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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Thursday, December 28, 2006

End of year announcements

I will be taking the next week off. Meanwhile, may I remark that Gerald Ford, despite a totally undistinguished previous career as a legislator, was surely the most underrated President of my lifetime--a very moderate and sensible man who made some outstanding appointments, especially in the domestic sphere (John Paul Stevens and Edward Levi come to mind).

People continue to leave comments that either expect a response or expect me to recognize them. I must remind you all that everything you say comes to me as anonymous. Unless you actually do idenify yourself or contact me at dkaiser@williams.edu, I won't be able to comment or reply.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Truth marches on

It has been my good fortune to have begun life in a family obsessed with news, and then to have become a professional historian. One wondered, in the 1960s and 1970s, what the real story was about Vietnam, Watergate, the Kennedy Assassination, the Nixon pardon, and much more, and now, little by little, we can find out. At the same time, one must face a somewhat painful paradox: by the time the truth comes out, few people care about it, and if the topic (such as Vietnam) still has political implications, it may easily be shouted down. Today's New York Times includes two revelations about matters I have wondered about for decades.

The climax of the Vietnam peace talks in September-October of 1972 was one of the great shocks of my life. Awakening one morning as a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, what should I find on the front page of the Boston Globe but the text of a peace agreement, thoughtfully released by the North Vietnamese government before it could be signed? To my utter amazement, it began by reaffirming "the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Vietnam"--an American renunciation of the goal of our whole policy since 1954. Further reading showed that it did not require the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from the South, and that it put the Viet Cong on an equal footing with the South Vietnamese government. In the next few days and weeks, it became clear that the United States, however, was not willing to put the finishing touches on the agreement just yet, and I immediately began to wonder whether Henry Kissinger had negotiated the agreement in Paris without the approval of the President. I remember discussing this with a professor of mine, a member of the Silent generation and a devout believer in proper procedures. He was quite certain that anything Kissinger had agreed to must have been sent to Washington in advance. In succeeding years, however, more and more has come to light to indicate that my guess was right. Nixon didn't like the obvious weakness of the agreement, and that was the main reason that he refused to sign it until he had unleashed one last round of bombing.

The split between the two men is the theme of some brief excerpts from newly published documents in today’s Week in Review. The whole new volume of Foreign Relations of the United States on US-Soviet relations is available on line at state.gov, and I am going to quote longer excerpts with expletives undeleted. (Oddly, the Times, like the editors of Nixon’s own presidential transcripts in 1974, makes his language look worse than it was by making certain deletions.)

Nixon. . .If you turn it too much—There’s no greater pleasure frankly that I would have than to leave this office to anybody after having destroyed North Vietnam’s capability. Now let me tell you, I feel exactly that way and I’ll go out with a clean conscience. But if I leave this office without any use of power, I’m the last President—frankly I’m the only President, the only man with the exception of Connally, believe me, who had the guts to do what we’re doing. You know it and I know it. The only man who had the possibility to be President, and Connally’s the only other one who could do what I’m doing. Reagan never could make President to begin with and he couldn’t handle it.

Kissinger: Connally would do it without your finesse though.

Nixon: Well, Agnew, Agnew would—

Kissinger: Agnew. Well, Agnew would have a—Agnew would be in a worse position than Johnson was.

Nixon: But you know what I mean. The point is, as you know, considering electability, I’m the only person who can do it. Now, Henry, we must not miss this chance. We’re going to do it. I’m going to destroy the goddamn country, believe me, I mean destroy it if necessary. And let me say, even the nuclear weapon if necessary. It isn’t necessary.

But, you know, what I mean is, that shows you the extent to which I’m willing to go. By a nuclear weapon, I mean that we will bomb the living bejeezus out of North Vietnam and then if anybody interferes we will threaten the nuclear weapon.

[Omitted here is discussion of domestic opposition to bombing in

Vietnam and of the U.S. Presidential election.]

Nixon: So, all we really need out of this at the present time is enough momentum, enough of this situation where it appears, frankly where we go forward with the Soviet summit because that’s a big plus for us and where we cool Vietnam enough through the summer that after November we can kill them. Make any kind of a promise at all that we’ll do everything to get it past November and then do it. I don’t care whether it’s a year, 8 months, 6 months, whatever the case is.

Kissinger: The only problem is—

Nixon: You see what I’m getting at. Now within that context, however, let me say that if we cannot get that kind of situation, if there is a risk that somebody else will be here after November who will sell out the country, then, by God, I’ll do it. I’ll throw, I’m willing to throw myself on the sword. We are not going to let this country be defeated by this little shit-ass country.

Kissinger: We shall not—

Nixon: It’s not going to happen.

Kissinger: We’ll never have these guys more scared than now.

Nixon: You think so?

Kissinger: The Russians. In November, you’ll be in a good position too, but I agree with you in principle.

Nixon: I see.

Kissinger: My judgment, what we ought to get out of this, if we can get the offensive stopped, Mr. President, if we can get back to the levels of March 29th say—

Nixon: Yes.

Kissinger: —before this started—

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: —get talks started which the Soviets guarantee, have the Soviets engaged—

Nixon: Right. All right.

Kissinger: —then we will have won this—

Nixon: Then, yes, talks are started—But now wait a minute. Talks are started but are we, but we’re going to insist that they be held back over the DMZ?

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: They won’t do that. But, on the other hand, on the other hand, that’s what you’ve got to insist on. I think we’ve got to get that, they get back from the DMZ and so forth. What I’m getting at—

Kissinger: You see, but—

Nixon: But it mustn’t appear that we gave up the bombing for talks. That’s the thing.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: If we give up bombing for talks, we do what Johnson did.

Kissinger: No, no, but Mr. President, we will continue bombing during the talks. That’s the difference. Now I believe, Mr. President, if the Soviets deliver this package that the North Vietnamese will settle during the summit. They’ll settle because they will have to figure, having thrown their Sunday punch and having been in effect not supported

by the Chinese, not supported by the Russians, in fact squeezed by the Russians, and bombed by us. Why would they be better off next year at this time than this year?

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: Therefore I would bet, if we can get this—

Nixon: They misjudge American public opinion.

Kissinger: Mr. President.

Nixon: You don’t see these people—

Kissinger: No, no. But I will bet that American public opinion—If on Monday night, if everything works well, you can announce this trip, what are the goddamn peaceniks in this country going to say? That a week after, and the talks start again while we are bombing, what are they going to say about bombing then?

Nixon, obviously, plans to compel the North Vietnamese to withdraw from South Vietnam by any means necessary, and Kissinger flatters him that their strategy will succeed. But just a few days later, in Moscow, Kissinger spoke very, very differently to Brezhnev.

Dr. Kissinger: I haven’t yet either. [The Vietnamese] are a heroic people but not a wise people. They are sometimes more afraid of being deceived than of being defeated. They are not prepared to leave anything to history. I know they believe that in 1954 they were deceived by the settlement at Geneva. But the objective conditions between 1954 and 1972 are entirely different. In 1954 John Foster Dulles conducted our foreign policy and he was constructing positions against what he considered Communist aggression all over the world. We were going into countries. But in 1972, when President Nixon is conducting American foreign policy, we are seeking a policy not of confrontation with the Soviet Union or for that matter other major Communist countries, but negotiations. We are doing this in the spirit of cooperation which I described. We are not going into countries to build barriers; we are trying to work out cooperative arrangements. We don’t want any permanent bases in Vietnam.

We have two principal objectives. One is to bring about an honorable withdrawal of all our forces; secondly, to put a time interval between our withdrawal and the political process which would then start. We are prepared to let the real balance of forces in Vietnam determine

the future of Vietnam. We are not committed to a permanent political involvement there, and we always keep our word.

In recent years several similar conversations between Kissinger and Soviet and Chinese diplomats have come to light, in which he indicates that the United States will let events in Vietnam take their course once we have withdrawn—in other words, in which he confirms that his goal was in fact a “decent interval.” Last winter at the JFK Library, Warren Kimball presented a conversation between Nixon and Kissinger later in 1972 in which Kissinger again discussed an eventual South Vietnamese collapse and suggested that the United States could blame it on the Saigon government. Unfortunately, Dr. Kissinger did not show up at the conference until the next day and could not be asked to comment directly. But what is key for my purposes today is the difference between the ways in which Nixon and Kissinger were talking about the problem. While Nixon still wanted to compel a settlement on our terms, Kissinger wanted a settlement on just about any terms. In the end Kissinger got his way after Nixon, in December, bombed as much as American resources would permit (we lost 15 B-52s) and the American public would allow. As one who likes to judge actions based on consequences, I must thank Dr. Kissinger for having gotten us out of that war by outmaneuvering his boss, but I cannot forgive him, frankly, for continuing to blame the Congress and the American people, instead of the South Vietnamese government, for the fall of South Vietnam.

When Nixon finally discussed Vietnam with Brezhnev himself on May 24, he had given up the idea of securing a North Vietnamese withdrawal from the South, but he refused to make any political concessions and threatened once again to end the war by force.

Nixon: Our position now is very forthcoming. We believe it is fair. As a matter of fact, the General Secretary in his conversations with Dr. Kissinger in his visit a few weeks ago suggested the consideration of a ceasefire. All we ask now is a return of and an accounting for our

prisoners of war and a ceasefire. Once that is agreed to, we will withdraw all Americans within four months and cease military actions. We cannot go any further than that. Nothing further is negotiable on that point.

We could talk at great length about the wisdom of the American position in Vietnam. I know the views of the Soviet leaders. You know ours. No useful purpose would be served by going over past history. We now confront the fact that we have taken every step to bring an

end to what is the only major international issue which clouds relations between the United States and the USSR. It is our intention to end the war by negotiations; but negotiations must be fair to both sides.

There cannot be an ultimatum to us to impose on the South Vietnamese a government the North Vietnamese cannot impose by themselves. If the North Vietnamese are unwilling to end the war that way [by negotiations], 6 then I will do whatever I must to bring the war to an end.

Anything we do we will have in mind our desire not to exacerbate the relations between us. To this end we rejected the idea of a blockade which would have involved Soviet ships. During this meeting, for example, we stopped bombing the Hanoi area because of our desire to avoid any incidents embarrassing these talks. We have now reached the point where we see no way to deal with the North Vietnamese except the course I have chosen. Now the choice is theirs. They can have a peace which respects their independence and ends the conflict throughout Southeast Asia. Or we will have to use the military means available to us to bring the war to an end.

Let me be very frank. I am aware of the fact that the Soviet Union has an alliance with North Vietnam. I am aware that the Soviet Union supports the ideological views of the North Vietnamese. Of course, I am also aware that the Soviet Union has supplied military equipment

to North Vietnam. All of this I understand as an international fact of life. We happen to disagree about that area. On the other hand, as two great powers which have at present so many positive considerations moving in the right direction, it seems to me that the mutual interest of both the United States and the USSR would be served by our doing what we can to bring the war to an end. Candidly, I realize that the Soviet Union, because it does have an alliance with North Vietnam and because it supplies military equipment, might be able to influence them

to negotiate reasonably. But up to this point, looking at the evidence, I would have to say we have run into a blank wall on the negotiations front. So the situation is one where we have to continue our military actions until we get some assurance that going back to the negotiating table would produce some negotiating progress. If we can get that, then we might reconsider our present policy.

Let me conclude that I don’t suggest the Soviet Union is responsible for the fact that the offensive took place at this time. I only say that it did take place and we had to react the way we did. So we can see how this kind of situation can be very embarrassing to our relations in the future where the irresponsible acts of an ally could be supplied with arms and get out of control at some future time. I want you to know that I’m very frank on this subject because I know that our

Soviet friends disagree with me, but I know they’d want me to express myself very frankly and I have. . . .

Like President Bush, President Nixon insisted that because our course of action was right, we must, with sufficient will, be able to make it work. But he could not.

The second revelation in today’s Times is on the front page and concerns the life of Sigmund Freud. During the 1980s one of my colleagues at Carnegie Mellon was a Freud scholar named Richard Schoenwald, who kept us up to date on Freudian developments. I remember him showing us an article by another scholar, John Swales, arguing that Freud had had an affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, who never married and lived with the Freud family. His evidence came indirectly from Carl Jung, Freud’s friend and, later, rival, who had spoken frankly with Minna during a visit to the family. Jung said that Minna “was very much bothered by her relationship with Freud and felt guilty about it. . . .From her I learned that Freud was in love with her and that their relationship was indeed very intimate.” I firmly believe that a historian has to be willing to face up to the implications of a single piece of evidence, and I remember remarking that in post-Victorian Vienna, “very intimate” could mean only one thing. Today’s Times confirms it: Another scholar, Franz Maciejewski, has discovered a hotel register in which Freud signed for Minna and himself as man and wife.

That those in high positions conceal the truth, or that brilliant thinkers and politicians are not moral paragons, are two of the simplest lessons of history, yet powerful taboos make the battle to establish them an eternal one. Only a small minority of Americans will ever understand the truth about Nixon and Kissinger and Freud’s secret has been zealously defended by Freudians who should have known better for at least half a century. The market for truth remains a specialty market and a particularly remunerative one, but working in it, for me at least, has unique satisfactions.

Happy holidays to all.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

New data on Iraq

The New York Times prints an interesting chart on today's op-ed page.

It is a rather extraordinary record of how things have gone completely to hell over the last year. Just to list a few key findings, all based on comparisons of November 2006 and November 2005:

Civilian fatalities have more than doubled; muti-fatality bombings have increased more than 50%, to more than two every day; despite American boasts of heavy casualties inflicted on the enemy, the insurgency is estimated to have grown by 25%, to 25,000; the size of Shi'ite militias has more than doubled, although the number of foreign fighters has hardly increased at all. The biggest impacts are on the civilian population. 450,000 Iraqis have had to move within Iraq during the last year, making a total of 650,000; refugees leaving the country have doubled in the last year, reaching 1.8 million; and 1,250 new doctors have been killed or kidnapped (for a total of 2,250), and 7,000 have left the country (for a total of 12,000) in the last twelve months. Oil production is stable, but the fuel situation of the average household is much worse. In the most chilling statistic, "technically proficient" Iraqi security forces are estimated to have increased from 35,000 to 115,000 over the last year, but "politically dependable" security forces have gone from just 5,000 to 10,000. Those figures suggest that we are training the fighters in the civil war that has obviously engulfed Iraq.

On the same page appears an article by Thomas Friedman about the nature of Middle Eastern politics. I have been very critical of Friedman in the past, mainly for always being so right even when he is totatally reversing what he said earlier, but it's a basic principle of mine not to let anything stand in the way of acknowledging an insightful piece. This one has to be read in its entirety, but the most striking and provocative statement holds that Arab politicians, unlike their western counterparts, tell the truth in public but lie in private. Certainly there is nothing in his article to contradict the argument I made over the weekend. Here is the link:


It's available for subscribers only but will probably pop up somewhere on the net within a day or two.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Confirmation from Washington

It was in the last week of November that I first noticed the rumors that an Administration faction was arguing that we should simply back the Shi'ites in Iraq because they constituted the majority of the population. Today the New York Times has a story on the first page of the Week in Review that finally fleshes out the tale. Interpreting the daily press is like interpreting dreams: one must focus on the information that immediately looks new or inexplicable, even if it's buried in the tenth paragraph. That's all I did three weeks ago, and the story has gradually leaked out since then.

Today's story traces the proposal to Vice President Cheney's office, calling it the "Darwin option," that is, choosing survival of the fittest. The author, Helene Cooper, carefully avoids actually attributing it to the Vice President himself. As I noted in my review of State of Denial, Cheney is obviously the Hillary Clinton of this Administration--the one person everyone is truly afraid of--and no one would tell Cooper on the record that he is backing this course, but that is the clear implication. In one ray of hope, Cooper mentions that a few Administration officials have figured out that Iraq is almost certain to break up and wants to prepare for good relations with the new Kurdish and Shi'ite states. In another counsel of despair, the story concludes by saying that some Adminstraton officials are quite willing to unleash a regional civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis because the Sunnis--up until now our allies--are more numerous overall, albeit a miority in Iraq, and thus will eventually win. Apparently the cure for playing god is playing god some more.

An early Washington Post story on all this claimed that the pro-Shi'ite option came from the State Department, and specifically from Phil Zelikow, who has now left office. That seemed weird then, and today's story says that Condolezza Rice is on the other side, pushing for the "Hadley option," reconciliation between "moderate" Shi'ites and "moderate" Sunnis to outflank both the insurgency and Moqtar Al-Sadr. That certainly is the way that President Bush is talking, and seems more like "staying the course," but which way we will go seems to be an open question.

As I am convinced that some kind of partition is the only option for Iraq I am going to regard the glass as about 10% full because there still are Administration officials brave enough to defy Tony Snow ("Partition. . .is a non-starter") and endorse it. But they probably will not prevail. It makes sense that Cheney would side with the Shi'ites; he believes in nothing but power, and they have it. And while their victory would favor Iran in the short run, he hopes to attack Iran, too, and solve that problem. See the longer post from yesterday, below.

The Times story can be read at:


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Who Lost the Middle East?

Between 1941 and 1945 the United States defeated Nazi Germany with enormous help from the Soviet Union, which had to face far more and better-equipped German troops than we did, built more and better tanks, and inflicted and suffered much higher casualties. The Soviets reached Berlin before we did, quickly imposed Communism in three occupied countries (Rumania, Bulgaria, and Poland), and managed to bring about Communist political victories in Hungary and Czechoslovakia two years later (victories won without the help, actually, of Soviet troops.) Meanwhile, the United States was helping its democratic allies take power in Western Europe, outmaneuvering large Communist parties there. None of this, I suggest, will look very surprising to future historians, but all through he 1950s American politics were riven by the question of who had "lost" Eastern Europe. Even today, President Bush likes to mention Yalta as a terrible mistake that sold millions into slavery, never explaining how he, Roosevelt, Truman or anyone else could have changed things very much.

That, of course, was not all. In China the eight years of war against the Japanese had fatally weakened Chiang Kai-Shek's government, and the Chinese Communists, with a little help from the Soviet Union, managed to establish a new base in Manchuria. Chiang, with American help, flew his best troops into Manchuria and staked everything on an all-out battle there. When he lost that battle in 1948, his political position collapsed completely in the Yalu and the Yangtze Valleys as well, and he was driven off the mainland. A revolution in a country of 500,000 million people surely had to have profound causes, but the cry of "Who Lost China?" became even louder than the fury over Yalta. This prompted Denis Brogan, a British historian who knew and loved the United States very well, to write a brilliant essay, "The Illusion of American Omnipotence," which still makes very interesting reading today.

The "loss" of Eastern Europe and of China took place during Democratic Administrations, and came when Republicans were becoming increasingly desperate to get back into power. When Adlai Stevenson tried to "talk sense to the American people" about China in 1952, a tidal wave swept him away. When South Vietnam fell in 1975 we heard relatively little about who lost it (although Henry Kissinger immediately blamed the Congress). Republicans were now in power and the war had gone on too long and too futilely for most Americans to care. But in the last twenty years a whole "who lost Vietnam" industry has sprung up, fueled by various stab-in-the-back theories that blame American journalism, the American people, and the peace movement, as if 59,000 lives and untold millions of dollars were not enough for the US to have sacrificed for that particular endeavor.

Now comes the turn of the Middle East. For those who think that my headline is going too far, I would like to present the results of the latest Zogby poll of five relatively friendly Middle Eastern countries. KSA stands for Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Table 1.1: Opinion of the United States













































There, in a nutshell, are the results of the Bush Administration's policies in the region--the reduction of pro-American sentiment from low to virtually non-existent. As Zogby explains in his analysis of his figures, our policies in Iraq, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in Lebanon are cited by respondents as the source of their dislike. It will not help that we are now evidently helping Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stage what amounts to a coup d'etat against the elected Hamas government, or that the Administration seems very likely temporarily to increase the number of troops in Baghdad. Nor do these figures tell the whole story. Although we might do somewhat better in the smaller Persian Gulf states, Pakistan is clearly emerging as an enemy, not an ally, of US policy. The Pakistani government wants the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan and has made deals allowing it to operate freely within an enormous border area. No one paid much attention, but the Pakistani government also let slip recently that it was an American bomb, not a Pakistani one, that killed about 80 students in an Islamic school in an attempt to kill Al Queda leader Al-Zawahiri. The Iranian people are rallying around their government. Not every Middle Eastern government is destined to become fundamentalist and revolutionary, but pro-American ones will remain, at best, fragile oddities.

The Baker-Hamilton Commission, it seems to me, was trying to make this point with some of its recommendations, but they clearly are going to be discarded. In addition, the polling data suggests that things have now gone too far to be reversed. (Some of the deterioration in our position, incidentally, is directly related to the consequences of invading Iraq. Jordan is now home to more than half a million Iraqi refugees, and this cannot have made the US more popular.) Yet I see no possibility that the Bush Administration is going to reverse its policies, which means that the American position will be even worse two years hence.

Even now more Americans than not, I am afraid, subscribe to the illusion of American omnipotence. This week's New Yorker features another long article by George Packer, the author of The Assassin's Gate, which I reviewed here on November 25, 2005. In his book Packer frankly admitted that he had supported the invasion of Iraq, although he clearly regretted it then. His new piece, however, explores the ideas of various Americans on how we are going to defeat a "global insurgency" among Muslims, which amounts, really to setting the political development of enormous regions of the world on a new and more congenial path. Packer's optimism seems to have to some extent returned; he does not unqualifiedly endorse any of the ideas he runs down, but surely he would not have used so much precious New Yorker space on them if he didn't think this was a worthwhile project. Let me make one thing clear: as a historian, I do not.

Boomers, frankly, still don't understand how the United States secured its position of world leadership: by helping to win a huge war, maintaining a large military, and setting up a vast network of alliances to defend against a common enemy. Democracy and capitalism were part of the mix, but probably less important, ultimately, than our concrete achievements from 1940 through 1955 or so. Now we still have democracy and capitalism (although neither one is providing as appealing an example to the world as it did in years past), but our military is much smaller in manpower terms and we have allowed our alliances to decay. Nowhere is it written that the United States must rule the world, benevolently or otherwise--but many of us can't seem to face that.

Let us try to grow up. Although the Bush Administration has massively accelerated the process, it did not lose the Middle East. The Middle East has been moving away from the United States for at least 50 years, since John Foster Dulles withdrew the financing of the Aswan Dam from Nasser in Egypt and the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown. The biggest milestones along the way are the Six Day War, the Lebanon civil war, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the emergence of Hizbollah and Hamas, the coup d'etat in Algeria that nullified a fundamentalist election victory in 1991, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2000, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its consequences. Things looked more hopeful on two occasions: during the Egyptian-Israeli peace talks from 1973 through 1979, and after the 1991 Gulf War. We could not however follow through on the first, all the more so after Sadat was assassinated, and we threw away our gains after the Gulf War by deciding catastrophically to invade Iraq. But the long-term trend is clear. It serves little real purpose to debate how much of the problem relates to our support of Israel, since we have never seriously considered changing course there, and since it is far from clear that anyone, after 1967 anyway, could have made a lasting peace. Support of Israel has contributed to the problem, but things have gone too far now to reverse it even if we wanted to, which we don't. If there is a change it will come from inside Israel, not from American pressure.

The United States has been the political leader of western civilization for the last 60 years. We may now lose that position because of the Bush Administration’s policies, particularly if Europe steps up to the plate; but in either case, we should remind ourselves of a few world-historical truths. Neither the Greeks, nor the Romans, nor early Christian or early Modern Europe, or even the European imperial powers of the 1870-1945 period depended on having the entire world conform to its values. The greatest advances of European civilization in the 17th and 18th centuries took place with the Ottoman Turks and a Russian despotism on Europe's doorstep. Our children may face something similar, but they can survive and prosper nonetheless, just as we did while Communism spread over much of the globe. What has happened in Iraq is tragic, but it is hardly all our fault. We imprudently and illegally removed a foreign government, but we did not force the Iraqis to start a bloody civil war. The Muslim world will have to put its own house in order. Let us not take the job upon ourselves. We have much to do at home. We do not want to have to ask the more difficult question, who lost America?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Quick update--the Shi'ite option

This morning's Washington Post follows up on last week's critical stories and reveals that Vice President Cheney's office favors getting behind the Shi'ites and the Kurds at the expense of the Sunnis. The battle, then, is between Cheney and Hadley. The new story did not repeat what the same authors said last week--that the State Department was behind that option. (That always seemed awfully strange to me. Perhaps the source last week didn't want to show the Vice President's hand.) To back the Shi'ites without setting some pretty strict limits on their ambitions, I think, will be disastrous--but it sounds as if the Administration may indeed go that way.

See the much longer post on the Baker-Hamilton report, below.

The Baker-Hamilton Report

Discussing the Silent generation that produced the Baker-Hamilton report, I thought I was emphasizing their good points: their commitment to the political order under which they grew up, their respect for data, and their willingness to work together. A comment complained that I had not given enough credit to Dr. Martin Luther King, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles for their contributions to American life. Actually I’m inclined to think that we have somewhat overvalued Dr. King’s contribution to civil rights in comparison to older leaders like Walter White, Roy Wilkins, and Thurgood Marshall, whose legislative/legal strategies got the civil rights movement about 75% of the way to full equality. Direct non-violent action got us the last 25%, but it did not, sadly, have such a lasting legacy. As for Elvis and the Beatles, the cultural and social contributions of Silents and Boomers, important as they truly were, only took place, and could only take place, against the background of the relatively stable society our parents and grandparents had put together. It was stable enough to survive our rebellious youth, but it is not surviving Boomers in power.

That paragraph, however, is a digression from the business at hand, a look at the Baker-Hamilton report. And alas, it shows the Silents at their best and worst. While it shows some respect for critical facts, it also refuses to draw the obvious conclusions those facts warrant. Despite the commission’s bipartisan character, it looks more than anything else like a public salvo in a generational family fight among Republicans, with older realists facing off against younger neoconservatives. And perhaps because its members—led by Baker himself—would never have been dumb enough to conquer Iraq in the first place, it essentially finesses the issue of what to do there by proposing what is either yet another optimistic fantasy, or an option for disguised withdrawal. In my opinion, within five years at the very most, some one is going to have to acknowledge that the Middle East, politically, is lost. This report will not help.

The arrangement of the report itself is something of a giveaway. After a good but paradoxical analysis of the situation on the ground in Iraq, the recommendations in the second part of the report start with the broader Middle East. Baker and Hamilton and the rest’s real gripe against the Bush Administration is its broader Middle Eastern policy. Since 1973, the United States has balanced enormous aid for Israel with the careful cultivation of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states, and even Syria (the latter Baker’s particular achievement in 1990-1, when he brought Syria into the anti-Iraq coalition), and with some pressure on the Israelis, as well as the Palestinians, to work for peace. No one after 1979, unfortunately, ever had the courage to think about re-establishing relations with Iran (except, ironically, the sponsors of the Iran-Contra fiasco), but essentially policy makers tried to deal with the Middle East based on reality. That policy was cracking under Bill Clinton because the Palestinians refused to make peace on the terms the Israelis offered. (Exactly how generous those terms were is a matter of some debate among professionals, but they were certainly better than anything the Palestinians are going to get now.) Given the growing strength of fundamentalism in the Middle East and the apparent lack of any significant political alternative among the Arabs, the long-term prospects for that policy were probably dim in any case. But for almost thirty years it worked pretty well.

We all have trouble recognizing that time has passed us by. (In my case, as I remarked to a friend the other day, it is hard to shake the fantasy that American universities still include a parallel universe of history departments in which the kind of work I do, focusing on the kinds of questions I discuss here, is still taken seriously.) The world was a kinder place for James Baker in the 1980s and early 1990s, when he was on top of the world, and he would like to restore those glory days. But they are gone, destroyed, literally, by a younger generation. Abandoning even-handedness, the Bush Administration has adopted the Israeli position (stated a couple of years ago by Sharon’s aid Dov Weisglass) that when the Palestinians become Finns, Israel will talk to them. President Bush in 2002 essentially stated that Israel could keep any land that it could settle in a final peace agreement. (That statement, which I always found appalling, looked even worse when the New York Times recently published a story showing that many Israeli settlements are on land owned by Palestinian Arabs.) The Administration has treated both Iran and Syria as pariah states, and it hasn’t been the least interested, as far as I can see, in the opinions of the Saudis, the Egyptians, or the other Gulf states. It has staked everything on a fantasy of a newly democratic Middle East full of pro-American (and even pro-Israeli governments)—even though every election in the Middle East has shown a negative trend towards the United States. (Incidentally, President Bush spoke once again the other day of the evil terrorists who are trying to prevent the emergence of a “young democracy” in Palestine, and no reporter, I believe, has ever challenged that vision by pointing out that Hamas actually won the last election by a substantial margin. The President still speaks of Mohammed Abbas as the leader of the Palestinian government.)

And thus, the Baker-Hamilton report focuses on returning to previous policies towards the established Arab states, and towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regarding the latter, the recommendations, as some conservatives immediately pointed out, contain an obvious, pointed dig at Israel and its neoconservative supporters in the United States: They called for “Sustainable negotiations leading to a final peace settlement along the lines of President Bush’s two-state solution, which would address the key final status issues of borders, settlements, Jerusalem, the right of return, and the end of conflict.” The reference to the “right of return,” which allows Jews from anywhere in the world to settle in Israel while denying the same right to Palestinian refugees, is unprecedented, and touches one of the most powerful nerves in Israel and in the pro-Israeli lobby in the US. As Jimmy Carter has been pointing out since the publication of his new book, a real taboo prevents much discussion of these issues in public here in the US, but they are obviously heatedly discussed in the upper reaches of the establishment in Washington from which the commission came. To be fair, however, these recommendations are, for the moment, impossible. The Commission also says that only Palestinians who recognize Israel’s right to exist can join the talks, and Hamas, which, again, won the last election, refuses to do so.

And what about Iraq?

Here the paradox of the report is painful and obvious. The Commission must have heard from many who believe that some kind of partition of Iraq is the only way to end the violence, but breaking up countries is not what members of the Silent generation do. (See my earlier post about the Compromisers.) They reject that alternative, apparently sincerely, and call for “national reconciliation.” Yet there analysis of the situation in Iraq shows that almost no one is truly in favor of such a course. Allow me to quote four key paragraphs.

One core issue is federalism. The Iraqi Constitution, which created a largely autonomous Kurdistan region, allows other such regions to be established later, perhaps including a “Shi’astan” comprising nine southern provinces. This highly decentralized structure is favored by the Kurds and many Shia (particularly supporters of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim), but it is anathema to Sunnis. First, Sunni Arabs are generally Iraqi nationalists, albeit within the context of an Iraq they believe they should govern. Second, because Iraq’s energy resources are in the Kurdish and Shia regions, there is no economically feasible “Sunni region.” Particularly contentious is a provision in the constitution that shares revenues nationally from current oil reserves, while allowing revenues from reserves discovered in the future to go to the regions.

The Sunnis did not actively participate in the constitution-drafting process, and acceded to entering the government only on the condition that the constitution be amended. In September, the parliament agreed to initiate a constitutional review commission slated to complete its work within one year; it delayed considering the question of forming a federalized region in southern Iraq for eighteen months.

Another key unresolved issue is the future of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq that is home to substantial numbers of Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. The Kurds insisted that the constitution require a popular referendum by December 2007 to determine whether Kirkuk can formally join the Kurdish administered region, an outcome that Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk staunchly oppose. The risks of further violence sparked by a Kirkuk referendum are great.

Iraq’s leaders often claim that they do not want a division of the country, but we found that key Shia and Kurdish leaders have little commitment to national reconciliation. One prominent Shia leader told us pointedly that the current government has the support of 80 percent of the population, notably excluding Sunni Arabs. Kurds have fought for independence for decades, and when our Study Group visited Iraq, the leader of the Kurdish region ordered the lowering of Iraqi flags and the raising of Kurdish flags. One senior American general commented that the Iraqis “still do not know what kind of country they want to have.” Yet many of Iraq’s most powerful and well-positioned leaders are not working toward a united Iraq.

I do not see how anyone can read those paragraphs and conclude that Iraq can peacefully be held together, but that it is the premise behind the panel’s recommendations. Europe and the United States made no parallel attempts to hold together Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, or the Soviet Union—all states created at the same time as Iraq. I have become convinced (and the paragraphs above would do the trick, even if Peter Galbraith’s book hadn’t already) that Iraq is almost certain to be split up, and that the only issue is whether the United States is going to futilely oppose that process until we are driven out of the country or try to make it as peaceful as possible and get some credit out of it. The commission wouldn’t face up to the problem it stated so clearly.

Or did it? The commission report has quite a bit in common with another famous document from another war, the McNamara-Taylor report of October 1963. The Vietnam War at that point was going very badly, but official Washington had managed to deceive itself on that point. Robert McNamara, the report’s principle author, insisted that the bulk of the task would be finished by early 1965 and most American troops would be gone by then. (Unlike Baker and Hamilton, he even threw in an immediate, token 1000-man withdrawal as well.) That report also continued the suspension of aid to Ngo Dinh Diem to try to force him to make political changes, and many of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations show that spirit as well. Indeed, like an earlier Vietnam report, the Taylor-Rostow report of 1961, it calls for intense American involvement within several key Iraqi ministries. Diem rejected those suggestions in Vietnam and there is evidence within this report that they won’t get far in Iraq, either. In short, neither the 1963 report nor this one really has a recipe for success, although both pretended they did. But Baker and Hamilton want a substantial withdrawal of American combat units by the spring of 2008. Given the bleak picture of internal Iraqi conditions that they have painted, that, I think, amounts to washing our hands of the whole matter, and they are too smart not to know that. Iraq, like Iran in 1979, will be written off as a failure and the United States will make a renewed effort to shore up what is left of its position among authoritarian Arab governments.

Like the Germans in 1917 or the Japanese in 1941, we are trapped, for the moment, by our commitment to unrealistic expectations. Somehow we must come out of this with a strengthened position in the Middle East, all our politicians seem to agree; but we can’t. (That analogy is not altogether fair, of course, because we have not committed nearly the resources or done nearly the damage that those two nations had done, but we share the dilemma of having established unrealistic objectives. Our position, in terms of the size of our commitment, is more analogous, perhaps, to the British fighting the American Revolution, and they did find the will to give up, but only after six years.) The Commission’s failure to take on the issue of our objectives has given the Bush Administration its best weapon against it. The Commission hasn’t repudiated our objective in Iraq, and its recommendations won’t secure it.

The Silent generation, once again, believes in process, and many pages of the commission’s report make suggestions for re-organizing the American effort in Iraq and the Iraqi government itself. Perhaps I shall go into these further later, but time will tell whether they can get off the ground.

Near the end of the report, however, the Commission struck a blow for the truth. I quote:

In addition, there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq. The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases. A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn’t hurt U.S. personnel doesn’t count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.

Certainly that is true. One of the first Silents to have a significant impact within the American government was the late Sam Adams, a CIA analyst who insisted in 1967 that it was wrong to undercount the Vietnam in order to show that we were winning the war. He could not persuade his GI elders, and I doubt that Baker and company, his contemporaries, will persuade the Boomers who have gotten us into this mess. But both were right—the truth will out. I regret, however, that the commission was unwilling to go in the direction that their data, in my opinion, clearly points.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Somehow I accidentally moved the post, "The Split in the Administration," into the drafts folder a few days ago. Since I think it's one of my more important ones, I'm calling it to everyone's attention. Two posts down.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Silent Generation, R.I.P.

For weeks the Baker-Hamilton Commission has performed an essential function--taking up acres of column-inches in the nation's newspapers. Its recommendations, to judge from reports, have been watered down to the point where the Bush Administration can at least pretend to be taking them seriously, and it hasn't been able to come up with a recipe for success, but it has diverted attention from the rapidly descending spiral in Iraq. (If for instance any mainstream outlet has reported the substantial increase in US casualties during the last quarter of this year, as I did a couple of weeks ago, I haven't seen it.) The Commission will have virtually no impact, but it is a kind of monument to the generation to which every one of its members now belong, the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1942.
According to the generational scheme worked out by my friends William Strauss and Neil Howe, the Silent generation is the only American generation never to have produced a president. This is only half true; while technically from the GI generation, Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) was still at the Naval Academy when the Second World War came to an end, and therefore missed the defining experience of his elders, combat, and his approach to governing was more characteristic of the younger generation. John McCain, moreover, has every intention of correcting that omission in 2008. But in 1993, after rejecting Silents Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, we jumped directly from GI George Bush to Boomer Bill Clinton. A year later Boomers became the most numerous generation in Congress, and Washington hasn't been the same since.
The defining moment for Silents was their childhood, lived out in the shadow of the Second World War. Because they had to look after their worried parents, they became empathizers, mediators, and conciliators. Because they did not get the opportunity to help solve a worldwide conflict through force of arms, they preferred more intellectual approaches to problems, and tried to avoid nasty confrontations. They were young adults during the 1950s, and although many of them (especially women) abandoned the social mores of that era in the late 1960s and 1970s--their divorce rates were the highest of any generation, and they had by far the most divorces with children still in the house--they retain a commitment to the political consensus of that era. Confronted with a problem like the Vietnam War, they generally began not by questioning its moral rectitude, but by pointing out that it was not working and trying to fix it. They could not, however, get their GI elders to listen to them.
The bipartisan Presidential commission is a quintessentially Silent institution, devoted to the idea that calm. unideological study will eventually yield the right solution to a problem. Silents are good at crossing party lines, and two of them, Phil Gramm and Warren Rudman, actually made a big dent in the federal deficit in the late 1980s. Silents (or *Silents like Jimmy Carter) are also excellent diplomats, and James Baker, who settled the civil war in El Salvador, successfully promoted the reunification of Germany, and put together the coalition against Iraq, was a s good as any. They also have a sense of how fragile success can be, and Baker, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney (in an earlier incarnation) wisely decided not to go to Baghdad in 1991. Baker and company find themselves in the ironic position of trying to end a war that they never would have begun in the first place.
Boomers, on the other hand--at least those who have come to dominate the political arena--care about only two things: being on the right side, and preserving the myth of their own omniscience. Silent Paul O'Neill was driven out of the Bush Administration because he wanted actually to understand the nuts and bolts of economic problems instead of staying "relentlessly on message," as Boomer Karen Hughes told him to do Colin Powell, another Silent, was simply ignored by President Bush and his fellow Boomers. (No theory can explain all human behavior, and Donald Rumsfeld is hardly a typical Silent--he strikes me, like the young Clint Eastwood, as a would-be GI, determined to show he can out-John Wayne John Wayne, yet oddly Boomer-like in his inability to take responsibility for any mistakes.) I have said more than enough about my own generation's catastrophic impact to have to go into it any further today.
The first Silent Presidential candidate was Robert Kennedy, and it is not coincidental that, in early 1968, he tried to solve the Vietnam problem in the same way that Hamilton and Baker are trying to deal with Iraq. Essentially, RFK told LBJ that he would not run against him for President (which, as an Establishment figure, he had grave reservations about doing) if Johnson would appoint an independent commission and accept its recommendations about Vietnam. LBJ refused. Kennedy's campaign, interrupted by his assassination, was very Silent in nature. While he deplored the impact of the Vietnam War, he never promised to end it--indeed, during his campaign against Eugene McCarthy, who frankly favored a coalition government, he promised to "clean up" the Saigon government, a hardy perennial if ever there was one. He preached reconciliation and peace, coming across, as my son put it two weeks ago after seeing the film Bobby, like the "American Gandhi." (Incidentally, I enormously enjoyed the film as an excellent portrait of a particular moment in American history, and I am sorry it isn't doing better.)
The recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission, alas, are virtually certain to suffer the fate of the Crittenden compromise of 1860-1. John Crittenden belonged to the Compromiser generation. Born in 1787, just a few years after Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, he made a last-ditch effort to compromise the split between the North and South and prevent the Civil War during "the great secession winter," as Henry Adams called it, by enshrining the principles of the Missouri and California compromises in the Constitution. But younger men in both the North and South would have none of it. Baker and his cohort worked hard during the last thirty years or so to live with the Middle East as it was, and maintained an American foothold there despite rising fundamentalism and anti-Americanism. Bush and company have swept all that away. They have no interest in restoring it, and it is not clear if they could. There is no going back to the 1980s and 1990s. The future, for the time being, belongs to the Boomers, and since the Bush Administration's vision has failed, we must come up with something completely different.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Split in the Administration

The developments which I discussed and repeatedly updated over the last three days have become significantly clearer this morning thanks to a Robin Wright story in the Washington Post. Elements within the State Department, led by the now-departing Philip Zelikow, have definitely recommended abandoning outreach to the Sunnis and depending entirely on the Shi'ites and the Kurds--what they call the "80% solution." The military in Baghdad violently opposes this because they think that reconciliation with the Sunnis is the only way to end the insurgency. The leak of the November 8 Hadley memorandum thus emerges as an attempt to get the Administration on record as favoring reconciliation with the Sunnis (and evidently to put the fear of Allah into Prime Minster Maliki). Like most leaks, it evidently was an initiative in a bureaucratic battle inside Washington.
According to Wright's story today, the White House policy review team actually was coalescing around this vision as of last weekend, and Hadley's leak was therefore in the nature of a rearguard action. (As noted below, a "senior intelligence official" had discussed this option with the White House earlier this week.) (The Wright story is at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/30/AR2006113001710_pf.html .) Hadley's memo apparently induced Maliki to delay his trip to Jordan for a day to make a point. It also may well have precipitated Moqtar Al-Sadr's boycott of the government and parliament, which was announced hours after the memo was published. But President Bush's warm endorsement of Maliki as the right man for the job, and Maliki's offer to take over security within six months, suggests to me that Secretary Rice favors the pro-Shi'ite option and that the President is being won over to it. (Hadley's statement to reporters today that the White House is not in a panic and sees no need to make an immediate decision on policy also suggests that he is hoping to get the new course rejected with the help of the Baghdad Embassy, the US miltary in Baghdad, and, perhaps, Secretary Robert Gates.)
We seem, in short, quite close to a decision to back the Shi'ites. President Bush's rhetoric suggests that he would accept this decision, since he has consistently blamed all the sectarian violence on Sunni extremists and on Al-Queda rather than the long-standing sectarian divisions of which he was not even aware as recently as early 2002. We are indeed at a turning point in Iraq, but the question is not between staying or going, but between trying to bring the three ethnic groups together on the one hand, or allowing a war against the Sunnis to proceed on the other. The latter course, I think, will be catastrophic for the United States's image in the region, and it would be far better to work for the most peaceful partition possible--but that option has repeatedly been ruled out, most recently by President Bush himself. The Administration wants to be able to tell the American people that it has won in Iraq, and backing the strongest two out of three factions--"the 80% solution," some policy-makers call it--may appeal to it as a way to do so.