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Friday, July 28, 2006

Fallacies of Pre-emption

Some weeks ago the Washington Post reported that William Kristol’s think tank, the Project for a New American Century, may be closing its doors, claiming that it has accomplished its mission now that the United States has removed Saddam Hussein. The doctrine of preventive war against potentially dangerous states, which the PNAC trumpeted and the Bush Administration has written into our National Security Strategy, has led us into Iraq and threatens to add a new war in Iran. Kristol remains committed to the overthrow of dictatorships in the belief that democracies friendly to the United States will inevitably replace them. In advocating this policy, he has argued that the United States in earlier eras failed to take timely action. Thus, Kristol remarked to Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker last fall. “Have the mistakes of the last century been ones of too much intervention or not enough? Was it good that we waited to be attacked on December 7, 1941?” Condolezza Rice, then National Security Adviser, was quoted during the run-up to the war in Iraq as saying that the United States should have waged a preventive war against the Soviet Union in 1945. That statement, it seems to me, typifies the vast historical misunderstanding characteristic of neoconservative thought, and its inability to understand that foreign policy—and especially war—has to be based upon a realistic sense of where the world is at any given moment and about what actions can reasonably be expected to achieve. The true answer to Kristol’s rhetorical question, in my view as a historian who has been thinking about it for about 35 years, is yes—and by explaining why, I can explain why neoconservative policies have done so much harm to the nation.

When the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937 and the European war broke out in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt was the President of an isolationist and largely unarmed nation. When in late 1937 he attempted to create some kind of new consensus to resist aggression in his quarantine speech, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. When the British and French declared war on Germany, polls showed that the American people wanted an allied victory but had no interest in entering the war—and we had virtually no army with which to do so. The fall of France in the spring of 1940 changed the situation. With Britain also threatened, there might be nothing left between Hitler and the United States within a few months. Roosevelt responded that summer with a huge rearmament program and the beginnings of a draft. When the Tripartite Pact was signed in September 1940 he attacked it as a conspiracy against the American way of life, and pointed out that our values were truly threatened literally all over the civilized world. But he appeared to be focusing upon hemispheric defense, not intervention overseas, and while providing the British with some help, he and his advisers were obviously waiting to see if Britain would survive. After his re-election he began lend-lease, but it was still not clear, all through the first half of 1941, that he was determined to enter the war.

What apparently changed his policy was the German attack on the Soviet Union, a step which made a German victory much more dangerous should Hitler win, but also much more possible should the Soviet Union survive. A coalition of the United States, the British Empire, and the Soviets would dispose of overwhelming force. It was in the second half of 1941 that Roosevelt embargoed oil to Japan, that he began a naval war in the Atlantic against Germany, that he met with Churchill and committed the US to “the destruction of the Nazi tyranny,” and that he declared that the time for “active defense” against Germany was now.

He did not, however, ask for a declaration of war, because it would have passed only narrowly, if at all. As late as November 13, 1941, the amendment of the Neutrality Act to allow the arming of merchant vessels passed the House of Representatives by a vote of just 212-194—despite the presence of 265 members of the President’s own party. The complete defeat of the Axis was going to require unprecedented effort and sacrifices from the American people, and they had to be convinced that they had no choice but to make them. And thus, rather than try to declare war, Roosevelt, in full view of the public, demanded that Japan withdraw from Indochina and China in order to get their oil imports resumed. Rather than do so, they attacked.

Now I am not suggesting, of course, that it helped to have the war begin with the crippling of the US Navy. That was partly the fault of FDR, who had insisted upon staging it at Pearl Harbor, and partly the fault of the fleet commander, whose behavior made clear that he did not take the danger of war seriously despite an explicit warning from Washington. But as Roosevelt and his senior subordinates discussed about two weeks before war broke out, it was crucial to have the Japanese fire the first shot, to show that this was, fundamentally, a defensive war. That was what enabled the President to mobilize the American people to make the gigantic effort (for us, anyway, since all the other belligerents made proportionally larger efforts in manpower) necessary to prevail. It also rammed home the point that Axis aggression was the cause of the war, creating a truly worldwide coalition against it. Victory followed three and a half years later—a victory based upon the principle that every nation had the right to live in peace, free of aggression, and protected by the new United Nations. The world lived on that dream, to varying degrees, for the next 56 years, until neoconservatism took power in the United States.

We should have learned another lesson from the victory in 1945—that, human nature being what it is, the triumph of good is never unambiguous. We defeated Nazi Germany, the most serious threat to western civilization in modern times, only with the help of our alliance with the Soviet Union. That in turn led to a very large expansion of Communism in the world—first in Eastern Europe, and then, owing to the defeat of Japan and power vacuums in Asia, in China and in Indochina. That was a high, but not too high price to pay for the defeat of the Axis, justified in my opinion by our postwar policies, which unified the capitalist industrialized world, including West Germany and Japan. But we had to cope with that result with 45 years of containment. That, of course, has retrospectively become unnecessary in some neoconservative fantasies. I was appalled during the run-up to the Iraq war to read that Condolezza Rice had told Senators that we should have “pre-empted” against the Soviet Union in 1945 to save Eastern Europe. That was an irresponsible fantasy—the Soviet Army in Europe was far, far stronger than our own, even before an entire Army was withdrawn immediately after V-E Day to prepare for the invasion of Japan. A war to free Eastern Europe would actually have left the Soviets in control of Western Europe.

The conquest and occupation of a medium-size country like Iraq, a nation of about 25 million people, would have required at least half a million men. The conquest of Iran, which the neoconservatives had penciled in as next on the list in 2003, would require far, far more. Since the United States does not today dispose of forces of that size, they could be secured in only two ways. The first would involve the restoration of a draft and several years of mobilization here in the United States—exactly what FDR began in 1941. The second would involve the mobilization of a huge coalition comparable to the Grand Alliance. But neither was possible in 2003, because neither the American people nor the world community took the threat of Iraq (and the other proclaimed threats of Iran and North Korea) that seriously. Nor would the international community endorse a strategy based on pre-emption, for the simple reason that no one would be safe in a world based upon that principle. Attempting to pre-empt on the cheap has been disastrous for America’s reputation, for the Iraqi people, and for our strategic position in the Middle East. Something similar happened in Europe in 1922, when France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr to try to compel the payment of German reparations. Financial problems forced the French to withdraw about a year and a half later, and the idea of militarily coercing the Germans lapsed. Premature action had made it harder to deal with the German threat.

Neoconservatism, like Straussianism (to which it is closely related), is about being right. Only the intellectual elite, neoconservatives believe, understands the nature of the threats we face, and they need the power, like a republic of Platonic philosophers, to act whether lesser mortals understand the stakes or not. Unfortunately, there are at least two terrible flaws in this reasoning. First, neoconservatives have frequently been wrong—wrong about the extent of Soviet nuclear forces in the 1970s, wrong about Gorbachev (whom they regarded as an even more dangerous Soviet leader), and wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But even if they were right, their insights are useless if they have not persuaded the American people and the world community to take them seriously. That is what the Bush Administration did not wait to do. Using the aftermath of 9/11 as a club, it rushed into war without adequate planning, resources, or diplomacy—and destroyed the financial posture of the United States government at the same time. When a truly serious threat arises it will be much, much harder to meet it as a result. That will be the real neoconservative legacy.

For forty years now my generation has been prey to a totalitarian spirit. In the late 1960s the SDS, enraged by the Vietnam War, talked of communist revolution in America and the overthrow of world capitalism, and helped destroy the New Deal consensus. In the 1980s and 1990s Boomer capitalists pushed the de-industrialization of America in search of larger short-term bottom lines. And now, in the first decade of a new century, neoconservatives have torn down the whole international legal and diplomatic structure which kept us relatively safe all their lives. That should disqualify them from any further influence in public affairs. They shall eventually be forgotten, but not, alas, before we have emerged from a much larger national crisis which their irresponsibility—so typical of Boomers of all political persuasions—will have made considerably worse.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The end of cowboy diplomacy?

Today’s post will cover two different topics, both related to current American foreign policy and the spreading Middle East crisis. I shall begin with a question I discussed a few weeks ago—whether, as various US press outlets have claimed, Condolezza Rice has orchestrated a fundamental change in the foreign policy of the Bush Administration during the last year and a half. The answer, I would suggest, is no.

The claimed changes did not relate mainly to the war on terror, but to our policy towards North Korea and Iran. In both cases we had shown some willingness to listen to other nations and to join multilateral (or not bilateral) negotiations. Even before the last few weeks I was doubtful that this represented a real change. As Seymour Hersh pointed out two weeks ago (see my post of July 8), an argument is still raging within the Administration over a planned air strike on Iranian nuclear capabilities, and it seemed very possible that the Administration, in seeking a UN resolution, was simply buying some time and laying the foundation for future military action. I might note, incidentally, that the Administration has shown a remarkable attitude towards UN resolutions since 2002. When the Security Council declares that Iraq or Hezbollah should disarm, the Administration regards this as permission to execute such a mission unilaterally with American military power. It still claims that the US was carrying out a UN mandate in Iraq even though the Security Council refused to vote for war.

Our response to the current crisis, however, is almost pure neoconservatism. Secretary Rice has stated that she is not interested in a simple cease-fire, but seems to be insisting on a radical change in the balance of forces in Lebanon. President Bush in his radio address today said that the crisis could not be solved without “confronting” both Hezbollah and the states that support it, such as Syria and Iran. In previous Administrations Syria’s presence in Lebanon kept an eye on Hezbollah and Syria helped mediate some previous crises, but the Bush Administration, of course, proudly secured Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon two or three years ago. Now it has no intention of talking to Syria, except to lecture it on the need for it to change—perhaps to create a new Iraq? Rice plans to meet with Israeli officials and with Palestinian President Abu Mazen, whose Hamas government ministers are now in Israeli jails. She also wants to talk with European leaders in Rome. But as the Washington Post explains today, she will not visit a single Arab capital, presumably because Jordanian and Egyptian leaders do not want to be photographed with her while the Israeli offensive continues. In just five years the Bush Administration has made friendship with the US a serious disability in the Arab world.

The Secretary hopes, apparently, to get European Union agreement on an international force that will occupy southern Lebanon and actually disarm Hezbollah—really a partial renewal of the mandate system of 80 years ago. If she is successful she will have scored a major triumph and changed the power calculus in the region, but I will be very surprised if the Europeans are willing to risk a long-term guerrilla war against Hezbollah and the possible terrorist acts within Europe that might easily result from it. If the international force does not come to pass the Administration will presumably reaffirm Israel's right "to defend itself." Meanwhile, the chaos within Lebanon, where Israel has decided to make life difficult or almost impossible for an enormous part of the population, is reportedly making Hezbollah more popular, not less.

As President Bush’s off-the-cuff luncheon remarks showed, he still feels the problems inside the Middle East come from a few wicked regimes that cause trouble. Three years of escalating violence in Iraq and the election gains of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt do not seem to have made any impression on the Administration. Today, in his radio address, the President ignored the Hamas election victory in Palestine and argued that Palestine more than ever needs leadership unblemished by terror. The policy of the Administration does not seem to have changed in the slightest: it depends upon the idea, largely disproved by our experience in Iraq, that if we remove the ruling bad guys, good guys will emerge. Secretary Rice has argued that the US for too long pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East, and achieved neither. Our pursuit of democracy at the expense of stability does not seem to be having better results. There is no obvious change in our foreign policy with her as Secretary of State, and Colin Powell, were he still in office, would almost surely be visiting Arab capitals as well. (Monday evening update: According to the liberal Israeli paper Haaretz, Rice today actually refused a Lebanese request for an immediate cease-fire, arguing that new arrangements for southern Lebanon must be worked out first. That frankly seems like an attempt to force the weak Lebanese government into agreeing to her terms.)

Shifting gears, I have been reading a remarkable book that appeared two years ago, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942, by Christopher Browning, a professor at the University of North Carolina. It makes an interesting contrast, with Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which appeared ten years ago and drew widespread critical acclaim (along with some very severe criticism), sold many thousands of copies for Alfred A. Knopf, and nearly won Goldhagen a chair at Harvard. (Browning actually was a candidate for the chair as well; neither one got it, and while I may be mistaken, I do not think that it was ever filled on a permanent basis. I will check.) Goldhagen seemed to argue that the Holocaust took place because the German people were chronically and incurably anti-Semitic. This seemed unconvincing to me, since Germany before 1918, at least, seemed if anything more hospitable to Jews than other major European countries, including France, the scene, after all, of the Dreyfus affair. Indeed, I had argued in Politics and War (1990) that the Holocaust had to be understood as part of a whole series of ethnic conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe, combined with the Nazi philosophy that only certain people deserved to belong to the national community, and that those who did not could be murdered if circumstances demanded it. Browning’s kind of approach is both lower-key and more frightening, in my opinion, than Goldhagen’s, precisely because it does not depend upon the demonization of a whole people to explain a monstrous crime.

Browning’s book has gotten a tiny fraction of the attention that Goldhagen’s did, but it is detailed, scrupulous, and very important. Essentially he shows—as I tried to suggest, in many fewer pages and with many fewer sources—that the Nazis moved step by step, from attempts to force German Jews to emigrate, to the segregation of the far more numerous Polish Jews in ghettoes where they began to starve to death in large numbers, to plans for mass murder behind the advancing troops in the Soviet Union, and finally to killing centers modeled on the earlier euthanasia program for the handicapped and mentally ill. While he certainly affirms the ultimate responsibility of Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich, he shows how local problems and bureaucratic imperatives constantly pushed the Nazis towards more radical solutions.

A most disturbing part of the book concerns the relationship between the SS and the Army, and especially the negotiations between the two on the eve of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, which gave the SS the responsibility for the pacification of the population and the elimination of the Soviet leadership behind the Army’s advance. We easily forget that, even under National Socialism, Germany in the 1930s remained a state of laws and rights. That is why, as Hannah Arendt pointed out years ago, Jews had to be stripped of their citizenship before they could be subject to expropriation, forced emigration, and eventually murder. The German Army, while firmly believing in harsh measures in occupied territories, had a well-established set of legal codes and procedures to maintain discipline among the troops and protect civilians against abuses. In order to progress to wholesale reprisals against Russian civilians and the murder of all Soviet officials and Jews, those regulations had to be evaded by taking the responsibility for these measures away from the army and from the jurisdiction of military courts. The SS Einsatzgruppen received full freedom to act as they wished, justified repeatedly by the life-and-death struggle Hitler claimed to be fighting against Jewish Bolshevism. The Army went along, and the German people had no voice.

The United States remains a nation of laws. We have created new kinds of detention centers for suspected terrorists, but we have neither right-wing militias roaming our streets to terrorize the political opposition, nor new, parallel police forces to deal with special crimes. . But the Administration has claimed the power to try terrorists, including American citizens, in special courts where they will have only the most limited right to counsel and will not be able to confront the evidence against them. The Supreme Court recently refused to allow these courts, but by the narrowest of margins. We must hope that even the Republican Congress, where John McCain and Lindsay Graham have shown courage on these points, will not give the Administration the kind of courts it wants. To rule a class of people unworthy of basic rights, history shows, is to step onto a slippery and treacherous slope. The United States fought the Second World War without going that far, and it can cope with terrorism under its existing legal system, in my opinion, as well.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Collapse of the Middle Eastern Order

In the midst of the unprecedented conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has escalated into an Israeli blockade of Lebanon and to an all-out campaign against Israel by a much better-armed Hezbollah, I have decided to post a Sunday op-ed that I managed to place in the Boston Globe four years ago. While I could not anticipate everything that has happened since then--especially the fates of two key individuals--I am sorry to say that the basic analysis seems to be holding up better than ever. The piece is reprinted for non-commercial use only.

Utterly at odds

As a new generation of leaders takes charge, the pragmatic lessons of the past are being lost, replaced by visions of a dogmatic future

By David Kaiser, 4/28/2002

FFrom 1820 to 1860, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and other children of the early American Republic kept the slavery controversy under control and preserved the Union. Why their offspring failed to do so is not easily answered.

At 140 years' distance, neither the Southern states' determination to secede in 1860-61 nor the Northerners' decision to bring them forcibly back into the Union seems entirely logical. Newly elected President Abraham Lincoln opposed any further extension of slavery but denied any intention to disturb it where it existed. Why, therefore, should the Southern leadership have abandoned the Union? Why, on the other hand, should the North, which included only a minority of real abolitionists, have tried to preserve it?

In the same way, outsiders today assume that both Israelis and Palestinians have nothing to gain and much to lose from prolonging and deepening their armed conflict. This supposedly logical view, however, misses the point. Like the Civil War in 1861, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle does not relate to the present. IT, too, is about two parties' utterly irreconcilable ideas of the future and reflects the rise of new generations of leaders who have no commitment to or faith in the arrangements under which they have grown up. They are willing to risk their future and their children's lives to try to turn their ideas into reality.

By 1860, the white Southern leadership - composed exclusively of men far too young to have any memories of the American Revolution or the adoption of the Constitution - believed in slavery as a positive good, one that needed not only to be maintained, but extended - first into the Southwest, and later into Mexico and around the Caribbean (where it had already been abolished). (The postwar myth that states' rights, rather than slavery, caused the war grew naturally from the bad conscience of a defeated elite, but the secessionists themselves made it very clear at the same time that they fought the war for the sake of slavery.) Lincoln and the Republicans, meanwhile, argued that slavery would die out if it could be kept roughly within its original limits, as some of the Founding Fathers had hoped, but they also decided that slavery threatened the expansion and survival of free labor and free institutions.

When the South seceded, Lincoln initially defined the unrest as a test of democratic institutions, of whether a freely elected government could defeat a rebellion. After 18 months of indecisive conflict he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and turned the war into an all-out moral crusade. No foreign intervention could have dissuaded either side from fighting the war to the finish.

The goals of the Israelis and Palestinians are equally irreconcilable. In 2000, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians now living in the West Bank and Gaza the right to manage their own affairs - hedged by a vastly restricted but continuing Israeli presence - but insisted that they accept this as the maximum that they would ever receive. Ariel Sharon, the current prime minister, who fought briefly in Israel's war of independence, might have offered them a smaller state under similar conditions.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is old enough to remember the initial Palestinian expulsion from what is now Israel and who has spent his whole adult life dealing with its consequences, might have wanted to accept some such deal, but the increasingly influential generation of middle-aged Palestinians who have spent their whole lives under foreign rule and their adulthood under Israeli occupation will not. Whatever their ultimate goal - and for many it remains the destruction of Israel itself - they now insist upon a complete and irrevocable withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlements from the territory occupied in 1967, and the right completely to control their own state. This includes the right to readmit millions of refugees, to build their own military power, and eventually perhaps to engage Israel in a new conflict.

Three generations of Palestinians have now been born in occupation or exile, and the third generation displays nearly every day its willingness to die for its parents' ideals. The Palestinian leadership will not stop terror until it is promised a full and irrevocable Israeli withdrawal from the territories. There is not the slightest indication that any successor to Arafat would be more moderate than he.

Israelis of all political persuasions now understand these goals and are revising their own views accordingly. This is why Sharon is going to insist - as he told New York Times columnist William Safire recently - not merely on keeping some of the territory occupied in 1967, but on controlling the border between Palestine and Jordan. Sharon's most likely successor is Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister who was born after the war of independence and who has shown even less interest in the rights of the Palestinians. And a majority of Israelis now regard the creation of an armed Palestinian authority as a serious mistake.

Recently the Israeli historian Benny Morris - author of ''Righteous Victims,'' an extraordinarily evenhanded treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the 20th century and previously a critic of the occupation of the West Bank - declared publicly that compromise has become impossible. Either Palestine will become an Arab state with a rapidly diminishing Jewish minority, he wrote, or Greater Israel will become a Jewish state with a very small Arab minority. A recent poll found 40 percent of Israelis surveyed favoring expulsion of the Palestinians.

Some historians are beginning to focus upon 80-year cycles in American and world history, and to understand how the outcome of one cycle - the crisis that creates a new political order - ultimately creates the basis for new conflicts that come to a head when a postwar generation has grown up. In the United States the founding of a Republic divided by the issue of slavery in 1788 eventually made the Civil War inevitable. The outcome of that war, in which the North reestablished the Union but eventually allowed the ex-Confederates to maintain white supremacy, laid the foundation for the civil rights struggles that began in the 1950s.

On another front, for the last 20 years a new generation of Republicans and corporations has been waging an increasingly strident and effective campaign against most of the achievements of Roosevelt's New Deal, including labor unions, limits on economic inequality, and even Social Security. In the same way, the struggle in the 1930s and '40s to create Israel - which succeeded partly because of the Holocaust in World War II - has created the conflict with the Palestinians.

In the last 10 years, we witnessed the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union - all creations of the First World War that had lasted 75-80 years. The next 20 years will see the disintegration - or at least the transformation - of many of the national and international beliefs and institutions that the Depression and the Second World War created in the United States, Western Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East.

The prestige the United States secured as the victor in the Second World War and the founder of the post-1945 world order will mean very little in a world in which no one any longer remembers those events. The baby boom generation - which in the late 1960s first mounted an intellectual challenge to their parents' world - will have to build a new one to put in its place, and history does not guarantee that it will be a better one.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not, alas, the last one of the post-1945 era to be resolved. Instead, it is the first great conflict of a new era that will discard many of the beliefs of the second half of the 20th century and leave behind the stable, comfortable, and equitable world that our grandparents and parents created in which middle-aged Americans have spent their entire lives.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 4/28/2002.

I did not realize when I wrote this piece how much the Bush Administration's would do to accelerate this process. Its emphasis on regime change and elections has accelerated the disintegration of the old order. In Lebanon and Palestine, the Administration counted on elections to bring moderates to power, but they have done the opposite, giving Hezbollah cabinet seats in Lebanon--where a Syrian presence kept some check on Hezbollah until Washington unceremoniously ushered it out--and giving Hamas its extraordinary victory in Palestine. The latter victory led immediately to an escalation of the conflict against Israel. Things in Israel did not go altogether as I had suggested during the last four years. Ariel Sharon decided on some measure of unilateral disengagement, and after his stroke, Ehud Olmert decisively defeated the Likud and declared his willingness to continue along the same path. Now, however, the Israeli press and public are filled with recriminations about the Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, which are thought to have emboldened Hamas and Hezbollah, and calls for a tougher policy abound. With the clear toleration of the United States, Israel is trying to destroy hostile structures of authority (starting with the buildings they occupy) in an apparent attempt to intimidate Arabs from siding with armed opposition to Israel's presence wherever it chooses to remain. It is beginning to look that if Olmert survives, the Israeli line will harden again. Israel still has dissenting voices, and I just read a column in the relatively conservative Jerusalem Post by Naomi Chazan, who made an argument similar to this one and suggested that Israel has to find a way to strengthen, not weaken, the Palestinian authority. Ms. Chazan is right—we must realize before too long that even despotic authority is better for the average person than no authority at all. But her view is likely to remain an isolated one.

On the Arab side the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist actions certainly do show increased radicalism, encouraged by Iran and Syria, the two hostile governments the Bush Administration has not, as yet, attempted to bring down. Events since Arafat's death have confirmed that he was, in context, a moderate, even if he was never a real partner for peace. That the Palestinian and Hezbollah terror campaigns do not seem to have done anything but create more misery for their peoples seems essentially irrelevant, certainly to the Palestinians. Most frightening of all is the growing ascendancy of militantly religious, militia-based movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas, not only in Lebanon and Gaza, but also, of course, in Iraq. The civil war in Baghdad has been in progress for months, according to the Israeli website Debka and the London Times. Rather than set up a separate state in the south of Iraq, Shi’ites seem determined to purge Sunnis from Baghdad. None of this could have happened, of course, had the old Ba’ath regime remained in power.

The metaphor of a human life upon which the model of an 80-year cycle is based suggests that we should not be too quick to blame the Bush Administration for the collapse of the old order. An infection or a tobacco habit may accelerate the demise of an elderly person, but that demise is eventually inevitable in any case. Authoritarian regimes based on older colonial Administrations, like those in Egypt and Jordan, and tribally ruled societies like Saudi Arabia, may well be doomed anyway. The growth of radical militias, for which no one seems to have found an antidote (any more than there was for Mohammed’s rampaging tribes so many centuries ago), will be tragic for the region and will certainly not benefit the western industrialized world. But the United States, Europe, and even the emerging Asian powers must ask themselves whether they want to involve themselves deeply in this process without much hope of affecting it, except for the worse. American and, to a lesser extent, European institutions are suffering from severe decay themselves. Their best hope may lie in putting their own houses in order.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Our Last Chance?

The Israeli Army has re-occupied Gaza, once again destroying many of the artifacts representing the Palestinian authority and arresting many of its elected leaders. The kidnapping of an Israeli soldier triggered the move, but most of what the Israelis are doing obviously has nothing directly to do with getting him back, a task that would require intelligence and subtlety, not a sledgehammer. Having left Gaza—a sensible decision-Ehud Olmert has decided that he needs to show that he can still punish it. Certainly his predicament is real. The Palestinians, especially the Hamas government, do not accept Israel and endorse violence against it, and it is not clear that Olmert and his countrymen could do anything that would change that. But I cannot imagine that the current incursion will appear to have accomplished anything twelve months from now.

What is much more distressing is Seymour Hersh’s piece in the current New Yorker, arguing, based on several well-placed and informative sources, that the Bush Administration leadership is very serious about mounting an aerial attack on Iran, and that Rumsfeld, Cheney and President Bush were talked out of using a nuclear weapon against underground facilities only with the greatest difficulty. Hersh indicates that the Administration opened negotiations—albeit with the proviso that Iran must, in effect, surrender in advance by pledging to halt uranium enrichment—only to shore up public and international opinion preparatory to war. Bush, he says, thinks of himself as Winston Churchill, refusing to appease despite public and international apathy. This is a terrible analogy—only after the extent of the Nazi threat had become unmistakably clear because of Nazi aggression did Churchill ever get into power—but it undoubtedly represents the neoconservative self-image.

In fact, it seems to me, the United States, should it attack Iran, will have created for itself a dilemma very similar to that of Israel, but on a much larger scale. We will have begun an endless struggle with much of the Muslim world, one in which we can inflict punishment without ever reaching any kind of political solution. That is what has happened in Iraq, where there is clearly very little political basis for what we are trying to do. It is foolish to believe that Iran could be any different. Meanwhile, as Hersh’s sources point out, Iran has many ways of doing harm to the United States, including suicide attacks (or, he might have added, submarine attacks) on American carriers and political and military threats against oil rich Gulf states, some of which, like Bahrain, have large Shi’ite populations and are already very worried about the possible spread of the Iraqi civil war. Every analysis that I have seen confirms that an attack on Iran will unify most of the Iranian people behind their government. Iran has a lot of intelligence assets around the world and a substantial terrorist capability. It is also far too large, mountainous, and poor for the United States to mount another sustained military operation (and the Army and Marines are fully stretched and occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan already.) Should we attack Iran, every American asset in the Middle East, I suspect, will be at risk. I also believe that many leading nations will formally renounce our world leadership.

This potential crisis, in my opinion, is an almost totally self-inflicted wound, parallel, as I suggested two weeks ago, to Germany’s disastrous gamble in 1914, even if it does not involve a huge conventional war. Lacking conventional enemies to worry about since 1990, we have now focused upon an insane project—the political transformation of an alien culture which already views us as a major threat to its way of life. This is a peculiarly American fantasy—certainly the Germans during the two world wars did not believe the peoples they were conquering welcomed their rule, much less that they were conquering them for their own good. It draws on very simplistic thinking which is, at bottom, an excuse for the unlimited exercise of American power. Once again the Churchill analogy should actually provide some food for thought. Yes, Churchill held the British people together, heroically, in 1940-1, and played a key role in winning the war. But the Soviets and the United States provided the bulk of the resources to do so, and Britain lost its Empire anyway. Churchill also killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians in a bombing campaign he undertook in the mistaken belief that it might win the war. And that is another main point of Hersh’s article—that the Air Force leadership is telling the Administration that it can solve the problem in Iran almost all by itself, just as Curtis LeMay told John F. Kennedy about Laos, Cuba, and Vietnam.

The possibility of fundamentalist control of the Middle East is not really more serious than Soviet control of Eastern Europe in 1945—it is much less so. The danger it presents is more similar, perhaps, to the triumph of Chinese Communism in 1949, which also occasioned a lot of hand-wringing and, in the early 1960s, talk of a pre-emptive strike against China’s nuclear capability. We can live with it, and even with a nuclear-armed Iran. If we really want other nations to renounce nuclear weapons, as I have said here many times, we have to be willing, at least in principle, to renounce them ourselves. The rest of the world simply will not accept the idea that we shall make the key decisions for everyone and enforce them with military power. Nor, in my opinion, should it. No nation can ever be trusted with that kind of power.

The United States has exerted a far better influence on the world stage, it seems to me, when we could measure ourselves against other forms of government. The North’s victory in the civil war did a great deal to bring about democracy in Western Europe. Wilson was not very successful in promoting democracy in the First World War, but beginning in 1940 Roosevelt began to claim that American values represented the alternative to those of the Axis. It was easy, after the war, to take up the same kind of stance towards the Soviet Union—a hostile and dangerous nation with which we had to co-exist. But the collapse of Communism has had a dreadful effect on our foreign policy elite, convincing them that nothing should any longer stand in our way.

According to Hersh, senior military officers are now stressing the negative political consequences of an attack on Iran. That, in my opinion, should be part of their job. As Clausewitz wrote many times, military and political issues cannot be separated, and woe betide any political or military leader who believes that they can be. The military has, in fact, provided an important check on civilian hubris at various times in the last 60 years. In 1954 General Matthew Ridgway reportedly threatened to resign of the United States went to war in Indochina, and the war did not take place. After Vietnam—which military leaders had done nothing to prevent—military leaders argued against any similar interventions for nearly thirty years because they had seen their catastrophic effect on the military itself. Something similar, I have heard, may be happening now—the Army and Marines want a withdrawal from Iraq because they simply cannot sustain the current level of involvement. The President has a duty to consider the views of his military advisers, but in the end, the decision will rest with him.

Hersh’s article can be read at http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060710fa_fact.

To my new readers

Juan Cole's generous decision to link the last post has resulted in an absolutely unprecedented number of visits, about which I am both grateful and delighted. Let me take this opportunity to invite all of you to subscribe simply by clicking the feedblitz icon at right, just below my profile. As you will see if you begin scrolling down, I usually post once a week, occasionally twice, and nearly always on weekends. Thanks to all for your generous comments, and I hope this will be the start of something much bigger. Those who enjoyed last Sunday's post will almost surely enjoy the one from June 24, as well. And let your friends know!

How the other half thinks

On June 23 Grover Norquist, the Republican activist about whom I have already had occasion to write quite a bit, appeared at the liberal American Prospect, a kind of Daniel-in-the-Lions-Den experience that he evidently enjoys. His presentation and the question and answer period were very long—they may be read in their entirety at http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=11699 –and I thought my readers and their friends might enjoy a summary.

Listening to Norquist—who might actually have been a student of mine at Harvard in the late 1970s, although I have never checked—one easily realizes why Republicans have been doing so well. While his anti-tax zealotry certainly seems real, he primarily seems to care about one thing, winning elections—and he assumes that Democrats are exactly the same. He listed three pillars of the Republican coalition: people who don’t want to pay taxes, people who want total freedom to own guns, and people who want the freedom to give their children a proper religious education. He is evidently uncomfortable with militant anti-gay rhetoric and would prefer to compromise on civil unions, and in fact, he disputed the idea that a referendum on gay marriage won Ohio and the election for President Bush in 2004. Like Karl Rove (one wonders who learned from whom), he understands that opinions in general, such as opposition to immigration, do not necessarily sway voters: the key is to mobilize constituencies like his three favorites who actually will vote according to one’s position on their critical issue. He has another powerful fantasy that I think will eventually get him into trouble: the idea that America is becoming a whole nation of stockholders who will become loyal Republicans. He favors the privatization of Social Security on those grounds, honestly believing that giving every 20 year old the promise of “a few hundred thousand” in the bank when he retires will change his political orientation. (There is, alas, a terrible swindle behind all this--$300,000 in the bank, as Norquist ought to know, will yield only about $12-15,000 per annum in retirement, some of which will have to be reinvested to keep up living standards in the future. It is not as good, in short, as $25,000 per year in Social Security benefits.)

The Democratic Party, in Norquist’ s opinion, is composed of trial lawyers (he always leads with them), freeloaders, government bureaucrats, declining labor unions, and environmental and sexual fanatics who want to run other peoples’ lives. He does not really grapple with the issue of how such a coalition could win a plurality of the votes in 2000 and more than 48% in 2004. But he does put his finger on a critical, and for him, a very comforting Democratic fact: the most Democratic generation in the country is the GI generation (he extends them youthward to today’s 75 year olds, who were much too young to have fought in the Second World War), and about two million of them are dying every year. That, I would guess, probably was the difference between a tie vote in Florida in 2000 and a Bush victory of a few hundred thousand in 2004.

What is missing from his talk is any real appreciation for what is happening to the United States either at home or abroad. He obviously has grave reservations about the Iraq war, because it has lowered the President’s poll numbers so badly, but he argues stridently that John Murtha wrecked the issue for the Democrats by suggesting that we withdraw—courageously, in my opinion—rather than simply allowing popular anger to fester. If he has any real sense of what is happening to the average American economically—a vast increase in debt—he certainly doesn’t show it. He is confident that when the Republican Senate majority reaches 60 (he accuses Democrats of “changing the rules,” ignoring over a century of history), Social Security will be privatized. He is confident that Americans oppose what he calls the politics of envy—higher taxes for rich people. He is quite sure that Democrats want bigger government only because civil servants tend to vote Democratic. He recognizes that some Republicans are unhappy about huge deficits but he shows no sign of caring about them himself. And he has no vision of what to offer the younger generation except a private account, gun ownership, religious schools, and low taxes. One does wonder whether that will be enough. On the other hand, pointing out how steadily the Republicans have held their majorities in Congress since 1994 (see last week’s post), he seems pretty confident that nothing earth-shattering will happen this fall, and as I pointed out last week, he may well be right. On the other hand, he regards George Allen as the Republicans' best hope in 2008, and Allen, as far as I can see, faces a very difficult re-election race. Allen, says Norquist, most resembles George Bush, but that is a backhanded compliment. Norquist is so full of himself that he cannot resist belittling the President on a number of occasions during his talk, especially with respect to his campaign on Social Security last year.

I was rather astonished at how gingerly Norquist’s questioners treated his potential legal difficulties involving Jack Abramoff, who told certain clients to contribute to Norquist’s organization in order to get a meeting with President Bush. No one asked him about it directly, but he tried to claim that one accusation (not that one) was off base spontaneously. But the mainstream media, as well as the American Prospect, is handling Abramoff and his influence with kid gloves. Having spent most of eight years trying to get Bill Clinton, they are absolutely determined to avoid the appearance of trying to get President Bush. Yesterday it developed that the Secret Service had released news of several more Abramoff visits to the White House, including one in 2001 in which he met with Vice President Cheney’s domestic policy adviser. That news is buried in a tiny item at the bottom of an inside page in today’s New York Times.

Karl Rove is right: there are two Americas, each with its own reality. Rove, Norquist and the rest not only don’t care that the New York Times and the ”Bolsheviks” (Norquist’s word) at the pro-war Washington Post don’t understand what they are doing, they are glad of it. They plan to win in November by running against the reality-based community. This is the climax of an era in American history that began, like so much else, in the late 1960s—the era of the professional political consultant and activist. When Joe Napolitan, a Democratic consultant in those days, wrote a book about his approach, David Broder commented that the book would appall anyone who believed, as he did, that politics should have something to do with government. I doubt he had any idea how far things might go. Government has become nothing but a political whipping boy, and the American people will, sadly, have to learn how necessary it is the hard way. The death of a major American city (New Orleans) does not seem to have made the slightest difference, and I wonder what it will take.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Control of the Congress and the Irrelevancy of American Elections

The Supreme Court wound up its term last week with two historically interesting decisions, one on redistricting, one on the military tribunals which President Bush sought to institute to try certain prisoners held at Guantanamo. The first, involving the reapportionment of Texas districts carried out in 2005 by the Texas Legislature after a prolonged struggle, reads, in some ways, better than I expected. The second, while it threw out the military tribunals as the Administration hoped to constitute them, nonetheless makes clear that we are in a long-term constitutional crisis.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has clearly taken over the swing-vote role which Owen Roberts played in the mid-1930s and Sandra Day O’Connor exercised in the last ten years, took a short-term historical approach to the challenges to the Texas redistricting plan. He went back to 1990, when Texas was already almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats but the Democrats still controlled the state government, and argued specifically that they had done an extraordinary job of gerrymandering themselves. By the year 2000, although the Republicans were winning 59% of the vote for statewide offices (not the best statistic—one would think that the overall Congressional vote would be more relevant), Democrats nonetheless won 17 out of 30 seats in Congress. A divided state government could not agree on a redistricting plan that would include the two new seats granted under the 2000 census, and a district court had to step in. It changed things as little as possible, and the Democrats continued to elect more than half of the Texas Congressmen.

Justice Kennedy and those who voted with him essentially argued that the Republicans were simply doing what the Democrats had done to them, and that they had no basis for objecting. That seems to me somewhat dubious. To begin with, the Republican vote for statewide offices bears no necessary relationship to how Texans choose to vote for Congress, when they frequently take note of services rendered by a representative regardless of policy. But in addition, Kennedy had to acknowledge that the Republicans have done more than conform to his rule of thumb. While receiving about 58% of the vote in statewide elections, they have now managed to elect, under their new plan, 21 out of 32 Congressmen, or 66% of the total.

As Kennedy points out, the courts have never agreed on what constitutes a gerrymander, and one must sympathize with their unwillingness to try to do so. At the same time, it is well known that both parties have used computer technology, among other methods, to push the art of gerrymandering to new heights on behalf of incumbents. I do not think, however, many people realize how bad the situation is—certainly I did not until I began scrolling through the 2004 Congressional election results looking for close elections. Not until I reached Colorado did I find one seat that was genuinely closely contested (California, with almost 50 seats, did not have one that was decided by less than 8% of the vote.) California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington State had one close race each, defining “close” very generously as a winning margin of less than 10% of the total votes cast! New York and Texas, ironically, tied for most “close” races with two each, and Texas barely missed having a third. Think about that. In an election won by the President by a margin of less than 3% of the vote, exactly 18 of 435 Congressmen were elected by margins of less than 10% of the total vote in their district. Wisconsin, one of the closest states in the Presidential vote, elected four Democrats and four Republicans to Congress. Six of them won by margins of more than two to one. This was not, obviously, unusual. At least 90% of Congressmen, it seems, are elect orally locked into their jobs. The Democrats need 15 seats to take over in November, but that will not, obviously be an easy mark to reach.

Let us get some historical perspective, which is, after all, the point of these essays. Things were very different 90 years ago, when the House first attained its membership of 435. The Republicans gained 66 seats in the 1914 elections and 63 more in the Harding landslide of 1920. The Democrats retaliated with a gain of 75 in 1922. The Republicans gained again in 1924 and 1928, but the Democrats increased by 53 seats in 1930 and by yet another 97 seats in 1932. They added a total of 20 more in 1934 and 1936, but the Republicans gained 80 seats in 1938, 47 more in wartime in 1942, and another 56 in 1946 to give them a majority for the first time since 1928. But Harry Truman’s very close victory in 1948 also won the Democrats 75 new House seats, of which 60 were lost in the next two elections of 1950 and 1952. The Democrats won another 49-seat landslide gain in 1958; the Republicans whittled it down in the next two elections, lost 37 seats in LBJ’s 1964 landslide, but won 47 new seats in 1966. By then the power of incumbency was becoming more pronounced, but after Watergate the Democrats won 49 seats in 1974. Nothing like that happened again until 1994, a full twenty years later, when the Republicans won 54 seats and the control of the House they have enjoyed ever since. My data set is incomplete, but I do not think either party has gained as many as 10 seats in any House election since then.

Having protected their narrow majority through gerrymandering, the Republican Party has also run the House dictatorially for the whole of the Bush Administration at least. Nor is this all Last week the House Republicans decided not to bring up an extension of the Voting Rights Act because half of their caucus objected to it, and they never move forward on anything without “a majority of a majority.” Think about that. In a country where the last two Presidential elections have been decided by razor-thin margins, half of the Republican Party—the more conservative half in this case, coming mainly from the old Confederacy—controls what shall and shall not be voted upon in the House of Representatives.

My late uncle Henry, who had a profound skepticism about the role of the courts in the political life of the late twentieth century, even opposed Baker v. Carr, the decision that insisted on equal districts for state legislatures in the early 1960s. When I asked him then what alternative he could see, since legislators from tiny districts would always protect their own seats, he replied that he would have preferred some kind of revolutionary action by urban populations. Now we have an equally large problem which the courts are not going to help. Since the only Congressmen unhappy with the current situation appear to be the four percent or so of them who have not managed to make their seats completely safe, the remedy will certainly not come from them or, as far as I can see, from state legislatures. And how can we expect the 90% of our citizens who live in safe districts to take Congressional elections seriously? Our politics are, literally, more impervious to electoral change than they have ever been, and this at a moment when the Executive branch is claiming unprecedented power. That, of course, was the subject of the second major decision last week, but that one will have to wait.