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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Politics still rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main central organ of the lobby is, of course, AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has 100,000 members, 20 regional and satellite offices, a $47 million annual budget and a large staff devoted largely to lobbying effective officials and propagating its message. AIPAC does not contribute to candidates but, Massing shows, it steers candidates to contributors and vica verca. Massing’s first major point is that AIPAC is controlled by its board of directors of 50 or so members, who are selected according to their ability to raise and contribute funds. (I would note that major universities select alumni to serve on advisory boards in exactly the same way, ensuring, in that case, that academics like myself are not likely to be represented.) Within the board, he says, the four prime movers and shakers in AIPAC, three industrialists and a real estate developer named Robert Asher, Edward Levy, Mayer Mitchell, and Larry Weinberg, the former owner of the Portland Trail Blazers. They are not, as he points out, mainstream American Jews from the point of view of politics—three are staunch Republicans and Weinberg is a “Scoop Jackson Democrat.” The organization courts and threatens members of Congress from both parties and every part of the country (including those where Jews are a relative rarity and the average voter probably doesn’t care very much about the details of our Middle East policy.) It works intimately with staffers in dozens of Congressional offices, and it has taken to threatening Congressmen who refuse, for instance, to agree to the most draconian restrictions on aid to Palestine because of the advent of Hamas, with accusations of supporting terrorism. Massing quotes a number of people from Capitol Hill on how this process works, including one who says that AIPAC can reliably deliver 250-300 Congressmen for any position it takes. Most of them would not allow their names to be used, including a Congressman who said that Congress “would never pass a resolution that was in any way critical of anything Israel has done.”. (The whole article can be read at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19062. )

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

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


Vigilante said...

Extremely well written, extremely informative.

I wonder if you wouldn't also agree that AIPAC has a lock hold on Democratic Party candidates at the national level? Remember Howard Dean being corrected early in 2004 when he hinted that the USA should be even-handed about Palestine?

Anonymous said...

As for the HUD incident --- now, children, can you identify "Tammany Hall"?