New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History
Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History. Long-time readers who want to find out how th...
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Language at the New York Times
Today the Times introduces a new phrase into the language, apparently to avoid seeming to offend the Administration once again. I quote from a story on Iraq:
"Meanwhile, the Shiites, or at least the leaders of the religious parties that control the government, have become increasingly strident in insisting that after generations of Sunni domination, it is now their turn to rule. While a process of ethnic and religious separation is already under way in cities including Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk — with tens of thousands of people from the three principal communities fleeing to safer havens in those parts of the country where they are in the majority — any policy that explicitly espoused this kind of separation would be likely to ignite an even fiercer struggle."
When this happened fifteen years ago in Yugoslavia we called it "ethnic cleansing." Now that a similar process has been unleashed by one of the most disastrous decisions in the history of American foreign policy, some one has evidently decided that a more neutral word is more appropriate. On the eve of an election, it wouldn't do to call the effects of American policy by their right names.
It was last February that I compared the infiltration of the Iraqi police by militias to the way that Hitler managed to integrate the SA and SS into the German police in 1933. Today's Washington Post includes a story on exactly how bad the situation in the Baghdad police is. Not only are they carrying out ethnic cleansing, they are also a danger to the lives of American soliders. See it at
Friday, October 27, 2006
How bad is the threat?
On a number of occasions here, I have remarked on the lack of proportion shown by almost everyone with respect to the current state of the world. President Bush has already compared the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism to Nazism or Communism, and few, if any prominent politicians have taken this comparison on. But today, teaching a class on Hitler and the origins of the Second World War, certain problems with those comparisons became clear to me.
There are, it seems to me, two real aspects to the fundamentalist threat. The main one is political. More widespread Islamic fundamentalism will be bad for the people of the region (although that remains their choice, not ours, to make), and more importantly, it could substantially de-stabilize a good deal of
Despite everything, one simply cannot compare the perils we face with those of the 1930s. By 1937 two substantial states,
In Politics and War: European Conflict from Phillip II to Hitler, I analyzed what Europeans were fighting about in four critical eras from the sixteenth century through the first half of the twentieth. In two of the four—1559-1659 and 1914-45—I concluded that their goals were unachievable, not worth the cost of pursuing them, or both. (It is intriguing that civilization made the greatest advances from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.) The end of the cold war has probably left military establishments far smaller proportionally than they had been since the mid-18th century, and that is a very good thing. We still are not threatened by major war, but partly as a result, we are involved in an endless, though small-scale, struggle for the future of what remains a relatively poor, though populous, area of our world.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Sunday morning updates
Meanwhile, in a story that might well lead to a House committee investigation come January, the Times reports that an SEC investigator named Gary Aguirre was fired in September 2005 after his superiors refused to investigate a possible insider trading case involving the Pequot hedge fund and John J. Mack, the head of Morgan Stanley and a leading Bush fundraiser. The story strongly implies that contributors can buy immunity from such investigations. (Michael Milliken must truly be green with envy; the Reagan era was nothig like this.) John Kenneth Galbraith is now dead, but I feel sure he would point out (as indeed he may well have done before his death) that hedge funds are an attempt to get around the whole regulatory structure that served his generation so well after the 1929 crash. If we allow financial abuse to flourish unchecked, it will--and in the end we shall all pay a big price.
See the longer post from yesterday, below.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Still at the crossroads
The image of a great nation felled by a simple miscalculation and struggling to find a way out is one of the oldest in history. From the Athenians in Syracuse to the British in North America in the 1770s, the French in Spain under Napoleon, and the United States in Vietnam—and now in Iraq—history has numerous examples of the known world’s strongest nation involving itself in a more or less hopeless cause. Much of the trouble in such cases stems from the conclusion reached at the very outset, that the adventure in question was something that had to be undertaken, and that policy objectives—which is what President Bush really seems to mean when he speaks of “strategy”—cannot be abandoned. Abandoning them would obviously have been painful in many of these cases, but in those in which the imperial power did at long last pull back, such as the British in the colonies and the
Perhaps the most painful such case, because of its enormous consequences, was the experience of
Recently, for teaching purposes, I reviewed the story of
I do not want to contribute to the loss of proportion that has taken over American opinion, especially elite opinion, since 9/11. Who governs
I was reminded of all this as I read this morning an op-ed by the neoconservative political scientist Eliot Cohen, who many years ago was a student of mine in a course that covered the story which I laid out above. Having optimistically beaten the drums for war in 2002 and published a book encouraging civilian authorities, in certain circumstances, to disregard military advice, he has for some time been willing to admit that the war is going badly. Like Bethmann Hollweg in 1916, however, he would rather give submarine warfare a try rather to admit failure and settle on the best terms available. His magic bullet—which, to be fair, he puts forth without great enthusiasm—is to turn the Iraqi government over to a military strongman. This evidently is under active discussion in
Although Cohen doesn’t mention it, this suggestion has a rather striking parallel with
“Military modernizers” is a good description, actually, of the military and Ba’athist governments that ruled
"American prestige has taken a hard knock; it will probably take a harder knock," Cohen writes, "and in ways that will not be restored without a considerable and successful use of American military power down the road. The tides of Sunni salafism and Iran's distinct combination of messianism and power politics have not crested, and will not crest without much greater violence in which we too will be engaged." Cohen, in other words, is looking forward to the next war, against Iran, whose conquest (it is as large population-wise as Nazi Germany was) would require a draft and alliances such as we do not now have, because of the war in Iraq. It would be hard to imagine more striking evidence of the bankruptcy of neoconservative thought; our prestige and strength depend, he is saying, not on our values, our alliances, or any commitment to international law, but simply to our ability to kick ass and take names. He rejects the argument that will apparently be floated by James Baker, that we need some relationship with both
Monday, October 16, 2006
Footnote--today's White House briefing
Q Tony, when you were talking before about the Iraqi military being trained more, they have -- it does seem that more police, more Iraqi military have been trained in recent months, over the last couple of years. But the White House had repeatedly said that as they stood up, we'd stand down. Does that principle still hold? Does the White House still believe, as they stand up, we're standing down?
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q Because it doesn't appear like we're standing down.
MR. SNOW: Well, we're not standing down because everybody is needed in the fight right now. Also, when it comes to police, both sides -- I mean, the Maliki government -- and Prime Minister Maliki, in his USA Today interview, acknowledged they've had some real problems, and they've -- the matter of professionalizing the army -- I mean, the police still remains undone. The army training has been more effective, but at this time, with these levels of violence, you still have to work together to help go after the people whose vested interests are in destroying Iraq. When those levels of violence wane, and when we believe that the Iraqis are secure and able to stand, then we will be prepared to move, but we're not going to do it under the present circumstances.
Q So they are standing up, but we're not standing down. So is that principle no longer operable?
MR. SNOW: Well, let's see, they stand up, and also, in standing up, you quell the violence and you also deal with some of the root causes of the difficulties.
Q That's the proposition that the White House put out there, that as they stood up, violence would come down, and we'd stand down.
MR. SNOW: As part of our constant adjustment, let me just add that apparently, the terrorists have also decided not to stand down. They've got to stand down.
Q Right, so that's my question. So is "stand up, stand down" no longer the principle, or --
MR. SNOW: Well, it depends on how you -- how you want to cast it. It seems to me that we're playing -- this is kind of a fun verbal game, but --
Q No, but that's what the President said, stand up/stand down.
MR. SNOW: But, yes --
Q We're standing up --
MR. SNOW: Well, you know, then you get into, what does he mean by, "stand up," and "stand up" means you have the ability to assert effective control within Iraq so that you have peaceful, secure neighborhoods. We're not there yet.
Given the way that Snow was floundering all over this briefing, one should not necessarily take anything he said too seriously, but whether or not this is what he and his bosses intended, this certainly sounds as if we will only withdraw troops when the insurgency has been very significantly reduced, not simply because more Iraqi troops and police are in place. And since by every measure the insurgency is continuing to grow, this is not a very encouraging prospect.
Another new post appears below.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
“If it feels good, do it, and if you’ve got a problem, blame something else.” George W. Bush’s encapsulation of the 1960s is actually a summary of the ethos of his Administration. And what feels good to its leading figures, even more than enriching the wealthy or overthrowing dictatorships, is feeling perfect. The chief function of the Administration is to make clear that it has never made a mistake. What emerges from State of Denial is how easily they find it to blame not only Democrats and wimpy allies, but each other, when things go wrong—and boy, have they gone wrong.
Secretary Rumsfeld is more than anyone the focus of the book, and anyone who reads it will understand why half a dozen prominent retired generals have called for his resignation. He trusts almost no one but himself, insists, like Robert McNamara, in getting into almost everything, and treats his bureaucratic rivals with contempt. He initially insisted upon Pentagon control of both the war and the civil Administration of Iraq, although neither he nor his main subordinates such as Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith had any clear idea of how to run postwar
It was when things began to go wrong that Rumsfeld’s worst qualities began to emerge. When the
Secretary Rice emerges as a person who wants to do the right thing, but who is too concerned with appearing to be on top of things to find out what that actually might be. (Woodward reports her thoughts on a number of occasions, suggesting that she gave off-the-record interviews.) Having no background in the
The book includes remarkably little about Vice President Cheney and his staff, and that in itself must be significant. Cheney’s absence reminds me of the reaction to Joe Klein’s novel about the
President Bush, with whom Woodward had long conversations during his first Administration, declined all Woodward’s interview requests this time. Ron Suskind argues that in meetings he focuses on sizing his interlocutor up, and Woodward portrays a number of meetings in which he showed an astonishing lack of curiosity—particularly when, as in a meeting with WMD-seeker David Kay, his interlocutor has no very good news to give him. But in November 2003, when a CIA briefer told him that “we are seeing the establishment of an insurgency in
Andrew Card, who stepped down as Chief of Staff early this year, gave Woodward a lot of material, much of it about his own decision to step down after he had repeatedly tried and failed to get Rumsfeld replaced. Card quoted many of his own conversations with the President. They are both poignant and pathetic, because Card, by his own account, could not bring himself even to suggest that the Administration was on a wrong track or that Bush had made mistakes, much less that he no longer believed in the President’s leadership. Instead, he persuaded the President (and a hard job it was) that Card had to leave for the President’s own good. The kind of certainty of righteousness that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld share is actually the sign of a deep lack of self-confidence. Everyone with a long relationship with George W. Bush, it seems, instinctively bolsters his self-image. Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and William II of
The crisis of
Friday, October 13, 2006
Footnote to Wednesday's Post
"Sounding a note of exasperation, Mr. Bolton protested as 'simply incorrect' the interpretation that Chapter VII sets a precedent for military force, as many countries at the United Nations believe it did in Iraq.
'It would require a separate resolution, if one were needed, ot authorize force,' he said."
The U.S. government did, of course, propose a second resolution on Iraq in 2003--but it didn't wait for it to pass.
Later in the story, Mr. Bolton insists that he will not allow a vote on a new resolution to be delayed by endless discussions.
"We are going to continue to work on it," he said, "but we're not going to work on it at the cost of losing sending a swift and strong response."
That the response might lose its effect if the United States had to make it without majority support has, apparently, never occurred to him. The United States has the job of deciding what has to be done; the rest of the world has the job of agreeing, and if they don't, so much the worse for them. We shall pay dearly for this.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
A Plea for Sanity
While most thinking people understand that the Bush Administration’s foreign policies have been disastrous, they probably underestimate how hard it will be to undo their effects and how influential their underlying assumptions have become over the last six years. For thirty years the
For at least the firsts thirty years of the nuclear age, our diplomatic positions reflected sound and impartial principles. In 1945, after thirty years of intermittent world conflict, the
Since the 1990s
No binding, permanent international law forbids nations from developing any weapon they choose. They can, indeed, renounce weapons by treaty, but the Non-proliferation treaty can, as the North Koreans should have reminded us, be denounced. (The Iranians remain a party.) The argument our government has been making, and which no political figure of either party seems willing to challenge head on, is that nuclear weapons should be limited to nations whom we think should have them. It is, in short, a claim by the
Three huge problems, it seems to me, come out of this position. First of all, we have abandoned the dream of establishing rules for every nation to live by (as we have also done with respect to torture), and substituted the old Athenian rule (which did not save
Our whole foreign policy establishment seems to be drunk on the idea of the
Sunday, October 08, 2006
The new scandal
Seven or eight years ago, at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, I argued repeatedly to my Republican friends that private sexual matters should be kept out of politics. I even wrote an op-ed speculating about how the public revelation of the affairs of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt or Martin Luther King, Jr., might have changed the course of history, but I couldn’t find a home for it. Now, faced with the Foley scandal, I have to ask myself some hard questions about applying the same standard to this regrettable situation.
Certainly Representative Foley emerges from his instant messages as a very disturbed middle-aged man. They are tasteless, childish, extraordinarily adolescent, and unbelievably indiscreet. He seems to have seen himself like a teenager trying on homosexuality. For the record, however, I do not believe that what he did, based upon what we know so far, should be treated as a crime. The concept of an age of consent is an old one, and in Washington, D. C. in is 16. I would not favor raising it; I have already read about too many prosecutions of 16-year old boys who had sex with 14-year old girls (including one young Kansan who not only impregnated the girl, but married her.) Foley obviously was taking advantage of the charisma of his position as a Congressman, but such things have happened (more commonly in a heterosexual context) for centuries, and there is no way to stop them. (The contemporary feminist argument that such affairs always represent the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful is much too simplistic. Actually it is the lesser person in the hierarchy who often feels more power in such cases.) Foley did not, according to what we know so far, use his position actually to extort sex or threaten pages who did not respond to his advances.
What gives the scandal its interest, it seems to me, is the monstrous Republican hypocrisy that it has revealed (and that may have had something to do with it in the first place.) Foley, who had made legislation against child sexual predators one of his main planks, had gotten away with his behavior for years in full view of his Republican colleagues. Two or three Republican staffers or Congressmen state that Dennis Hastert or his staff had been informed, and they did nothing. But that is not all. The Republican-appointed clerk of the house, who has just resigned (and whose resignation was not commemorated in the usual fashion on the House floor), was gay. So was Foley’s former administrative assistant, who had tried to bring the problem to Hastert’s attention. Indeed, according to the New York Times, there is a considerable network of gay Republican house staffers who are now keeping a very low profile. Meanwhile, no one has ever uncovered anything further about “Jeff Gannon”, the male prostitute who visited the White House dozens of times for purposes that have never been revealed, meanwhile posing as a reporter who fed Scot McClellan softball questions.
The House Republicans, in short, while railing against gay marriage, outlawing gays in the military, and relying largely on the homophobic religious right, have, inevitably, tolerated a substantial gay presence in their midst. That might even explain why Dennis Hastert and his office was so reluctant to do anything about Foley—they knew that revelations would not stop with him. The Republican Party’s anti-gay stance, like claims of imminent victory in
Electoral-vote.com, my favorite source, now shows the Democrats with a tie in the Senate and a 4-5 seat majority in the House, based upon the most recent polls. All week the Democrats have gained a house seat about once every two days. In my opinion the real reason is that the Republicans’ proudest achievement—their ability to “stay on message”—is catching up to them. Their statements on major issues are simply not credible, and they are not what they claim to be. Perhaps more and more Americans seem to feel that they need to be taught a lesson.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Inside the War on Terror
Some weeks ago I referred briefly to Ron Suskind’s new book, The One Percent Doctrine, one of a series (including those by James Risen and now, Bob Woodward) attempting to uncover the inner workings of the most secretive Presidency since Richard Nixon. I have now had a chance to read it all, and while it is frustrating and in some ways disappointing, it contains a great deal of information both about the war on terror and about the way the White House works.
Suskind, who has left the Wall Street Journal, has essentially built a new career out of befriending those who could not stick with the Bush Administration. His first book focused on domestic policy through the eyes of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, while this one draws heavily on George Tenet and a number of lesser figures within the CIA. Although Suskind spends too much time of atmospherics for my taste, his sources told him a lot about how the war on terror has really been going and how it has been waged. Brutal interrogations, evidently, have contributed relatively little—raids on Al Queda safe houses that turned up hard drives and documents have provided far more real information—something that will come as no surprise to any trained historian or intelligence professional. One of the first victims of our new interrogation tactics, Abu Zubaydah, was clearly a mentally disturbed individual who could not possibly be relied upon in any case. But according to Suskind’s sources, the President, has been deeply interested and involved in interrogations of suspects from the beginning. Being himself the kind of man who prefers to size people up in person rather than read up on them, he apparently believed that this was the way to find out about the next attack on the
This leads to one of Suskind’s main points: that the President insists on relying upon his instincts, and, inevitably, those around him have been reduced to the role of trying to validate them. The title of his book comes from Vice President Cheney’s belief that the Administration had to act to prevent anything that might happen, no matter how low the probability. This prejudices the leadership towards any indication that the worst is really likely, and makes it harder for them to face complex truths. The President himself was amazed to learn that Zawahiri, Al Queda’s second in command (whose death was falsely assumed in 2002 when some one else’s head was sold to the CIA as his), had canceled an attack on
What successes we have had—and there have been quite a few—have come from cooperation with foreign intelligence services in places like Pakistan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Cooperation hasn’t been perfect; the governments of those nations are obviously walking a tightrope (and as American policies in the
Suskind’s measured, often elliptical prose, struck me as inadequate to the task he had set himself. It is an almost conscious counterpoint to the blunt, often faith-based assertions of the Administration. He knows he belongs to the “reality-based community” which the Administration disdains, but he writes almost as an impartial observer, rather than as a partisan of rationality. I personally doubt that this kind of stance is a luxury members of the reality-based community can afford. In the same way, sooner or later, the religious right will have to be challenged by a renaissance of militant atheism if religion is going to return to its rightful place within an Enlightenment democracy—that is, a source of personal comfort rather than a reference point for public policy.
The One Percent Solution confirmed my belief that the Administration will not change its course, and my conviction that we must separate the actual war on terror—the identification and neutralization of terrorist networks—from our misguided plans to use American force to transform the
One passage from the book particularly caught my eye:
"The Cheney Doctrine released George W. Bush from his area of greatest weakness--the analytical abilities so prized in America's professional class--and freed his decision making to rely on inmpulse and improvisation to a dgree that was without precedent for a modern president."On October 21, 2004, I posted "George W. Bush: Man of the Sixties." The President frequently refers to the supposedly discredited mantra of that era, "If it feels good, do it--if you've got a problem, blame some one else." But is there really any difference between relying on "impulse and improvisation" and simply doing what feels good? Isn't the Administration increasingly blaming the Democratic Party and the media for its woes? We are all, alas, marked by our generational impulses to some degree or another--whatever our politics.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Kissinger then and now
For exactly 35 years I have been plying my trade as a professional historian, teaching, doing archival research, and writing. My work has usually (although not always) concentrated on great questions of war and peace, the questions that dominated professional history at its inception in the mid-nineteenth century in Germany and elsewhere, and which have produced in my judgment most of the greatest works in the western historical tradition. In recent years I have been able to improve my efficiency considerably with the help of contemporary technology. Most of the research for my current project (on the
Paradoxically, however, while these opportunities have grown, my own profession has lost interest not only in questions of war and peace, but in how governments make decisions. My contemporaries in academia decided around the time I was starting my career that the state in general, and war in particular, were evil—largely because they were dominated by white males—and that one might make such evils atrophy by ignoring them. Diplomatic and military history are extinct in many major departments (although they still have beachheads at Harvard, Yale, and the
Because young reporters learn, or fail to learn, basic research tools in college, this trend is having an effect on the media as well. Today’s media stars have no time for sustained analysis—they want sound bites that they can read on 60 Minutes. This brings me to Bob Woodward’s new book, in which he evidently turns on the Bush Administration with the zeal of an apostate. Much could be written about the data that has already emerged from it, but I am going to focus on one small point—a memo from Henry Kissinger to Richard Nixon, written in September 1969, raising questions about American troop withdrawals. According to Woodward, Kissinger has been citing our
Vietnamization was, of course, an exact parallel to our supposed current strategy in
With extraordinary accuracy, Kissinger outlined the probable course of Vietnamization in September 1969:
“’Vietnamization’ must be considered both with regard to its prospects for allowing us to turn the war over to the Vietnamese, and with regard to its effect on Hanoi and U.S. public opinion. I am not optimistic about the ability of the South Vietnamese armed forces to assume a larger part of the burden than current MACV plans allow. These plans, however, call for a thirty-month period in which to turn the burden
of the war over to the GVN. I do not believe we have this much time. “
In fact, the Administration did have that much time, but the 30-month period Kissinger foresaw took it exactly to March 1972, the eve of
“The more troops are withdrawn, the more
they are the last people we will be able to fool about the ability of the South Vietnamese to take over from us. They have the option of attacking GVN forces to embarrass us throughout the process or of waiting until we have largely withdrawn before doing so (probably after a period of higher infiltration).”
Kissinger went on to predict that
The memo is also surprisingly acute about the political weakness of the South Vietnamese government.
”’Vietnamization’ depends on broadening the GVN, and Thieu’s
new government is not significantly broader than the old (see below).
The best way to broaden the GVN would be to create the impression
uncertainty there is about the outcome of the war, the less the prospect
“(3) We face a dilemma with the GVN: The present GVN cannot
go much farther towards a political settlement without seriously endangering
its own existence; but at the same time, it has not gone far
enough to make such a settlement likely.
“Thieu’s failure to “broaden” his government is disturbing, but not
because he failed to include a greater variety of
politicians. It is disturbing because these politicians clearly do not believe
that Thieu and his government represent much hope for future
power, and because the new government does not offer much of a
bridge to neutralist figures who could play a role in a future settlement.
This is not to mention his general failure to build up political
strength in non-Catholic villages. In addition, as
Thieu becomes more dependent on the political support of the
South Vietnamese military.”
Kissinger, in other words, knew everything he needed to know in September 1969. We had not won the war (although he pointed out that repeated North Vietnamese offensives over the last eighteen months had left the enemy at a temporary disadvantage and in need of regrouping.) The South Vietnamese could not cope with the enemy, and the Thieu government was weak politically. A similar appreciation of Iraq today, it seems to me, would note that the insurgency was continually getting stronger; that its real political rival was Shi’ite fundamentalism, closely allied with the U.S.-supported government; and that our vision of a united, pluralistic Iraq clearly had no future.
But neither then nor now, apparently, was Kissinger willing to draw a reality-based conclusion. Since South Vietnam was almost certain to fall eventually anyway, we might have given the North Vietnamese the coalition government in the South that they demanded and at least spared the Indochinese people six more years of heavy fighting and millions of tons of American bombs. (Peace in 1969 might also have preserved Prince Sihanouk in power in Cambodia, and we would never have heard of the Khmer Rouge.) That, however, was politically unacceptable, both domestically and, in Nixon and Kissinger’s eyes, internationally. In the same way, facing reality—that Iraq will never turn out as we had hoped and that continued insurgency and civil war are further strengthening extremism—is not an option, apparently, in the Bush Administration.
As I mentioned yesterday, Kissinger’s real betrayal came in 1975, when he decided to blame the American people for the loss of
Let us not, however, mince words. The net effect of the invasion of
What should we do? In my opinion, we should convene a regional summit and invite all the Iraqi parties, including the insurgents, to discuss the boundaries of a new federalized