View Blog History Unfolding: May 2006

Monday, May 29, 2006

On Memorial Day

Somewhere in my office is a paperback entitled No More Vietnams?, edited by Richard Pfeffer, which appeared in the fateful year of 1968. I don’t have it in front of me and haven’t read it for decades, but as I recall it is an account of an academic conference whose participants included Richard Barnett of the Institute for Policy Studies, Stanley Hoffmann and Samuel Huntington of Harvard, and others. Both the Vietnam War and the protests against it were reaching their climax when it appeared, and all the participants understood that the assumptions of Cold War foreign policy had come under attack. And my most vivid memory was the obvious panic among some, though hardly all, of the participants, who were terrified that the effects of Vietnam might militate against future interventions of that type. In the short run they had something to fear; in the long run, as it turns out, they didn’t.

Our popular mythology of the origins of the Second World War created a frightening mindset among our leadership. That war was a real struggle for the future of Europe and Asia, pitting the best of western civilization against the worst. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan wanted to establish empires based on force and lacking any respect for human rights over many of the richest parts of the globe. They could only do so by war, and that left the United States with the choice of war or acquiescence. Franklin Roosevelt definitely chose war, in my opinion, only in the second half of 1941, when Germany had attacked the Soviet Union and created a possible coalition of Britain, the Soviets and the US which could deploy overwhelming force. Four years later we had achieved victory. But the public, by and large, adopted the idea that the war should have been stopped by timely action in 1931 in Manchuria, or in 1936 over the Rhineland, or in 1938 over Czechoslovakia. We carried that view over into the postwar period as we discovered that our victory had raised another totalitarian power (but a far less reckless one) to new heights. To prevent a bigger war later, Harry Truman argued in 1950 and Lyndon Johnson argued in 1965, we had to fight a smaller war now.

During 1968, while the conference published as No More Vietnams? took place, I, at the tender age of 21, was re-evaluating all these assumptions. The war obviously wasn’t going well and it was also becoming obvious that it was not necessary. We did not have the resources, obviously, to move anywhere the Communists did, and we did not, I concluded, have a responsibility for the political future of the Third World. Some areas of the world were more important than others. Two years later I started six years of Army Reserve service, and I didn’t hear or see anything to change my mind during the four months I spent on active duty in 1971. By that time, however, Richard Nixon was in office, and despite his troop withdrawals he clearly believed in the necessity of victory in Vietnam as deeply as his predecessor. Documents now appearing confirm my belief then, although he wavered sufficiently in 1972-3 to make peace.

Nixon also, however, ended the draft. The Army and Marine Corps were in a wretched state by the time he left office and needed many years to rebuild. Their leadership knew how much harm Vietnam had done and were determined to avoid anything similar in the future. And thus, under Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush, the United States pursued essentially the same policy of opposing Communism wherever it reared its head, but without the option of large-scale military intervention. Ford eagerly started a civil war in Angola to try to bring pro-American Marxists, instead of pro-Soviet ones, into power. Carter began the covert war in Afghanistanbefore, as we have now learned, the Soviets intervened there. Reagan started civil wars in Nicaragua, put Marines in Lebanon, and occupied Grenada. George H. W. Bush, in a real departure, masterminded the settlement of the civil war in El Salvador. We achieved our victory in the Cold War, significantly, without resorting to another large scale intervention.

In the 1990s, however, the Boom generation took power. The challenge they faced was stated, as I have just discovered, by no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln when, as a young man of 28, he spoke at the Springfield Men’s Lyceum in 1838 about the heritage of the American revolution. There he really stated the theory of generations and crises that I have explored so often here during the last eighteen months. He began by speaking of the achievements of his grandparents’ and earlier generations, the Revolution and the Constitution.

We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them--they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their's was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; 'tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

So young Americans might have spoken in 1965—their parents and grandparents had secured liberty not only in the United States, but in Western Europe and Japan. They had created a more egalitarian society in an age of industrialism and they were finally extending full citizenship to black Americans. Unfortunately, the war they were beginning was going to call into question the morality of everything they had done. But as Lincoln understood, the new Boom generation, in any case, would have sought its own mission, its own trademark achievements—whether they represented a step forward or not. His forefathers, he continued, had staked everything on the success of democratic self-government.

Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it:-- their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.

23 years before he became President, Lincoln foresaw the issues upon which the next crisis would turn. Lincoln was one of the younger members of the post-Constitution Transcendental generation. In our current era, he could correspond roughly to someone born around 1960. The Boom generation has followed two entirely different paths, depending on its political orientation. The Left, reacting to Vietnam, became consumed with rage at our entire society in the late 1960s. In so doing it reduced itself to political irrelevance (or worse) on the national scene. But it entrenched itself within academia, where, in the humanities at least, it rapidly repudiated all the achievements of earlier generations and tried to recreate both literary criticism and history—not, in my opinion, with very happy results. The Right, on the other hand, had the emotional incentive of trying to undo all the work of the New Deal—an enterprise that much of corporate America had never accepted. In addition, as I noted after the 2004 elections, the Right made a coalition with Southern whites who could not emotionally reconcile themselves to the civil rights revolution. And the “edifice,” to use Lincoln’s word, which the Right began trying to tear down was also the edifice of secular America. While the Boom generation hasn’t shown much towering genius, it has shown plenty of enormous ambition.

The Boom generation has had totalitarian tendencies from the moment it emerged on the stage in the late 1960s and revived Marxism-Leninism in America. Now in power, it has not cast off the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War—the idea that the United States has both a right and a duty to control the political development of the entire world. Under President Bush, it has also pushed forward radical interpretations of the American constitution and of executive power--interpretations that our parents, in the 1970s, refused to accept. The war in Iraq, like the war in Vietnam in 1968, is going badly, but hardly anyone is emerging to question the fundamental premises of our policy. John Murtha, not coincidentally a veteran himself, is arguing straightforwardly that our intervention is not working, and so it is not. It has apparently strengthened many of the political forces we had hoped to stamp out inside the Muslim world. Even in Iraq, the new government of which the President is so proud has blessed the Iranian nuclear program. But Murtha remains a lonely voice. Robert Kagan, writing in the Washington Post, warns patronizingly that the Democrats must not once again become “the party of McGovern”. (George McGovern was another combat veteran who could recognize a useless war.) He is confident that a Democrat elected in 2008 would have to adopt most of President Bush’s policies. The terrible thing is that he may be right. No one seems willing to stand up and say that the Muslim world, like Russia in 1919, is going its own way and that we shall have to live with it for many decades. I am not aware of a single leading politician who has suggested that military strikes against Iran would be another disaster on an even greater scale, even though that, I suspect, is the danger that retired generals calling for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation are trying to head off.

President Bush, over the weekend, claimed the mantle of Harry Truman and compared the war on Islamic radicalism to the Cold War. The Cold War, however, was fundamentally defensive, and its greatest asset was the strength of democratic traditions, even in defeated Germany and Japan, that gave us real allies against Communism. We are waging an offensive war, consigning every regime in the Middle East to the ashcan of history without many allies on which to count. And our policies, in Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine, and above all Iraq, have made matters much worse. We need a de Gaulle, who can realize that greatness in the twentieth century will not involve the imposition of the will of a great power, by force, over hundreds of millions of people and vast regions of the earth.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Three Republican Administrations

The Nixon, Reagan, and now the George W. Bush Administrations have all had somewhat divided personalities in foreign affairs. In the Nixon Administration the contradictory impulses between warmaking and peacemaking coexisted within the same complex individual, the President himself. In the Reagan Administration George Schultz represented the peaceful traditions of the Nixon Administration and, thanks to the Iran-Contra scandal, eventually prevailed against a coterie of ideologues in the staff of the National Security Council. The Bush Administration has been almost relentlessly hard line, and after four years it lost its leading countervailing force, Colin Powell, but in the last two weeks there are weak signs of an argument inside it, as well—without any indication of a real change of course.

Richard Nixon, like his great rival John F. Kennedy, wanted more than anything else to tame the Cold War. He sought arms control with the Soviet Union, opened relations with the Chinese, and talked freely about a generation of peace. He said more than once that no one could win a nuclear war. But he was determined to outshine his predecessors, Johnson and Kennedy, by winning the Vietnam War, and he convinced himself that success in Vietnam had to accompany any conciliatory moves towards the major Communist powers. Because political considerations and the demands of his Pentagon leadership forced him to withdraw our troops from Vietnam, he had to persuade himself that a combination of South Vietnamese troops and American air power could hold back the Communists. When his strategy nearly collapsed under the weight of the Communist offensive of 1972, and most of the US-South Vietnamese gains of the previous two years evaporated, Henry Kissinger convinced him to make peace. He did so, we now know, by telling the President that he could blame a debacle on South Vietnamese incompetence in the Communists won within a year or two. Then came Watergate, and Nixon was no longer in office to face the decision of whether to resume war once again. Kissinger changed his strategy and blamed the Congress and the American people instead, as he has been doing ever since. But meanwhile, Nixon had gone to Moscow in 1972 and essentially declared peace with the Soviet Union in a declaration of principles that was far too optimistic, and which no Democratic President would ever have dared sign. That led to an immediate backlash against détente, especially within his own party, that almost cost Gerald Ford the Republican nomination in 1976, and swept Ronald Reagan into office in 1980.

Reagan immediately abandoned détente and serious arms control negotiations in favor of a big arms build-up and new attempts to isolate the Soviet Union within the world community. For whatever reason, he clearly was not easy to work with, and he ran through four National Security Advisers and two Secretaries of State during his term. Ironically, in the wake of Vietnam, his policies got their most significant restraints from Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, whose Weinberger Doctrine insisted that the United States should only go to war when vital interests were at stake, the nation clearly supported the war, and a successful outcome could quickly be achieved. That forced the Administration into covert action in Nicaragua and Iran to achieve its objectives of striking down Communism in Central America and regaining a strategic foothold in Persia. The National Security Council, led by Col. Robert McFarland, Admiral John Poindexter, and Lt. Col. Oliver North, carried out that policy until it was caught red-handed in the fall of 1986. Iran-Contra put Secretary of State Schultz, who had opposed it, in the driver’s seat. With considerable help from Mikhail Gorbachev, he reversed the course of Reagan Administration policy, reaching an agreement removing intermediate-range missiles from Europe and creating a new atmosphere. That momentum carried through the next twelve years.

The first George W. Bush Administration appeared to pit Colin Powell at State, representing the moderate Republican tradition and his own version of the Weinberger doctrine, against Donald Rumsfeld and his neocon staff at the Pentagon. With the critical help of the Vice President, Rumsfeld outmaneuvered Powell at every turn, not only convincing the President to invade Iraq before Powell even knew the decision had been made but also preventing any progress in negotiations with North Korea, Iran, and on the Taiwan Straits. As National Security Adviser Condolezza Rice does not seem to have done anything to change the balance. The neoconservatives apparently assumed that a quick victory over Iraq would be followed by similar wars against Iran and North Korea. By 2005 their hopes had obviously been disappointed, and Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith left the government. So, however, did Powell.

Some Washington insiders have consoled themselves that Rice, who also moved John Bolton to the UN (without the approval of the Senate), has scored some kind of victory over the neoconservatives, but this commentator has not seen any evidence of it. The Administration has refused to talk with Iran or make any concessions to North Korea. During the last two weeks evidence has emerged that some one is trying at least to start a fight in the Administration on these issues. A week ago Thursday, the New York Times reported that “aides” (evidently at State) were prepared to offer North Korea an actual peace treaty (after 53 years of armistice) in return for the abandonment of its nuclear program. The key player apparently is State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow, a former academic (and one of the editors of a volume of Kennedy’s taped meetings during the 1962 missile crisis), and an anonymous source speculated that President Bush would approve the proposal. (Zelikow’s editorship of The Kennedy Tapes would surely have kept him out of the Nixon Administration, by the way.) Henry Kissinger has already advised the Administration to give up on regime change in North Korea in an op-ed. It conceded, however, that Vice President Cheney’s position on the proposal was not yet known. Today, a parallel piece by a different reporter states that a debate has opened up in the Administration over opening direct talks with Iran—but the story indicates that not only the President, Cheney and Rumsfeld, but also Rice, are against it. Your commentator cannot help wondering whether Zelikow (whom I have met only once, years ago, in a totally academic setting) has something to do with this story as well.

The President made headlines this week for apologizing for some of his Texas language in connection with the war in Iraq, but he said nothing to indicate any second thoughts about his policies and essential strategies there. He continues to believe, apparently, that the holding of elections and the belated section of a partial cabinet (without ministers of the interior or defense) is more important than the escalating anarchy within Iraq—a subject for a future commentator. He continues to believe, in my opinion, that he stands for good and should not compromise with evil. I shall be delighted, but surprised, if the Administration actually changes its policy towards North Korea, Iran, or both.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Politics still rules

According to the historical theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe to which I have so often returned, the United States has been in a Third Turning—what they call an Unraveling—since the mid-1980s. An Unraveling, such as took place roughly from 1844 to 1861 and from 1908 or so until 1929, is characterized by frenzied economic activity (including both booms and busts), vastly increased immigration, the breakdown of political consensus, and a general ebbing of civic virtue. Eventually these trends lead inevitably into a Crisis in which civic authority collapses, at least partially, and has to be rebuilt. Since September 11, 2001, many of those familiar with the theory have been debating whether we have entered the Fourth Turning, or Crisis. In my opinion the whole Bush era will look thirty years from now like the four-year Presidency of Herbert Hoover (an analogy I know I have already made)—a long refusal to address increasingly serious national problems, combined with policies that make many of them worse. The Administration has tried to take advantage of the crisis atmosphere September 11 produced and has indeed ridden it to victory in two elections, but it has been so unable seriously to address any problem that it has lost the public’s confidence and left the work of rebuilding for its successor. It has also almost eliminated the concept of civic virtue from our public life. Three recent events and controversies illustrate this.

One such, in my opinion, got much less attention than it deserved. It involves the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Johnson, who made an extraordinary statement during a talk in Dallas on April 28. Speaking publicly, he described a conversation with an advertising man seeking a contract who, like himself, is black. I quote from a Dallas newspaper:

After discussing the huge strides the agency has made in doing business with minority-owned companies, Jackson closed with a cautionary tale, relaying a conversation he had with a prospective advertising contractor.

"He had made every effort to get a contract with HUD for 10 years," Jackson said of the prospective contractor. "He made a heck of a proposal and was on the (General Services Administration) list, so we selected him. He came to see me and thank me for selecting him. Then he said something ... he said, 'I have a problem with your president.'

"I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't like President Bush.' I thought to myself, 'Brother, you have a disconnect -- the president is elected, I was selected. You wouldn't be getting the contract unless I was sitting here. If you have a problem with the president, don't tell the secretary.'

"He didn't get the contract," Jackson continued. "Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe."

Not even the most rabid black Democrat, in my humble opinion, should be angry at or ashamed of Secretary Johnson because of his race. What distinguishes him here from most of his counterparts in the Administration isn’t his attitude, but his honesty. As John Diullio and Paul O’Neil revealed during the first few years of this Administration, politics rules policy 100 times out of 100 in this White House. If the federal government has to spend money (and actually, as we all know, the Bush Administration has spent at record rates), it must go to reward Administration friends and punish its enemies. The extraordinary largesse shown to Halliburton in Iraq and the refusal to penalize it for squandering millions cannot be accidental. The whole vast privatization movement is part of the same plan. Social services have hitherto been provided by federal bureaucrats, who expect health care and retirement benefits and usually vote Democratic. Why not instead give the money to Evangelical churches who will promote Republicans at the polls? Private contractors cost more than American soldiers in the short run, but they can kick back to the President’s campaign, and they do not incur long-term federal obligations. A real Crisis in the Strauss-Howe sense requires the mobilization of millions of Americans to solve urgent problems, as occurred in 1775-83, 1861-5, and 1933-45. Those people expect to be rewarded for their sacrifices. This is an enterprise in which the Bush Administration clearly has no interest.

My second point concerns the President’s new “plan” for immigration. Here I must give the President for relatively enlightened views, at least within his own party. He knows that millions of immigrants are playing a critical role in the American economy. My personal view is that the time has come to reduce the flow, as we did (drastically, actually) in 1924, and to move the immigrants within the country towards citizenship. The worst alternative, to me, is a long-term guest-worker program (it is not clear to me if this is what the President wants), which would create a permanently disenfranchised working class—surely a Republican dream if ever there was one. But the President has run into serious trouble with the House Republicans, who for some reason want to make a point of expelling a few million illegal aliens. And on Monday night, he reacted.

I personally found his proposal painful to hear. It has, frankly, nothing to do with the real issue at hand—the millions of illegal aliens in the country, and what to do with them. It will further disrupt the Reserves and National Guard, who will have to send thousands of men to Border Control offices for two-week or three-week stints, during which they will probably get in the way for at least a week while they find out what they should be doing. Meanwhile, a few border control officers will be out looking for new illegals. I hope, to paraphrase our other Texas President, that they won’t be under orders not to come back without nailing a few coonskins to the wall. Once again the President was trying to seem tough and in control, disrupting the work lives of the American men and women who do the peoples’ business without doing anything about the problem that is giving him political trouble. It was, again, all too typical of the last five years.

My last point involves a controversy that has been raging for over a month, over an article on the Israeli lobby by two political scientists, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, that appeared in the London Review of Books and on the web site of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where Walt is a dean. It argued that Israel does not deserve the generous financial and almost unquestioning political support that it receives from the United States, that that support actually has done serious harm to American interests in the Middle East, and that that support is provided only because of the power of the pro-Israel American lobby. It drew an extraordinary volley of protest from a host of Americans and the authors were accused of anti-Semitism more than once. I personally thought that while the authors could have stated parts of their case more accurately and drawn upon better evidence, they had said something important. (To cite one example, they were criticized over a quote from David Ben Gurion suggesting that he intended even before Israel was created to empty it of Arabs. The full quote actually includes him saying that this was too controversial to put into the Zionist program. More broadly, however, historians including Conor Cruise O’Brien and the Israeli Benny Morris have made it very clear that neither Ben Gurion nor other Zionist leaders were ever satisfied with the 1948 borders, and that they looked with favor, at the very least, upon the departure of what we now call the Palestinians.)

Now the controversy has drawn a new contributing from Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books. Massing begins by arguing that Mearsheimer and Walt did state their case a bit sloppily, but also takes some of their critics to task for becoming hysterical. Then, however, he gets to the heart of the matter, arguing, correctly, that while Mearsheimer and Walt talked a lot about the power of the Israeli lobby, they didn’t say much about who its movers and shakers were or how they worked. He proceeds rather impressively to fill in those blanks, and in so doing, I think, says some very important things. The Lobby is very powerful, relatively very conservative, and very influential, clearly, in the foreign policy of the current Administration.

The main central organ of the lobby is, of course, AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has 100,000 members, 20 regional and satellite offices, a $47 million annual budget and a large staff devoted largely to lobbying effective officials and propagating its message. AIPAC does not contribute to candidates but, Massing shows, it steers candidates to contributors and vica verca. Massing’s first major point is that AIPAC is controlled by its board of directors of 50 or so members, who are selected according to their ability to raise and contribute funds. (I would note that major universities select alumni to serve on advisory boards in exactly the same way, ensuring, in that case, that academics like myself are not likely to be represented.) Within the board, he says, the four prime movers and shakers in AIPAC, three industrialists and a real estate developer named Robert Asher, Edward Levy, Mayer Mitchell, and Larry Weinberg, the former owner of the Portland Trail Blazers. They are not, as he points out, mainstream American Jews from the point of view of politics—three are staunch Republicans and Weinberg is a “Scoop Jackson Democrat.” The organization courts and threatens members of Congress from both parties and every part of the country (including those where Jews are a relative rarity and the average voter probably doesn’t care very much about the details of our Middle East policy.) It works intimately with staffers in dozens of Congressional offices, and it has taken to threatening Congressmen who refuse, for instance, to agree to the most draconian restrictions on aid to Palestine because of the advent of Hamas, with accusations of supporting terrorism. Massing quotes a number of people from Capitol Hill on how this process works, including one who says that AIPAC can reliably deliver 250-300 Congressmen for any position it takes. Most of them would not allow their names to be used, including a Congressman who said that Congress “would never pass a resolution that was in any way critical of anything Israel has done.”. (The whole article can be read at )

Other arms of the lobby include the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, whose executive vice-chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, has according to Massing been very close to the settlers’ movement in Israel. Other arms include think tanks such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (for some reason, which I do not understand, Massing said nothing about the Project for a New American Century, led by William Kristol, which began lobbying hard for regime change in Iraq in the late 1990s.) Another important think tank is the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Regarding the specific accomplishments of this juggernaut, Massing focuses in depth upon the passage of a law proclaiming (with a provision, annually exercised, for a Presidential waiver on national security grounds) that Jerusalem should be the site of the U.S. Embassy in Israel, and the intimidation of both the Bush and Clinton Administrations not to criticize anything Israel has done during the last five years, including treating Bush’s Road Map as a dead letter. He also says, disturbingly, that various parts of the lobby, led by AIPAC and the Washington Institute, are pushing hard for regime change in Iran. He seems to think they had less to do with the decision to invade Iraq—I would have welcomed some history of the Clinton-era law that declared regime change in Iraq to be American national policy, but there is none--but he notes that several of the key members of the Bush Pentagon had many, many connections with the institutions he discusses, and that quite a few of those who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad came from these organizations (or the Heritage Foundation or American Enterprise Institute) as well. And he affirms that the lobby’s policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been, essentially, that Israel should keep whatever it wants. I was very disappointed that he did not talk about the genesis of President Bush’s 2003 decision to make that American policy as well, in effect, when he affirmed that final borders would have to respect the demographic “facts on the ground” that Israel had created.

I would like to conclude this discussion with a couple of observations. First—and, to my mind, critically—the pro-Israel lobby, as Massing stresses, does not really represent the consensus opinions of American Jews, many of whom, like many Israelis, would be glad to see Israel offer more for peace. While it still gives more money to Democrats than Republicans it has become a close ally of the Bush Administration, which has echoed its extreme policies on every major issue in the Middle East and whose own rhetoric has given AIPAC, as Massing shows, a new weapon—accusations of coddling terrorists against anyone who will not play ball. And I could not help wondering, as I finished the article, whether those Administration policies reflect not so much a desire to control Middle Eastern oil or to fulfill Biblical prophecies in the Middle East, but rather Karl Rove’s belief that the Administration simply has to have such a powerful lobby on its side. That, as various reporters have confirmed, is Rove’s whole approach. Rather than appeal to middling Americans with average views, he wants the broadest possible coalition of enraged, committed, organized Americans behind him. A friend of mine who worked on Capitol Hill in the 1980s once remarked that his office (a liberal Republican one) had three rules: “Don’t screw with the NRA, don’t screw with the AARP, and don’t screw with the Jews.” (The original statement read even better.) Rove and Bush have pandered shamelessly to the NRA, forced through a Medicare drug benefit over the objections of their own party (one, to be sure, that is going to enrich drug companies and cost far more than it had to), and essentially adopted the foreign policy of the Israeli lobby. Coincidence? I doubt it. The field is wide open for any politician to begin asserting the public interest once more.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Rise and Fall of Reason

This week's New York Review of Books includes an article summarizing three books on religion and America, including one on the beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Like every informed treatment of them, that book shows how far they really were from the vision of "Christian founders" propagated today by the Falwells and Dobsons. With a few older exceptions like Sam Adams, who had lived through the Great Awakening of the 1730s as a young man, they were deists, who felt that a higher power might have set events on earth in motion but sensibly discarded the idea that such a power was still directing events. Such views put them squarely within the mainstream of 18th century western civilization, and many of their descendants, including the vast majority of the educated elite in Western Europe and the United States, still hold the truths of rationality to be self-evident. But that has put us at a disadvantage, clearly, in combating the new upsurge of faith over the last thirty years or so, and it behooves us to ask exactly how rationality triumphed and what might be done to keep it supreme.

The review was rather brief, and my own knowledge of these questions is sadly deficient, but it is clear that rationalism in the eighteenth century was actually a broadly based middle-class movement with a deep influence not only on literature and history, but on art and music. It fueled the neoclassical revival in architecture that left a permanent mark on Washington and Paris. It profoundly influenced classical music, the greatest heritage, perhaps, of the eighteenth century, and found its way into works like Mozart's Magic Flute and the finale of Beethoven's ninth symphony. And it was behind a now-forgotten movement, the network of Masonic lodges that spread through the western world, and which included most of our Founding Fathers. Those lodges evidently were based upon reason and brotherhood. Because they included only men, traditional religion remained somewhat stronger among women. But their political influence survived in some areas even into the twentieth century. According to Hugh Thomas's book on the Spanish Civil War, virtually every Spanish officer who remained loyal to the Republic in 1936 was also a Freemason.

Rationalism in the 18th century had broad appeal, ironically, for the same reason that religion does today--because it seemed new, and contrary to prevailing human orthodoxy. A set of new principles might become the foundation for a new reign of brotherhood, liberty and equality on earth, as proclaimed during the American and French revolutions. Yet because humankind remains so proudly emotional, and because no belief system ever devised really inoculates human beings against excess, it took only a few years of revolution and war in France to discover that rationalism, like religion, could justify the massacre of tens of thousands of people. In the nineteenth century physical science made steady advances, and intellectually rationalism survived challenges from religious revivals and from Sigmund Freud (himself devoted to the rational study of the irrational.) In the twentieth century the greatest challenge to rationalism came from within--from Communism, "scientific socialism" as Marx called it, which claimed to embody the furthest advance yet of human understanding, but led to tragedy on an even greater scale and eventually to a dead end.

Rationalism still reigns in Europe, although the French and Dutch rejection last year of new steps towards a more perfect European union marked a setback. But in the United States it is definitely in second place, eclipsed by a mixture of greed, ambition, and religion. When a leading White House figure (probably Karl Rove) identified the Administration's opponents as the "reality-based community" in late 2004, he was speaking a profound truth. The mutability of reality is an essential principle of those who govern us today. Whether democracy is coming to Iraq, whether deficits matter, whether global warming is taking place or not, whether we are winning or losing the propaganda war in the Middle East--all of those questions have become, in effect, matters of faith. That, I think, is what has left the mainstream media so utterly unable to cope with this Administration. They believe instinctively that enough data will inevitably bring our leadership around to their point of view--but that is the least likely thing to happen.

Rationalism, like religion, ultimately has lost ground because it could not deliver on what it promised. I return once again to the words of Henry Adams one hundred years ago, when he suggested to the American Historical Association that while history might be turning itself into a science, its conclusions were not likely to win wide acceptance--least of all if they held that human history would continue more or less as it had before. It is the enormous, unconscious yearning of humanity to return to some Garden of Eden, I think, that drives us from one extreme (faith) to the other (science), and back again. The road to paradise was salvation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and reason from the eighteenth through the twentieth. (Even movements like Nazism were, in theory, rationalistic.) Western civilization's response to the mid-twentieth century crisis of the Depression and Second World War was profoundly rationalistic, seeking not only to create a system of international law, but also to make sure that society provided for all its members. Yet the fate of those enterprises shows that humankind remains its own worst enemy.

It was the Boom generation in America that grew up in the shadow of that crisis and benefited from the world it created. As they were reaching adulthood in the late 1960s, their parents embarked upon a disastrous war in Southeast Asia. A calm study of history could have shown them that this was nothing unexpected, and that the United States, like so many imperial powers before it, had simply allowed the temptations of power and responsibility to lead it into a hopeless adventure. Yet the Boom generation reacted more fundamentally. The war, combined with racial and sex discrimination, they decided, proved that their parents' world was hopelessly evil. After the war ended their focus (especially in the academy) turned especially to issues of race and sex, or "gender," implicitly spreading the idea that what ailed western civilization was simply the dominance of white males. The whole rationalist enterprise of the last 200 years, they have increasingly argued, was nothing but a sham designed to favor one group over others. The idea of a feminist or nonwhite utopia struggling to be born was especially useful because it had no historical basis whatever and could not be tested. And it was, as Camille Paglia has pointed out, an indulgence made possible by the prior achievements and the egalitarian principles of the rationalist western civilization which its adherents decried. It is true, as history shows again and again, that the powerful commit greater crimes than the powerless, and that oppression frequently breeds nobility, but nothing really suggests that power has been or would be applied more wisely and generously if white males did not hold it.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Bush Administration is an odd mixture of bastardized rationalism and faith. Its economic theory, which James Galbraith recently described as "predatory capitalism," claims to derive from that rationalist icon, the market--even though the danger of market excess has been demonstrated throughout history time and again. Yet the Administration also believes, simultaneously, in revealed truth, and that may well be playing in important role in its Middle Eastern adventures, as Kevin Phillips has argued.

Seventy years ago, in the midst of the Depression, Charles A. Beard began his most provocative work, The Open Door at Home, by arguing that the depression had proven that no universal laws guaranteed the beneficial development of the human race. That, he continued, meant that ethics and aesthetics had a proper role to play in the design of human society. It was really, however, the human cost of the Depression itself that forced western man to intervene to try to control the economy and moderate extremes of wealth, and it seems unlikely that anything less than another catastrophe will lead us to begin that work anew. That is the other great and tragic paradox of human life: that adversity and greatness are inevitably and inextricably linked. So it is that generations like my own, born at a relatively hopeful moment, inevitably spend most of their adult lives in disappointment, while those who grow up in moments of crisis actually have the satisfaction of laying the foundations of greater opportunity, in every sense, for their children and, perhaps, their grandchildren. The enterprise of civilization is a labor of Sisyphus, and the rock falls back just as it seems on the verge of unprecedented heights. Seventy years ago, in the midst of the last great crisis, Albert Camus asked us to imagine Sisyphus as a happy man. That remains an enormous challenge, but may be the only alternative to despair.

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