1970s. But their critical discovery, Bill explained, occurred when they were studying the first half of the nineteenth century, when control of national politics passed successively from the Republicans (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Monroe) to the Compromisers (Jackson, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay), and hence to the Transcendentals (Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Sumner, John Brown, and the rest of the Southern fireasters) who brought about the Civil War. Suddenly they recognized the remarkable similarities between three pairs of generations: the Republicans and the GIs (the Presidents from Kennedy through Bush I), whose lives had been shaped by the previous crises; the Compromisers and the Silent Generation, who remembered those crises from their childhoods and sought to moderate emerging conflicts; and the Transcendentals and their own generation, the Boomers, all focused upon throwing out the old and bringing on the new. A new theory of history was born--and they began predicting a new crisis era, set to begin around 2010.

Crises of this type represent the death of the old order and the birth of a new one. The two most inspiring in American history were the late-eighteenth century crisis that gave us the Revolution and the Constitution, and the Depression and the New Deal, which culminated in the Second World War and the creation of the welfare state. The Civil War, as they recognized, had much less of a legacy, failing even to solve the racial problem that had brought it about. It is now clear that their prediction of a crisis was right on the money in both the economic and political spheres--but it seems increasingly likely, I am sorry to say, that we are not going to experience a rebirth or regeneracy comparable to that of the 1780s-90s or the 1930s-40s. The hopes that so many of us shared for a New Deal are retreating further every day, and while I am not yet entirely giving up, my head tells me that we are indeed headed for a new age of corporate supremacy parallel to the 1890s.

Today's New York Times gives a typical example of the reasons for my despair. Earmarks, we all know, are detested by all and sundry (except those who receive them), and the Congress has passed new regulations against them, specifically forbidding their award to private businesses. No sooner was this rule passed, however, than Congressmen and private companies found away around it. They are busily founding non-profits who will control the money and pass it on to the very same private firms that will do the work involved. Nothing, in short, is going to change. In the same way, the new financial reform bill, now nearing passage, will not substantially reduce trade in derivatives or force the big banks to stop trading on their own account. Even its consumer protection provisions contain loopholes. Reducing the influence of money on our politics seems as futile a task as civil service reform or railroad regulation in the 1870s--and that leads me to my next, even more controversial point.

Back in the 1990s Strauss and Howe made another prediction: a member of our own Boom generation would lead us in a new world, like the Transcendental Lincoln and the Missionary Franklin Roosevelt. When 9/11 occurred--only 72 years after the beginning the last crisis in 1929--we all held our breaths to see if it might indeed be the beginning of the crisis, or, as they called it, "Fourth Turning." When George W. Bush failed to unite the United States most of us concluded that it was not. But now, I am not so sure--because it seems that George Bush did far more to pout the United States on a different path, both at home and abroad, than Barack Obama will be able to do. Let us look, as Al Smith used to say, at the record.

Abroad, George W. Bush abandoned most of the principles that had governed our parents' foreign policies. He denounced a critical arms control treaty, the one that had banned ABMs, and began deploying missiles that still have not been proven to work. The Obama Administration has modified his plans, but it has not abandoned them. He invaded Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds that we could not allow Al Queda to have safe havens, and we remain in Iraq while escalating our presence in Afghanistan, even though it is not clear that any of this has made us more secure. These wars have enormously raised the prestige of the military in American life for the first time since the early 1960s. In the Middle East Bush told Israel it could keep any territory it settled in a peace agreement, and the Obama Administration backed down from its first attempt to challenge that position. President Obama initially tried to recast our relations with the Muslim world but he has stuck, essentially, to the same policies, provoking individual Muslims (usually ones who had lived in the US and even become US citizens) to carry out terrorist attacks. Should one of those succeed on a fairly large scale we have no idea what the consequences might be.

At home, the reckless pursuit of deregulation by every Administration from Reagan through George W. Bush gave us the financial crisis of 2008--but before Bush left office, Henry Paulsen, it is now clear, had managed to make sure that all the banks' losses on derivatives would largely be made good through the huge bailout of AIG. Most importantly, the Bush tax cuts destroyed the surplus that Bush inherited and recreated the permanent deficit so dear to the heart of Ronald Reagan. That, combined with conservative fiscal orthodoxy which Obama seems reluctant to challenge, has crippled the government's response to the highest sustained unemployment since the 1930s. The Obama stimulus stopped the job loss but was not big enough to reverse it, and now it is coming to an end. The Republicans are fighting even modest moves like another extension of unemployment benefits--so far, at least, successfully. They seem certain to gain seats in both the House and Senate this fall, which will make any radical economic moves impossible.

Perhaps we were wrong; perhaps the crisis did begin with 9/11. Certainly George W. Bush took advantage of the shift in the national mood to move forward on a great many fronts, and his work has proven lasting. What is happening now is by no means all his fault. The Democratic Party effectively abandoned New Deal principles years ago--Bill Clinton, in fact, bragged about doing so. Now a Democratic Administration has very little to offer to the millions of new unemployed. They may not become enthusiastic Republicans, but they will not be enthusiastic Democrats, either--even though the younger voters among them are closer to the Democrats on social issues.

The politics of the Gilded Age were dominated by money. They were much more hotly contested than most people realize. U. S. Grant won two terms by huge majorities, but the next five elections--from 1876 through 1892--were all extremely close, all close enough to be decided by shifting a single state. The Democrats should have regained the White House in 1876 and did so in 1884 and 1892. Our politics may be similarly contested for the rest of my lifetime, since no government will be strong enough, it seems, to embark upon the kind of great crusade at home or abroad that will create a new consensus.

All this has enormous consequences for the Millennial generation (born 1982-2002?), whom Strauss and Howe expected to be the new GIs. Such, it seems, is not after all their destiny, since no Boomer leaderhip is going to enroll them either in massive public works programs or in a crusade abroad. Like the GIs in the 1930s, they will be preoccupied for a long time with finding work and setting up families. Their idealism and willingness to tackle problems may still do a lot of good, but mostly, it seems, at a local level and on a relatively small scale. In the same way that the GIs did so much to undo prejudice between religions and even between the races, the Millennials will finally break down prejudice based on sexual orientation, and they will probably begin a move away from strong religious belief. But for a variety of reasons, which I hope to explore in months and years to come, it seems that no one alive today is likely to see any kind of replay of New Deal America.

Friday, September 12, 2014

What the President Might have Said

My fellow Americans,

        In the past few weeks we have been shocked by the video-taped murders of American journalists by ISIL. We have also been concerned by ISIL's advance into Iraq.  While these events have not been as cataclysmic as the 9/11 attacks whose anniversary we shall celebrate tomorrow, they arouse us to the same emotions. They also tempt us to make similar mistakes.  Having come into office convinced that George W. Bush's responses to those events were mistaken, I am not going to follow in his footsteps and make the same mistakes again.

       Yes, it would be very easy to argue ISIL's fighters threaten our homeland--but such a threat is far off. In any case, we have largely been successful in stopping terrorist attacks in the United States, with the exception of the failed attack in Times Square and the successful one in Boston in 2013.  There will almost surely be other such attacks in the future, but we cannot assume that we can stop them by trying to conquer faraway parts of the world.  It has now become clear that Al Queda's real goals had very little do with the United States, and the same is probably true of ISIL.

       It would also be easy for me to argue, as George W. Bush often did, that terrorists like those of ISIL are not genuinely Islamic at all--that they are in fact betraying the religion of Islam.  That, however, is a question that must be answered by Muslims, not by a Christian President of the United States of America like myself.  We have tried telling the peoples of the Middle East what their religion compels them to do, and not do.  This tactic does not work.  It would also be easy for me to close this speech by once again asking God to bless the United States of America--but the Almighty, as Lincoln remarked at the moment of the greatest crisis in American history, has his own purposes.

      Since the controversy over the tragic deaths of American diplomats in Benghazi, a new doctrine has cropped up among us: the idea that we must use American military force to protect American diplomats abroad.  This novel doctrine is at odds with international law and international order.  The safety of American diplomats abroad is the responsibility of their host government.  If the government clearly cannot fulfill that responsibility, we have no option but to withdraw our personnel.

      Lastly, it would be easy to assume that a combination of American air strikes in Iraq and Syria and American money to train a friendly force can transform the balance of power on the ground.  Yet this is clearly a fantasy.  In Iraq, about 180,000 American troops managed to establish order for as long as they remained in the country, but despite billions of dollars and years of effort, they could not create a government or an Army that would command the support of Iraq's major ethnic groups or fight ISIL effectively.  They now have a new Prime Minister, whom we hope will do better, but he has been unable to fill the most critical positions in the government, the Ministers of the Interior and of Defense.  We hope that he will do so at once, but we cannot make political change happen in the Middle East.

       The situation in Syria is even more difficult, because we oppose not only ISIL, but President Assad, who has brutally tried to suppress a rebellion for three years.  The idea that the United States can create a "third force" of pro-American "moderate" rebels that can defeat both the main antagonists is, frankly,  preposterous.  To intervene on such a basis would be comparable to a French intervention in the American revolution against both the British and the American colonists on behalf of Indian tribes, or a foreign intervention in the ThirtyYears' War in Germany against both Catholics and Protestants, on behalf of German Jews.

        Indeed I have made a mistake to try to insist upon the deposition of President Assad, a step which may easily lead to ethnic cleansing, mass murder, and chaos such as we now see in Libya.  Tonight I am announcing that we would welcome any political settlement in Syria that would bring an end to the conflict, even if it left President Assad in power.  In any case a settlement must respect the rights of both the Sunni majority and the Shi'ite Alawite minority in Syria, in an attempt to halt the regional religious war which threatens to tear the Middle East apart for decades.

       Nor can we delude ourselves further about our ability to enlist local partners.  With few exceptions, the governments of the Middle East have not truly faced the danger of revolution and civil war which they face.  We too quickly assume, in defiance of the facts, that they share our objectives and endorse our strategies.  This is what happened under the Bush Administration with respect to Pakistan.  We gave Pakistan billions of dollars in aid to fight the Taliban and Al Queda, only to discover that the Pakistani government wanted the Taliban to return to power in Afghanistan and sheltered Osama Bin Laden for many years.  Meanwhile, our air strikes in Pakistan have inevitably caused civilian casualties and alienated thousands.   Many of the governments in the Middle East are not unsympathetic to ISIL or hope to use it as an ally, and air strikes in Syria are bound to kill innocent people and have negative consequences as well.

        I certainly cannot promise you that the restraint I intend to show in the face of this crisis will have rapid, beneficial results.  The political crisis that has engulfed the Middle East will last for many years.  It will not be solved without bloodshed, but it must be solved by the people of the region themselves.   All parties to the conflict will resent our intervention and our advice.  I call tonight for internal peace and peace among nations in the Middle East--a goal every nation should be able to endorse.  This is the only hope for the peoples of this troubled region. The United States has already done too much to increase disruption and chaos in that area.

         We like to think of ourselves as the world's policeman, or perhaps the world's doctor.  Yet as policemen, we have neither the authority nor the capability to make the peoples of the Middle East behave in any particular way.  And as doctors, we must return to the first rule of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.

          Thank you, and good night.

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Friday, September 05, 2014

Ukraine and the Baltic

I am beginning to despair of our government ever thinking sensibly about foreign policy.

I was not especially in favor of NATO expansion in the 1990s.  NATO was a cold war artifact, and I didn't see why it should be extended into eastern Europe, whose future was surely somewhat uncertain.  Two War College colleagues of mine from opposite sides of the political fence wrote an effective op-ed opposing it, on the grounds that it would needlessly antagonize Russia.  I don't blame NATO expansion for what Putin is doing now.  Yes, he resents the US's pretensions, power and influence, but he simply wants to restore Russia to something closer to its former glory, just as Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin did after the peace of Brest-Litovsk.  It is not clear that he actually wants to annex more of Ukraine, and indeed, as I write, there are reports of a peace agreement with the Kiev government that will agree to decentralize the country further and presumably end any idea of its becoming a NATO member or a western bastion.  As I indicated months ago when the crisis began, I think that we can live with that and that we do not have much choice.

The Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, however, are another matter altogether.  As I learned writing my dissertation 40 years ago, they were one of the success stories of the interwar period, when they built thriving economies based upon dairy products.  They are culturally more part of Scandinavia than of Russia, and their democracies are working quite well.  Their Russian minorities realize how much better off they are under their current governments than they would be in Putin's Russia.  Whether or not they should have been invited into NATO, they are there now, and we have to take our alliance obligations seriously.

When the United States broke James Baker's promise not to expand NATO into the former Warsaw Pact or the former USSR, it stated that it would not station troops permanently in the new nations.  Even though Putin is now violating international law by sending Russian troops into Ukraine to help the rebels there, we apparently still feel compelled to stick to that pledge.   We are creating a rapid deployment force that could supposedly move into the Baltic states if they were threatened.  Putting on my military strategist's hat for a moment, let me say that I think this is a serious mistake.

A conflict over the Baltic states between NATO and Russia would be a limited war, a struggle for relatively small pieces of territory.  It would not involve the United States on a huge front.  Estonia is largely protected by large lakes on its eastern frontier.  Latvia and Lithuania are somewhat more threatened, but the terrain is difficult and an invasion could probably be blocked at key points.  In addition, NATO would have as a potential counterstroke the option of occupying Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave that used to be part of East Prussia and which is entirely cut off from Belarus by Poland and Lithuania.   The question, however, would be who got there first.  Putin knows how to pick the right moment for an adventure, and he could easily provoke or fake incidents in the Baltic and get troops into them within the 48 hours it would take for our force to deploy.  That is why, I think, NATO has to station substantial forces in those territories now--just as it had to field large armies along the NATO and Warsaw Pact border during the Cold War.

I still think we should also be making diplomatic proposals to try, in essence, to re-establish peace in Europe.  I do not think they will succeed, because I don't think Putin will accept the status quo any more formally than he already has--but he will not last forever.  We cannot however, as I argued last week, trust to some inevitable historical tide to keep the new nations free and democratic.  Rather than send more troops back into the Middle East and Central Asia where they can do nothing but harm, we should offer them to the Baltic states, who belong inside the ambit of western civilization.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Thank you, David Brooks

Last Friday I argued that our foreign policy is crippled by false assumptions about the course of history.  Today David Brooks of the NY Times confirmed exactly what I had said.

Friday, August 29, 2014

At sea abroad

The government of the United States has been floundering overseas for at least two decades now because of a critical disparity between its ends and its means.  That disparity in turn reflects a fundamentally wrong view of history, how it got where it is, and where it is going.  And sadly, I am not aware of almost no one either in government or in academia who is thinking realistically about the future.  The price of entry into the elite is the surrender of critical thinking.

Following Keith Windshuttle in his important book from the 1990s, The Killing of History, I would argue that Francis Fukuyama defined the prevailing view of history after the collapse of Communism in his book, The End of History and the Last Man. (I have often been tempted to write a brief book myself called The End of History, by the last man, but I probably never will.)  Windshuttle pointed out that Fukuyama had really revived the view of Georg Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher who inspired Karl Marx, who saw post-Napoleonic Europe as representative of the triumph of what he called the "world spirit."  This was both a dialectical and a somewhat mystical process, whose mechanism could not be thoroughly explained.

In the same way, clearly, American "thinkers" on international politics in the last twenty years have assumed in the teeth of increasing evidence that the destiny of the world is be made of democracies like the United States.  This seems to apply not only to neoconservatives like Elliot Abrams and William Kristol, but also to Democratic types like Susan Rice (the National Security Advisor) and Samantha Power (the Ambassador to the UN.)  Any one who refuses to get with the program, it seems, can easily be dealt with either economic sanctions, air strikes, or demonstrations in their capital's main square.

A number of people who have known me for many years will never understand how I got so interested in Strauss and Howe.  One of many big reasons was that they provided an alternative and much more sophisticated sense of history.   To be sure, they had an optimistic, neo-Hegelian strain themselves.  Reviewing the 80-year cycles of  American history since the colonial period, they concluded that each one had advanced civilization somewhat.  However, more importantly, they convinced me that history is made in 80-year cycles, driven by human beings with unique beliefs.  It didn't take me long to start applying their theory to other nations, especially in Europe, and that convinced me that there was no predetermined course of history.  Every Prophet generation (those born in the wake of the last great crisis, like Boomers) eventually reshaped their nation according to their beliefs, emotions, and whims.  Often they seemed to repudiate the past merely for the sake of doing so.  And thus it is now obvious to me, frankly, that what is happening in the Middle East on the one hand, and in Russia and Ukraine on the other, is not a blip in the curve of progress towards democratic utopia, but a sign that large parts of the world are taking a different path altogether--one which the United States does not have the power to reverse.

The problem all these Americans ignore is this: democratic traditions are made, not born.  Our own developed over centuries, beginning in Britain, where the House of Commons became the key organ of government in the 18th century.   Only after our own civil war saved democracy in the US, as Lincoln understood, did democracy definitely become the model form in northern Europe and even in Japan.  We experienced another neo-Hegelian moment in 1919, at least in Central and Eastern Europe, but those democracies didn't survive for very long.  The same thing happened again after 1990. 

Let's look at ISIS first.  It has been clear in the Middle East at least since the Iranian revolution of 1979 that the western model had lost its appeal to many among the more recent generations of the region.  Helped by Saudi money, Salafi Islam was on the rise among Sunnis, while Shi'ites looked to the theocracy in Teheran.  Lebanon, back in the 1970s, was one of the canaries that died in the coal mine.  The United States embarked upon a long-term effort to weaken Iran through economic sanctions, but it didn't really take notice of what was happening among Sunnis until 9/11.  That resulted in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush's attempt to combine Hegel with military might.  In both of those countries we stationed tens of thousands of soldiers and tried to set up something looking like a western democratic government.  Both attempts have been almost complete failures.  In Iraq the first real election, as I noted at the time, revealed a country divided almost entirely on sectarian lines.  Maliki has been running a Shi'ite dictatorship, with our help, for a long time.

We were to some extent lulled into false confidence by the nature of Al Queda itself.  While it carried out a few spectacular terrorist act, it had no talent for political mobilization or governance. ISIS seems to be another matter altogether.  It is establishing a real government where it rules.  It's a dreadfully brutal government, but it is clearly exercising very effective authority.  And what do we have to put against it?

Yesterday President Obama announced that we must defeat ISIS.  He does not, clearly attempt to use American troops. The experience of Iraq suggests they wouldn't be effective, anyway.  Instead, he is counting on air strikes and local and regional political forces.  But in Syria, he still refuses to consider allying himself with President Assad on any terms--the only real countervailing force in the region.  In both Syria and Iraq, he is looking for a "third force" (my words, not his) of friendly, well-meaning, neo-Hegelian Sunnis, who will perform the astonishing feat of triumphing over both Assad and the ISIS and establishing a new Syria more to our liking.  Similarly we have now decided to dispense with Maliki in Iraq, but we have absolutely no idea if anyone else can heal the divisions between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

In my opinion, as I have said before, the Middle East has embarked upon its own Thirty Years War, a struggle between Shi'ites and Sunnis that will last for a very long time, at a tragic cost to its peoples and its civilization.  But I have no confidence that the United States can do anything to affect the process.  I would like to see an international coalition call for cease-fires and reconciliation as soon as possible, along with arrangements to allow Sunnis and Shi'ites to share the same territory.  That will eventually be the solution, but only, probably, after the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  We already did much too much to accelerate the coming of the regional civil war in Iraq. We shouldn't do anything more.

As for Russia and Iraq, Vladimir Putin has devised a rather clever strategy to take advantage of the weakness of the other successor states of the USSR.  He can use money, ethnic Russians, and his own troops, disguised or not, to create chaos in certain regions.  Ukraine is trying to defeat him militarily, and might do so.  But the Ukrainian government may have to give up part of its territory, and again, there will be nothing that we can do about it.  Putin's new strategy has made him more, not less, popular among his people.  Our use of economic sanctions reflects another aspect of neo-Hegelian thinking. Because he is part of the world economy, the President seems to think, he must bow to sanctions.  But no tactic has been less successful in changing the behavior of modern states than economic sanctions.

When and if these strategies fail, as I think they will, we will face a huge turning point.  On the one hand, we may try to apply more force to make history go in our direction. This I think would be an even worse and potentially catastrophic mistake.  Otherwise, we will face a world divided into regional blocs based upon fundamentally different world views, as Samuel Huntington, the real prophet of the 1990s, seemed to predict.  That however will not be an unmitigated disaster. It will force us once again to focus on our own civilization, and perhaps to get it back on track.

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