Featured Post

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...

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Blindly forward

"Going to the source" was a conservative Republican mantra for decades during the Cold War. New documentation confirms various remarks in Richard Nixon's memoirs, that he viewed every hostile act around the world as a Communist test of American will, and frequently berated himself for not reacting sharply enough. When the Reagan Administration came into power in 1981, Alexander Haig talked freely of taking on Sandinista Nicaragua and Castro's Cuba militarily in order to deal with the guerrilla problem in El Salvador. (Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and the settlement of the El Salvadorean insurgency was one of the great triumphs of American diplomacy under the first President Bush.) And now, seemingly, President Bush has decided that we shall continue to have problems in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine until we have attacked Iran. Senator Biden, showing more backbone than he ever has before, has already announced as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that the Congress has not authorized such a move, and we must hope, frankly, that the Congress takes the bull by the horns and pronounces against war in Iran, which numerous sources inside and outside the Bush Administration are increasingly predicting. (An identified former official, I recently heard, just warned the new Secretary General of the United Nations that the chances of such an attack are better than 50-50.) Our latest anti-Iranian move--the violation of diplomatic immunity to arrest several Iranians in Kurdistan--has angered the Kurds, the closest thing we have to an ally in Iraq. Now that the American people have shown the way in November, Congress has a chance to start re-establishing American prestige before the world.

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.

No comments: