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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Civic virtue rears its head, at last

Today’s post will be a two-parter—one on events of the week, one on the changing economics of America over the last 40 years.

This week looms as a turning point in recent history, I think, because four Senators—John McCain, John Warner, Lindsay Graham, and Olympia Snow—defied the president in the Senate Armed Services committee and voted down his plan for military tribunals that could sentence suspected terrorists to death based on secret evidence or evidence obtained through torture, as well as slip the bounds of the Geneva convention. Discontent among Senate Republicans has bee a great deal higher during the last six years than many people know, and in the late summer of 2004 I heard some one in a position to know state that several of them were actively hoping that President Bush would lose. Preserving America as we know it depends upon the emergence of men of principle in times of crisis, and this, at last, is happening now. Colin Powell’s decision to weigh in—reversing a lifetime of loyalty—was another important marker, and I hope that it will be the beginning, not the end, of something. It is interesting, too, to note exactly who the dissenters are.

Two of them, to begin with, are from the older generation. Not the “greatest generation” who actually fought the Second World War—the youngest of them is now 82, and they are almost gone from our public life—but the Silent generation that remembers V-J day from their childhood (McCain and Powell) or made it into the military in the very last stages of the war and usually missed combat (Warner, I believe). They remember the Nuremberg trials, our pride in winning the war and protecting much of the world from Communism, and the postwar consensus. They remember how Vietnam shattered that consensus and earlier in their careers they (especially Powell) did a great deal to keep any more Vietnams from happening. But Powell had no influence, apparently, upon Boomer George W. Bush, whose foreign policy shows the tendency—so characteristic of his, and my, generation—of believing that righteousness enables one to get whatever one wants without paying for it.

It also seems significant that all of them except Snow have a military background. Graham was a military lawyer. Few professions have taken more public heat over the last 40 years than the military and the law, but they are, actually, among the most important in providing the glue that holds a society together. Graham, whom I quoted last week on the nature of the trials the Administration was contemplating, knows that both the nation and the world can only run on rules most people find impartial. And it is the military veterans among us, evidently, not the George W. Bushes and Dick Cheney’s, who understand that the United States will also have prisoners taken in battle—indeed, we may even lose a war once in a while—and we must worry about what is going to happen to them, too. The Boom generation developed its contempt for rules in the late 1960s and many of us have never lost it. The House of Representatives is considerably younger than the Senate, and its Republicans, as far as I can tell, have not produced a single dissenter against what the President is trying to do. (John Murtha, the leading Democratic dissenter, is also a veteran from the Silent generation.)

The Republican defection also has implications for the coming election. Democrats can now brand the Administration as extremist, pointing out that the President’s plan to throw out much of the US Constitution does not command the support of leading figures from his own party. Joe Lieberman’s vote on these proposals will also be of interest. I repeat, by the way, that I think the Democrats have a better chance of winning the Senate than the House. The excellent website electoral-vote.com, which was never far away from my screen during the fall of 2004, shows the Senate emerging as evenly divided based on the latest polls. It also lists key house races but I have not have the time to check, once again, to see how many of them seem genuinely competitive based upon their 2004 results.

Our crisis of civic virtue will not end on January 20, 2009, no matter who is elected upon that day. We are largely divided between activist Republicans who believe virtue consists of ruling the world and paying no taxes, and activist Democrats who believe that it consists in looking after the interests of women and racial and sexual minorities. The need to “bring us together” is a cliché but we are approaching the point at which it will become necessary genuinely to unite 55-60% of the electorate around some important principles, and to put them into action.

That problem will be all the more difficult because of President Bush’s rhetorical commitment to the fantastic project of transforming the Muslim world. As he restates his position again and again, several aspects of it are becoming clear. To begin with, he insists that we judge the danger posed by Islamic extremists based, frankly, upon their dreams. Such logic would have required the western world to undertake a crusade against Bolshevism in 1920 or so—the Soviets, after all, wanted world revolution—but fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. To imply that Osama Bin Laden might actually create a caliphate and eventually re-occupy the Iberian Peninsula can only help his prestige. Secondly, the President can’t avoid letting at least one cat out of the bag from time to time, as when he remarked last week how intolerable it would be to allow Islamic extremists to control oil revenues. And thirdly, the President seems to have concluded that bad news from the Middle East is really good news. Beginning with the Lebanon War, he has suggested that events like Hezbollah’s attacks, the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections (although he has never, I think, actually referred to the electoral victory), and the Iraqi insurgency simply show how determined evil Middle Easterners are to stop democracy, and thus vindicate what he is trying to do. James Baker, another member of the Silent generation, has been heading a commission on Iraq policy that has been developing options for the President, reportedly including a withdrawal. The only possible way this might work, in my judgment, would be to persuade the President that we have won in Iraq. That was how his fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson was persuaded to halt the bombing of North Vietnam in November 1968 and finally get peace talks going.

Please excuse me for the tease; my essay on changes in our economy since 1965 will have to wait. It involves the execution of a plan I have long thought about—finding out what has become cheaper and what has become more expensive, relatively, in the last 40 years, and trying to figure out what that means. I collected a good deal of data yesterday but I still need some more, and what is above is enough for today. Let me just preview with the statement that the results show a very mixed bag, and confirm the increasing bifurcation of America into the very rich and everyone else.


Anonymous said...

Isn't John Murtha a Democrat?

Anonymous said...

and I thought Warner was an ultra-fascist. Well, I don't trust him, the way he drew blood from those poor Puerto Rican naval officers in the Vieques hearings. He virtually accused those poor gentlemen of treason. It was embarrassing to watch.

And Lindsay Graham? The fellow who had his shoes shined with extra lustre the day he linked up outside the doors of the House to impeach Clinton?

And Bush is to the right of these punters? Wow!

Abdurahman Warsame said...

[...I often hear some thinkers/intellectuals – often American - talking about "bringing modernity" to Muslims, for example David Kaiser says in his blog that "The Muslim world needs to move towards modernity ... [...]