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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What does the future hold?

I had hoped to be posting this weekend on a new book, The Promise, by my old friend and one-time student Jonathan Alter, but the book is so thorough and moves at such a relaxed pace (something I am enjoying, actually), that that will have to wait. It is really a portrait of the modern Democratic elite, composed both of my contemporaries and those about a decade younger (like Alter himself), and it does explain a lot about the failure of liberalism in the era of Boomer leadership, but I shall have to get further to have too much to say about it. Meanwhile I have been pondering the future in the wake of the elections, and particularly the role of the Tea Party, and although it is much too early to make any definite predictions, I would like to put forward a hypothesis as to what their role might be.

While the Tea Party undoubtedly benefited enormously from generous corporate support, it represents an authentic grass-roots movement, driven by fear, anger, and resentment. Much of it genuinely opposes the Republican establishment as well as the whole Democratic Party, and a terrible battle is brewing within the Republican Party to determine whether the nominee in 2012 will be Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin. (I would give Palin at least an even chance at this point.) The Tea Party is now strong enough in the House of Representatives to make real legislative trouble for the federal government, and a story in today's New York Times indicates that the new chief House investigator, Darrell Issa, plans extensive investigations of federal bureaucracies to uncover waste. The Tea Party is also rumored to contain powerful isolationist elements (led by Rand Paul, its leading Senate infiltrator) who might actually want to reduce the US role around the world. How far is this likely to go?

The answer, in my opinion, is not very far, at least with respect to actual results. The Tea Party is actually the first Boomer-led political movement since the protests against the Vietnam War (as opposed to social movements like the women's and gay rights movements), and is therefore long on outrage and vision and short on specifics. Its vision repudiates the last 80 years, if not the last century, of American history. And thinking about comparable movements in other lands, I am reminded on the one hand of the Parisian sans culottes during the French Revolution, and the German artisan movement during the revolution of 1848--two more or less radical groups defending what they saw as their way of life, who left relatively little imprint upon history.

The sans culottes represented the Parisian mob in the early 1790s. They hated aristocrats and thus initially were the shock troops of the middle-class Jacobins, led by Robespierre, but they were not really in sympathy with the Enlightenment or the modern world. Being artisans and urban workers themselves, they distrusted capitalist enterprise, which was in its infancy in France, and free markets. Their biggest economic demand was for a "just price" of bread. Like Tea Partiers, they wanted direct democracy. The German artisans in 1848 were in a similar position: they wanted political rights, but they also wanted to stop the march of free markets and capitalism that was going to destroy their way of life, and the middle class professionals in the Frankfurt Parliament that was trying to unify Germany shunned them.

The Tea Party, it seems to me, is in a comparable state of denial about the modern world. Big government remains a necessity, not an aberration. As their own equivocations show (see for example this exchange between Rand Paul and Eliot Spitzer), they have no plan actually to cut the federal budget significantly because they cannot significantly reduce the entitlements upon which their older supporters defend. They will be no more successful than the moribund left in reducing our presence abroad. And Palin herself, with her eye on the White House, is most unlikely to favor anything that would actually make corporate America--including the big banks--very angry. And thus, I predict, the Tea Party will have a fate similar to that of the Sans Culottes, whose leaders were guillotined by the Jacobins early in 1794, not long before Robespierre's own fall signalled the end of the radical phase of the French Revolution. They, like the radical Republicans in the late 1860s and early 1870s, will eventually be defeated without achieving their goals, and this in turn will mark the forging of a new American political consensus, one likely to last for a couple of decades.

Because the Tea Party can only offer investigation, rants and obstruction during the next two years, it is very likely to discredit itself. The Republican leadership in the House and Senate--which has pandered to the Tea Party without, for the most part, actually embracing it--is leery of a replay of the government shutdowns of the Gingrich era, which helped Bill Clinton on his way to re-election. There may be shutdowns all the same, but the leadership, I think, will be forced to bring them to an end fairly quickly. I expect some federal workers to be laid off and I expect my salary to be frozen--an equitable decision in itself, although less equitable since there are no comparable checks on the compensation of the Wall Street traders who got us into this mess. The government will obviously make no new efforts to create jobs, unemployment benefits may be allowed to lapse, and certain important infrastructure projects may well be cancelled. There will also be a renewed conservative onslaught on social issues in states like Kansas which are now totally in Republican hands. But although the Bush tax cuts now seem certain to be renewed in their entirety, the George W. Bush Administration pushed the tax cut frenzy about as far as it can go for the foreseeable future. Their achievement was, from their point of view a remarkable one. The great fortunes they created will dominate our political system for many years to come. They indeed shifted the political center even further to the right than Ronald Reagan did, and we Boomers will live with the effects of that change for the rest of our lives. But I suspect that as a practical matter, the conservative revolution has run its course, and the Tea Party will be disappointed.

The discrediting of the Tea Party will parallel the final discrediting of New Deal liberalism that has taken place over the last two years. Barack Obama has been a very moderate reformer (a subject for a later post), but Republican propaganda and the election results have now convinced the mainstream media (e.g. David Brooks) that he was too liberal for the American people. To judge from the way the White House is caving in on the tax cut issue, he himself may have reached this conclusion himself. In our last national crisis the New Deal initially discredited the extreme right, but the postwar reaction beginning in 1946 then discredited much of the Left, which had allied during the war with the Communist Party of the United States. We now seem ready to see the same drama played out in reverse. Liberalism seems ready to be proclaimed dead; the most militant conservatives will have to be sacrificed to create the new consensus--the consensus which, ironically, Barack Obama dreamed of recreating. His wish may yet come true.

Indeed, it is possible that in 2017, Barack Obama will leave office having played the role of the new U.S. Grant or Dwight Eisenhower, the man who actually put many of our partisan struggles behind us. That will be even more likely if Sarah Palin wins the Republican nomination and loses, as I am inclined to think she probably would. That in turn would spur the Republicans to become somewhat more respectable as well. None of this will be especially good for America. Unemployment will remain at levels that would never have been tolerated between 1946 and 1980; inequality will continue to increase; and the Millennial generation will have a very tough time establishing itself in secure employment. We will also, quite probably, remain mired in the Middle East. To judge from the post-civil war example, it could well be another thirty years before Congress seriously addresses the nation's real problems again. (Some states, in all likelihood, will revive activist government sooner than others.) But this is, as Strauss and Howe postulated, the rhythm of history. Liberalism seems to have lost this round of our great national struggles, and a period of quiet will be needed before battle lines can be redrawn and the struggle can resume with some hope of success. Let us hope that new foreign or domestic catastrophes will not usher in a further period of militance, which is likely to benefit the right once again.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Looking for civic virtue

Now that the election is over we have to face the reality of what it means. Having spent the last two years pursuing maximum feasible obstruction, the Republicans in Congress now have the possibility of making things much worse. Early indications suggest that they will do so. Senator John Kyl of Arizona has suddenly decided to pull the plug on the START Treaty with Russia, which calls both for deep cuts and for inspections, claiming that the Obama Administration hasn't shown enough commitment to modernization of our nuclear forces (on which the Administration is willing to spend $10 billion a year!) or to missile defense, one sacred Republican cow that the President has been willing at least to downgrade. This has brought outrage from older Republicans like Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Richard Lugar, but not, as far as I can see, from a single Republican Boomer politician. In fact this obviously seems to reflect the broader strategy, already enunciated by minority leader Mitch McConnell, of denying the President any successes at all in order to doom any hope of his re-election. As such it represents perhaps the most irresponsible foreign policy stance of my adult lifetime.

Once again some history is in order. Harry Truman and the Democrats in 1946 suffered a Congressional defeat even more devastating than this one, since they lost the Senate as well as the House. So low was Truman's personal standing that a Democrat, Senator J. William Fulbright, publicly suggested that Truman appoint a Republican Secretary of State--who would under existing law be next in line for the White House--and resign. The election had turned on domestic issues, led by inflation, a reaction against organized labor, and, among the Republican base, a chance at long last to take on the New Deal without the intimidating presence of Franklin Roosevelt. Overseas, however, trouble was looming in Europe, where a hard winter was crippling already devastated economies and Communist parties were growing in strength. Several days after the election Truman held a press conference. Here was his opening statement.

THE PRESIDENT. [1.] Gentlemen, I have a statement for you, which I will read to you. Then it will be handed to you in mimeographed form as soon as the conference is over.

"The American people have elected a Republican majority to the Senate and to the House of Representatives. Under our Constitution the Congress is the law-making body. The people have chosen to entrust the controlling voice in this branch of our Government to the Republican party. I accept their verdict in the spirit which all good citizens accept the result of any fair election.

"At the same time, and under the same Constitution, the duties and responsibilities of the Chief Executive and the executive branch of the Government are entrusted to me and my associates.

"Our Government is founded upon the constitutional principle that the three branches of the Government are independent of each other. Under this principle our country has prospered and grown great. I should be less than candid, however, if I omitted to state that the present situation threatens serious difficulties.

"Only by the exercise of wisdom and restraint and the constant determination to place the interests of our country above all other interests, can we meet and solve the problems ahead of us.

"The stake is large. Our great internal strength and our eminent position in the world are not, as some may too easily assume, indestructible.

"I shall devote all my energy to the discharge of my duty with a full realization of the responsibility which results from the present state of affairs. I do not claim for myself and my associates greater devotion to the welfare of our Nation than I ascribe to others of another party. We take the same oath of office. We have at one time or another been equally willing to offer our lives in the defense of our country. I shall proceed, therefore, in the belief that the members of the Congress will discharge their duties with a full realization of their responsibility.

"Inevitably, issues will arise between the President and the Congress. When this occurs, we must examine our respective positions with stern and critical analysis to exclude any attempt to tamper with the public interest in order to achieve personal or partisan advantage.

"The change in the majority in the Congress does not alter our domestic or foreign interests or problems. In foreign affairs we have a well-charted course to follow. Our foreign policy has been developed and executed on a bi-partisan basis. I have done my best to strengthen and extend this practice. Members of both parties in and out of the Congress have participated in the inner council in preparing, and in actually carrying out, the foreign policies of our Government. It has been a national and not a party program. It will continue to be a national program in so far as the Secretary of State and I are concerned. I firmly believe that our Republican colleagues who have worked intelligently and cooperatively with us in the past will continue to do so in the future.

"My concern is not about those in either party who know the seriousness of the problems which confront us in our foreign affairs. Those who share great problems are united and not divided by them. My concern is lest any in either party should seek in this field an opportunity to achieve personal notoriety or partisan advantage by exploitation of the sensational or by the mere creation of controversy.

"We are set upon a hard course. An effort by either the executive or the legislative branch of the Government to embarrass the other for partisan gain would bring frustration to our country. To follow the course with honor to ourselves and with benefit to our country, we must look beyond and above ourselves and our party interests for the true bearing.

"As President of the United States, I am guided by a simple formula: to do in all cases, from day to day, without regard to narrow political considerations, what seems to me to be best for the welfare of all our people. Our search for that welfare must always be based upon a progressive concept of government.

"I shall cooperate in every proper manner with members of the Congress, and my hope and prayer is that this spirit of cooperation will be reciprocated.

"To them, one and all, I pledge faith with faith, and a promise to meet good will with good will."

It is sufficiently depressing, I think, to imagine President Obama making a similar statement or taking the time to read it on camera. Our sound-bite culture, alas, does not seem to allow for such a pungent, yet thorough, exploration of the difficulties before us. Truman, not known for his eloquence, struck the right note. But what is even more remarkable is that it worked.

The Republicans carried out their wish to put a dent in the New Deal. In particular, they passed the Taft-Hartley Law, rolling back significant labor gains and forcing Communists out of leadership positions in unions, over Truman's veto. The Republican led House Un-American Activities Committee kicked off the purge of Hollywood and exposed Alger Hiss, making the careeer of freshman Congressman Richard Nixon. But that same Congress passed the Truman doctrine in the spring of 1947 and, more critically, the Marshall Plan a year later. Bipartisan foreign policy became a fairly settled principle, and in fact, American cold war strategy was rarely more sensible than in the years from 1947 to 1950.

It is against this background that Republican threats against the START Treaty are so depressing. To reject it will in effect repudiate our own obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty--specifically, to work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons--just when we are trying to keep it alive vis-a-vis Iran. This morning I heard that Senator McConnell had called for the extension of the Bush tax cuts as a top priority, and perhaps the Administration can make a deal to cave in on that front--as it evidently intends to do--in exchange for ratification. Yet I am not hopeful. The Republican leadership seems determined to make the government as unworkable as possible for as long as a Democrat remains in the White House.

Friday, November 12, 2010

. . .and Woodward Rides Again

I have now finished Bob Woodward's latest real-time account of American diplomacy, policy and strategy, Obama's Wars,, covering the Obama Administration's first eighteen months, during which time it decided eventually to increase the American troop commitment to Afghanistan by more than 30,000 men. It was far more interesting than I had expected from various reviews, and in many ways far more depressing. As we all know by now, Woodward, who began as investigative reporter trolling among the lesser employees of the Committee to Re-elect the President in 1972, has for decades made his living printing whatever powerful men and women would tell him. This time his major sources evidently included Lt. General Douglas Lute, whom George W. Bush appointed as his czar for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and who stayed on at the NSC; Tom Donilon, a former political aide with foreign credentials who served as Deputy National Security Adviser under retired General James Jones and has now replaced Jones; either Vice President Biden, or someone very close to him; General Cartwright, the Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Richard Holbrooke, who would almost surely have been Secretary of State under Hillary Clinton and who is now the special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some of these people have provided Woodward extraordinarily detailed accounts of high-level meetings including President Obama--the kind of accounts which historians like myself normally have to wait 25 or 30 years to see. Had I the time, I suspect I could write at least fifty pages about this book and its various implications, but I do not. I'm going to confine myself, as I often say in the lecture hall, to about five main points.

The essential drama running through the book from Obama's inauguration to one year ago, when he announced the deployment of between 30,000 and 33,000 troops to Afghanistan, involves a polite but determined struggle between the President and the Pentagon to shape the next decade, really, of American foreign policy in Central Asia and, because of the stakes involved, in the entire world. Initially, both General Stanley McChrystal, who had just taken over in Afghanistan, and his more famous superior General Petraeus, then the CENTCOM Commander fresh from his relatively successful tour in Iraq, wanted to repeat what they continually refer to as the successful counterinsurgency operation in Iraq with 40,000 additional troops and an open-ended commitment. The Taliban, they argued in effect, had to be "defeated" because of its previous connection with Al Queda, and because a Taliban victory would embolden jihad all over the world. From the very beginning of the discussion, President Obama accepted the need to change the deteriorating balance of power in Afghanistan. In an early meeting he asked whether anyone favored complete withdrawal, and no one, sadly, did. But at the same time, the President was determined not to make an open-ended commitment to the Taliban's complete defeat, set unrealistic targets for the build-up of Afghan security forces, or find himself in an ever-larger war when the next Presidential election rolled around in 2012. He would not go as far as his Vice President, Joe Biden, who wanted relatively small fores designed merely to seek out and kill Al Queda operatives and Taliban fighters, but he repeatedly clashed with the military as well. And the final mission statement, which he wrote himself and which Woodward reproduces, makes all this clear and insists that in the middle of 2011--that is, about seven months from now--the United States will be discussing how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan and, in theory, what territory can now be given to Afghan security forces. Yet Woodward provides ample evidence that our military leadership, including General Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, never took this seriously. As soon as the decision was made they began trying to deprive it of all meaning by arguing that any withdrawals would have to be based on conditions on the scene, that is, on progress, and they have continued to do so in the last six months. Now the Administration itself is suddenly shifting the critical date three years forward,, to 2014. Is progress likely in either time frame?

Neither the President or, I am sorry to say, any of his top advisers seem to be willing to admit what the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan really is, and what options it actually leads the government of the United States. In order to talk himself into this decision, persuaded himself that 30,000 more troops could have some significant positive impact over the next eighteen months. Petraeus does not seem to harbor any such illusions. He has made his name and, indeed, saved the reputation of the U.S. Army by writing the new Field Manual on Counterinsurgency and supposedly implementing it successfully in Iraq. Yet given his own assumptions, repeatedly reported by Woodward and elsewhere, I as a historian who has been studying these issues for many years would seriously question whether what Petraeus has done and is now doing counts as "counterinsurgency" at all. That is because the United States has been, and remains, a foreign occupier, and because nothing that we do will be lasting if it does not securely establish a client regime in power.

The very idea of "counterinsurgency" implies, to me, an insurgent threat to an existing government which that government has to meet. Thus, Chiang Kai-Shek in the early 1930s in China carried out very successful counterinsurgency against Mao Zedong's Communist forces and drove them into a remote corner of the land, only to come to grief later after the war with Japan had totally transformed the balance of power. The British, a colonial power in Malaya, carried out a successful counterinsurgency against a small rebel group in the 1950s, and the Philippine government did the same. The El Salvadorean counterinsurgency in the 1980s, which relied on US material aid and advice, fought Marxist insurgents to a standstill and then wisely reached a settlement with them--even though I have been told by officers involved in that effort that the government never really reduced the rebels' strength. Those situations are not analogous to post-invasion Iraq or Afghanistan, however, at all, because in those cases the United States wiped out the existing government and had to try to build a new one. We have had only very modest success along those lines in Iraq (except in Kurdistan) and the government crisis there, which has now lasted the better part of a year, is not hopeful. We have had even less success in Afghanistan. What Petraeux managed to make happen in Iraq was a relatively successful occupation by American forces who made some key local alliances and managed to root out the worst insurgents and stand up some Iraqi forces of very uneven quality. We have not however left Iraq and it is not clear when the remaining 50,000 or so troops will do so. Our occupation of Afghanistan, now finishing its ninth year, was not large enough to be remotely successful, and Petraeus and McChrystal never promised to secure the whole country even with their maximum requests. They argue, however, without much evidence, that they can establish enough security for a strong Afghan government to come forward. That was our goal in South Vietnam as well and it seemed to have been largely achieved in 1971, but we had not, as it turned out, created a South Vietnamese government that could face the military threat from the North or the political threat from the Viet Cong. Local political forces decided the issue, just as they will in Iraq and Afghanistan. As in South Vietnam, we can only prevent the Taliban from coming to power in much of Afghanistan (though probably not all) if we remain there with large forces indefinitely. Some military leaders, to judge from Petraeus's much-quoted statement that we will leave these wars to our children, seem to believe that we will. What no one, throughout this whole book, was quoted as saying was that to do so would surely exacerbate the very problem we are trying to combat. This is the first major point I want to make.

Whether we admit it or not, the United States is clearly trying at this point to do at least two things: to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, and to prevent the spread of militant Islam anywhere the world. (A third objective established by President Bush--the destruction of any hostile Islamic state that poses a conventional or potentially military threat to American interests and allies--has been put on the back burner for the moment, but could easily return to the top of the list with respect to Iran.) We shall take up the question of terrorist attacks in the US in a moment. What seems obvious, meanwhile, is that the presence of American military forces in the heart of the Muslim world has consistently fueled Jihad, not moderated it. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have been magnets for young Jihadis, just as Afghanistan was when the Soviets occupied it thirty years ago. Millions of Muslims--literally--will never accept the long-term American occupation of Muslim nations. The Taliban has become larger, more militant and better organized in response to our presence, as General McChrystal's initial 2009 assessment of the situation recognized. The obvious person to have raised this issue within the Obama Administration, it seems to me, is Secretary of State Clinton, but she evidently buys the argument that we must show resolve in Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel, and she also commented in one meeting that we had to stay in Afghanistan partly for the sake of women's rights. In fact, thinking over the experience of reading the book, I am not sure that the policy makers included a single person who qualifies as a genuine expert in the Muslim world and who might have made this obvious point. Although Administration figures from Obama on down differ on exactly how many Americans we need in Afghanistan, they all implicitly accept the idea that we can fight Jihad with exactly the kind of American-backed client governments that Jihadis resent the most.

The question of terrorist attacks on the United States emerges in the latter part of the book as critical, after the failure of two attacks, the Christmas day airplane shoe-bomber and the Times Square bomber, both of whose devices fortunately failed to function. The former was apparently trained in Yemen, the latter in Pakistan. And Pakistan, as responsible American officials do understand, is both the refuge of Osama Bin Laden at the moment, and the place where Al Queda is training young men with US or European passports to commit attacks in the West. Several people do mention during this book that it seems unlikely that Al Queda would ever return to Afghanistan, since they seem to be so much safer where they are. Yet the Administration persists in regarding Pakistan as our ally, and in believing, as is detailed at length in the book, that a mixture of very generous aid (billions of dollars annually) and avuncular tough talk can make the Pakistanis do something about it. Only a few of the bolder second-level Americans ever dare state the obvious: that Pakistan does not, taken as a whole, want to do anything about this problem. We have similar illusions with regard to Afghan politics and Afghan leadership, but I will leave those for another day.

Pakistan, to be sure, is not united on this point--but the most powerful institution in Pakistan seems to be the Inter-Service Intelligence Agency, ISI, which has long maintained close contacts with the Taliban in Afghanistan, with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group that carried out the Mumbai attack in India, and with other terrorist groups--including, at least at one time, Al Queda itself. They seem to be playing a role similar to that of the Black Hand, the secret organization within Serbian military intelligence before 1914 that organized the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and triggered the First World war. It is very clear, although it is only obliquely acknowledged in Woodward's book, that the ISI and the Pakistani government want the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan. That is one reason they allow them to operate in safe havens on their side of the border and it may be why they do not stop attacks that have destroyed a number of American convoys supplying our troops over the roads from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Exactly why the Pakistanis cannot stop the training of terrorist who want to kill Europeans and Americans is less clear. It seems at least possible that some of the ISI shares the whole Jihadist agenda. Faced with this situation, the leadership of the American government continues to hope that Pakistan, facing the threat to itself, will turn over a new leaf. But the threat the Pakistani government worries about the most is India, and it is convinced, indeed, that our protege Hamid Karzai is a tool of Indian intelligence, as well as of the United States.

Incredibly, Pakistan for ten years now has managed to play footsie with both of the major antagonists in the war on terror, Al Queda and the United States. I have argued here repeatedly that it would behoove us to face reality and offer the Pakistanis a simple deal: we will disinterest ourselves in Afghanistan if they will hand over Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and the rest of the Al Queda leadership. Instead Woodward makes very clear that a time bomb is ticking right now. Within another year, I predict, another western citizen trained in Pakistan will successfully carry out a significant attack in the US, killing dozens or hundreds of people. At that point, we are poised to strike as many as 150 targets inside nuclear armed Pakistan. If we do, I think almost anything is possible in return, including nuclear terrorism. Barack Obama, weakened as he is by the election and new setbacks abroad, will probably have to do something rather spectacular if an attack succeeds. The alternative of telling the American people now that we cannot prevent such attacks, and will probably have to live with one as the British, Spanish, and Indians have, seems not to be on the table.

I was appalled to learn, in fact, that General Jones had actually told the Pakistani President that Obama would have to respond because of political pressure in the United States. That, however, was only one of many incidents suggesting that a Democratic President--even one elected with a substantial majority like Barack Obama--cannot afford to follow his own instincts in foreign policy for fear of being branded a wimp. This came out frequently in the narrative. Republican Senators like John McCain and Lindsay Graham think nothing of telling senior military leaders like Petraeus to try to force Obama to do what they think is best. Obama was dissuaded from cutting back further on the Pentagon's troop request by the threat that Secretary Gates, the Bush holdover whom he had asked to stay on (and still wants to remain as long as possible), might resign if he did. No Democratic President, CIA director Leon Panetta remarks at one point, can afford to take on the Pentagon. It is almost as if one of the most critical provisions of our Constitution, that making the President commander in chief of the Armed Forces, does not apply when a Democrat is in the White House. Obama himself played to this appalling state of affairs at least once, telling Lindsay Graham that he had to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2011 not because the country needed it, but because "I can't lose the whole Democratic Party." The idea that Democrats like myself might simply be right is, apparently, unmentionable.

The book's heroes include several second-level officials. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired general now in Afghanistan, tried in a leaked cable (which I believe I commented on at the time) to warn Washington that Hamid Karzai would never change to the extent necessary to make our Afghan dreams come true. I am adding to this post on Sunday evening, and it has already provoked a comment claiming there is no analogy between Afghanistan and Vietnam, but it is wrong. Any intervention of this type is ultimately hostage to our local clients, and Karzai and his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai bear an almost uncanny resemblance to Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu, who were equally unable to stem the rebel tide. President Karzai's interview this weekend calling for a smaller and less aggressive American presence perfectly echoes what Nhu was saying during 1963. John O. Brennan, the NSC deputy for counterterrorism (the post once held by Richard Clarke), evidently understands that what we are doing in Afghanistan cannot possibly help him prevent terrorist attacks on the US. But as in 1964-5 under LBJ, the senior "principals", with the exception of Biden (another parallel), backed the expanded effort. I have often remarked that nearly ever ambitious person eventually reaches a level at which he is no longer paid to think. I'm glad I've never gotten there.

Which brings us to Barack Obama the man. This is, surely, the most detailed account we have yet of Obama as President, and it was not reassuring for me. He is highly intelligent and has some good instincts, but he is, above all, a consensus builder who strives to reconcile the consensus with his own views--sometimes at the expense of reality. And in foreign policy as in economic policy, he is obviously a centrist who trusts expert advice. Given the domestic and foreign policy innovations that George Bush had put through in his eight years in office, that meant that Obama was not going to try to undo them and get us on a truly new path. He is, sadly, handling the Bush legacy the way Dwight Eisenhower handled the legacy of Roosevelt and Truman. Today's newspapers report that the White House is going to cave in on the extension of all the Bush tax cuts. The President's own deficit commission has released a draft report that is almost incredibly conservative, and very dangerous. Obama now presides over an America that has moved very far from the right, and he has repeatedly proven that he has no plans to do very much about that.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Where do we go from here?

For the past 16 years the United States has been in a bloodless civil war, parallel in many ways to the shorter, far more violent one during the 1860s. Millions of Americans have questioned the legitimacy of each of our last three Presidents. The Republicans have helped create a vast media establishment that daily trumpets the idea that Democrats are not real Americans. They have also adopted the idea that the federal government has become the enemy of the American people. During the last few years they have begun to propagate a new view of American history--new at least in the mainstream--which attempts to repudiate all the major developments in American government since the presidency of William McKinley. The Republicans have purged nearly all the moderates from their ranks, while the voters, last Tuesday, purged a great many moderates from those of the Democrats. Very few wars run smoothly from beginning to end, and in 2006-8, the Republicans lost the initiative and suffered significant setbacks. This in no way altered their campaign plan, however, and they have now regained the initiative and have a significant chance of coming back into power throughout the government in 2012. And all the while, they have become more and more detached from reality--and that, more than anything else, makes it very difficult to predict what is going to happen during the next two years.

Rush Limbaugh--one of the real victors last Tuesday--raised some eyebrows early in 2009 when he announced that he wanted President Obama to fail, but given his priorities, he could hardly have done otherwise. The modern Republican Party of which he is a critical part cares about one thing and one thing only: winning elections. To do so it will shut its eyes to any unpleasant reality and take advantage of any popular resentment. Since Newt Gingrich's famous memo back in the early 1990s, it has shamelessly used its own form of Newspeak to characterize everything the Democrats try to do. Republicans now routinely reform to Obama's watered-down, insurance-industry approved health care plan as "a government takeover of health care." Obama, they say, launched his political career in Bill Ayres's home. From there it is a small step to the tacit approval of the idea that Obama is a Muslim or a non-citizen. And of course, the Republicans never stop railing about the deficits that their own tax cuts have been creating at every opportunity since 1981. The biggest reason why I simply cannot believe in the sincerity of the Tea Party is this: if they truly cared about balanced budgets, Bill Clinton would be their favorite President. He is not.

The Republican strategy has worked brilliantly, on the whole, by redefining our political agenda and skewing our debate. When one spends so much time reporting or debating fantasies, there's no time left to focus on reality. I suspect the number of Americans who could identify Monica Lewinsky is far higher than the number who could accurately remember the state of the federal budget in 2000. The media, including the few outlets that can fairly be described as liberal, spend the most space on extreme Tea Party candidates. Who got more ink this fall, Christine O'Donnell, who never had a chance to be elected, or Russ Feingold, a long-time Senator? Why does Sarah Palin get more attention than all the rest of the Republican hopefuls combined? Because she is obviously unqualified to sit in the White House.

Republican enthusiasm has several sources. I pointed out six years ago that the Republican coalition includes the losers in the two previous crises in our national life: white southerners and corporate interests. (It is interesting that the corporate interests continue to prefer Republicans even though their control over Democratic officeholders is nearly as absolute.) Sadly, whole generations of white southerners have grown up since the civil rights movement who still seem to resent the ignominy it cast on their region--all the more so, of course, because they deserved it. A bad conscience remains one of the most powerful historical forces in human life. Meanwhile, the corporate elite has benefited almost unbelievably from the tax cuts and deregulation that began under Reagan, and seems to want even more. Their huge fortunes, combined with the Citizens United decision, have given them unprecedented power over political campaigns. Their money was used this fall to arouse resentment, above all against Barack Obama, our first black President, and Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in American political history. And it worked. The Republicans have also drawn, of course, on the revival of religious faith, although that part of the coalition seems to be declining somewhat in importance at the moment. And the Republicans have made substantial gains among my own Boom generation, which seems to be worried about its entitlements and unable to grasp that the Democrats not only put those entitlements in place but have a far better record of standing up for them.

The Democratic response to the Republican onslaught has been disappointing in the extreme. Democratic politicians have criticized Republicans--especially President Bush and Vice President Cheney--but have made no parallel, systematic attempt to demonize them. More seriously, from their point of view, they have offered no serious alternatives on the policy front, with the sole exception, for which they get no credit, of fiscal responsibility. (The deficit has, of course, increased under Barack Obama, but that is because of the economic crisis he inherited. Those wishing to understand the actual source of the deficit should go back a couple of posts.) As I wrote last week, they are just as much under the control, effectively, of the financial services industry, the communications giants, the food industry, and the health care industry as the Republicans. Because their coalition still contains a few genuine New Dealers like myself and because they theoretically believe in government reform, they spent the last two years passing bills claiming to reform health care and the financial services industry, but they were completely unable (and in the latter case unwilling) to do anything serious. Obama and his closest advisers also accepted free-market orthodoxy with respect to their response to the great recession, eschewing serious efforts to reduce mortgage foreclosures or raise employment, and thus incurred the wrath of the electorate, as they will again in critical states in 2012 if nothing much has improved. The Democrats are the party of the establishment, and establishment solutions are not working. Last Sunday I heard Curtis Roosevelt, FDR's grandson and a good amateur historian, confirm that FDR never trusted establishment wisdom and insisted on results. Obama, alas, is a different matter.

The best data I have found to illustrate what actually happened last Tuesday is a summary of exit poll data on House races provided by the New York Times. I urge all readers to look at it, and in particular, to check "Size bars according to population of groups" in the box at the left. The graph breaks down Republican and Democratic votes along various demographic lines, including race, gender, and income. To begin with, Republicans made large gains, usually 10-20%, this fall in every single category. They wiped out the gender gap among women, leaving the Democrats just 1% ahead in female votes, while increasing their share of the male vote 36% relative to what it was in the 2008 Congressional elections. (To be clear, a 36% increase in their vote meant about an 18% increase in their share of those voters.) They even increased their black vote by 7% their hispanic vote by 8%, and their Asian by 18%, and won 60% of the whites, where they enjoyed a narrow majority last time. They increased their vote in every income category, although the Democrats held on to narrow leads in voters from households making $50,000 or less. Even more stunning was the actual makeup of the electorate. Two thirds of the voters were at least 45 years of age, and these older voters went heavily Republican. As measured by these polls the electorate was about 80% white--that's right, 80%. The combination of relentless Republican propaganda and Administration failure on the economic front has turned significant numbers of every demographic against the White House. Those who felt their economic situation had improved or stayed the same voted The handwriting is on the wall for 2012. A plurality of those polls counted themselves as tea party supporters.

We have every reason to believe that Republican strategy will remain the same for the next two years. Mitch McConnell has already stated that his first priority is to make Obama a one-term President. Hannity and Limbaugh are trumpeting the need to continue the fight (and Limbaugh, interestingly enough, spent much of the Wednesday broadcasts complaining that establishment Republicans hadn't done enough to help Sharon Angle in Nevada or O'Donnell in Delaware.) I would not be surprised to see a House committee begin an investigation of President Obama's early life and career, complete with subpoenas to the state of Hawaii asking for his birth certificate and to Bill Ayres and Jeremiah Wright to explain their views and their nefarious influence upon him. Such tactics would be no less frivolous than those they applied against the Clintons. And the media, enthralled by such spectacles, never bothers to point out that they make the actual government of the United States impossible.

Meanwhile, the United States has real problems which only the government can solve. We shall have no more stimulus packages for at least the next two years, which will mean that unemployment will remain high (quite possibly contributing to more Republican electoral success next time) and that our infrastructure will continue to deteriorate. Any chance of actually reducing dependence upon fossil fuels, as the entire rest of the industrialized world has been doing for decades, is gone for the foreseeable future--a catastrophe whether one believes in global warming or not. Health care reform will either be cut back or, quite possibly, struck down by the Supreme Court, where Republican ideology is now in the ascendancy. That means health care will drain more and more money from the economy.

The question right now is whether the Tea Party freshmen and their allies like Senator Jim DeMint, the new John C. Calhoun, will actually be able to bring the federal government to a halt. This is not at all impossible. No money can be spent henceforth without the consent of the Republican House, which will have to authorize large increases in the debt limit. Perhaps the House leadership will be able to appease them by finding token programs to cut, but that is unlikely to work very long. We face a crisis, as Germany and the United States did in 1931-2, because we have effectively ruled out the only possible solutions to very real problems. Popular rage will increase without any evident hope of drawing any effective response to those problems.

Perhaps the best hope, at least from the standpoint of the stability of the United States, is for a coalition of some establishment Republicans and Democrats to agree on absolutely essential measures like increasing the debt limit, just as they did, eventually, on the TARP program in 2008. But as I read those words myself, it is clear that such an approach is exactly what McConnell and DeMint, at least--and probably John Boehner as well--want to avoid. They remember that that is what Newt Gingrich did in 1995-6, leading to the re-election of Bill Clinton. They do not want Barack Obama to become known as a successful bipartisan President; they want to keep the image of him as a proto-totalitarian alive. The establishment media will tend to assume that they will work with the President because it seems so eminently sensible--but that is not what drives these Republicans. While they have nothing to offer at a policy level, they are totally serious about validating their propaganda and winning it all. They will also receive all the personal reinforcement they need from their own constituencies and their own media outlets.

Democratic strategists believed after 2008 that demographic trends would keep them in power for a long time. That prediction looks rather shaky today. The youth vote did not turn out in force. Hispanics apparently saved Harry Reid and Michael Bennet in Colorado, but not several Democratic Congressmen in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. Meanwhile, the coming redistribution of House seats will put at least ten more in the Sun Belt. The President's chances of once again carrying Indiana, Ohio, or even Pennsylvania appear to have taken a big hit, and his prospects in Virginia, Florida and North Carolina look even worse.

I have followed the trend of the campaign and totally ignored foreign policy, but it is, if not an elephant, at least a camel lurking in the living room corner. The President will undoubtedly be tempted to put more of his energy into it, even though he can no longer travel outside the country without the Drudge Report headlining outrageous estimates of the hourly cost of his trips. Already, however, the Israeli press is predicting that the Republican revival will make the Administration more pro-Israel. And what will happen when a Times Square bomber succeeds, which only seems to be a matter of time? Then the President will face an unpleasant choice between reacting appropriately and being blasted as weak or pro-terrorist, reacting with large-scale strikes against Pakistan and bringing the threat of nuclear terrorism infinitely closer. That, however, will be the subject for another post.

Lastly July I speculated that our great crisis had actually begun in 2000 with the stolen election, and that President Bush, not President Obama, had shaped the new America. At this point I think the Republican Party could easily make that prediction come true by adopting the even more centrist positions, especially on deficit reduction, that the President also seems ready for. With liberalism's favorite projects already dead (financial regulation) or dying (health care reform), we could have a new consensus on small government and high unemployment, and our politics might calm down. Yet the Republicans, like their radical counterparts after 1866, do not seem ready for this. They want to continue trampling Democrats and their ideas into the dust. And since we have had no great war, this time there is no General Grant or General Eisenhower on the horizon to provide at least the appearance of consensus. These will be testing times indeed for American democracy.

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