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...
Friday, January 26, 2007
The Neoconservative President
He was wrong.
Neoconservatism, in essence, is the view that the proper deployment of American force should solve all the world's problems. It originated, as Judith Klinghoffer showed, after the 1967 Middle East War, when Israel had to defend itself (albeit through a preventive strike) without any help from anyone but the U.S.--and with little enough of that. A number of prominent American Jews, many of them previously Democrats, concluded that since the United States was now Israel's only friend, it had to act forcefully and boldly around the world. That led them into alliances with leading anti-Communists such as Senator Henry Jackson. They opposed detente, supported Reagan's arms build-up, and, in some cases, argued that that build-up had somehow "defeated" the Soviet Union. In the 1990s a new generation of neocons began arguing for the overthrow of Iraq.
My informant evidently misinterpreted the changes early in the second Bush term. Wolfowitz and Feith did step down, perhaps because their boss Donald Rumsfeld had soured on the war they had plugged, perhaps, in Wolfowitz's case, because he wanted to get out of the line of fire now that the war had gone sour and no further attacks on Iran and North Korea were on the horizon, and perhaps, in Feith's case, for other reasons. Until about the middle of 2006, moreover, Rice and certain people around her--such as, perhaps, Phillip Zelikow--fed a lot of stories to the press that she had rehabilitated diplomacy as an alternative to force. But since at least the Lebanon war last summer, all that talk has seemed completely hollow, and with the President's unilateral decision to send 20,000 more men to Iraq, it has become farcical. The President, after disposing of Donald Rumsfeld (who felt the Iraqis had to do the job themselves), ignoring the Baker Commission, and finding his own generals lacking in vigor, decided more American force would solve the problem. Virtually the only two voices in favor of this step were second-generation neoconservatives, William Kristol of the Weekly Standard and Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. There really can be only one reason for the President's (and Vice-President's) decision: they agree, in their gut, with the idea that the United States has the right, the duty and the capability to impose its views upon the world, and that any other course of action spells disastrous weakness.
Because virtually no one else (except John McCain) now shares these views, we face a political and constitutional as well as a military and diplomatic crisis. The President and Vice President have set their judgment and that of a few ideologues against their own bureaucracy, a bipartisan majority of the Congress, and the American people, who registered their views in the election and continue to do so in polls. Because we have a conservative volunteer Army, the President--as he well knows and has actually remarked to friends--can get away with this without a national revolt. That cannot, however, make the policy a success.
The most appalling aspect of this ideology, to me, is not simply its rejection of any ideas of international consensus or international law--the ideas that were the foundation of our victories in the Second World War and in the Cold War--but its utter irresponsibility. Like so many Boomers over the last forty years, the purveyors of this policy assume they can have anything they want without paying for it. If they really feel American troops had to root out Middle Eastern extremism, they should be calling for a draft and the doubling, at least of our ground forces. But a draft would never pass, and might even affect their own children if it did--so a draft must not be mentioned. That contradiction alone should rule their ideas out of court, but the President of the United States appears to share the same view.
The 20,00 troops, in my opinion, cannot have a decisive effect on what is happening in Iraq, where, as I have mentioned several times, our casualty figures show that the insurgency is stronger than ever. It will be extremely difficult, as it was in Vietnam, to change strategy at this point. (The argument of Lewis Sorley, that General Creighton Abrams in 1969 turned US strategy into a success, has become popular for obvious reasons, but Sorley's own source--the transcripts of Abrams's conferences with his commanders--show how overstated it was. Abrams talked about possible alterations in strategy, but he did not even try to impose them on his commanders.) But the announcement, tragically, has shifted attention from what is actually happening on the ground--more and more ethnic cleansing and refugees--to the controversy in Washington. It will quite possibly tide the Administration over for another year, and after that, the election will take over the news, and the neoconservatives can start preparing their new stab-in-the-back legend about Iraq.
For all that, I see some reason to hope in the Congress's refusal to go along. It would behoove us all to study 1931-32 more closely; I have the distinct impression (as I suggested a couple of weeks ago) that by 1931 everyone understood Hoover's policies weren't working, but they didn't know what to do instead, and couldn't, anyway, with Hoover at the helm. That more or less describes where our foreign policy is today. The time has come, however, for the opposition to articulate a truly different vision of what America might stand for in the world and how it might conduct itself. I hope to take a crack at that myself in the next couple of weeks.
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Death of a Giant
Buchwald was born in 1925--too late, for most of his contemporaries, to see action in the great conflict--but when he was 16 or 17, in 1942, he lied his way into the Marine Corps and served in the Pacific. Although it wasn't until he wrote an autobiography in the 1990s that I knew this, he had an extraordinarily difficult childhood; his mother went into an institution shortly after he was born and remained there for the rest of her life and he grew up mainly in orphanages. He had three older sisters, I believe, and his father once blurted out that his birth had been an unintended accident. He reacted to all this by deciding to make people laugh.
Beginning in the 1950s and extending almost to his death Thursday from kidney failure, Buchwald was a humor columnist, first in Paris, then in Washington. His most famous column, which can easily be found, is about explaining Thanksgiving Day to the French, but it was far from the funniest. In 1955 he was covering the wedding of film star Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier, of the Grimaldi family, in Monaco, the biggest wedding by far of the decade. On the day of the wedding he published a column in the Paris Herald Tribune, explaining that he had not received an invitation because of the centuries-old feud between the Grimaldi family and the Buchwald family. A ticket arrived later in the day. He also hated exercise and once wrote an hilarious series about a rafting trip with the Robert Kennedy family through the Grand Canyon. On the last day of the trip they all climbed a mountain, but he stayed in his sleeping bag. "Why don't you want to climb the mountain?" Ethel Kennedy asked. "Because it's there," he said. He also played tennis with far more enthusiasm than skill, and wrote at least one column extolling his favorite shot, the lob.
But to Boomers like myself, Buchwald stood out because he was practically the first GI to speak openly about the insanity of the Vietnam War. One of his first, and still, his most chilling column on the subject appeared on March 9, 1965, literally the week that the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign began. He imagined what would have happened if Barry Goldwater had been elected: a Viet Cong terrorist attack would have led, first, to "tit-for-tat" raids on North Vietnam, and then to a sustained bombing campaign. Democrats, he said, would have protested Goldwater's new war and argued for negotiations, and Russia and France would have called for a reconvened Geneva conference, but Goldwater would have refused this proposal. Instead he would have issued a White Paper blaming Hanoi for the war. "It all seems far-fetched when you read it and I may have let my imagination run away with itself, because even Barry Goldwater, had he become President, wouldn't have gone that far," Buchwald concluded. "But fortunately, with President Johnson at the helm, we don't even have to think about it." Some of his columns later that year look positively clairvoyant. On July 29, the day after President Johnson had told the country we would send 175,000 men to Vietnam by the end of the year and that more would be sent later as necessary, he entitled his column "escalation." "The American government," he wrote, "announced today that 1000 U.S. troops have just landed in South Vietnam. These 5000 men will be used to protect airfields and vital installations around Saigon, although officials did not rule out that the 15,000 combat-ready soldiers, supported by 10,000 aviation personnel would be used to take the fight to the enemy." By the end of the column a mythical spokesman was speaking of a million Americans.
Vietnam was not the only foreign adventure for which Buchwald skewered LBJ. Rereading a series from the first half of 1965, when the President was literally on top of the world, I was amazed at how acutely Buchwald had sized him up and identified his fatal flaws. The President's secretiveness, sensitivity to criticism, and treatment of his staff were the target of withering columns. When Marines went into the Dominican Republic, Buchwald on May 23 summarized the history of a Latin American country, "La Enchilada:" the assassination of strongman General El Finco a few years earlier, his eventual replacement by a reformer, Don Juan Innhel, followed in 1963 by Don Juan's overthrow by a junta of generals, "much, of course, to our surprise." Then, after military governments succeeded one another, a ruling general warned the American Ambassador that if a civilian government took power, it would go Communist. "The word Communist was immediately decoded and sent to the White House," he wrote. "Bells started ringing all over Washington and seven paratrooper divisions were furiously dispatched to La Enchilada. Don Juan's forces and Santos dos Santos's forces were fighting in the streets. First the United States asked the rebels to give up.They refused. Then they asked the Santos forces to give up. They refused. They they asked that the Communists give up. They couldn't find any Communists."
The Vietnam war was still going strong in August 1967, and so was Buchwald. One morning he fantasized about how the story of the Edsel--a car Ford released under Robert McNamara--might have gone differently. Catching the ethos of his contemporaries perfectly, he told how Ford executives might have refused to drop the car, instead deciding to build more and bigger Edsels until, by the end of the column, they were ready to drop all their other cars to make it a success. It wasn't necessary to use the word "Vietnam" by that time. Nixon, of course, suffered from many of the same problems as Johnson, and he, too, provided plenty of raw material for the Buchwald wit. In December 1972 the Nixon White House refused to allow the Washington Post's society columnist to cover state dinners, and Buchwald said this was really no problem. He provided a template that could be used to describe any such occasion just by filling in the blanks. Several paragraphs quoted President Nixon's after-dinner speech:
""In all my travels around the world, I have never been in a more interesting country than (blank). Pat and I remember the first time we got off the plane at your wonderful capital of (blank), and how the crowds at the airport (blanked) us.
""The country of (blank) has shown by its actions that it is a true friend of the United States. Not only have you supported us in our (blank) against Communist aggression, but you have proven that you can make it on your own, as long as you have the military strength to survive.
"Your nation has sent us many fine people who have become worthwhile American citizens. I need only mention (blank), who invented the (blank), Dr. (blank) who found a cure for (blank), and, lest we forget the women, Mrs. (blank), whose ethnic pies and cakes have become famous throughout our land.'
"After the toasts, (blank) and his chorus came out on stage to entertain the guests. They sang Stephen Foster songs. But in the middle of 'Ol' Black Joe,' a young lady in the chorus reached into her bosom and pulled out a sign which said "STOP THE BOMBING."
"She was led off the stage by two Secret Servicemen while the chorus sang 'God Bless America.'. . .
"Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, when asked about the 'Stop the Bombing' incident, denied it had taken place."
A little more than a year ago I watched the film Good Night and Good Luck in Harvard Square. As I left the theater with my eyes full of tears, I saw an elderly couple still in their seats, looking similarly moved. "They were giants in those days," I said, and they nodded.
Buchwald, in his way, was one of them.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Although I haven't seen anyone else who has mentioned this--a revealing example of the major media's miniscule attention span--the new policy reflects, almost exactly, National Security adviser Stephen Hadley's memorandum of November 8 (which can still be read at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/29/world/middleeast/29mtext.html?ex=1168837200&en=066f2f55570c0372&ei=5070) speculated hopefully that Maliki wanted to take bolder steps towards national reconciliation but wasn't strong enough to do so. We might, it suggested, help by "augmenting his capabilities" by meeting the "four-brigade gap" in Baghdad. (President Bush stated the other night that our troop increases would be matched by Iraqi ones. We shall see.) A story in yesterday's Times, very likely based upon an interview with Hadley, confirms that two other proposals were rejected. The first was simply to withdraw from Baghdad and allow events there to take their course--really, the idea of "unleashing the Shi'ites" which I have discussed here several times. While a background source said that it simply wouldn't make sense to try to hunt down Al Queda while turning a blind eye towards ethnic cleansing, it seems to me the real objection was that radical Shi'ites, who would carry out that ethnic cleansing, are allied with Iran, which is clearly the big winner from Bush's Middle Eastern policy. The second option was to replace Prime Minster Maliki, who evidently isn't interested in pursuing national reconciliation, which remains the American policy. That, too, had been discussed in the Hadley memorandum. By doing for Maliki what he apparently won't do himself--taking on Shi'ite militias--we expect to persuade him to act as we wish--or perhaps, as Secretary Gates actually threatened in testimony, to see him replaced. (In the first sign of things to come, Maliki yesterday appointed an unknown Shi'ite general to head the new Iraqi effort in Baghdad without consulting the American authorities or other political blocs.)
The President selected this option, apparently, because it alone seemed to be a step towards our goal of a united Iraq. We have, however, no reason to believe--rather the contrary--that any significant Iraqi faction shares that goal. This was stated clearly and brilliantly to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday afternoon by Peter Galbraith, in a hearing of experts (the others were Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, who supports the troop increase, and Ted Galen Carpenter of the CATO Institute, who wants to give up our policy as a failure--an excellent discussion which the major media completely ignored.) As Rob Riggle entertainingly argued on Thursday's Daily Show, we plan to use Moqtar Al-Sadr's militias to crush the Sunnis, whereupon we will use the Kurds to crush Moqtar Al-Sadr, and use the Turks to crush the Kurds. We are literally at war with nearly every major faction in Iraq (we have even alienated Kurdish government with the raid on the Iranian consulate), sending 20,000 more troops to pursue our own agenda.
Taking a deep breath, let us jump back 74 years to the penultimate year of the Administration of Herbert Hoover, who will loom in fifty years, I predict, as the most similar President to George W. Bush (although he served only one term.) In the first week of December 1930, immediately after his party had lost huge majorities in both houses of Congress, Hoover gave his State of the Union address. Today the major threat to the nation is a hopeless war and the collapse of our world position; then it was the collapse of the American and world economy. Here is how Hoover began.
Substantial progress has been made during the year in national peace and security; the fundamental strength of the Nation's economic life is unimpaired; education and scientific discovery have made advances; our country is more alive to its problems of moral and spiritual welfare,
During the past 12 months we have suffered with other nations from depression. The origins of this depression lie to some extent within our own borders through a speculative period which diverted capital and energy into speculation rather than constructive enterprise. Had overspeculation in securities been the only force operating, we should have seen recovery many months ago, as these particular dislocations have generally readjusted themselves.
Other deep-seated causes have been in action, however, chiefly the world-wide overproduction beyond even the demand of prosperous times for such important basic commodities as wheat, rubber, coffee, sugar, copper, silver, zinc, to some extent cotton, and other minerals. The cumulative effects of demoralizing price falls of these important commodities in the process of adjustment of production to world consumption have produced financial crises in many countries and have diminished the buying power of these countries for imported goods to a degree which extended the difficulties farther afield by creating unemployment in all the industrial nations. The political agitation in Asia; revolutions in South America and political unrest in some European States; the methods of sale by Russia of her increasing agricultural exports to European markets; and our own drought--have all contributed to prolong and deepen the depression.
In the larger view the major forces of the depression now lie outside of the United States, and our recuperation has been retarded by the unwarranted degree of fear and apprehension created by these outside forces.In other words, we are not doing too badly, and the problems that remain are not our fault. (One can see how FDR swept to victory two years later simply by arguing that the US could come out of the depression regardless of what was happening to the world economy, a policy he proceeded to pursue.) Hoover proceeded to argue that things were not so bad, since GNP was only between 15% and 20% below 1928 levels (!), to state that producers and consumers, not the government, had to get the United States out of the Depression, and to announce plans to economize the government in order to make sure to balance the budget--a step which was bound to make things even worse, and did. Meanwhile, he opposed either unemployment relief by the federal government, or increased payments to veterans of the First World War (who reacted two years later by marching on Washington.
And how did the nation react? The country, said the New York Times editorial writers, had hoped "that we would have a program to submit which would at once appeal to the country, which he could unfold with fire and energy, and which would kindle popular enthusiasm. It cannot truthfully be said that he has done this." But the Times endorsed his economic rememdies. The Hartford Courant, evidently a reliably Republican paper, generally praised his approach, but felt compelled to add, "Whether or not such measures will prove sufficient cannot be forecast." The Los Angeles Times, while noting that the President opposed revolutionary suggestions such as national unemployment relief, was generally favorable to what he had said.
A true breakdown in American government, I believe, often happens when our leadership persists in "solutions" that are actually making the problem worse. My very brief opinion survey of 1931 suggests that President Hoover had educated America behind him; President Bush does not, although no one, as yet, dares to admit that we cannot reverse the unfavorable political trends in the Middle East, and the President's supporters still use the prospect of the growth of fundamentalist regimes as a reductio ad absurdum to try to garner support for escalation. We too--this time, on the foreign scene--are persisting in a disastrous course, weakening our military, creating more Islamic militants every day, alienating world opinion, discrediting political alternatives to fundamentalism, and making the Middle East increasingly unsafe for any of our friends. The world position of the United States will almost certainly continue to deteriorate during the next two years, although a resolute Congress might be able to halt, or at least slow, that process. But whoever is elected in 2008 will face both the necessity and the opportunity to transform American policy to a degree not seen since Roosevelt. For the time being, it seems the foreign arena will be critical, but that, too, could change.
Saturday, January 06, 2007
The End of an Era
The world's view of the United States still hearks back to the Second World War and its aftermath, and a few figures will illustrate how we reached the position we occupied at least from 1945 until about 1973. The United States, with a population of about 150 million people, mobilized 16 million of them--almost all of them young men--during the Second World War--that is, about 1/5 of the entire male population. 406,000 of them died during the war, 292,000 of those in combat. (This was, in fact, the first American war in which combat took more lives than disease.) That mobilization effort, starting from a base of well under a million troops, was an extraordinary feat that saved democracy within Western Europe and re-established it in Japan, creating a remarkably stable world that is in some ways still with us today. Faced with a worldwide Communist threat--which man observers never felt was as much military as political--the United States, after a brief pause, continued to maintain a very large conscript army for another twenty years or so. During the three-year Korean War, 1.8 million men served in the Korean theatre, out of 5.7 million in the military, and almost 37,000 were killed. 8.7 million people served in the military during the much longer Vietnam era, 3.4 million of them in the theater of operations, and about 59,000 were killed there. Total military strength at the height of the Korean and Vietnam wars was actually about the same--about 3.5 million. That was enough to win a draw in Korea while maintaining other commitments, but it was not enough to win in Vietnam, which had a total population, in those days, comparable to the population of Iraq today--about 20-25 million.
Today the United States has 300 million people--twice as many as in the Second World War and 50% more than in the Vietnam War. (That population increase, by the way, owes a great deal more to immigration than to the birth rate, which is still much lower than in the 1920s or 1950s.) The strength of its armed forces, however, is a little less than 1.4 million men and women--that is, about 40% of what it was during either Korea or Vietnam. The strength of the Army and Marine Corps has fallen to about 33% of what it was then. As a percentage of the population it is about 20% of what is was then. And meanwhile, the population of much of the world--including the Middle East--has been expanding very rapidly as well. As I noted many months ago, Iraq had a population of about 2 million when the British occupied it in 1920-1; it has about ten times that population now. During the five years since September 11, those years of the "long war" and the "generational challenge" that the President keeps talking about, we haven't increased the size of the armed forces at all. And now we are debating whether to leave troop strength in Iraq about about 130,000 or increase it perhaps to 140,000 or 150,000 for a few months by keeping people there longer or sending them a few months earlier--as if such figures could possibly make a difference in the long run. (News reports today suggest that no major Iraqi political force, including the Maliki government, wants this increase.)
In all likelihood, the United States could defeat any conventional military foe quite easily (although should China attack Taiwan, we certainly would not be able to conquer China, merely to defend Taiwan.) But the United States simply does not have the forces to occupy and rule a country the size of either Iraq or Afghanistan (which has much more territory and a larger population.) Someday historians will try to understand how the government of the United States took on such fantastically ambitious projects with such woefully inadequate resources. It is already clear, five years into the war in Afghanistan and four years into the war in Iraq, that we have had essentially no effect on the unfavorable political trends in both of those countries. We should not be surprised; our forces in those countries are large enough to make thousands of young men angry but not large enough to control them.
Let me be clear. Having spent much of my adult life studying periods of general war in Europe and elsewhere, I do not in the least regret the end of the era of conscript armies waging massively industrialized warfare. That era cost tens of millions their lives, and its wars, as I have pointed out many times here, had very mixed results. We should regard this as a step forward for civilization, but it also requires us to abandon the fantasy that American military power can determine the political development of the Middle East. As Richard Clarke pointed out in last Sunday's Washington Post, we have essentially wasted the last five years diplomatically because of our focus on a hopeless war. The recent high-level changes within the National Security establishment suggest something more frightening: that no one who has grave doubts about our course can continue to work in this Administration. Apparently we have two more years of the same to look forward to. Clarke made another very welcome point: he referred to "the broader struggle for peaceful coexistence with (and within) Islam" that the United States has to wage. That, not the transformation of an alien culture into a clone of western civilization, should and must be our goal. There have never been many Arab moderates such as President Bush claims to be helping, and thanks to his decisions there are now fewer every day. Militarily, diplomatically, and economically, we must begin living within our means. And once we reach that decision, it will be far less painful than we think.
Monday, January 01, 2007
Another new year
We are hearing more and more from conservative commentators to the extent that we must remain because the consequences of our leaving will be so bad. To them I am inclined to reply that the consequences of the war they advocated are already horrific and that, more importantly, there is not the slightest chance that I can see that remaining indefinitely will help. We are also hearing that an independent Sunni area will be haven for Al-Queda, but I frankly see no reason to believe that. The Iraqis have shown they are fiercely nationalistic and I don't see why the Sunni insurgent leaders would want an alien state within their state. Al Queda, meanwhile, has apparently established a new nuclear-protected safe haven in Pakistan anyway. But Al Queda, although capable of terrorist acts against the US, was never the major issue in this war. The war was designed spectacularly to reverse the decline of American influence in the Middle East--and instead, as I have pointed out, spectacularly accelerated it. The region desperately needs a halt to the Shi'ite-Sunni fighting before it spreads. The only way Americans could help bring that about is to advocate peaceful partition of Iraq. Meanwhile, a real political and constitutional crisis looms in the United States, as the President prepares entirely to disregard the opinions the voters expressed in the last election. In weeks to come I plan to try to formulate words in which a new President might signal the world that the United States has truly changed course. But meanwhile, we face more difficult years.