The latest issue of The New York Review of Books arrived today, and I immediately sat down to read the third installment of Mark Danner's long piece about Donald Rumsfled, Errol Morris's documentary about him, and the Iraq War. Unfortunately I can't link it for you because it's for subscribers only, but I'm hoping Danner plans to publish the whole series as a book.The events he described are only a decade old, but they seem much further away. Barack Obama came to office determined to put the epic battles among Boomers behind us, and in some ways he has managed to do so. It is rather striking how little attention we pay to the utterly disastrous eight-year tenure of George W. Bush, even though, from where I sit, it created the world we now live in just as surely as Franklin Roosevelt's had created the world into which I was born in 1947. In the dedication of my new book I thank Roosevelt's generation for the world they left me. I do not think anyone will ever write a similar dedication to George W. Bush--certainly not in 2078, 69 years after he will have left office.
Every generation, alas, takes its parents and grandparents achievements for granted. Thirty years ago psychologists expected young men and women to parent their children the way they were parented. It is now clear that they were far more wrong than right: parents much more commonly focus on giving their children what they did not get, while assuming that their own inheritance will pass on like magic. GI parents generally focused on providing their Boomer children with the material abundance they lacked, and were shocked when their children found themselves without a moral compass and had to look for their own. Today, Gen X parents obsessively watch over their children's every move, the exact opposite of the style of the Silent generation, who were too busy in the 1960s and 1970s discovering individual freedom in midlife to worry about what their children were doing at all. As it is with families, so it is, alas, with nations.
The Bush Administration stated its view of history in its infamous national security strategy of 2002, a blueprint for a new world. "For most of the twentieth century," it read, "the world
was divided by a great struggle over ideas: destructive
totalitarian visions versus freedom and equality.
That great struggle is over. The militant visions
of class, nation, and race which promised utopia
and delivered misery have been defeated and
discredited. America is now threatened less by
conquering states than we are by failing ones.
We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by
catastrophic technologies in the hands of the
embittered few.We must defeat these threats to
our Nation, allies, and friends." Yes, it was true: by 2002 liberal capitalist democracy was still standing, while both Fascism and Communism were nearly completely consigned to the dustbin of history. Unfortunately, the neoconservatives believed in a kind of capitalist Marxism: they regarded this development as an inevitable product of history, not a great achievement of several generations of Americans and western Europeans, much of which was already eroding away. That was the only way that they believed--as Danner reminds us--that a quick invasion of Iraq, followed by an immediate American withdrawal, could produce a western-style democracy with limited government and low taxes. In fact, Iraq--and, we now know, much of the Middle East as well--was seething with sectarian conflicts that would make the establishment of a stable democracy impossible. The Middle East now looks more like Europe in the first half of the 16th century than Europe and America in the 20th.
The process that created the world into which both George W. Bush and myself were born had begun several centuries earlier, based on the idea that human reason could transform human affairs. That insight was at least as important as the idea of the rights of man in creating the modern world. It could, and was, applied by authoritarian governments like the Prussian monarchy and Napoleon's empire as well as by more democratic ones. And it was enshrined in our Constitution, with its injunction to "promote the common defense and provide the general welfare," as well as the authorization to pass any laws "necessary and proper" for the carrying out of the essential functions of government. What was far more important, however, as the nineteenth century progressed and turned into the twentieth, was the shared belief in human reason and science as the source of truth. That was so generally established by the 1930s that Franklin Roosevelt stressed the need to supplement science with moral values, to make sure it served the true needs of mankind. That is what he tried to do.
Last week I watched the new, two-hour American Experience about the year 1964--the year that Strauss and Howe identified, correctly, as the beginning of the last Awakening in American life. Although the show included some rather over-the-top Boomer academics, I thought it was generally excellent, because it was about new ideas emerging on both the left and the right to destroy the postwar consensus. The Beatles, the Mississippi Summer freedom project, the Berkeley protests that began that fall and The Feminine Mystique spoke for the Left; the Goldwater campaign spoke for the right. And as Theodore H. White hypothesized in a remarkable passage in The Making of the President 1964, the Goldwater campaign was in the long run perhaps the most important political development of the year. Certainly Phyllis Schlafly and Richard Viguerie glowed with pride as they remembered the beginnings of the movement that made them so successful--and that did so much to undo the Enlightenment vision of a world ordered by reason.
By the time of the invasion of Iraq, the United States had been stripping away the modern state for more than twenty years. That showed in the way the invasion was carried out--with ludicrous assumptions, as Morris shows, substituting for the massive forces (probably at least half a million men) that would have been needed to establish order in most of a country of 25 million people. The Bush Administration would believe anything to make its dreams come true, and it tried to sponsor Achmed Chalabi, who is widely thought to have been an Iranian intelligence agent, as the new Iraqi leader, only to find that he had no traction. Anwar Al-Maliki has turned out to be a reliable Iranian ally as well.
Danner remarks at one point that the Bush Administration threw away the American people's reflexive support for foreign wars. That in fact had been ebbing since Vietnam, and Bush senior only revived it briefly in 1990-1 by carefully limiting his objectives. In any case, our withdrawal was inevitable. We no longer call upon the mass of our young people for foreign wars--just or unjust--and we have now raised two generations who know little or nothing about the history of foreign relations or the role that war has played in shaping the world. That is another legacy of the Boom generation, which banished those topics from the historical curriculum. The Middle East will now have to look after itself.
John Kerry, born late in 1943, is now showing a real example of old-time statesmanship. He struck the deal to destroy Syria's chemical weapons and he is trying--almost certainly in vain--to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He is, like me, an Ivy League graduate from the 1960s, the son of a diplomat, and a vetaran of the Army (although my service did not involve any combat, as his did.) He knows what being Secretary of State is about--and I think he is showing that his predecessor didn't. Alas, our Gen X President, who sadly has shown no real aptitude for or interest in diplomacy, is probably much more representative of what lies ahead. Reason no longer anchors our domestic politics, or world politics. That will have many consequences.