Friday, September 21, 2018

Some of the President's Men

On Tuesday, thanks to a strange combination of circumstances, I found myself for the first time in an bookstore in the Dedham Mall.  Inevitably, I suppose, I picked Bob Woodward's new book, Fear, off the shelf, and within 20 minutes I knew that I was going to buy it.  I have now read it.  It's gotten a great deal of attention, of course, but only at a very general level, focusing on the President's iffy relations with his staff.  The book is actually an interesting study of the Trump Administration's dealing with three issues:  tariffs, immigration, and national security policy, especially with respect to North Korea and Afghanistan.  It also includes a particular perspective, which we shall explore, on the Mueller investigation.  I learned a lot from it.

All Bob Woodward's books are based on conversations with favorite sources, and he rarely makes any attempt to conceal who they are.  In this case, his principal sources appear to be Lindsay Graham. who describes his own bromance with President Trump in considerable detail; former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; former chief economic adviser and Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn; Steve Bannon; former staff Secretary Rob Porter, who had to quit the White House over accusations of spousal abuse; White House trade adviser Peter Navarro (although I was not as sure about his role as the others): former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus; former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster; White House Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert; and former Trump attorney John Dowd.  Although retired Generals James Mattis, now Secretary of Defense, and John Kelly, now White House Chief of Staff, play very big roles in the book, I did not see any clear evidence that either of them had been much of a source for it.   Donald Trump has no one to blame but himself for the book, which is composed mostly of the recollections of those who found it impossible to work for him.

Let's get the boilerplate out of the way.  President Trump is an unstable, narcissistic, constantly abusive man, who uses verbal abuse to assert control over everyone around him.  Steve Bannon apparently saw Trump do this with both Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, who had the political experience Trump lacked, during the campaign, and there are far too many other instances of this tactic in the book to be worth mentioning.  The text also confirms his short attention span and his inability to keep medium- and long-term goals in mind.  Several subordinates, including Kelly, have tried to institute some kind of regular procedure for White House decision-making, but without success.  Trump gives orders, and subordinates begin implementing them, before other more important subordinates know what has happened.  That is why some have been driven to removing dangerous policy papers from his desk before he can sign them, or trying to make sure that they never get there in the first place.  All of this is rather frightening, and one of the key reasons why Trump should never have been President, but it is not the main thing I saw in the book.

Donald Trump does hold strong, anti-establishment views on certain issues, and believes with some justification that voters preferred him in 2016 because of them.  One might argue, indeed, that Fear as about Trump's own attempts to make democracy work by imposing those views on the federal government and the Republican establishment.  Thanks to Cohn and perhaps Navarro, we learn the most, probably, about his views on globalism and international trade, which break very sharply, of course, with mainstream thinking in both political parties since the late 1940s.  Trump genuinely believes that the open international economy that the US has worked so hard to create hurts the US far more than it helps us.  He believes that a trade deficit with any country proves that we are being taken advantage of--especially if the United States is also helping pay for the defense of that country.  "Globalist" is one of his favorite epithets.  In the first fifteen months or so of his presidency, however, he could not make much progress against the united opposition of the Secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin (who does not seem to have talked to Woodward), his chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, and the heads of his national security establishment, all of whom were firmly committed to the postwar world order. He did however bring some allies into the government, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Cohen and White House adviser Peter Navarro, who share his views that tariffs can help the United States.  Cohen, in fact, left the White House early this year, when those advisers managed a successful end-around and Trump actually imposed tariffs on China, much earlier than had been thought possible.  That was only the beginning, of course, of successive rounds of tariffs, as well as of the renegotiation of NAFTA.  So far our free trade agreement with South Korea has survived Trump's attempts to do a way with it.  We do not know how much further Trump will be able to go, or what these steps will do to the US economy.

A second, more interesting case, for me, was Afghanistan.  Here Woodward's treatment reveals a lot not only about Trump, but about our national security establishment 17 years after 9/11.  It has learned nothing. 

In his own way, Donald Trump seems to have grasped an essential truth of our time: that creating a new Afghanistan in our image of democracy is an entirely hopeless enterprise, and that it has little or nothing to do with the problem of preventing terrorist attacks in the United States or elsewhere.  Successive administrations have ramped our commitment there up and down for political reasons without facing these facts, and when pushed, senior military a civilian national security types still argue that a new 9/11 might be mounted from Afghanistan if we ever pull out.  These views confirmed for me, once again, the extent to which George W. Bush and his administration reshaped our view of the world, disastrously, by arguing that the democratizing of a whole region was necessary to protect us at home.  The saddest expression of such views in the book come from Lindsay Graham, who bluntly told Trump that the United States is fighting an endless war against evil in the world, from Nazism through Communism to Islamic extremism, with some new threat already waiting in the wings.  Generals Kelly and Mattis also believe that Iran represents a serious threat to US national security (Woodward's book did not reach the point at which Trump actually junked the Iranian nuclear agreement.)  Trump argued repeatedly with Kelly, Mattis, and H. R. McMaster about Afghanistan and would have been delighted to give up the whole enterprise--but in the end, he caved, and the commitment increased slightly again and loosened rules of engagement. He had to give up the idea of turning responsibility for the war over to the CIA because the agency didn't want it--they want it to remain the Pentagon's failure, not theirs.   On the other hand, the President has carried out another threat and suspended security assistance to Pakistan, finally recognizing, perhaps, that our Pakistani "ally" has been on the other side of the Afghanistan war all along.

The arguments over Afghanistan fit into a broader fight--famously argued out, without result, in the "tank" at the Pentagon--over the fundamental principles of post-1945 foreign policy, in which Trump does not believe. That meeting ended without agreement on anything--trade, troops in South Korea, or what to do about Iran--and after Trump left, Tillerson called him a "fucking moron." The international order, he thinks, hurts us more than it helps us.  Unable to change his mind, both Mattis and Tillerson began simply blowing the White House off over a number of key issues pretty early on.  Tillerson, of course, has now given way to Mike Pompeo, who is falling in line on certain human rights issues, and Mattis is rumored to be on his way out soon.  On trade, Trump has made some personnel changes that allowed him to move policy in the direction he favors--which, let us face it, is what elected Presidents should do. But it is not yet clear that the President will have a team more in line with his own thinking, especially since John Bolton, who has replaced H. R. McMaster--who kept trying to persuade the President with facts--and Bolton remains an ardent neocon.

Woodward ends the story of the crisis over North Korea well before Trump's summit with Kim Jong Il in Singapore--another hint of truly new policies.  His account of that crisis will raise your hairs.  Successive administrations have thought seriously about a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, but have backed away because it might be too dangerous.  They also have the fantasy--very popular in many contexts in recent decades--that they could transform the whole situation with a decapitation strike that would kill Kim Jong Il.   At one point Trump was narrowly prevented from perhaps setting off a war by pulling US military dependents out of South Korea, which the North might easily have taken as a signal of an imminent US attack.  The military trained for an all out conventional strike against North Korea in the fall of 2017, Mattis, on the other hand--like many of the officers I worked with at the Naval War College--accepted realistically that the United States could deter North Korea, and that it had no choice.

What has happened since Woodward turned in his book has opened up new vistas.  Trump evidently decided against the military option and adopted a new "solution"--to make peace with North Korea thanks to his own personal relationship with Kim Jong Il.   This seems to be his favorite solution for intractable international problems, and Woodward reports him saying similar things about the relationship he claims to have with Xi Jinping of China.  (He does not discuss relations with Russia or the summit with Putin.) So far, Kim Jong Il seems willing to play along with this fantasy, but without making the really serious concessions necessary to assure that he is giving up his nuclear weapons.  In any case, it seems most unlikely that the idea that we cannot allow North Korea to threaten the US with nukes--one also enunciated by Barack Obama--will go away any time soon.

And thanks again to Lindsay Graham, we learn a good deal more about the other issue Trump appears to care the most about, immigration.  Along with White House aide Steven Miller (who is a minor character in this book), Trump is convinced that the US needs a wall and an end to "chain migration," which allows individual immigrants to bring in their families.  Graham is a moderate on immigration but bizarrely, there is nothing in the book, I believe, about the idea of a path to citizenship for our 11 million illegals, except for the DACA cases.  Here Trump feels strongly enough to have blocked any compromise even on DACA with a bipartisan group in Congress.  The next time he tweets about the necessity of the wall, I shall be reminded that this is the way he has also talked about imposing tariffs and pulling troops out of  South Korea or Afghanistan--topics upon which he is loathe to give up his views even though he can't get his way.

I put the book down feeling more strongly than ever that there are at least two different levels to the Trump Administration. On the one hand, the President is giving certain key Republican constituencies such as the Federalist Society, the religious right, and the Koch lobby almost everything they want, including a conservative Supreme Court, a completely different attitude in the Department of Education, and an end to a whole host of environmental regulations.  This is largely what any Republican President would have done, and lies squarely within the long-term trend of US politics since the 1980s.  On the other hand, Donald Trump has his own ideas about tariffs and national security--and is moving closer to implementing many of them.  Meanwhile, much of our national security posture--a legacy of the Bush II and other administrations--is, indeed, doing us no good.  This situation leaves essentially no room for thoughtful, good government, or for time and energy to address a whole host of very serious problems at home, including health care (which Woodward also left out) and infrastructure.   The problem is not simply what Trump and the Republicans are doing, but what they will inevitably fail to do.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Reflections on US Foreign Policy in the Age of Empire

During my childhood, the government of the United States assumed responsibility for the fate of the entire non-Communist world.  I discovered while researching American Tragedy that the Eisenhower Administration had written policy statements pledging to defend every threatened area of the world against hypothetical Communist aggression--and to use nuclear weapons to do so.  That led Ike to the brink of war over Laos in the waning months of his term in office, and it created enormous pressure on John F. Kennedy to intervene massively in both Laos and South Vietnam during 1961.  Kennedy, however, refused to do so, against the unanimous advice of his senior advisers.  He repeatedly argued taht South Vietnam would be a terrible place to fight.  Within months of his death, however, Lyndon Johnson had decided to send large numbers of American troops to save the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam once he was re-elected, and in 1965 he did just that.

That decision, of course, eventually destroyed the public consensus on the need to defend territories threatened by Communism.  The number of American troops in South Vietnam reached half a million in 1968, peaking early in the next year at a little over that figure, and 14,000 Americans died there in that year--about three times the entire American killed in action since the "war on terror" began in 2001.  President Nixon did not abandon the objective of maintaining a non-Communist South Vietnam, but he eliminated the American ground combat prsence by 1972 and signed a peace agreement in January 1973.  The United States, however, had never managed to set up a South Vietnamese government that commanded the support of its people or fielded an army that could stand up to the North Vietnamese without US help. When the North Vietnamese attacked again in 1975, South Vietnam collapsed.

The National Security bureaucracy, as Andrew Bacevich as pointed out, did not abandon the objective of defending the non-Communist world after Vietnam.  Even before Saigon fell, the Ford Administration tried to involve the US covertly in a civil war against a Soviet-backed regime in Angola.  But Vietnam did make military leaders, in particular, much more cautious about the use of American ground troops overseas.  Jimmy Carter in 1979 started a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and pledged to defend the Persian Gulf region by force if necessary, but no one put that resolve to the test.  The Reagan Administration became more confrontational with the Soviet Union, and it seemed at the time as if some of its civilian leaders wanted to use US forces in Central America and the Middle East.  The military resisted, however--except for the brief, ill-fated deployment of the Marines in Lebanon--and there were no more big foreign wars.  As long as members of the Silent generation like Colin Powell, who had been junior officers during Vietnam, led the US military, caution prevailed.  Powell in 1991 also helped ensure that the US would limit its objectives to liberating Kuwait, not overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and thus ensured that the first major post-Vietnam conflict would result in a quick and easy victory instead of another quagmire.

The Boom generations' advent into power began to loosen these restraints. Bill Clinton sent some troops into Somalia, and in his second term, he committed the US to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and fought a war for the independence of Kosovo.  The advent of the George W. Bush Administration moved us into a completely new era.  Its leaders came into office determined to remove Saddam from office. Then came 9/11, and they committed themselves to nothing less than a campaign to determine the political future of the Muslim world, by any means necessary.  The campaign began with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it has continued--under three Administrations--to include support for the Arab spring, two episodes of regime change in Egypt, the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya, drone strikes from West Africa to Pakistan, and now, support for a Saudi war in Yemen and a new confrontation with Iran.

The war in Afghanistan has gone on for nearly 17 years.  Given that Afghanistan had at least three times the population, spread over a much larger area, of South Vietnam, it is not surprising that a much smaller American and allied troop commitment failed to stabilize the country. Now the foreign forces have mostly been withdrawn and the situation resembles the situation in South Vietnam in 1964 (before the massive US intervention) or in 1975 (on the eve of the North Vietnamese offensive.) We have never managed to establish an effective Afghan government or military, and government security forces are suffering major defeats in much of the country at the hands of the Taliban, supported, it is now recognized, by the government of Pakistan.  The Arab Spring did not lead to democracy in much of the Middle East, and led to a catastrophic failure of democracy in the leading nation of Egypt.  The Iraq war has fragmented Iraq and led to the birth of ISIS.  Turkey is now a hostile nation.  By any rational measure, the policies undertaken by George W. Bush in 2001 and continued, in many ways, by his two successors,. have catastrophically failed.

Yet they continue--because the national security establishment has learned to keep them off the public's radar.  We still have lost less than one tenth of the men who died in Vietnam, and we have very few ground troops fighting anywhere.  The country has largely lost interest in the Middle East.  But US drones are killing suspected militants over a huge swath of territory--even though there is no proof that these killings do anything but harm in the long run, either.  We now seem to be running a failed policy on automatic pilot, and we are too concerned with our domestic crisis to pay sustained attention.

President Trump, of course, has renounced the whole thrust of post-1945 US foreign policy, treating NATO like some kind of protection racket, moving from free trade to protectionism, and repudiating the very idea of international norms and institutions.  These too are very serious steps and deserve more discussion at another time.  But he is far from our only problem.  We must eventually be forced to the conclusion that we might have reached long ago: that the Muslim world, like the European one, will have to work out its political development on its own.  In any case, that is what it is doing--whether Washington likes it or not.  It will be some time, apparently, before out political leadership resumes serious discussion of our place in the world, and perhaps makes a new accommodation to a new reality.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Danger of dictatorship?

I have been planning today's post for at least a week and will stick to the plan, but some comments on the notorious anonymous New York Times op-ed that appeared yesterday will not be out of order.  I definitely do not think, to begin with, that it was written by either of the administration's leading retired Generals, Chef of Staff John Kelly or Secretary of Defense James Mattis.   While it certainly isn't unheard of for senior military officers to speak out, they do so publicly, not covertly.  Nor do I think either of these men would have made the fulsome comments about Trump's domestic policies.  The leading candidates, in my opinion, are Dan Coats and Nikki Haley.  I will be amazed if the secret can be kept very long, and the firing of whoever it turns out to be will deepen the crisis for the White House.  That in turn will raise the issue I now turn to: the issue of what drastic steps the President might take to save himself and his rule.  President Trump is making more and more threats on social media, and I don't think we can rule out attempts to carry them out as he fights for his political life, and, possibly, his freedom.  There are three possible steps that particularly alarm me.

The first is one that I expect him to attempt after Judge Kavanagh has been confirmed--and perhaps even before the midterms.  That is the firing of Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, and their replacement by compliant stooges who will end Robert Mueller's investigation.  Trump, both the Times op-ed and Bob Woodward's new book make clear, lives in a fantasy world, and really believes that the Mueller investigation is a deep state conspiracy against him.  It threatens his presidency and his liberty.  Don McGahn, the White House counsel who protected Mueller, is leaving the White House.  I think Trump was persuaded not to try to fire Mueller earlier because McGahn was working so hard to secure the resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy and his replacement by a second, crucial Supreme Court appointment.  That will be done soon, and Trump and his more hard line aides might conclude that firing Mueller before the midterms might help energize his base, who have heard how important it is to fire Mueller every night for at least a year on Fox News.

A second campaign that seems already to be beginning is a concerted attack on voting rights, disguised as an attack on immigrant voter fraud.  Yesterday it developed that the Justice Department has issued an extraordinary request for detailed voting records from the state of North Carolina, designed, it seems, to find evidence of large-scale voting by non-citizens.  There is no evidence that such large-scale fraud has taken place, but this Administration is fully capable to trying to manufacture some, just as they are trying to strip citizenship from Hispanic-American citizens delivered by midwives in territory near the Mexican border.  The one card that Republicans have not yet tried to play is one that I discussed here some years ago:  an attempt to restore property qualifications for voting.  There is no bar in our Constitution or laws against such qualifications, which states might impose as they did in the early decades of the Republic, and they would provide a way for red state Republicans to stave off the consequences of demographic change.

Lastly, the administration might take up the President's recent call for some kind of restrictions on social media designed to make sure that they give equal time to conservative outlets.  Again, there is no real data, it turns out, to support the claim that google disfavors conservative outlets in news searches--a claim that found its way from a right wing publicist to Fox News, and then directly to the Trump twitter feed.  Google favors the most popular sites, and mainstream media sites have a viewership that dwarfs Breitbart or even Fox.  Trump has however committed himself to the idea that the mainstream media are conspiring against him and would obviously feel that steps to make his view of reality more popular would be justified.

Having listed these possible steps, I still don't think that the second and third are likely to go very far.  They would be enormous undertakings requiring a cadre of dedicated apparatchiks to put into effect.   The only such cadre that Trump seems to have at his disposal is ICE, which as I have said before is zealously carrying oiut his policy of ethnic cleansing against immigrants.  In addition, we have seen no large-scale outbreak of violence on Trump's behalf, a major characteristic of the totalitarian movements of 80 years ago. I do not, however, expect Trump's presidency to go down without a fight, and I do think he has people around him who would favor measures like these.  And that is why I, unlike many of my Facebook friends, do not hold it against Gens. Kelly and Mattis for remaining at their posts to try to ensure a minimum of reasonable governance, and why I respect the attempt of the Times's mysterious op-ed writer to sound the alarm and restart some discussion inside the Administration of the application of the 25th Amendment--a discussion which, he says, has already taken place.  We will, I think, face some kind of serious constitutional crisis during the next two years.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Thank you again, Henry Adams

In 1894, the historian Henry Adams--the great-grandson and grandson of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams--mailed in his presidential address to the American Historical Association.  Adams had quit academia, resigning his assistant professorship at Harvard (a position I later held myself) in the 1870s to move to Washington, since he, unlike myself, wanted to spend his life among the nation's movers and shakers.  (The many parallels between his life and mine will figure in my forthcoming autobiography.)  Yet he was the author of one of the half-dozen greatest works of US history, History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, a nine-volume work of extraordinary penetration, analysis, and humor.  And the address he wrote posed what has turned out to be the critical problem of 21st century western civilization: the impact and fate of the Enlightenment tradition of which he was a part.

History, Adams wrote, had increasingly been dominated over the past half-century or so by a single ambition: to become a science that might reach valid conclusions about the future of the human race.  He did not say, although he might have, that that quest was simply one aspect of the broader attempt that western civilization was making to use human reason to perfect politics and economics, creating a more just society.  That was the idea that the west was going to spread around the world during the frist half of the twentieth century.  Adams did not commit himself in his address to any one view of what conclusions a science of history might reach, instead listing three possibilities.  Yet he put his finger on the key problem of attempts to order human society according to reason.  Whatever conclusion historians reached, he argued, powerful interests would resist it.  "Any science," he wrote, "assumes a necessary sequence of cause and effect, a force resulting in motion which can not be other than what it is. Any science of history must be absolute, like other sciences, and must fix with mathematical certainty the path which human society has got to follow. That path can hardly lead toward the interests of all the great social organizations. We can not conceive that it should help at the same time the church and the state, property and communism, capital and poverty, science and religion, trade and art. Whatever may be its orbit, it must, at least for a time, point away from some of these forces toward others which are regarded as hostile. Conceivably, it might lead off in eccentric lines away from them all, but by no power of our imagination can we conceive that it should lead toward them all." We now know that he was right.

Specifically, Adams said, history might eventually conclude that human society was heading towards socialism--and thus declare war on existing institutions.  "Would property, on which the universities depend, allow such freedom of instruction?" he asked. "Would the state suffer its foundation to be destroyed? Would society as now constituted tolerate the open assertion of a necessity which should affirm its approaching overthrow?" Secondly, history might conclude that the characteristic features of contemporary society--"its huge armaments, its vast accumulations of capital, its advancing materialism, and declining arts—were to be continued, exaggerated, over another thousand years." In that case, no one would want to listen to historians, who would be regarded as prophets of despair.  One other possibility remained: "If, finally, the science should prove that society must at a given time revert to the church and recover its old foundation of absolute faith in a personal providence and a revealed religion, it commits suicide."   In my opinion, the history of the world going back to ancient times tells the story of a struggle among those three views, none of which is destined to prevail.  That explains the unfortunate trends that have dominated the world for the last 40 years or so, and which show no signs of abating any time soon.

While socialism in its pure form of state ownership of the means of production only came to power in Communist nations--and there, significantly, only temporarily--certain socialist ideas did become conventional wisdom in Europe, North America, and elsewhere by the middle of the twentieth century.  Governments, led by FDR's New Deal, assumed a responsibility for the welfare of their people that included attempts to reduce inequality of wealth.  Economists and politicians recognized that a growing economy required that all classes of society share in economic growth--a result which, as Thomas Piketty reminded us four years ago, would not occur automatically if capitalism were left alone.  Adams, however, was right: even this limited socialism provoked a powerful long-term reaction from those who held capital.  By the 1990s the institutions and practices that had increased equality were disappearing and the march towards greater inequality had resumed.  It is continuing all over the globe now, in Western Europe as well as the United States, even though it has not as yet gone quite as far on the other side of the Atlantic as here.  The mid-century consensus rested on a sound scientific basis, but capital had to overthrow it not in spite of, but because of, that fact.  And so it has.

Turning to another of Adams's possible outcomes, historians have not yet concluded that humanity must revert to religion, but many societies have.  The secularism that went along with the Enlightenment reached a peak in worldwide influence sometime during the first half of the twentieth century, extending in Turkey even into the heart of the Muslim world, but orthodox religion has made a comeback not only there, but here in the United States, where it enjoys remarkable political influence, and in Russia, where the church is once again a powerful arm of the state.  

Adams's other possibility--that a science of history might show that we are condemned to a continuation of existing things--strikes me as closest to a true historical conclusion, although it required a further proviso.  We must understand "a continuation of existing things" as a dynamic rather than static description.  Religion, science, greed and egalitarianism always live within human breasts and are always at war in our politics.  Some are winning at any given moment but begin ceding ground later on.  My generation, as it turns out, was born very near a turning point.

When will rationalism and a sense of the common good once again become the key elements of our political and economic life?  Will it require more catastrophes like the two world wars, or perhaps the consequences of global warming, to make it happen? These are questions for the future. Meanwhile, it seems, Henry Adams laid the foundation for understanding the ups and downs of human history, and of our time.

Friday, August 24, 2018

On campus life, 2018

      Recently I have taken to glancing at the online Harvard Crimson, in part because of the lawsuit over Harvard's admissions policies that will be tried this fall (and which I hope to look in at.)  Its opinion section also features some interesting heterodoxy about identity politics.  This week, however, I came across another piece that got my attention, for reasons that will become apparent.  Because content is freely available, I don't see how anyone could object to my posting the text of the article, to being with, for non-commercial use only.  The article deals with another subject of controversy, the Final Clubs--originally private men's clubs, whose membership came largely from prep school students--which President Drew Faust tried to put out of business by making their members ineligible for prestigious fellowships.  Here it is.

Learned Behavior

Men control Harvard’s most valuable social assets. Partying at 1 a.m. at the Fly may seem outside the College’s educational purview — but it is certainly giving lessons in something.