http://historyunfolding.blogspot.com/ View Blog History Unfolding: June 2010

Friday, June 25, 2010

What the McChrystal flap is about

I urge those of you who have not read the famous Rolling Stone article about General McChrystal to do so. It tells us a great deal about the general himself and about the war which we have unfortunately decided to fight. Agreement seems to be virtually unanimous that President Obama had to fire him, and I share that view. But this is much more than a case of a general shooting his mouth off--the irritation he and his staff expressed have deep roots in our flawed policy and strategy. First, however, let's begin with what the interview told us about the general himself.

General McChrystal may indeed have been a very effective combat commander in Iraq, but the article shows, in my judgment, that he should not have been appointed to head the coalition in Afghanistan, a job requiring qualities that he seems to have lacked. General George C. Marshall's selection of Eisenhower to command the allied coalition in Europe was brilliant because Eisenhower, though not a distinguished combat leader, was an excellent strategic thinker and, above all, something of a natural diplomat with a talent for getting along with his French and British counterparts. That is what coalition commanders do for a living, and McChrystal does not seem to have had the capacity--which many modern military officers have--to see the situation from the point of view of the French, the Germans, and the British. He seems more like a Patton than an Eisenhower, and Patton could never have held Eisenhower's job.

I would also like my regular readers, many of whom have had little contact with the military, to know that General McChrystal's cultural sensitivity, shall we say, is way below average for a man or woman of his rank. Many senior and mid-rank officers have lived in Europe and the vast majority of them enjoyed it thoroughly. Few of them would decide to spend an evening in Paris at an Irish pub. France, it is true, is widely unpopular in the military, but that, I finally realized, must be due to one simple fact: General de Gaulle's decision in 1967 to throw NATO military headquarters out of France. Rarely in twenty years in the War College have I heard any officers say anything negative about life in Germany, Italy, Belgium or Britain, and it would have been very easy to find a more sensitive coalition commander for Kabul. General Petraeus will fill that particular bill. I was also shocked to read that General McChrystal had been trying to increase President Karzai's prestige by accompanying him on visits to the provinces. I can't imagine anything better designed to drive home the Taliban message that Karzai is nothing but an American puppet.

The bulk of the article showed a general and his staff caught between conflicting forces, including various elements of the domestic leadership, his coalition partners, and his own troops. It did not, unfortunately, say much about another key element in the situation, the government of Pakistan. But the conflicting forces reflect far more than personalities. As in Vietnam, civil-military conflicts in Afghanistan reflect something much bigger: the difficulty of trying to secure impossible objectives. When the civilian political leadership lands us in such a mess, many seem to find it easier to blame other elements of our own government than to face up to the truth. That is what is happening here.

Some years back, at a conference, I heard the historian Herbert Schandler describe the recurring conflict between Lyndon Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War. Every six months or so, a frustrated LBJ would ask the Chiefs what they should do. "Bomb Hanoi," they replied, "mine Haiphong, invade Laos, invade Cambodia, and call up the reserves." Johnson would reply that the first four posed unacceptable risks of widening the war while the last was politically unacceptable at home, and the Chiefs in return would propose a small increment of forces. The Chiefs were enunciating classic American military doctrine after the Second World War: wars are won by applying maximum firepower to destroy enemy forces. (MacArthur was fired partly for pushing that doctrine in Korea, but after Korea most generals still thought he was right.) Johnson on the other hand was determined to win the war without risking the intervention of China and Russia or widening it beyond South Vietnamese borders. The real problem, however, was that neither he nor his generals had a winning strategy. The Chiefs' proposals (which eventually would have involved invading North Vietnam as well) would indeed have brought China, at least, into the war. Meanwhile, American firepower within South Vietnam could not create a South Vietnamese government strong enough to compete with the Viet Cong. If anything, it was counterproductive with respect to that objective.

That, as I have written here many times before, is also the problem in Afghanistan: Hamid Karzai cannot compete effecively with the Taliban among the Pashtun ethnic group to which they both belong. They offer organization, ideology, and a functioning local justice system, as well as effective intimidation in large parts of the country, including Marja and Kandahar. He offers money and the promise of American support. And there is nothing, in my opinion, that American military or civilian leaders can do about this. Significantly, McChrystal reserved his greatest ire for Vice President Biden, who was unfortunately the only high administration official, it seems, to have taken a position similar to the one I am taking here. It took me a long time to learn this, but when you say something that drives some one into a fury, there is usually only one reason--he or she knows at some level that you were right. Unfortunately, the American military has become obsessed with the idea that it must show that it can "do counterinsurgency," an idea which then-Major Petraeus put into his doctoral thesis at Princeton in the mid-1980s. But trying to prove it in Afghanistan or Iraq is revealing the need for more careful definitions of insurgency, counterinsurgency, and occupation.

The term "counterinsurgency" implies that an existing government, one which still commands broad support or at least exercises effective authority, is facing a local revolt of some kind or another that has secured control of part of the population. That was the situation in El Salvador in the 1980s and in South Vietnam in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1965, however, the government of South Vietnam had lost all its authority, and in Iraq, we eliminated all authority when we went in. In Afghanistan Karzai initially seemed to enjoy support but did not establish any real structure in the south and east of the country. This is not the time to discuss the complex situation that has evolved in Iraq, where the Baghdad government has established some authority over at least the Shi'ite population and reached an uneasy truce with the Sunnis, but in Afghanistan the Taliban have been gaining for several years, while Karzai has been losing prestige. That is not the kind of situation that American military power can reverse.

As the Max Hastings article showed, General McChrystal had firmly grasped one principal of counterinsurgency: that firepower has to be applied with extreme care so as not to alienate the population. But that in turn has alienated his own troops, who are working in a very hostile environment, and who probably sense that many Afghans resent their presence no matter now they behave. Restraint is part of a solution, but it is not the solution in a situation where the insurgents already command the respect of large parts of the population and are better-organized than the government.

General McChrystal also had evidently fallen out with the Ambassador in Kabul, retired General Eikenberry, the other senior official who seems to see the situation similarly to myself. In his infamous cable last fall, General Eikenberry made it clear that he did not believe Hamid Karzai would ever be politically successful, and therefore recommended against a larger American commitment. Now various voices suggest that General Eikenberry has to go. This is another echo of Vietnam in 1963-4, when Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge had advocated and masterminded the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, while General Paul Harkins had been Diem's strongest supporter. Washington had lost confidence in Harkins but the Pentagon insisted that he could not be removed until Lodge was removed as well. LBJ hated and distrusted Lodge, but did not dare let him go in the midst of the Republican primaries of 1964, in which Lodge had emerged as a candidate. The situation dragged on for months until Lodge himself resigned.

In this case, Ambassador Eikenberry did not, like Lodge, advocate replacing Karzai with some one else. The ghost of Ngo Dinh Diem lives on: successive American governments have wisely ruled out that option in dealing with weak clients. Yet now various voices are calling for Eikenberry's replacement. That to me would be disastrous--he would be fired, essentially, for having been right. Our best hope now is that Eikenberry might persuade General Petraeus that while the Army has proved it can do counterinsurgency elsewhere, it can't do it in Afghanistan.

Another aspect of President Obama's announced policy--the withdrawal that is supposed to begin in a year--is bringing the politics of the situation to a head. It's apparently encouraging all the major local political forces to think about a deal, including Karzai, Taliban elements, and, today's New York Times tells us, the government of Pakistan. If you're a regular here, you read a long time ago that the Pakistani government wants the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan. The mainstream media is finally catching on to this. It's time for certain leading Americans to abandon the fiction that we have trouble with Pakistan because we have been an unreliable partner in the past. We are having trouble because they do not share our goals. A deal between Karzai and the Pakistan-backed Taliban might be the best option at this point--a parallel to the coalition government we would never accept in Vietnam. It would be an even better deal if the Pakistani security forces could be induced to hand over Osama bin Laden. Persisting in our current course will increase dissension within the Administration but it won't make the US more secure.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Last week, in response to a posting on an internet bulletin board in which I said that the U.S. was now in the third great crisis of our national life, I received an email from an academic friend asking me to elaborate. I replied briefly in terms that would be very familiar to any regular readers here, but I left out one key issue--one that has been bothering me for some time. When, he asked, did the crisis begin? I did not answer that directly, partly because I do not think I know. That historians will find a crisis in the early 21st century I have no doubt, but where they put the beginning will largely depend on how it turns out. It could be in 2008. It could also be in 2001. We will probably have a pretty good idea of the answer within another three years--and the answer is very bound up with the issue of the future of America.

A crisis, Strauss and Howe argued, begins with a catalyst. When 9/11 occurred many of us wondered whether we were off an running. The country's mood changed dramatically, overnight; President Bush took advantage of the moment to project an image of strong leadership; and we embarked upon war in Afghanistan. Within two years he had also invaded Iraq, but that had divided, rather than united, the country. The issues of the culture wars became more and more heated during the 2004 campaign. The Schiavo case and Katrina discredited the President among moderates. The electorate swung violently to the left in 2006, and even more so in 2008. Bush, to quote his father, appeared to be history. By early 2009, most students of the generational theory, including myself, dated the actual beginning of the crisis somewhere between 2005 (Katrina) and 2008 (the economic collapse), and looked forward to a New-Deal style regeneracy under Barack Obama.

This could still happen--the outcome of our current political struggles remains much in doubt. But for reasons that I have discussed many times, Obama has not accomplished 1/10 of what FDR did, both because he could not and because he did not want to. He has much smaller majorities and a sense of crisis divides, rather than uniting, the country. He is also surrounded, as Roosevelt was not, by very conventional advisers in the economic and foreign policy spheres, ones with no inclination to make fundamental changes in the policies they inherited. His popularity has fallen a great deal since he came into office. He has two major (and very narrow) legislative achievements to his credit, the stimulus package (which is now starting to run out) and the health care bill, which can only be the first step in a lengthy and very complex process. He is now being hurt, apparently, by the oil blow-out in the Gulf, even though it is in no way his own fault. And the most informed opinion, at fivethirtyeight.com (run by the baseball analyst turned political analyst Nate Silver) predicts significant Democratic losses this fall in both the House and Senate. In fact Silver has just put the Democratic chances of retaining a majority in the House at just 50-50. Unless these trends are reversed more quickly I do not see how Obama is going to score any great legislative victories.

What this means, I am sorry to say, is that George W. Bush may well prove in the long run to have been a far more influential President than Barack Obama, precisely because he took advantage of the post-9/11 crisis mood to make fundamental changes in America. He was in fact already trying to do so before 9/11, having pushed through the first of a series of tax cuts--cuts big enough to re-create a large permanent deficit in a period of Boom, thereby leaving the government fiscally crippled when the next bust hit. He claimed vast new executive powers after 9/11, including the right to torture captives. His successor has not by any means renounced all of those powers, and indeed has intensified legal efforts to stop leaks of government documents, and by failing to punish those responsible for torture, Obama has in effect made torture a Presidential prerogative even as he declines to exercise it himself. Bush accelerated the handing over of the federal regulatory structure to industry and finance, an effort the new Administration has not done much to undo. Last but not least, he has deployed American military power to try to install and maintain client regimes in parts of the Muslim world, and he started a confrontation with Iran that still threatens eventually to escalate into war. The Obama Administration has not in the least repudiated the policy of acting against hostile regimes to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons, and has repeated that Iran must not be allowed to acquire them. Nor has been able to reverse the new policy Bush instituted towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely, that Israel will continue to settle whatever territory it wants and treat the Palestinians however it wants until the Palestinians capitulate to Israeli terms. If we lose more of our remaining friends in the Muslim world, such as Turkey, the consequences may become serious.

George W. Bush was, in certain respects, the kind of leader who thrives in a crisis. He had very firm beliefs and could not have cared less about those who opposed him, and he appointed men and women very eager to achieve his goals. His policies may have been in many ways disastrous, but he got them in place--and they are still very much with us. Domestically he completed the restoration of the Gilded Age, while inaugurating a new age of American imperialism abroad. These policies may be disastrous, but they have become part of the conventional wisdom, one which Barack Obama has challenged relatively gingerly, if at all.

Liberal optimists on the Fourth Turning website cling to one legitimate hope: that the Millennial generation, which put Obama in power, will more than counterbalance the tea party movement, limit Democratic losses to tolerable levels (whatever that mean), and triumphantly re-elect him in 2012. They could be right--but only if Obama begins delivering for those young people, something he has not yet begun to do. More importantly, Obama must do more than find them work if we are really to replay 1929-45: he must enlist them in a great crusade. And this in turn leads us to one of the most interesting aspects of Strauss and Howe's original theory.

Model builders are notoriously fond of trying to fit data into their model, whether it fits or not. Strauss and Howe defined four kinds of generations, Prophets (like Boomers), Nomads (Xers), Heroes (Millennials and GIs), and Artists (now represented by the Silent Generation--all of it past retirement age--and infant and toddler Homelanders.) They recognized two critical Hero generations in American history: the Republicans (Jefferson, Hamilton, Jay, Madison, Monroe, Marshall, and many more), and the GIs (every President from JFK to Bush I, and all their contemporaries.) But somehow, while writing Geenrations, they recognized that the model did not seem to fit the Civil War era. In the 70 years before the war broke out they found a huge Prophet generation, the Transcendentals, born from the early 1790s to the early 1820s; a Nomad Generation, the Gilded, born about 1822-41; and the Progressive Generation, which I would put at 1842-62. The Progressives, they decided, were being raised to be Heroes, but the Crisis came too soon and ended too quickly for them to play their proper role. Relatively few fought in the war, and the Gilded eclipsed them in the postwar world. Because Nomads like the Gilded and Gen X have no faith in institutions, the post-Civil War institutional structure of the US remained very weak--even weaker than it is now. The Progressives became Artists, focusing on making American society kinder, gentler, and more regulated. They were more effective at the local than the national level for a very long time. The same thing could happen to the Millennials.

So, twenty years from now, one of two things will have happened. On the one hand, we might have a new structure of financial regulation, heavily progressive taxation, and health care, and we might be relying on green energy for a substantial portion of our needs, allowing nations like Afghanistan and Iraq to return to the relative obscurity they so richly deserve. Barack Obama would rank as a great President, workers' rights would have made some gains, and higher education might even be starting a comeback. Or, on the other hand, we will still have armies of occupation in the Middle East; economic inequality will have grown; a nativist frenzy will have driven a significant number of immigrants out of the country; and the historical rehabilitation of George W. Bush will be well under way. Perhaps my generation, having been born into a world of such strong institutions, was simply destined to spend its energies overturning them. Or perhaps we can save them yet again. Like my inspiration Charles A. Beard in the 1930s, I have reached one definite conclusion: there are no laws of progress that humanity is destined to obey. Beard died shortly after my birth, utterly disillusioned with the world his contemporaries had made. Should Bush, rather than Obama, turn out to have been the critical crisis President, I shall be deeply disappointed, but I shall die with confidence that the rhythms of history will eventually turn back in the other direction once again. I am sure quite a few abolitionists born around 1800 died at 85 or 90 awfully disillusioned with what their contemporaries had wrought, too, but we know that the story was not yet over. Meanwhile, the battle continues.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

On the wrong paths?

Three issues, it seems to me, loom over the Obama Presidency just now, and on none of them, alas, does the President seem to have the initiative. One is the economy; the second, the oil spill; and the third, Afghanistan. At least two of them, in my opinion, require some revaluation of our assumptions, and it is not clear where it is going to come from.

The economic news remains decidedly mixed. Despite numerical evidence of recovery, the only job gains last month game from temporary hiring for the census (illustrating how badly we need more long-term government work programs), and retail sales just took a tumble. But the establishment, whom the President has trusted on economic issues from day 1 onward, has taken up the federal deficit as its principal cause, and the White House seems to think this is good politics too. It isn't. The average American knows the government is in debt but is far more concerned with having a job--see Reagan, Ronald, 1982-88. The Tea Partiers who are obsessed with the issue will never vote for the President anyway. The only way to solve the deficit problem in the long run is economic growth, including job growth, and for the time being that means more spending. But nothing obviously will be done about this until after the election, when we will face a new situation which we cannot foresee. Blanche Lincoln's narrow victory over labor-backed Bill Halter in Arkansas was a very sad day for the Democratic Party. A Halter victory, which he nearly achieved, could have convinced more Washington Democrats that they are far to the right of their constituencies, and had he won in November he could have re-invigorated progressive Democracy in the South. But it was not to be.

It was only last Tuesday, and quite by accident, that I stumbled on the real tragedy of the oil spill. I was on my weekly Tuesday night bike ride, which includes a guy who actually maintains oil storage tanks for a living. He and others in the know confirmed that a relief well, which will take months to drill, is the only real safeguard against a blowout and a massive leak like this one. And in Canada, I discovered--get this--oil companies have to drill a relief well right along with the original well. Why doesn't the President propose such a law for any new drilling in the future--and demand that current offshore wells start working on relief wells now, too? They could pay for it themselves--worthwhile insurance against the next environmental disaster--and it would have a job-creation effect. If ever the American people were willing to make some one spent more money to protected the environment, now is the time. [Note: sadly, it turns out that Canadian law is not that strict. Companies do not have to drill a relief well at the same time, but they have to pledge, when drilling in arctic regions, that they could do so within one season. BP recently tried to persuade Canada to rescind that requirement.

And in Afghanistan, the essential contradictions of our policy are bursting into the open every week or so. Earlier in the week the Times reported that American military authorities now concede that the Marja operation was not a success, and have given up plans for a major military offensive around Kandahar. Instead they foresee a big civilian effort to promote work and reconstruction (gee, why not bring that one home to the US), with the military in a supporting, protective role. The Taliban, inevitably, will target any Afghans who work with that effort, and make some bombing or rocket attacks on the Americans who show up. That news, however, paled in significance in comparison to today's Times lead, that reports that Hamid Karzai, like Ngo Dinh Diem a half century ago in South Vietnam, is losing touch with reality as he tries to reconcile his competing interests. On the one hand, he, like Diem, needs the US to stay in power; on the other hand, he can see that the huge American presence is doing him as much harm as good. In 1963, in the midst of the South Vietnamese Buddhist crisis, when an American claimed that South Vietnamese police had beaten up a couple of American reporters covering a demonstration, Diem said that actually the reporters had beaten up the police. Earlier this month, the Times reports, two senior Afghan officials were briefing Karzai about Taliban rocket attacks on the nationwide peace conference that he had convened, and according to one participant, Karzai replied that he thought the Americans were responsible. Two cabinet members promptly resigned.

In the fall of 1963 Diem and the Americans were so hostile that his brother Nhu spread rumors that he was thinking about making a deal with the Viet Cong and/or Ho Chi Minh himself. My own researchers never convinced me that those rumors were true, but now the same Times story says that Karzai is trying to strike a deal with Pakistan and the Taliban, and that his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has been meeting with Taliban leaders. Like Diem, Karzai is angry that the US questioned his legitimacy when he stole the election last summer, and he does not trust us to remain in Afghanistan. And like Diem, he has lost the confidence of some of his closest collaborators and may soon be relying almost exclusively on his own family. A recent piece by Steven Coll, a genuine authority on the region, in The New Yorker reaches a similar conclusion. Like several South Vietnamese governments, the Afghan leadership simply does not believe in a strategy of war to reduce the Taliban to insignificance or supplication.

The United States has never been good at admitting its mistakes--few nations are. The right wing has already built a myth that President Obama does nothing but apologize for America. He has already committed himself to a larger, although temporary, effort in Afghanistan, which he allowed civilian and military authorities to convince him might work, despite the objections of the American Ambassador. But if he sticks to that course the facts seem certain to catch up to him. Sadly, neither Secretary Clinton nor Secretary Gates looks likely to grasp this particular bull by the horns now. Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Outlets for ambition

During the 1980s I wrote an ambitious book called Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler. It appeared in 1990 and is still in print. It drew on most of the literature of European conflict from 1555 until roughly the outbreak of the Second World War, focusing on four periods of general warfare. I was primarily interested in what nations were fighting about in various different periods, but as the book developed, I also became interested in the political and even social functions of war in different periods. And at one point I broadened the discussion in some ways that help explain exactly where we have gotten today, and what we would have to do to get back on track.

The first two sections of the book dealt respectively with the years 1559-1659, dominated by conflicts between fairly undeveloped monarchies on the one hand and aristocracies on the other, and 1661-1715, when Louis XIV and his fellow monarchs brought war under their own control. Most of the eighteenth century did not figure in the book, largely because war, happily, was waged on a considerably smaller and less destructive scale, and thus did not disturb the progress of civilization. But a new era began in the early 1790s, when, as Clausewitz (who lived through it) argued a few decades later, the French Revolution enabled successive French governments, culminating in Napoleon's empire, to raise huge armies and wage war on an unprecedented scale.

Although the wars of 1791-1815 were extremely destructive, it was very exciting to write about that period, just as it was to live through it. Several different aspects of European politics, I argued, gave it its particular character. One was the spread of Enlightenment rationalism, which called older territorial and political arrangements into question and allowed Napoleon and his contemporaries to withdraw and simplify the European map. Another was the idea of "career open to talent," which allowed lesser nobles and even bourgeois to take part in the game of statesmanship. Napoleon was the most striking beneficiary of that trend, but he was not the only one. While Washington and Jefferson and Adams and Hamilton built and expanded a new Republic in North America and Bolivar began freeing South America, various Europeans acquired wealth, glory and distinction by leading armies, negotiating treaties, floating bond issues, and rewriting legal codes. They created the world of the nineteenth century, which endured, in many ways, until the First World War.

At the conclusion of my treatment of this period, I commented that war and politics had in the late eighteenth century become the arena in which ambitious young men tried to realize their goals. I added that the industrial revolution had come along rather fortuitously at just about this time in Britain, and not long after on the European continent, and had thus given ambitious young men a new outlet for their energies, one that could in fact be socially beneficial, rather than destructive. By and large, this was the nineteenth century's solution to the problem Abraham Lincoln identified when he was about thirty years old, in his remarkable speech at the Springfield Lyceum, in which he identified, if you will, the generational motor of history that was going to bring about the American civil war. Long-time readers will, I hope, forgive me if I quote the key passage once again. Here, in early 1838, he reviewed the founding of the Republic and forecast the future.

"That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one.--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 distains 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. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.

Here, then, is a probable case, highly dangerous, and such a one as could not have well existed heretofore.

Another reason which once was; but which, to the same extent, is now no more, has done much in maintaining our institutions thus far. I mean the powerful influence which the interesting scenes of the revolution had upon the passions of the people as distinguished from their judgment. By this influence, the jealousy, envy, and avarice, incident to our nature, and so common to a state of peace, prosperity, and conscious strength, were, for the time, in a great measure smothered and rendered inactive; while the deep-rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation. And thus, from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature, were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest cause--that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.

But this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with the circumstances that produced it.


As Lincoln predicted, his own generation decided to seek fame, fortune and distinction in freeing slaves or enslaving freemen. The post-civil war generation of Americans, named by Strauss and Howe the Missionary Generation, took up an entirely different task: the reform of the nation, and of the world. They certainly did not do so unanimously, and in the 1920s they abandoned that path, but they were ready when the crisis of the 1930s struck. The post-Second World War generation--the Boomers--have taken a completely different path--or rather, paths.

I do not mean to ignore the social achievements of my more liberal contemporaries. They had very little to do with the civil rights movement--indeed, the greatest successes of that movement and the beginnings of its very rapid decline coincided with our coming of age in the mid-1960s. But they had a great deal to do with securing women's rights and gay rights and, as I have often said, with encouraging people to take their own feelings seriously. Our parents' successes in the public sphere enabled us to focus on such questions. In the economic and public sphere, however, their contributions have been disastrous.

Not since the late nineteenth century have corporations pursued profit so irresponsibly as they do now. I feel oddly cut off from the oil spill in Louisiana because I almost never watch TV news, and therefore miss many of the media images that now dominate American life. But BP clearly took enormous, irresponsible risks, and a great deal has already emerged about how the federal agencies charged with regulating drilling have, like so many others, become the captives of the industries they are supposed to regulate. Energy derivatives seem to have enabled energy producers to bid prices higher, bleed more money out of the economy, and transfer more to the Middle East. And in the financial sphere, new generations have created the entire shadow banking system designed to escape the regulatory structure created in the 1930s and bring back every abuse they were designed to prevent, while inventing more of their own.

It is taking a long time to begin to understand exactly what they have managed to do, but I keep discovering tidbits. Recently an article in the New York Times explained, two years into our financial crisis, that credit default swaps are really a form of insurance--they guaranteed their holders a payment if certain assets lost their value. But because they were not recognized as insurance, those who sold them were not required, as insurance companies are, to maintain cash reserves sufficient to meet their potential obligations. More importantly, anyone can buy them--including people who do not own any of the obligations they insure. You cannot, for obvious reasons, bet on some one else's death or on the destruction of their house by fire, but you can now bet on the demise of a corporation or a sovereign government in which you have no stake. Indeed, Paul Volcker, in a Jeremiad in the current New York Review of Books, reports that credit default swaps reached the sum of $60 trillion, a "large multiple" of the assets they were supposed to insure. Think about that. What even the author of the Times piece failed to note was that the institutions that sold these trillions of dollars of swaps--such as AIG--were in effect insuring the whole economy, and in the nature of things could not possibly pay off in a severe recession.

Meanwhile, for thirty years at least, a steady drumbeat of Republican propaganda has undermined the very idea of governmental authority and convinced the American people that government exists to take money from the deserving and give it to the worthless. Simultaneously corporations have acquired a stranglehold on our political life unparalleled since the Gilded Age, when corporations at least built railroads, made iron and steel, and created modern retail establishments, instead of multiplying unregulated financial instruments. This is the situation which Barack Obama is called upon to face, and it is no wonder that his progress is uneven at best.

Following the oil crisis, however, I have certainly noticed another aspect of modern American life that threatens to lay us even lower. It is not Obama's fault, obviously, that a well was drilled in mile-deep water without any proven procedures, as far as I can tell, for dealing with a blow-out and a gigantic leakage. Something similar happened off the Mexican coast in 1979, as Rachel Maddow showed us all at length (some one pointed that out to me), and then as now, only relief wells that took months to drill actually brought the leak to an end. There are no quick solutions. So the President--and, even more, his staff--are reduced to trying to project the right emotions--to show the American people that he shares their anger. The Presidential sound bites that reach the public, at any rate, consistently emphasize, first, that the government is in charge, and secondly, that he is very angry with BP.

There is, surely, much to be angry about, but I find the contrast with Franklin Roosevelt depressing. FDR did from time to time express anger at "malefactors of great wealth" and political opponents, but he led the nation through the Depression, the crisis of 1940-1 and the war not by sharing his feelings, but by telling the nation what its problems were and what we were going to do about them. He belonged to a generation of doers, not spinmeisters, as the bridges, schools, and international institutions they built still show. Barack Obama instinctively seeks consensus. Even now I am not sure that he believes that the nation is fundamentally on the wrong track and needs to move in a new direction. There is no consensus--on the contrary--about more regulation of energy, or about a vast expansion of alternative energy sources, or about the government's role in health care, or, really, about any major issue before us. We need him to create one. We need him to show that a modern President can be more, much more, than William Jefferson Clinton or George W. Bush. If he cannot, then any improvements we can make in the nation's lives will be local, small-scale, and inadequate for many years to come.

Stereo 411