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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Warring over reality

Over the past week I have noticed several signs of an emerging Republican strategy to try to turn Iraq, as well as 9/11, to their advantage yet again. Blogs and talk-show hosts (led by Rush Limbaugh, whom I caught recently) are pushing it; Republican politicians may not have to follow along. Essentially, it goes like this:

1. The war in Iraq is actually going well.

2. The liberal media only print bad news because they hate President Bush.

3. Anyone who has decided that the war is going badly has been taken in by the liberal media. (Rush said that in so many words to a basically friendly caller who expressed doubts about the war.)

It has become clear that a significant portion of the population (although far from a majority) believes a good deal of this and will not have their minds changed by anything that happens. I noted my impression from two weeks ago that the media is, in fact, terrified of being blamed for the loss of the war, and this may make the strategy easier to execute. Meanwhile, the President himself has announced that those who oppose warrantless wiretaps don’t want a terrorist surveillance program, and this seems sure to be a leading argument in this fall’s elections. And he has already created the new “metric” based upon which the Administration plans to claim success—that Iraqi security forces have taken over responsibility for more than half the country. (Unfortunately, it will be the largely unpopulated half.)

As a reality check, let me make a list of stories that would constitute good news from Iraq—but which are not appearing.

1. A decrease in total number of insurgent attacks. (Incidentally, while US deaths have fallen significantly over the last month or so, severe wounds have made up for a good deal of the slack.)

2. A decrease in the deaths from sectarian violence, which is steadily increasing.

3. The arrest and disarmament of religious militias.

4. An increase (rather than the continuing decreases) in oil production, electric power, and the availability of drinking water.

5. A renewed ability by reporters to move unescorted about the country (which, a piece in the current New York Review of Books tells us, has become harder and harder since late 2003.)

6. The formation of a government (it has been three months since the election.)

7. The agreement of the major factions on some peaceful partition of the country (which increasingly seems to be the only way out.)

8. The capture of Al-Zarqawi. (While I doubt it would hurt the insurgency significantly, if at all, it would testify to some improvement in intelligence.

What is actually happening in Iraq is instead more disturbing nearly every day. To begin with, it emerged early last week that President Bush had conveyed to Prime Minister Al-Jaffari, through Ambassador Khalizad, that he should abandon his post to facilitate the formation of a national unity government. This proof that we refuse to accept the outcome of the democratic processes we insituted has generated extraordinarily little attention, even after Scott McClellan issued a standard non-denial denial of it. But even more disturbing was something that I found yesterday on the blog Baghdad Burning, by a young Sunni Iraqi woman living in the capital. Moving from channel to channel on her tv one night last week, she saw an announcement from the Ministry of Defense. “The Ministry of Defense," it read, "requests that civilians do not comply with the orders of the army or police on nightly patrols unless they are accompanied by coalition forces working in that area.” The two channels closely allied to the ruling Shi'ite parties did not carry this announcement; other channels did. The blogger and her family agreed that the instruction was worse than useless, since security forces tended to arrive heavily armed and did what they wanted.

Following up on this item, I spent the last ten minutes trying to identify the current Iraqi minister of defense, but I could not not find it in various web searches. Prime Minister Al-Jaffari was the acting Defense Minister in the government announced last May, but the news item I found reporting that said that the position was expected to go to a Sunni. I could not find a single story since last May that would provide further clarification (and would appreciate any that anyone can give me.) The position is, of course, up for grabs again in the new government.

In any case, to use the analogy I used a few years ago, this directive would have been similar to a directive in the late winter of 1933 from German President Hindenburg's office, telling the German people not to obey SA men deputized to assist state police forces who showed up at their homes. The Iraqi security forces (and, to judge from the announcement, perhaps parts of the Army as well) are acting without higher authority.

The idea that we cannot now afford to give up in Iraq is another common wartime fallacy, very familiar, of course, from Vietnam. As I argued last week, war is too risky a business to insist upon victory at any cost. It’s a throw of the dice and the player should be ready for any outcome. And indeed, Clausewitz himself argued that the cost of any war must continually be weighed against its potential benefits. “Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by the political object,” he wrote, “the value of this object must determine the sacrifices made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.” That was the view of one of our civilization’s supreme rationalists, who knew all too well how hard it is for human beings to apply it in practice, even when continuing the war cannot possibly bring any new benefits.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Yet more information warfare

Today the President gave a press conference. The brief NPR report I heard driving home from a two-day trip did not do it justice. I have been listening to it, while waiting for my own appearance on C-SPAN, and reading the transcript. The President, who seemed extraordinarily upbeat and energetic, filibustered, and had the following interesting exchange with Helen Thomas.

Q I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet -- your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil -- quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

THE PRESIDENT: I think your premise -- in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- is that -- I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect --

Q Everything --

THE PRESIDENT: Hold on for a second, please.

Q -- everything I've heard --

THE PRESIDENT: Excuse me, excuse me. No President wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true. My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We -- when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I'm never going to forget it. And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.

Part of that meant to make sure that we didn't allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that's why I went into Iraq -- hold on for a second --

Q They didn't do anything to you, or to our country.

THE PRESIDENT: Look -- excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where al Qaeda trained --

Q I'm talking about Iraq --

THE PRESIDENT: Helen, excuse me. That's where -- Afghanistan provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where they trained. That's where they plotted. That's where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans.

I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the Security Council; that's why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences --

Q -- go to war --

THE PRESIDENT: -- and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it.

I am deeply disturbed that, once again, no other reporter asked him to justify that last answer, since we now know that Saddam Hussein had, in fact, nothing to disclose.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Gambling on War

It has become very clear that the war in Iraq has not, to put it mildly, turned out as anticipated, any more than the Vietnam War did 40 years ago. And gradually we are learning more and more about the particular miscalculations that have led to this growing catastrophe: the slanting of intelligence, the insane trust in a few Iraqi émigrés of questionable reputation, and the repeated refusal by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to listen to the professional diplomats, military officers, and intelligence analysts who had spent their lives trying to understand the key issues involved. They deserve to be held accountable, but we should not be too facile in our criticisms—least of all those that suggest that a better outcome was readily available. Even in today’s faith-based age, we cherish the illusion that enough information and enough planning can bring any enterprise to a successful conclusion; but no outcome is harder to predict in advance than the outcome of a war. That, indeed, was one of the most important but most often neglected insights of the great Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who surely ranks with Tocqueville (and, in my opinion, above Karl Marx) as one of the greatest thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century. Like Tocqueville, who saw democracy as the wave of the future but realized that it could not guarantee healthy or virtuous societies, Clausewitz understood that he could only lay out possibilities, not certainties, because wars were far too complex both militarily and politically to count upon any outcome. That in itself is a tremendously powerful lesson, but unfortunately, it has proven almost impossible for American political leaders to assimilate for very long.

Clausewitz’s classic On War is long and difficult, and it truly requires many years of study to assimilate, but the reader gradually realizes that certain fundamental principles, as well as a few specific questions, pervade it. Many people know his concept of “friction” and the “fog of war,” which makes battles so devilishly hard to understand and requires extraordinary qualities of mind and spirit for generals on the scene to unravel. This is an insight that has survived modern technology, as the repeated attempts to kill Saddam Hussein with air strikes—none of which, we now know, actually aimed at one of his many real hiding places—recently proved. A battle is like a football game, and just as difficult to predict. Generations of military historians—most notably those unhappy partisans of the Confederate States of America—have tried to stand this principle on its head by rewriting the outcome of every critical battle of the civil war to show how it could (or should) have turned out differently. Gettysburg would have been a Confederate victory and perhaps a war-winner as well, if Jeb Stuart hadn’t deserted Lee on the eve of the battle, or if Lee had ordered a further attack on the night of July 1, or if Longstreet had attacked earlier on July 2nd, or. . . But such analyses pretend that all the luck could, in fact, be on one side—something that seems to have happened perhaps once in modern military history, when the Germans attacked the French and British on May 10, 1940. Every side in every campaign and every battle makes mistakes, and battles are usually decided either by a vast preponderance of forces (the way in which the Allies won the Second World War), or by luck.

Certainly in Iraq the United States enjoyed a vast preponderance of firepower, if not of actual numerical forces; but here we came across another of Clausewitz’s basic principles—really the idea of friction raised to the strategic and political level. War, he wrote famously, is an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will—but that means, as he obviously understood better than anyone, that we must count upon the enemy, not ourselves, to acknowledge our victory. Victory has only been secured when the enemy gives up and makes peace. Even then, he wrote, the result is almost never final—the defeated state often looks forward to resuming the conflict in more favorable circumstances. But even leaving that inescapable conclusion aside, the political aspect of war, as the United States has now found yet again, makes it too chancy a business to undertake, really, except in the most exceptional of circumstances.

Again and again in On War Clausewitz analyzes the various campaigns of Napoleon, whom he fought against in Prussia in 1806, in Russia in 1812 and in Germany and France in 1813-4. Napoleon, he noted, compelled the Austrians to make peace twice, in 1805 and in 1809, by winning great battles (Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805, Wagram in 1809) and occupying Vienna, their capital. In 1807 he compelled peace with Prussia and Russia in much the same way. In 1808 he moved into Spain and easily deposed the Bourbon monarchy, but the Spaniards began a national uprising—what we would call today a war of national liberation—that he could not subdue. And most importantly of all, Napoleon in 1812 led his largest army into Russia in another attempt to subdue a hostile power. Aiming as he did at Russia’s complete submission, Clausewitz argues repeatedly, Napoleon carried out the campaign correctly, seeking battle with the Russian Army, defeating (though not destroying) it, and occupying the capital, Moscow. But the Russian Tsar refused to make peace and the Russian people refused to abandon him—and Napoleon had no choice but to retreat in the middle of winter, his flanks threatened at every turn, finally emerging with only a small fraction of his army intact. What did this prove? Clausewitz obviously wrestled with this question for years, and his conclusion emerges after several readings of On War: nothing. One could not, in advance, predict that the Austrians would tamely give way in 1805 and 1809, while the Russians in 1812 would not. Only by running the experiment could one find the answer—and Napoleon’s failure in 1812 left him vulnerable, for the first time, to complete defeat.

History, of course, is riddled with such examples. One of the closest parallels to our recent Iraq war occurred in 1914, when the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, provoked by a spectacular act of state-sponsored terrorism—the assassination of its heir apparent by Serbian military intelligence—decided that Serbia had to be crushed once and for all. The initial Austrian attack on Serbia in 1914 failed dismally, but German troops successfully conquered the country in 1915. Meanwhile, however, Vienna had triggered a European and world War, and in 1918 Austria-Hungary collapsed completely as a result. Hitler in 1940 managed to break the French Republic with an extraordinarily swift campaign—really a case of “shock and awe”—but in the following year, when he attempted to repeat the same triumph against the Soviet Union, the Soviet people stood solidly behind Stalin, and within six months Germany was locked in a death struggle against a much larger and better-armed foe. Japan, having begun war with Russia in 1904 with a surprise attack on a Russian fleet and concluded it successfully a year and a half later with the help of U.S. mediation, intended in 1941 to turn essentially the same trick in reverse. It didn’t work.

In retrospect it has been very easy to suggest that the United States never had much chance in Vietnam, and I myself have argued in American Tragedy that we had ample evidence that the political basis for what we wanted to achieve did not exist. Yet surely no one could have foreseen with certainty that North Vietnam could endure such massive firepower and take such enormous losses without ever seriously considering giving in. North Korea apparently had wearied of the war it had begun by early 1951, but China, backed by Stalin, insisted on continuing the conflict until mid-1953. In Vietnam the Soviets would have far preferred that the war would never have taken place and the Chinese—fervent supporters at the outset—eventually wearied of it, but North Vietnam never wavered.

In retrospect we can see numerous danger signs in Iraq—indeed, their presence in 1991 persuaded the more cautious Administration of Bush I to confine its aims to liberating Kuwait. The Kurds and Shi’ites had clearly suffered heavily under Saddam’s rule and would expect to prosper from his fall. The well-organized Ba’ath party could easily provide the nucleus for resistance. Yet no one could be sure, until the invasion took place, how the Iraqis would react—and indeed, for the first few months, things looked fairly promising. Unfortunately, the Sunnis staged their own version of a national uprising, one with which we lacked the forces to cope, and the Shi’ites have become more and more militant themselves. Both sides are receiving important help from allies like Saudi Arabia and Iran—another development which, Clausewitz noted, could easily alter the outcome of a war that already seemed to be over.

To wise leaders, the inescapable uncertainty of war should militate against embarking upon it unless it is absolutely necessary—which neither Vietnam nor Iraq in 2003 was. Reinforcing this point, Clausewitz also argued repeatedly that defense was the stronger form of warfare, both tactically (since the defender need not move and fire at the same time), and strategically, since the attacked party was more likely to secure the help of allies who recognized a common interest in the survival of sovereign states. The United States implicitly recognized that principle after defeating Axis aggression in the Second World War and wrote it into the UN Charter, which authorized war only in self-defense. It enjoyed considerable allied assistance in the Korean War—another clear case of enemy aggression. But Vietnam never seemed like such a clear-cut case of aggression because South Vietnam was always so fragile, and most of the world rejected the “preventive war” argument over Iraq—in large part because other nations understood that the idea of national sovereignty simply cannot be reconciled with the concept of preventive war. By going on the offense, the United States forfeited a huge strategic advantage. It should not be too late to regain it, but the genie is out of the bottle in Iraq, and more damage, apparently, will be done.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Two Eras, Two Wars

I spent Friday and Saturday participating in a conference at the JFK Library in Boston on Presidents and Vietnam. My own contribution was a presentation on what John Kennedy’s presidential tapes showed about his Vietnam policies, and I pointed out, as I did in my book American Tragedy, that he had repeatedly refused during 1961 to put large numbers of American troops into either Laos or South Vietnam. (Interested readers can watch the whole conference in a few weeks on C-Span.) But the conference was notable in many ways as a tenuous link between two Americas—the world of the 1960s and the world of today.

Friday was devoted to two historical panels and a keynote address by David Halberstam, but Saturday moved on to a different plane. After a taped interview with former President Carter, Saturday’s first panel featured four surviving representatives of the Administrations in question: Theodore Sorensen, vigorous although nearly blind; Jack Valenti, who left the Johnson White House in 1966; Henry Kissinger; and Al Haig. The contrast between their presentations and ours was, to say the least, rather striking, and questions from the historians to the participants didn’t get very far in closing the gaps between them. On Friday Jeffrey Kimball, who has written the two most thorough books about Nixon and Vietnam, presented impressive evidence that Kissinger and Nixon in 1971-2 were indeed thinking in terms of a “decent interval” between an American withdrawal and a probable Communist victory. Kimball on Saturday passed Kissinger a question about a well-documented nuclear alert that Nixon ordered in October 1969, when he was also planning a massive escalation of the war code-named “Duck Hook.” Using the technique which Robert McNamara confessed to in The Fog of War, Kissinger answered the question he wished he had gotten, and stressed that Duck Hook had never been executed. That was true, but the nuclear alert was executed, and he ignored that part of the question. Kissinger also refused to apologize for anything he had done, saying that one had to agree that all through the war, “serious men” were making serious decisions, and thus, apparently, should enjoy immunity from any deeper questions about their motives or their judgment. Both Kissinger and Haig blamed the American people for the loss of South Vietnam. I remarked to Kimball at a break that it a frustration of doing our kind of contemporary history that no matter how thorough and accurate one managed to be, many living people would never accept one's conclusions. He agreed.

It occurred to me as I listened, not for the first time, that in one sense, Americans like me must put up with these kinds of retrospectives from our leaders. The weekend struck a nostalgic note for me, because my childhood homes were full of the great and the near-great, since my father had spent his career among them. I enjoyed stepping back into that life, but it was not one that I ever wanted for myself. The career of a historian frees one’s judgment, but those who pursue it, I think, should try to conserve some grudging respect for those who, for whatever reason, are willing to assume and exercise power. Our own unwillingness to do so limits, in a sense, our freedom to complain—although that hardly means, as Dr. Kissinger seemed to be saying, that power confers immunity from any analysis of one’s motives.

But the subsequent panels were more interesting from another point of view. The next one focused upon the media and included three Vietnam correspondents: Steve Bell of ABC News, Frances Fitzgerald, and Dan Rather. All of them described the extraordinary autonomy they enjoyed in those days, when digitizing had not been invented, satellites were in their infancy, and even telephone calls home were too expensive to make very often. They had the time and the autonomy to develop stories of their own, and they tended to be analytical because their pieces would not appear for days or even weeks. Rather in particular stressed that today’s reporters have become performers who often work from a script dispatched from the United States. Brian Williams kindly asked them the question I passed them: “It sounds as though in those days, reporters had to think. Now they aren’t allowed to.” Although Rather immediately tried to stand up for contemporary reporters, both of them essentially confirmed my thought.

The final panel included four veterans: retired general and once and perhaps future Presidential candidate Wesley Clark, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert (who served in Korea, not Vietnam, during that era), and Pete Peterson, who spent six and a half years as an Air Force POW in Hanoi and later became our first Ambassador to a united Vietnam. They made an extraordinary impression upon the packed house and drew repeated rounds of applause. All of them, in various ways, directly addressed what Brian Williams called “the elephant in the room,” the war in Iraq, and confirmed that we were, indeed, making many of the same mistakes. Clark revealed that within ten days after September 11, 2001, friends of his within the Pentagon had told him that the Administration was determined to go to war in Iraq. Hagel said that he voted for the war only under the assumption that it would be the last resort. Peterson, in perhaps the most moving of the conference, angrily attacked the Administration’s disregard of the Geneva Convention, which he believed might well have saved his and his fellow prisoners’ lives. No one wanted to say directly that we had made an even worse strategic mistake in Iraq—and it should be noted that our casualties in three years of war there have not reached the level of the first six months of full-scale war in South Vietnam—but all made that point to varying degrees.

There were, however, several interesting and in a way disturbing aspects to the criticism. None of the panelists wanted to mention any names of current policy makers, least of all those of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. And the media panelists, as well as John Burns of the New York Times, who was back on a visit from Iraq and whom Brian Williams invited to say a few words, showed an almost desperate determination to avoid a reprise of the accusation that the press had lost the war in Vietnam, even as they denied (quite rightly in my opinion) that that was true. Everyone spoke warmly and repeatedly about the valor and idealism of our troops in Iraq—qualities that are very real, but which, in Iraq as in Vietnam, become sadly irrelevant when the national leadership has made a basic strategic mistake. (Recently I heard indirectly that New York Times editors do not allow their reporters to make specific analogies between Vietnam and Iraq—reminding me of Paul Krugman’s revelation to Terri Gross that during the 2000 campaign, his editors refused to allow him to use the word “lie” in reference to statements by candidate Bush.) And no one had the courage or, in my case, the presence of mind, to ask the last panel if they were confident that the current Administration would not now make war on Iran.

But what was most disturbing to me as I sat in the audience yesterday, paradoxically, was the calm confidence expressed by all four panelists—including Senator Hagel—that the electoral process would take care of our problems within a relatively short time and get the country back on track. All of them seemed to believe that the American people would decisively repudiate the policies of the men and women they declined to name later this year and again in 2008, and that centrist government would resume. Yet this morning, before I sat down to write this piece, I found evidence in my New York Times of how optimistic these hopes might be. I had stepped for two days into a kind of parallel universe, almost a time-capsule, whose inhabitants—yes, even Henry Kissinger and Al Haig—struck me indeed, as “serious” people with enough judgment to keep the United States essentially on track, even if they collaborated in the absolutely useless prolongation of the Vietnam war for another four years and more then 20,000 killed in action. They felt the world was still their world, but I was not so sure.

As Chuck Hagel mentioned, he had chosen to attend our conference in preference to a conclave of Republicans and potential Republican candidates like himself in Tennessee. And there, as I read, the Republican hopefuls, from John McCain on down, lavishly praised the President and his foreign policy to the skies, even though a few of them (such as Governor Romney of Massachusetts) had the extraordinary temerity to raise the issue of increasing federal budget deficits. “We must keep our presidential ambitions a distant second to standing with the President of the United States,” McCain said. “Anybody who says the president of the United States was lying about weapons of mass destruction is lying.” Senator Bill Frist bragged that his successful intimidation of the Democrats had secured the presence of John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court—where, I fear, they may well bless the Administration’s disregard of the Geneva Convention. “Thank heavens we have a president who recognizes the extent of this threat,” Romney said, regarding terrorism. “Thank heavens the president recognizes the greatest ally peace has on this planet is a strong United States.” Only Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas dared invoke the names of Ronald Reagan and the elder President Bush in preference to the incumbent (tempting me to invoke the title of the recent movie that included the governor’s name.)

The panelists yesterday, to quote a famous, anonymous White House staffer whom one day will be identified, I feel sure, as Karl Rove, belonged to “the reality-based community,” but the most reliable and best-organized political bloc in the United States today, still amounting to perhaps 40% of the electorate or more, remains devoted to what President Bush stands for. The President’s leadership in the war on terror will probably remain a key Republican campaign plank this year, and it is not clear how many Democrats will dare to stand up against him on this issue. And even if, as I think is actually quite likely, the Democrats can regain at least one house of Congress this fall, their triumph may be only temporary. I was even more disturbed by another piece of intelligence I gathered from some leading Democrats—that Hillary Clinton already has most of the biggest Democratic campaign contributors behind her, and will almost surely capture the Democratic nomination. Nearly all my friends agree that she is on the one hand too polarizing to win, and on the other, too frantically centrist (especially on foreign policy and the war) to count on for the drastic re-orientation of our foreign policy that we need. But no one, apparently, is likely to persuade her that the country needs her to forego this opportunity. On the whole, I believe that anyone who watched the conference on C-Span will come away with a better feeling about the United States and what we are still capable of; but they will still wonder, to paraphrase a poem I have already quoted here, whether the best have enough conviction to overcome the passionate intensity of the worst.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Economic Trends

When I first became reading the news carefully in the early 1960s (largely because I was living outside the United States), economic news received far more emphasis than it did today. The middle aged and elderly men who wrote and published the news and ran the government in those days had all lived through the Depression and its terrible consequences as adults and put the highest priority upon making sure that nothing similar happened again. Presidents and their advisers carefully tried to balance the budget, although Democrats had adopted the idea that relatively small deficits--say, around one per cent of gross domestic product, such as the Kenendy Adminstration ran in that period--might contribute to reducing unemployment without threatening inflation. The stability of the dollar and other currencies also remained a major pre-occupation, and the dollar remained convertible into gold until 1967. The first major crack in the edifice of national fiscal responsibility grew out of the Vietnam War, in this as in so many other ways a pivotal episode in our history. The deficit reached 2% of GDP by 1968, and Lyndon Johnson responsibly insisted on raising taxes to reduce it, balancing the budget (no doubt with the help of a little creative accounting) in 1969. President Nixon, however, let the surtax lapse, and the deficit was back up to 2% of GNP in 1972. Inflation, meanwhile, which had been kept under control in the early 1960s, had taken off, and the United Staes had a current account deficit.

Partisan though it may sound, it really is no exaggeration to say that our history since then has been one of Republican profligacy, balanced by intermittent bouts of Democratic restraint. The deficit had reached more than 4% of GNP by 1976, but Jimmy Carter had it below 2% by 1979 (it rose again to 2.6 % in 1980.) Ronald Reagan, of course, broke all records for irresponsibilty. His deficits averaged 5% of GNP for the four middle years of his Adminstration, although the Graham-Rudman-Hollings Act managed to reduce them to 3% by the end of his second term. Things got worse again in the second half of George H. W. Bush's Administration, and the deficit reached almost 5% of GDP despite Bush's courageous (and politically disastrous) renunciation of his "no new taxes" pledge. But Bill Clinton raised the top tax rates again in 1993--carrying the proposal by a single vote in the House of Representatives--and bowed to the budget-cutting will of the Republican Congress after 1994. The deficit as a percentage shrunk from 3.9% in 1993 to .3% in 1997, and the country actually ran a surplus for the next four years, one that peaked at more than 2% in fiscal 2000. The national debt, as a percentage of GDP, had fallen from a high of 67& of GDP in 1996 to just 57% in 2001. Then came the advent of the new Republican majority.

By this time, of course, the GI generation had gone into retirement, and only a few men and women in their late 60s or 70s still remembered the Depression, when they had been very small children. Postwar children like President Bush had never known or even seen real widespread economic hardship, but they had been repeating the mantras of low taxes and smaller government for at least twenty years. Their tax cuts, as I showed in a post more than a year ago, had a catastrophic and continuing effect on the federal budget. The federal budget has gone from a 2% surplus in 2000 to deficits of 3.5%, 3.6%,and 2.6% in the last three fiscal years, and it is projected to go to 3.3% in the current one. Despite Republican propaganda there is absolutely no doubt that the Bush tax cuts are completely responsible for this. Federal expenditures, as a per cent of GDP, have gone up slightly, from 18.5% in 2000 to 20.1% lst year, but receipts have fallen far more, from 19.8% to 16.3% in the first three years of the Bush Administration (before recovering slightly this year.) The national debt is exploding, rising from a low of 57% to 64% in the last five years, and projected to hit an all-time record of 67.5% of GDP in two years.

The national debt statistic is perhaps the most interesting barometer of our national level of economic responsibility. The debt substantially exceeded GDP for the years 1945-7, but then saw its percentage of GDP fall steadily for thirty years, reaching a low of 33.6% in 1974. (The absolute debt, of course, continued to grow, but the economy grew much faster.) After a big rise in the next few years, Jimmy Carter had cut it back to 32% before leaving office. Then came the deluge. The national debt as a percentage of GDP doubled during twelve years of Republican rule from 33% in 1981 to 66% in 1993. It fell to 57.4% at the end of the Clinto years but, as noted, is projected to hit an all time record in fiscal 2007.

The second Bush Administration has had an even more amazing impact on our trade deficit. Their economists have done their best to conceal this particularly impact of their policies. The figures in the last two paragraphs comparing budget deficits and national debt as percentages of annual GDP all came from the current economic report of the President, but no such tables have been published to give some idea of the relative importance of the trade deficit, and I have had to do those calculations myself. Once again we see that Republican rule has destroyed the United States' competitive position, although in this case the Clinton Administration has to take a lot of the blame as well--probably because of NAFTA. Until the Reagan years the United States had never run a current account deficit of as much as 1% of GDP. The Reagan "recovery" after 1983 coincided, of course, with the beginning of the de-industrialization of America, and the current account deficit reached 3.4% of GDP by 1987. . The fall in oil prices, presumably, began to fix the problem after that, and with the help (again) of a recession, Bush I eliminated the current account deficit in 1991. But it recovered and reached about half of the Reagan-era record in the mid-1990s before exploding in the last Clinton years to reach 4.2% in 2000. Once again a recession reduced it, but only to 3.8% in 2001, and since then it has steadily increased to a new record of 5.7% of GDP in 2004, the last year for which figures are available.

All this is also reflected in our foreign indebtedness, for which the Administration has only released figures beginning in 1997. At that time, our net foreign indebtedness--that is, the surplus of foreign claims on the US over our claims overseas--was about 10% of GDP. It increased to 14% of GDP in 2000 and has been around 20% of GDP for each of the last four years. And this, of course, has caused the dollar to lose about 30% of its value relative to the Euro during the same period.

One further check of the figures has revealed a rather extraordinary discrepancy which I wish someone would explain. With the deficit and national debt exploding, one would expect that government interest payments would be taking up a bigger share of the federal budget. That has not, however, been happening according to Bush Adminstration figures. Net interest payments were 15% of the federal budget in the mid-1990s and had fallen to 11.1% in 2001. They have continued to fall ever since, according to the figures, all the way to 7% in 2004, although they are projected to rise to 9% by 2007. As an amateur economist I don't see how this could be, and I would appreciate any explanation.

This has been a long and detailed post and may not appeal to some of my usual readers. However, I find numbers relaxing from time to time, and I believe these tell a very important story. Paying some attention to national accounts is, as we shall soon discover, one of the costs of citizenship. Undoubtedly figures on the behavior of individual Americans would tell a similarly frightening story as regards debt, and we may have to pay for that too. And in any case, the relative lack of interest in such figures today, as opposed to 40 years ago, is another indication of what has happened to us, and what is likely to happen in the future. Our parents and grandparents had learned the hard way that economic behavior has consequences, and in our youth they protected us accordingly. Few Boomers have ever had to face that fact first hand. The consequences, I think, cannot long be delayed, and they will be serious. It is our children, armed with computers and spreadsheets like the ones I've been using for the last couple of hours, who will make careers analyzing and correcting the next economic catastrophe. While I don't know what it will be, I suspect that it cannot be avoided. In economics as in foreign policy, the Bush Administration will be studied carefully for many years--but not for its successes.