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Sunday, April 30, 2006

A personal note

The readership of this blog, brought to me by branica.com, has continued to increase, and has reached a level of about 400 visits a week over the last month or so. I am very gratified and want to encourage readers to continue spreading the word, if not to give subscriptions to their friends! (Simply click the bloglet icon to subscribe either for yourself or some one else.)

As the readership increases I have done my best to continue posting at least once a week, but I'm afraid that next weekend will be "dark," because I will be attending a wedding.

My own.

For information about the bride, see http://stonepilgrim.com/

See you all in two weeks!

David Kaiser

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Reviewing Vietnam

About two months ago, as readers will recall, I was a panelist at the JFK Library in a weekend conference entitled, "Presidents and Vietnam." One of my fellow panelists was Timothy Naftali of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, who has been transcribing and editing presidential tapes for years, and who has just become the head of the Nixon Library. Over the weekend Naftali remarked that in his opinion, the Nixon Administration was actually the best-documented of all Administrations. I was surprised by that, but now I can see that he is almost certainly right.

Because of litigation by Nixon and his family, the records of his Administration have been slow to appear, but the logjam is now definitely broken. The State Department has now released several opening volumes of its basic historical publication, Foreign Relations of the United States, including, now, an enormous first volume on Vietnam covering the period January 1969-June 1970. The entire volume is available on line, albeit in rather unwieldy PDF format instead of State's usual html, and I have been able to read a few hundred pages. They tell an amazing, and highly relevant story. Although I am far from getting the whole picture, certain things are clear.

To begin with, within a year, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had organized a structure that left him in operational control of the American foreign and defense policy apparatus. Kissinger actually kept a very low profile during Nixon's first term--it was not until the 1972 Republican convention that Americans heard him speak live on television--but by early 1971 he was fully in command. His instrument was the Washington Special Action group, which he chaired. It included Richard Helms from the CIA (who emerges as a very important player indeed), one or two second-level officials from State and Defense, one or two members of the Joint Chiefs, and a few of Kissinger's own staffers such as then-Col. Al Haig. While it was not in operational control of what was happening on the ground in South Vietnam, it micromanaged events in Laos and Cambodia to a degree Lyndon Johnson never even aspired to. Indeed, at the time of the invasion of Cambodia, Kissinger generated a flap by having the WSAG designated the authority over that operation. Secretary of Defense Mel Laird immediately weighed in, noting that the statutory chain of command for military operations ran through him, and Kissinger had to change the WSAG to the "coordinating" body. He created another flap when he had President Nixon chair a meeting that included Laird and Secretary of State Rogers for a briefing on the possible invasion of Cambodia, and informed them a day or two later that the meeting had actually approved it. That invasion, by the way, turns out to have been a defensive as much as an offensive measure. The ouster of Prince Sihanouk by his Prime Minister, Lon Nol, while Sihanouk was on a long trip to Europe, had triggered new fighting in Cambodia, and Washington, rightly or wrongly, desperately feared that Phnom Penh was about to fall th North Vietnamese troops. The "incursion" was designed to stop them.

More important, of course, are the policies the documents reveal. Nixon apparently came into office convinced that the Johnson Administration had rushed too quickly to get peace talks going. (His campaign, as we know, had encouraged the South Vietnamese to stall the talks in the last few weeks of the Presidential campaign through Mrs. Anna Chennault, and he was remaining faithful to that policy in office.) South Vietnam under President Thieu, in his eyes (and in defiance of rather pessimistic reports about the Thieu government from the field) was a legitimate government and ally of the United States. The war should be settled by compelling or persuading the North Vietnamese to withdraw their troops from the South while the US withdrew its own, and allowing the Viet Cong to participate in elections. Eventually Nixon and Kissinger had to abandon that vision to make peace, but we don't know when they did so. Certainly it was not until well after the middle of 1970.

The volume includes verbatim accounts of Kissinger's meeting with North Vietnamese negotiations Xuan Thuy and Le Duc Tho, and they are remarkable as well. The North Vietnamese had an entirely different concept. Since they affirmed (as did the eventual 1973 Paris agreement) the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Vietnam, their troops, they argued, were not "foreign troops," and their withdrawal would not be an issue, if at all, until after a peace agreement that got the Americans out. In addition, they insisted, South Vietnam had to have a new tripartite coalition government including the Viet Cong and neutralists, and General Thieu, Air Marshal Ky, and General Khiem could not take part. In the long meetings from March and April 1972 that I read, Kissinger dropped just one small hint that he MIGHT be willing to discuss changes in the South Vietnamese government after other issues were settled, but that was all. Another option--interesting because the 1972-3 agreements included it--was an acknowledged partition of South Vietnam into Viet Cong-controlled and govenment-controlled sectors. That option received thorough consideration in a paper Kissinger's staff wrote in 1969, but he did not bring it up as yet. Future volumes clearly will tell the tale of how the US gave up the essence of its position and the North Vietnamese gave up the demands for an immediate coalition and Thieu's resignation.

What was quite extraordinary, however, was Kissinger's brief summary of the second meeting, which stated that he had made some progress because the North Vietnamese had expresed some willingness to discuss their withdrawal, even though they didn't explain with whom they would discuss it. I sat stunned before my computer as I read it. I have spent much of my professional life with documents like that, and I could not remember a negotiator conveying such a blatant falsehood. The motive, however, seemed fairly clear. Nixon was determined to compel the North Vietnamese to agree to the kind of settlement he wanted. Kissinger's own power depended, to a certain extent, on validating Nixon's views. He never missed an opportunity to praise Nixon and his policies, or to solicit support from colleagues (such as the Joint Chiefs) based on the idea that the President had already made his decision.

What got me thinking, however, as one old enough to remember these events vividly, was the obvious, deep division between the leadership of the Administration on the one hand and the Congress and opinion leaders on the other. After the very heavy fighting of 1968 (which was not confined to the Tet offensive, but continued through the year), the bulk of Americans had concluded that we were not going to achieve our original objectives. Nixon had not. And so began a tradition that has persisted, off and on, for 36 years: that of an Administration more or less secretly pursuing a policy in which the American public does not believe, because it has convinced itself that such a policy is necessary and dissenters are simply playing politics, showing naivete, or working against their own country.

Something similar certainly seems to be happening today. President Bush and Secretary Rice remain totally committed to their idea of a democratic, pluralistic, relatively secular Iraq, despite the lack of any evidence that such an outcome is getting nearer. (It is not clear, on the other hand, that Vice President Cheney or Secretary Rumsfeld, the other major powers in the Administration, have ever cared much about the future of Iraq once Saddam was gone.) Realism in 1970 would have involved agreeing to a coalition government or acknowledged partition in South Vietnam, allowing the troops to come home, the American defense establishment to rebuild (clearly, based on the new documents, the main concern of Defense Secretary Laird), and the people of Vietnam at least to live in peace. A great deal of suffering might have been avoided, and it is possible that Communists would not have taken power in Laos (whose Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma told Nixon in the spring of 1970 that a coalition government was the answer in South Vietnam) or in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge were not yet a significant factor. Realism today, in all probability, would involve recognizing that Iraq is almost certain to fracture into three parts, and trying to start negotiations to make that process as painless as possible. But within the Green Zone, the American authorities still seem committed to the vision of impartial security forces, disarmed militias, and law-abiding Iraqis. Events seem be happening on two entirely different planes. And it seems, as under Nixon, that no one can serve in the upper reaches of this Administration who does not officially believe in the happy ending to come. (A Washington Post article indicates that some American military officers are advocating partition, but they appear to be in a minority and do not yet include anyone of high rank. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/29/AR2006042901142.html.)

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld apparently believed Saddam had to be eliminated, and did not much care about the consequences. Regime change--or rather, regime elimination--was the sum and substance of their policy. They seem to be, essentially, conventional military thinkers who are only intermittently interested in broader political trends. (Rumsfeld's leaked memo in 2003 or 2004, I believe, was one example of momentary interest.) And now they are fixated on Iran, which is more of a conventional threat than Iraq was. Nixon reacted to stalemate in Vietnam by opening a new front in Cambodia--one that ended even more disastrously--and deepening our involvement in Laos. When South Vietnam fell in 1975, Kissinger, now under Gerald Ford, reacted by trying to get the United States involved in a civil war in Angola to show we had not lost our will. If the Congress wants to stop an air campaign against Iran, it had better move pre-emptively to do so.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Neocons fall out

This is the weekend's second post--a brief and focused one.

Last Sunday the New York Times book review section carried an outraged letter by Charles Krauthammer responding to its review of Francis Fukuyama's new book, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. Krauthammer protested bitterly, as he already had in his own column in the Washington Post, that Fukuyama had misrepresented a speech he had given at the American Enterprise Institute on February 12, 2004, one which Fukuyama had credited with disillusioning him with neoconservatism because it presented the war against Iraq as a "virtually unqualified success." The speech, Krauthammer assured us, included important disclaimers. Krauthammer quoted himself to the effect that the war "it may be a bridge too far. Realists have been warning against the hubris of thinking we can transform an alien culture because of some postulated natural and universal human will to freedom. And they may yet be right. . . .The undertaking is enormous, ambitious and arrogant. It may yet fail."

Krauthammer's text did include those words, but reading the whole text, one has to concede that Fukuyama had a point. Krauthammer is not really correct when he claims that the speech was not really about Iraq, but about four alternative foreign policies. That was how it was organized, but its whole purpose was to dismiss three of them (isolationism, liberal internationalism, and realism) and endorse the fourth, "democratic globalism"--his version of neoconservatism--which had led us into Iraq. That the undertaking might fail was not, in his view, any reason to question the wisdom of beginning it in the first place--and this is abundantly clear from the entire paragraph from which he has lifted his key quotes:

"Yes, it may be a bridge too far. Realists have been warning against the hubris of thinking we can transform an alien culture because of some postulated natural and universal human will to freedom. And they may yet be right. But how do they know in advance? Half a century ago, we heard the same confident warnings about the imperviousness to democracy of Confucian culture. That proved stunningly wrong. Where is it written that Arabs are incapable of democracy?

"Yes, as in Germany and Japan, the undertaking is enormous, ambitious and arrogant. It may yet fail. But we cannot afford not to try. There is not a single, remotely plausible, alternative strategy for attacking the monster behind 9/11. It’s not Osama bin Laden; it is the cauldron of political oppression, religious intolerance, and social ruin in the Arab-Islamic world--oppression transmuted and deflected by regimes with no legitimacy into virulent, murderous anti-Americanism. It’s not one man; it is a condition. It will be nice to find that man and hang him, but that’s the cops-and-robbers law-enforcement model of fighting terrorism that we tried for twenty years and that gave us 9/11. This is war, and in war arresting murderers is nice. But you win by taking territory—and leaving something behind."

Krauthammer combines a belief in America's unchallengeable power with a survey of world politics--and essentially argues that because the Muslim world is where the trouble is, that is where we have to fight--to take territory and leave something behind. He looks forward to a confrontation with China, but that, he says, is for the future. What seems to be anathema to him, as to other neoconservatives (as Andrew Bacevich has pointed out), is the idea of living at peace with the world. There must always be a dragon somewhere that the United States must slay. And failure does not, will not, cannot cast doubt on the wisdom of embarking upon the expedition in the first place. (In practice, failure can always be blamed on liberals, dissident generals, and the treacherous world community.)

Both Fukuyama and Krauthammer belong to the punditocracy. Once you have achieved such status, few care how wrong you have been. Fukuyama himself was entirely mistaken when he proclaimed The End of History in the early 1990s. Thomas Friedman, another member, thinks nothing of changing his mind on critical issues (like the wisdom of the war in Iraq) within a year or two, without ever noting that his position has entirely altered. Krauthammer has at least shown more consistency. But Fukuyama's change of heart was not, as far as I can see, based on any misreading of what Krauthammer said at the American Enterprise Institute on February 12, 2004. Perhaps he should have focused on Lincoln's birthday instead.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Splitting the Alliance

This week is full of food for thought and comment. Scott McClellan, who loyally refused to be moved off of talking points in the face of the most undeniable facts, has stepped down from the White House. For the record, I cannot believe that his successor, whoever he may be, will take a different approach, although he may have trouble matching McClellan for passive aggression. In Iraq Prime Minister Al-Jaafari (I apologize for the different spellings of his name I've used, but I'm not sure there's an accepted one) has finally stepped down, but the member of his own party who has replaced him, Jawad al-Maliki, is, as far as I can see, no more likely to bring our fantasy of a united, secular Iraq into being. Andrew Card's departure obviously means something, but I'm hard pressed to see what.

My original purpose here, however, was to use historical insights to put the present into perspective, and that is what I'm going to try to do this morning. In preparation for a new course next year, I've been reading up on the US and the First World War, and an interesting little book by a historian named Edward Parsons called Wilsonian Diplomacy has set me thinking.

In my lifetime two views of Woodrow Wilson have predominated, and both, I see now, were very specific products of the times in which they arose. In the 1940s and 50s he was a failed hero. Selfish Republican isolationists had rejected the Versailles Treaty, kept the United States out of the League of Nations, and caused the Second World War. Some also argued that the British and French had insisted upon excessively harsh terms for Germany, with disastrous results. Wilson, in essence, had the reputation of a defeated Franklin Roosevelt, whose achievements would have been equally great had the American people appreciated him.

A new view emerged in the late 1960s, as leftist revolution became fashionable once again. Wilson, many argued (led by the Princeton historian Arno Mayer), had tried to steer a third way between the European right and the Bolsheviks, based upon the rights of smaller nations and economic justice. That, too, had been thwarted by the Versailles peace, both in Europe and at home, where Wilson's party had been decisively repudiated in the 1920 elections. This view turned the 1917-21 period into a kind of prequel to the Cold War, which revisionists blamed on the failure of the western powers to respect the interests of the Soviets. Other less favorable views of Wilson focused upon the imperialism of his own policies, in Latin America and elsewhere, and his emphasis on US economic interests.

I am inclined, to think, having read this book, that both views were quite ahistorical and took little note of Wilson's greatest failing--his lack of any sense of true common interest among the western democracies. In this respect he was a product of his time, and a good representative of his party. American exceptionalism was much stronger in the wake of the civil war than it is now, especially because the United States saw itself as immune from the vice of militarism, and remained ambivalent about its entry into the imperialist scramble in 1898. Wilson initially responded to the war by refusing to militarize the United States, by calling for peace, and by asserting a different moral stance. Moreover, he became very concerned, as Parsons shows, about the prospect of either an Allied (Franco-British-Russian-Italian) OR a German victory. The Allies at the Paris economic conference in 1916 laid out a plan to keep the defeated Central Powers poor and to keep American products away from them; the Germans, meanwhile, wanted to create their own economic sphere in Central Europe. Wilson wanted to defeat both plans, and he feared the economic power of Britain's surface navy--which he wanted the United States to match--as much as he feared German submarines. He took a stronger diplomatic stand, however, against the submarine menace because it killed several hundred Americans, and in 1917 that forced him to declare war on Germany.

Even after that, Wilson commented from time to time that he feared a complete allied victory. More importantly, he insisted upon a separate status for the United States, calling them an "associated" rather than an "allied" power, and jealously holding back American naval and, for a while, land power from the struggle in Europe. From time to time he actually seems to have hoped that the war would last until 1919, when the United States would have the largest army and, therefore, the loudest voice at the Peace Conference. During the first half of 1918, when a German offensive on the western front threatened to defeat the allies, he still allowed General Pershing to hold some of his few American divisions out of the battle. He also kept American merchant ships on trade routes to Asia and South America rather than risking them to help get men and supplies across the Atlantic. The idea of an Anglo-American alliance ruling the world, which became a major theme of the Second World War, was the platform of Theodore Roosevelt, who confidently expected to succeed Wilson in 1921.

Wilson's selfishness was not unusual. The western allies spent as much time worrying about each other as they did about the Central Powers. Britain, France and Italy had competing aims in the Middle East, of all places, where they had decided to put an end to the Ottoman Empire. In the end the British did the best (grabbing Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan), while the French came in second and the Italians last. The British were just as determined to remain the leading naval power as Wilson was to stop them. The allies reached no agreements on many aspects of a potential peace before the end of the war, and the Central Powers' rapid collapse in late 1918 surprised them all. When Bulgaria crumbled in September 1918 Wilson though his moment had come, and tried to seize control of armistice negotiations with all the Central Powers. The Allies, however, understood exactly what he was up to, and kept those negotiations firmly in the hands of their own military leaders. They also understood perfectly well that their power would decline relative to the US if the war went on for another year, and concluded the Armistice with Germany before actually entering that country.

All this, it seems to me, strikes a powerful chord because the alliance among the western nations has been disintegrating since George W. Bush took office. In both cases, a European and world order has begun to crumble 50 or 60 years after it was created. After the American and European crisis of the 1860s and 1870s, Bismarck re-created the Concert of Europe, and his first generation of successors held it together until around 1910. The outbreak of the First World War destroyed it, and it was not recreated for more than 30 years. FDR and Churchill, Truman and Attlee, and host of French and Italian leaders recognized a unity of interest across the Atlantic after the Second World War, and institutionalized it in NATO, the OECD, the Common Market and the European Union and various economic institutions. The United States, however--the prime mover in that process--has now become unilateralist on the one hand, and obsessed with the Middle East on the other. And there is increasing talk about a coming struggle for energy among not only Western Europe and the United States, but also China, India and Japan. That too has a disturbingly familiar ring. As I showed in my first book, the Second World War was in large part an attempt to create self-sufficient empires, one foreshadowed by the trade policies of the major powers in the 1920s and 1930s. Then raw materials and markets were at stake; now the issue is oil, as it was in the Far East in 1941.

It is not too late, it seems to me, for the major industrialized nations--including the Chinese--to design a common energy strategy that could benefit everyone. They need not wait for a world war, as they did in the 1930s. But they cannot do so without the United States, which in the first decade of the new century has been relying entirely upon its military power. That has reduced, not increased, oil production in Iraq, and sent oil prices skyrocketing. An attack on Iran, a possibility which I take very seriously, would make the situation much, much worse.

I discovered the 80-year cycle of William Strauss and Neil Howe in the mid-1990s. It occurred to me then that the Balkans had been plunged into war during that decade, just as they had in the 1910s. The good news was that this time, Europe saw no need to begin a world war as a result. Now, as in the 1920s, the turmoil is in the Middle East and in world economic and currency markets. The United States may actually have become, as Germany and Japan were in the 1920s, the nation most vulnerable to international economic shifts, because of our huge current account deficit and the enormous foreign holdings of dollars. It has been using its military power to try to compensate for that vulnerability. History does not hold out a great deal of hope for that strategy.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Iraq Watch


Twice in the last year I have given talks comparing Vietnam and Iraq, and I am scheduled to do so again later this week. The Iraq war has now reached the length—more than three years—at which the Vietnam War became the consuming issue of American life, and it seems no closer to any conclusion than Vietnam did in the middle of 1968. Because it is costing less than one-tenth the number of American lives, none of them draftees, it is having much less impact. That, for the national security establishment—and especially the military—was Vietnam’s enduring lesson: overseas military adventures had to be either casualty-cheap or quick. Yet it is extraordinary to note that by the end of this year American participaton in the Iraq war will have lasted as long as our participation in the Second World War, and that it is already longer than the Korean War. But not only is the end not in sight, even the shape of the future is more confused than ever. Only two things seem relatively certain: the American vision of the outcome is retreating further and further into the background, and American leadership doesn’t know that.

Two weeks ago the New Yorker published another long article by George Packer, the author of The Assassin’s Gate, which I reviewed last fall. Much of the article described Packer’s experiences around Tal-Afar with Colonel H. R. McMaster, who has a Ph.D in history thanks to his book on the origins of the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty, which argued that senior generals failed to tell Lyndon Johnson what they really thought before going to war. (Having covered the same ground in my own book, I must register my dissent: the problem was not that generals did not say what they thought, but rather that neither generals nor civilians understood the situation in Vietnam and what the impact of American military intervention was likely to be. I suspect there was far more actual understanding of the difficulties of going into Iraq than of those in Vietnam.) In any case, McMaster has made an important effort to pursue genuine counterinsurgency in Tal Afar, sending his men out on patrol to keep order and trying locally to bring Shi’ite and Sunni factions together to govern the city. That was the good news.

The bad news, however, is that Tal Afar is one of the exceptions. Essentially the American military has been making the same mistakes that it made during the first four years of the Vietnam War, and for the same two reasons. Rather than actually occupy populated areas, the American divisions in Iraq have constantly moved from place to place, staying for a few weeks at a time to put out fires. As in Vietnam, we lack the forces to remain in place, and the Iraqi insurgents can always find a safe haven. Meanwhile, we are trying to rely more heavily on air power—an almost untold story, whose actual results are unknown to the general public, except when one of our mistakes, such as wiped-out wedding party or house full of civilians, comes into view. (John Paul Vann, one of the more famous military critics in the Vietnam War, liked to remark that the rifle was the best weapon in counterinsurgency because it was the most discriminate. Unfortunately, for the last 100 years modern armies have relied upon it less and less.) Moreover, Army doctrine still has little place for counterinsurgency operations. The Army’s response to Vietnam was not to learn to fight such wars correctly, but to make sure that it didn’t have to fight them again. That SOP worked for almost 40 years—coincidentally (or not) until virtually no Vietnam veterans were left in the military. Packer discovered that any counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq had been pursued purely as local initiatives by commanders like McMaster—there has been no overall counterinsurgency plan coming out of Central Command, much less Washington. Indeed, Secretary Rumsfeld still hates the use of the word “insurgency” to describe Iraq. And indeed, Packer reports that the United States is withdrawing most of its troops into huge new bases (like Da Nang in Vietnam) and planning to withdraw a good many. Vice President Cheney, he noted, is preparing the Administration’s defense if things go badly: to blame the media for reporting nothing but bad news. (Reading Packer, I concluded that the remarkable drop in American casualties over the last three months probably reflected the withdrawal into bases. That drop, however, has been reversed, spectacularly, this month. We lost only 33 men killed last month; we have already lost 44 in the first half of April. Fighting with insurgents is reported today in Fallujah, the city whose destruction in November-December 2004 was supposed to deal a death blow to the insurgency. And even Basra, where the British initially were thought to be successful, is increasingly under violent Shi’ite militia control.

The other and perhaps even worse news in Packer’s article came from his descriptions of the political meetings McMaster held. They showed no trust whatever between Shi’ites and Sunnis, and no political basis for the united Iraq that we want. The same drama, of course, has now been played out for four months in the failed attempt to create a new government. Condolezza Rice and Jack Straw journeyed to Baghdad two weeks ago to tell Prime Minister Al-Jaffari to withdraw. After they left, all factions agreed that this remarkable intervention into the democratic process upon which we insisted had made things worse. More importantly, there is no alternative to Jaffari who promises to be, from our point of view, any better. He leads the Al-Dawa party, and his Shi’ite Rivals, SCIRI (the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq) is tied even more closely to Iran than he is. Today’s papers talk of replacing Al-Jaffari with another member of his own party. There is not the slightest reason to believe that such a person will be less Islamic and more pro-American than the incumbent, or that he will command any more respect from the Sunnis.

Controversies over Iran, including two long stories on plans for air strikes on that country last weekend in the New Yorker and the Washington Post, have temporarily taken Iraq off the front page. (At times the Administration seems to have a knack for diverting the public’s attention from one disaster to another.) Meanwhile, half a dozen retired generals are calling publicly for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation—perhaps, in my opinion, because of fears that Iran will be next. (There is little that Rumsfeld’s resignation could do to help the situation in Iraq now.) But at the same time, yesterday’s papers reported that we are building the largest Embassy complex in the world in a corner of the Green Zone in Baghdad. The President has announced, in effect, that large numbers of Americans will still be in Iraq on the day he leaves office—although what he thinks they will be doing there is a complete mystery. (We have already given up on reconstructing the country.) American policy, in short, seems more out of touch with reality than ever.

In my talk on Vietnam and Iraq, I used quotes from the two Texan Presidents who led us into those wars. Both the similarities and the differences are interesting. Here is President Johnson in late September 1967.

“So your American President cannot tell you--with certainty--that a Southeast Asia dominated by Communist power would bring a third world war much closer to terrible reality. One could hope that this would not be so. But all that we have learned in this tragic century strongly suggests to me that it would be so. As President of the United States, I am not prepared to gamble on the chance that it is not so. I am not prepared to risk the security--indeed, the survival--of this American Nation on mere hope and wishful thinking. I am convinced that by seeing this struggle through now, we are greatly reducing the chances of a much larger war--perhaps a nuclear war. I would rather stand in Vietnam, in our time, and by meeting this danger now, and facing up to it, thereby reduce the danger for our children and for our grandchildren.”

And here is President Bush last January.

“In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores. There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat. By allowing radical Islam to work its will -- by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself -- we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals, or even in our own courage. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil .”

As I have noted here again and again, my generation and the President’s (he is 11 months older than I) has been characterized for forty years by a terrifying certainty. Lyndon Johnson, for all his faults, was willing to acknowledge at least that he might be wrong, and to paint his decision to continue as a difficult one. President Bush is not. He has a terrifying faith that has led him to reaffirm his confidence in Donald Rumsfeld. And like President Johnson, he will never be convinced to pull Americans out of Iraq until he has been convinced that we have won. That, it turns out, is why Johnson agreed in late October 1968 to offer North Vietnam a full bombing halt and begin peace talks: that Walt Rostow and Dean Rusk and persuaded him that the enemy was ready to cave in. It seems that for a few years at least, American troops will remain in enclaves in Iraq while the country continues its descent into civil war. The Democrats, who seem quite likely to regain control of Congress in November, should try to find the courage to propose an alternative policy and lay some foundation for a more hopeful future.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Uranium Leak

Today's New York Times successfully clarifies some of the new information Prosecutor Fitzgerald released last week about the genesis of Scooter Libby's notorious conversation with Judith Miller, which I analyzed at length last October.

Last week we learned that Libby told the Grand Jury that he spoke to Miller to give her the gist of a prewar National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq at the behest of Vice President Cheney, who in turn had gotten a go-ahead from President Bush. Scott McClellan immediately insisted that the NIE had been declassified by the President and Vice President, even thought he had announced its declassification "today" at a press briefing about a week later. It turns out, however, that that was not the whole story.

The problem, as the Times makes clear, is that what Libby told Miller about the estimate was false. He said that it expressed great confidence in the finding that Saddam had been trying to purchase uranium in Africa--the point that Ambassador Joseph Wilson had just undermined in an op-ed. In fact, the NIE severely qualified that assertion, and based its confidence in Iraq's ongoing nuclear program on the alumuminum tubes story which, we now know, came from the completely discredited source curveball. In other words, Vice President Cheney, if Libby told the truth, didnt' tell Libby to release true information, but rather false information.

Something else, however, emerges from other sources in the Times story. When the Wilson flap and the outing of Valerie Plame occurred, many wondered why Wilson, a retired Ambassador, could have disturbed the Administration so much. It was a friend of mine who first suggested to me that intimidating Wilson wasn't the point of the leak at all. The leak was aimed at the CIA, which the Administration was counting on to back up its claims. Outing a CIA agent was about as intimidating a measure as could be contemplated. Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, confirmed to me privately that he believed the CIA was the target of the leak as well.

The new story will undoubtedly be the focus of questions at the next White House press briefing, and McClellan will undoubtedly take refuge once again in refusals to comment on an ongoing investigation. But some one in Congress should speak out about the Administration's whole relationship with the permanent executive branch, which it has ignored, intimidated and muzzled in matters foreign and domestic again and again. As I have pointed out again and again, the current White House focuses above all on controlling the public's image of reality. This is another example of how far it will go.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

American Theocracy

As Kevin Phillips explains in the preface to his new book, American Theocracy, he has been at the forefront of the transformation of American politics over the last 40 years. In the mid-1960s he wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, the blueprint for Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy that he helped implement successfully in 1968 and spectacularly in 1972. Phillips, however, now feels himself to be a kind of Dr. Frankenstein. He is appalled by the transformation of the party he helped return to, and keep in, power, and he obviously believes that the United States is headed for catastrophe. His criticisms of various aspects of Administration policy run very deep, and he is not afraid to make accusations the major media avoids, such as the role of oil (huge, in his view) in the decision to invade Iraq. Phillips is a serious amateur historian who, unlike 95% of my professional peers, likes to think big, and he has put everything he has into this long and challenging book. While some parts of it impressed me more than others, on the whole I think he has performed a very important service, and the book should be widely read.

The book focuses on three separate developments: the crunch in world oil supply and its impact; the rise of the Evangelical religious right within the Republican Party; and the transformation of the American economy and our frightening, escalating levels of debt. They are all interconnected to a surprising degree, and none of them portends anything good for the United States. Oddly, Phillips does not seem to be familiar with William Strauss and Neil Howe at all, and he would benefit from reading The Fourth Turning. He has provided the best blueprint yet for exactly how a disastrous crisis is likely to hit the United States. Unfortunately he has not managed to offer much hope as to how we might get out of it.

Phillips, to begin with, squarely confronts the issue of oil and how it has affected our foreign policy and threatens to affect our economic future. He makes a plausible case, first, that the entire industrialized world is threatened by the exhaustion of Saudi oil reserves, and that the United States is particularly affected because of its longstanding ties to the Saudis and because our own production has been falling. For years I have read that Europe and Japan depend more on the Middle East for oil than we do, but Phillips informs us that we have now caught up with the Europeans (and our South American sources are threatened by political problems in Venezuela.) Iraq, he claims, may have the world's largest remaining reserves--reserves that have never been fully exploited, largely for political reasons. That, he thinks--although data is scarce--made Iraq a prime neoconservative target during the 1990s. Iraqi oil could only begin to flow after sanctions were lifted, but that would have primarily benefited the French, Russians, and Chinese, who were poised to exploit new fields. In addition, he confirms that Saddam was starting to price his oil in Euros. All this, he thinks--and here I suspect he goes too far--made Iraq a prime target even before 9/11. The fate of Iraqi oil, he suggests, was behind French, Russian and Chinese opposition to the invasion. And of course, so far, the impact of the war on the world's oil supply has been anything but good, since Iraqi production has not even reached prewar levels, much less produced the hoped-for bonanza. $2.50 gas, he warns again and again, may be only the beginning. Meanwhile, he suggests that the deployments of US forces all over Central Asia are also energy-related, an idea that I am in no position either to confirm or deny.

Phillips' chapters on religion are very disturbing indeed. They argue, essentially, that well-to-do blue staters like myself have no idea what Protestantism means in today's America. The mainline denominations to which elites belonged or which Jews and Catholics are most likely to think of--Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and even northern Baptists--have been losing relative and absolute membership since the founding of the Republic, and the fastest growing congregations now are Southern Baptists, various Pentecostals, and Mormons. Again and again he repeats that 30-40% of the Republican party believes in the inerrancy of scripture, the coming of the End Times (many of them, indeed, feel that the antichrist is already on earth), and the impending rapture, as described in the Left Behind series of novels by Timothy La Haye that have sold tens of millions of copies. And indeed, in one of his most telling points, he suggests that much of the Republican base supported the Iraqi war because of the essential appeal of an ideological conflict in the Middle East--indeed, against the "new Babylon" led by Saddam--because it foretold Armageddon and Christ's return to earth. Against that background, specific issues of Iraqi WMD or links to Al Queda were not very important. And indeed, although Phillips is too discreet to come out and say it, he gives the distinct impression that he believes President Bush might feel that way too. Certainly he shows how the President has used the language of calling, mission and redemption to rally his troops while leading the nation into war.

As I noted in a post on Social Darwinism exactly a year ago, a nineteenth century thinker named Godwin Smith noted an ongoing struggle between religion and reason going back at least to the time of the Roman Empire and marked by turning points such as the rise of Christianity, the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counterreformation, and the growth of rationalism in the eighteenth century. Phillips refers in the same spirit to the threatened "Disenlightenment" of the United States under pressure from the religious right, which is already costing us any chance of leading various kinds of scientific research (led by stem cells) and threatens to leave American education behind. He also suggests that evangelical religion distracts believers from their earthly fate, and specifically from questions of economic redistribution. And he is concerned, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we haven't seen anything yet. "Christian Reconstructionism" wants to re-establish Evangelical churches and rewrite the Constitution to eliminate the separation of Church and State, and its preferred constitutional amendments and laws have already been introduced. Interestingly enough, Phillips refers his readers to the web site of the Christian Coalition to find out more about them, but when I visited it, I found the names of some of these amendments and pleas for their support, but not the actual text. Looking further, I found the text of the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, which would protect churches' tax exemptions even if pastors specifically told their congregation whom to vote for, the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, which requires physicians to make a long statement regarding the pain that an abortion might cause the fetus and to offer anesthetic for it, and many others.

In Phillips's last chapter he suggests that social issues and the unpopular war in Iraq are quite likely to cost the Republicans the next two elections. (He is skeptical, by the way, as I am, that John McCain can win the Republican nomination in 2008, although he proposes a nightmare scenario of a ticket composed of the 72-year old McCain and Jeb Bush, who presumably would inherit the throne after one term.) The Republican majority, he notes, is both uniquely extreme in American history, embodying as it does the first national religious party we have ever had, and extremely narrow (although the number of key states in play, in the next election as in the last one, will surely be counted on just one hand.) But it is not clear that that will save the nation from catastrophe, since Democrats as well as Republicans have collaborated in the transformation of the American economy which is his third theme.

Here I must admit I learned a great deal from Phillips that I should have already known. I knew, of course, that the United States has been de-industrializing, and I recently found statistics showing that that process, like so many others, has accelerated rapidly under George W. Bush. But I did not know that financial services, real estate and insurance, have become the single largest sector of the economy and the most profitable. That simple fact explains an enormous number of developments over the last twenty years. Phillips himself doesn't say so, but we have reached a stage of finance capitalism that even Lenin never dreamed of. The American economy, and especially its upper reaches, consists of number crunchers and paper shufflers who depend, as he shows, on an ever-expanding pyramid of debt, new financial instruments, and reinvestment of dollars by foreign central banks. Our current account deficit, our national debt, and our individual consumer debt are growing by leaps and bounds, and no one is doing anything about it. The Federal Reserve Board under Greenspan not only facilitated this process but came to the rescue of risky investors again and again--even a gigantic hedge fund. Credit card debt has become easier to accumulate during the last ten years--although the new bankruptcy act passed last year will make it much harder to get rid of. Low interest rates and the refinancing of homes (frequently, now, without giving the occupant any equity at all) have fueled our recovery over the last few years. It seems very likely that the real purpose of Bush's Social Security privatization is to find a new source of investment capital to keep the stock market going. No one really knows whether the whole structure is, at bottom, any sounder than Enron or Worldcom. History suggests that it is not.

Phillips uses historical examples to sound the alarm, focusing on 16th century Spain, 18th-century Holland, and 20th-century Britain. None of them, though, as he has to admit, has all that much in common with the United States. While Britain lost its industrial pre-eminence to Germany and the US by 1900, it never de-industrialized to the extent that we have. Indeed, Phillips notes that the major European nations--whose economies are constantly derided in our economic press in terms reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld--have not only maintained robust industries but still run major export surpluses. Their currency has appreciated about 40% relative to ours under Bush--an indication that the world's bankers know we cannot go on as we have.

I do not know whether Phillips is right. Certainly he will make any reader who has managed to work against current trends by driving a high-mileage car, maintaining a strong equity position in his house, and putting a good deal of any available cash or retirement funds into foreign equities better, and avoiding long-term consumer debt a lot better, but his statistics suggest that such Americans are a depressingly small minority. We face the strong possibility of a crash, and no clear way out of it.

In retrospect, however badly it turns out abroad (a subject to which I shall return shortly), the war in Iraq may have done more harm by distracting the media and the American people from what is happening at home. In the end, however, it may also make the crash worse. If our economy falls apart, we will need the world's help. They will, of course, have some interest in keeping American consumer demand alive (although the richer Indians and Chinese might fill some of that gap), but we are continuing to forfeit a great deal of international goodwill, as Phillips notes, by opposing birth control, effective AIDS prevention, or any effective steps against global warming, as well as by renouncing the principles of the western alliance since 1945. When Germany and Japan went off the track in the 1930s the cavalry eventually came to the rescue. It isn't clear if we will be as lucky, and a Democratic Administration, if one is elected, should put a high priority on restoring a real alliance of the major powers. We will need it.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Civil Rights Museum

I spent last weekend visiting my son and his fiancee, who are finishing their second year with Teach For America working in elementary schools in the Mississippi Delta. We met in Memphis, a charming and surprisingly cosmopolitan town, and took in three museums: Graceland, STAX records, and the Civil Rights museum located at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. The latter is an impressive display of exhibits and videos and set me thinking once again about the misunderstood 1950s and 1960s and the sad fate of one of the greatest social movements in American history.

The museum is arranged chronologically but focuses on the years 1945-68. The civil rights movement in its great period, it struck me, owed a great deal to the Second World War and to the organizational spirit that had carried the US through both the war and the Depression. The contradiction between the ideals of freedom, democracy and self-rule for which the war was fought and the actual status of black Americans was simply too glaring to ignore, most of all for those Americans themselves. And although black troops were largely kept out of combat and, a recent book argues, denied their fair share of the benefits of the GI bill, they returned home determined to challenge the status quo. Certainly it was no accident that Jackie Robinson, himself a veteran, signed his first contract with the Dodger organization during the winter of 1945-6.

The center of the struggle for equality was the NAACP, founded early in the twentieth century and identified for its first thirty years with the great historian and publicist W. E. B. Dubois, the first black leader to challenge Booker T. Washington's accommodations strategies. DuBois, born in 1868, made a name for himself as a spokesman for full Negro equality (as it was then called), but was becoming increasingly disillusioned with white America by the 1930s--a trend that led to his ultimate conversation to Communism in the last 15 or so years of his life. He also fell out with the next two NAACP Executive Secretaries, Walter White (born 1893) and Roy Wilkins (born 1901), although he admitted, in a taped interview available from the Smithsonian that he recorded around 1960, that White had done an extraordinary job of building up the organization. So he had--from about 90,000 members in the 1920s to half a million by 1945. (I presume the organization continued to grow for the next fifteen years but I have not found any subsequent figures.)

During this period the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund, headed by Thurgood Marshall, had mounted a long-term campaign against segregation in education and on the effective disenfranchisement of black Americans through devices like the all-white primary. Beginning with challenges to segregated law schools, they won a series of victories culminating, of course, in Brown vs Board of Education in 1954. Meanwhile, standard political techniques of lobbying and an alliance with the Democratic Party had led President Truman to endorse civil rights and desegregate the armed forces--a critical step--in 1947-8. The NAACP, which continually had to fight accusations of Communist influence throughout the South well into the 1960s, also played a key role in the passage of civil rights bills in 1957, 1960, and most of all, of course, in 1964-5. Its work, like so much successful political work, was painstaking and unromantic, involving holding meetings, circulating literature, collecting dues and buttonholing politicians. It was also, in much of the country, dangerous, and sometimes fatal. It was the focus of several exhibits at the museum, but I did not feel it received the attention that it deserved. Roy Wilkins made a few pictures of various civil rights leaders--for instance, at the March on Washington in 1963--but I did not see a single reference to Walter White. The Museum is presumably the work of my own generation, those who came of age in the 1960s, and by then many believed that the NAACP's time was passed. (During my army service from 1970 to 1976 I once heard two black soldiers call it a "white man's organization.")

But while the NAACP put civil rights on the map and won the greatest initial victories, others contributed at least as much. Martin Luther King managed to create an activist mass movement in the heart of the South--something the NAACP had note dared to do. The Montgomery bus boycott, the demonstrations for equality in Albany, Georgia in the early 1960s, the sit-in movement in North Carolina (which was not originally an initiative of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference), the Birmingham demonstrations of 1963, SNCC's Mississippi project in 1964, and the 1965 Selma march were, literally, campaigns in a war, one fought by non-violence. They involved thousands of people and lasted for years. (Everyone knows how Rosa Parks took the first step in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, but few remember that the boycott took an entire year to achieve the desegregation of the buses.) The museum included a list--and it was a very long one--of violent acts against the voter registration workers in Mississippi in 1964. Those campaigns originally disturbed the Kennedy Administration, which had been elected with considerable southern support, but as Robert Kennedy explained privately in his oral history interviews in 1964-5, by 1963 they had left him and his brother with no choice but to introduce a broad civil rights bill including access to public accommodations. The demonstrations, he said, were going to continue at great personal risk to the demonstrators, and since the federal government lacked the resources to protect them, they had to remove their cause. On the night that President Kennedy asked for the Civil Rights bill in June 1963, Medgar Evers, the head of the Mississippi NAACP, was assassinated.

The movement began to founder for various reasons in the late 1960s. King himself brought it to the north in Chicago in 1966, encountered white ethnic prejudice, and got nowhere. The Vietnam war, which King courageously opposed, destroyed the liberal consensus on which the civil rights movement had depended. Urban riots created a northern white backlash, and in 1968 and 1972 Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern received only about 2/3 or the votes that Lyndon Johnson had gotten in 1964. John Kennedy remains, amazingly, the last northern Democrat ever elected President. Meanwhile, the country lost interest in moral crusades.

My son's own experience is in many ways a sad commentary on what was and was not accomplished. The school in which he teaches is nearly as segregated as Mississippi schools in 1954 (although a new Hispanic population has been added), since local whites attend various religious and other private academies. All through the deep South public education has been strangled by white politicians and voters who will not devote necessary resources to integrated (or, in practice, black) schools. The deep south economy has been hit once again by de-industrialization and by Hurricane Katrina. And lastly, the No Child Left Behind movement is providing a purely vocational education, of the type promoted more than 100 years ago by Booker T. Washington and derided by W. E. B. Dubois. Last year my son discovered that his students, while moderately capable in reading and math, did not know a state from a capital or a river from an ocean--because those questions weren't on the test. He instituted a social studies program and soon had students identifying each of the 50 states and naming all the presidents, but this year he had to drop it to free up more time for reading and math. Just last Sunday the New York Times identified that as a nationwide trend.

The United States evidently does need a crisis every 80 years or so to revive its values. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the Second World War all led to gains for black Americans, and although some were temporary, things never returned to where they had been before. The great campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s secured legal equality and more opportunity for the black middle class. We need, however, a new commitment to the economic welfare of all Americans in which minorities can share. And we also need a rebirth of the organizational spirit, the patience, and the dedication which are needed to produce lasting, rather than merely rhetorical, achievements.


P.S. I added some material to last week's post--new data about Iraq, marked in bold.


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