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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Iraq once again

From the time it took office the Bush Administration has prided itself on "staying on message" and defining the terms and the language of public debate. We are always moving down "the way forward," the President always knows not only what needs to be done here, but how other countries should behave, and problems--most recently the scandal of the care given disabled veterans at Walter Reed--always belong to some one else. (Tony Snow passed that one over to the Defense Department the other day.) Now, in Iraq, the surge is going to impose security in Baghdad, win the confidence of the Iraqi people for the Maliki government, and continue, as Vice President Cheney said, our "great successes." All this makes it impossible for the press more than intermittently to focus on what is actually happening in Iraq because they always lead with what the Administration says. But some very committed people are keeping score in Iraq, many stories of internal Iraqi politics are coming out, and the truth can be discerned beneath all the blather.

To begin with, as I pointed out over a month ago, we are still losing, not winning, the war in Iraq. That does not mean our men are about to be driven out, but it does mean that the balance of power continues to shift in favor of the enemy. At the rate things are going we shall suffer at least 80 killed in action during the month of February. That will mean a total of 545 Americans killed in action during the last six months, compared to 369 Americans killed in action during the previous six months--an increase of nearly 50%. The number of wounded who did not immediately return to duty (a softer figure) has also increased, from 1257 in March-August 2006 to 1459 (estimated) for the last six months, and the number of wounded who did return to duty is up from 1782 to 2228 in the same period. The enemy is hitting more Americans, more lethally. The loss of half a dozen helicopters in recent weeks, which has contributed to the increased lethality, is a very worrying sign.

And despite some recent press reports, only a minority of those increases have taken place in Baghdad. The outstanding web site icasualties.org , from which these figures are taken, also prints casualties by province. For the March-August '05 period 176 Americans died in Anbar province, always the most violent, and 95 in Baghdad. The figures for the last six months are 199 in Anbar, 176 in Baghdad, which means that while things are getting worse in Baghdad they continue to deteriorate more slowly, from a higher base, in Anbar, as well. And although most provinces in the South seem to be quieting down, Diyala province, northwest of Baghdad along the Iranian border, has already seen more US deaths this year as in the whole of 2006--26 against 20.

The political situation in Iraq, meanwhile, is looking more and more like South Vietnam in 1963, with Prime Minister Maliki in the role of Ngo Dinh Diem. Both face a hostile religious minority--Sunnis (who have been fighting actively, of course, since the occupation) for Maliki, Buddhists for Diem. In both cases the American Administration is pushing them to be conciliatory--and in both cases, they are doing the opposite. For six months, from May 1963 until his overthrow in November, Diem refused to take any Buddhist complaints seriously. Maliki, the Los Angeles Times reports today, has done nothing to get a more moderate de-
Ba'athification policy in place in Iraq--a high American priority. And he has handled a Sunni woman's extraordinary accusations of rape by three Shi'ite soldiers in the most inflammatory possible way, almost immediately dismissing them and claiming that she is an insurgent sympathizer. The United States seems to be caught in the middle of that one, too, because the woman received treatment at an American medical facility, which presumably has a good idea of what actually occurred. Maliki seems to have failed the test that Stephen Hadley set up in his famous memo, but I doubt the Administration will dump him. For one, it would obviously be a most unpopular move; for another, neoconservatives generally hold the view that we lost Vietnam by getting rid of Ngo Dinh Diem. (I do not believe that and have written about it at length in American Tragedy, but it would take us too far afield to get into that now.)

In December and January I posted repeatedly about two alternative policies that the Administration seemed to be weighing: either continuing to push for national reconciliation, or simply "unleashing the Shi'ites." Paradoxically we seem officially to be pursuing the former, but in practice, the latter is continuing apace. That seems to be the most insuperable obstacle to creating the Iraq we had in mind. Another, of course, is the departure from Iraq of nearly two million refugees in the last four years, many of them from the middle class. That in turn is creating problems in Jordan and Syria. Vice President Cheney, meanwhile, is soaking up some media space by accusing Nancy Pelosi of favoring Al Queda. That one the Democrats should take on head on. It is the Administration's policies that have favored Al Queda: by confirming its image of the United States by occupying Muslim nations; by allowing Osama Bin Laden to escape and failing to get real Pakistani cooperation against him; and by creating long-term chaos in one of the richest nations of the Middle East.

How the next President might address all this is a question I owe it to myself and my readers to try to answer. I have been putting that one off, but I pledge to give it a try some time during the next week.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Thinking blog awards

Armchairgeneralist has generously awarded me a "Thinking Blogger Award," something that was started by DKatASilentCacaphony (no relation.) This is an attempt to construct a pyramid, essentially, of thoughtful blogs. Here are the rules:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote.

Congratulations - You've won a "Thinking Blogger" award!

1. Informed Comment Prof. Juan Cole's very comprehensive daily summary of events in Iraq and the Middle East.

2. Abuaarvark.com A more relaxed commentary on the same subject by Williams professor Mark Lynch.

3. Nur Al-Cubicle : More comments on the same region featuring the opinions of the foreign press. She's a frequent commenter here as well.

4. Baghdad Burning I don't suppose she needs me to publicize her, and I'm concerned that she hasn't posted anything since Christmas, but her reports from Baghdad are essential.

5. WarHistorian The state of military history.

Let 100 intelligent flowers bloom. . .two new posts from the weekend below.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

How we might have stopped Communism

The other night I heard a presentation by Nathaniel Fick, a young former Marine officer now at the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, who has written a successful book about his war experiences. At dinner before the presentation he brought up an analogy he had heard lately with international terrorism--the anarchist movement of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That wasn't a new idea to me, but it set me thinking, and I realized that it could lead to an interesting analogy with the challenge we face in the Arab world today.

On September 16, 1920, a bomb containing 100 pounds of dynamite and several hundred pounds of steel exploded in front of J. P. Morgan and company on Wall Street, killing 38 people and injuring about 400. A nearby leaflet demanded the release of "political prisoners"and claimed responsibility on behalf of "the Anarchist fighters." It is quite likely that the bomb was a reaction to the detention of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts the preceding May for two murders in South Braintree, Massachusetts, the subject of one of my books.

When the bomb went off the lame-duck President, Woodrow Wilson, was gravely ill, and the presidential campaign between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox of Ohio was in progress. But suppose a President of a different type had been in office--how might he have handled the situation?

"The attack on Wall Street," he might have said, "is an attack on the lives and properties of Americans on behalf of a dangerous foreign ideology that today threatens much of the globe in the wake of the World War. That ideology takes many forms--anarchism in southern Europe and here in the United States, Communism in Russia, and other forms of extreme socialism elsewhere. Yet all share the same contempt for property, law, and religion. We can tolerate neither these vicious killers nor those who harbor them. We must stamp out the movement they represent to keep the way to worldwide progress open.

"Amidst all the dangers posed by these movements, the greatest by far is the Bolshevik regime in Russia, which has abolished private property and is establishing itself through a bloody civil war. Russia is a large and established nation with great potential power, reaching intot he heart of Europe. Should the Bolsheviks succeed, revolution will undoubtedly spread through more of Europe, and we shall eventually face it here at home. Should it fail, we will be able to look forward to the further spread of free institutions and a free economy. The choice is clear, and we must not leave it to our children and grandchildren.

"Tomorrow the United States will begin recalling soldiers to arms and working with foreign governments to mount an expeditionary force sufficient to deal effectively with the Bolshevik regime in Russia. The interventions which we have already mounted have provided some safe havens for anti-Communist forces, but they are not enough. We must not remain on the defensive; we must go on the offense, as we did against the German autocrats who unleashed the late war. We must not attempt to restore the Russian Empire; its policies led to its own demise because it failed to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of its people. But we are confident that the Russian people fundamentally desire the freedom and rights that move all peoples, all over the world, and to which the United States is committed, not only for ourselves, but for others who wish to excercise the blessings granted them by the Almighty."

I do not think that such an analysis would have been inferior strategically to the decision to conquer and reshape Iraq because 25 Al Queda activists had perpetrated an extraordinary act of terror within the United States. Would it have worked?

A President calling for such a policy probably could have convinced the Congress to undertake such an expedition--although few European nations, exhausted by war and including many large and powerful socialist parties themselves, would have joined wholeheartedly. It is in my opinion most unlikely that such an intervention would actually have stopped Communism in Russia, although it would undoubtedly have increased the sufferings of the Russian people even further. It might have partitioned the Russian empire; it might have created a longer period of chaos. Neither of those outcomes would necessarily have served the interests of the United States. Indeed, had National Socialism come into power in Germany under such circumstances, Hitler would have stood a much better chance of achieving his aims, since a powerful Soviet state would not have stood in his way.

Instead, the United States, while refusing until 1933 to recognize the Soviet Union, made no attempt to overthrow it. In the 1940s, during a critical war, the Soviets were allies without whom victory would have been very difficult, perhaps even impossible. They became adversaries at the end of the war, but as time goes on and the world order of the second half of the twentieth century continues to disintegrate, I suspect we shall see more and more clearly how the Soviets, along with the United States, actually ran a relatively peaceful, if frightening and imperfect, world, during that time. Nor has their eventual disappearance paved the way for any kind of democratic paradise in the former Soviet Union, least of all in Russia.

The critical difference between the United States in 1920 and the United States in 2001, over and above the difference in Presidential leadership, was that we had not yet fallen in love with the idea that it was our destiny to rule the world, to succour the helpless, and to free the enslaved--especially if they occupied a critical strategic or economic region. And sadly, nearly six years after September 11, we have seen almost no fundamental re-evaluation of those views. Nearly everyone except the President, the Vice President and a few remaining acolytes realize that war in Iraq has been disastrous, but no one seems to be facing the fact (and that is what it is) that no available strategy will create a Middle East in our own image, that we are making it more hostile every day, and that we will have to live with that hostility, as the Europeans did in the early modern period, for generations to come. Instead, the Republican Party is continuing to use the debate on Iraq to try to divide America between those who heroically want to go on fighting a vague Islamist enemy all over the world with all available means, and those cowards who hate America, won't support our troops, and want us to lose. (The same accusation is still against those who predicted, rightly, the Communist victories in China in 1949 and in Vietnam in 1975. When American hubris gets us into trouble, neoconservatives know who to blame: the people who foresaw the trouble in the first place.)

We still live in a world of sovereign states with different values. The interests of the United States will not advance if we keep proclaiming that whatever we want must be right and everyone else has a duty to help make it happen. We are confronted once again--as, really, we have always been--with the need to live amongst peoples and regimes who do not share our beliefs. This is not an insurmountable task by any means; in fact, from 1947 until 2001 we built and sustained large bureaucracies who did the job quite well when they were given a chance to do so. We can still return to that tradition, but time is running short. And I honestly do not think that we can do so until some political leadership is willing to confront our hubris, and the impossibility of achieving the goals that our government has set for us.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Gerrymandering again

On Wednesday I put together a slide show on American politics in the Vietnam era, including both Presidential and Congressional elections, for a class. In so doing (with the help of Wikpedia, which is outstanding for this sort of thing), I noticed that Wikpedia's results included something that I had long been looking for--the total party vote, nationwide, in Congressional elections. Since then I have spent a good deal of time playing with the data since 1946 to try to uncover some patterns.

My goal was primarily to evaluate the combined influence of gerrymandering and luck upon various elections. If the population of the United States were evenly divided into districts (which it is not) and political preferences were evenly distributed, an overall Democratic vote of 53% would produce a real landslide in the House of Representatives, just as a 53% vote for one Presidential candidate usually produces an electoral landslide. Such, however, is not the case, and the distribution of House seats is littered with anomalies. By entering all the data from 1946 to the present, however, I managed to pick out some clear patterns, even though all had exceptions. My goal was to correlate the total percentage vote for the winning party with the number of seats it won, although for simplicity's sake--and because minor-party totals in the last decade have actually amounted to a couple of percentage points in some cases--I settled on the winning party's percentage of the votes cast for Republicans and Democrats as the key variable. The range of that figure is from slightly below 50% (stay tuned for that one) to three Democratic landslides of 1958, 1964, and 1974, in which the Democrats won 56%, 58%, and 59% of the major party vote. Thanks largely to their long-time strength in the South, the Democrats have had of course had a built-in advantage for most of the 1946-2006 period, and the Republican popular vote record is 55%, all the way back in 1946.

Now as many of you know, I was extremely concerned by possible effects of gerrymandering on the 2006 elections and speculated late last summer that they would make it impossible for the Democrats to win control of the House. I turned out to be wrong. The Democrats gained 5.4% of the raw vote from 2004 to 2006, worth 33 new seats, and now hold a total of 233, almost exactly reversing the result in the last Congress. But I was not altogether wrong. In 2004, the Republicans won 232 seats with 51.4% of the major party vote; in 2006 the Democrats won 53.3% of the major party vote--almost two percentage points more--but emerged with just one more seat. The electoral math clearly favors the Republicans now.

The same result emerges from a different kind of comparison--how much is 53% of the major party vote usually worth? The answer, on average, is 246 seats, thirteen more than the Democrats collected (although to be fair, most of the data points come from the era of the Democratic solid south, which does seem, at first glance anyway, to have given the Democrats more seats with less votes, perhaps because southern turnouts were so low.) And as a matter of fact, when the Republicans took over the Congress in 1994, they won only 230 seats with the same 53% of the major party vote, suggesting that they overcame a considerable Democratic districting advantage. That advantage did not last, however--in 1996, the Republicans kept the control of Congress with 228 seats to 217, even though the Democrats actually outpolled them in the popular vote for Congress. (I do not recall seeing any mention of that rather anomalous result at the time, and this was the first I had heard of it.)

It occurred to me midway through this post, however, that I might be asking the wrong question. Perhaps it would make more sense to compare the net gain in the national Congressional vote from one election to the next, and the number of seats into which that gain translated. And that is what I have done, using the Democratic vote as a template (this would produce some minor anomalies when minor parties made a big jump, but they should be minor, and I'm running out of time.) This suggests that the Democrats should indeed have done much, much better than they did the last time out.

The Democratic vote actually increased by 5.4% of the total from 2004 to 2006, which is one of its three biggest gains since 1946. In 1948, an 8% gain (after a 7.5% loss in 1946) won 74 seats for the Democrats; in 1974, when they were starting from a much higher base, it won 49; but last time out it won only 31. The Republicans' three biggest corresponding gains were in 1946 (7.4%, 54 seats); 1966 (64.%, 48 seats); and, mirabile dictu, 1994, when a 5.9% gain translated into 44 new seats.

In any case, the return of the Democrats to majority party status was huge news and has enormous implications for 2008, especially as the Republican candidates' field looks weaker and weaker. But our democracy still faces a substantial road block in the apportionment of districts that left several states with razor-thin Senate races (such as Missouri and Tennessee) without a single contested House race. Let us hope we can move back in the right direction.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Feith Controversy

The Inspector General of the Pentagon released a report last week criticizing Douglas Feith's office of policy analysis for disseminating alternative intelligence, and Feith has gone on an all-out offensive ever since claiming that he did nothing wrong and that his office improved the intelligence product. He claims the CIA was blinded by its own ideological belief that a secular regime like Iraq wouldn't cooperate with Al Queda. (In an op-ed in today's Washington Post Feith has the gall to claim that the coexistence of Al Queda elements and Ba'athists in Iraq today proves his point. Yes, since Feith and his friends destroyed effective authority in Iraq, Al Queda is free to operate there.) Oddly, the executive summary of the IG report--all that has been released--focused on a briefing one of Feith's underlings gave at the White House, but said nothing about a memo that Feith wrote himself to the heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and which some one (?) then linked to the neoconservative Weekly Standard, which promptly published a summary and excerpts on November 24, 2003. Readers may judge for themselves whether this represented new intelligence analysis. Why the major media has said nothing about this memo, as far as I can see, is beyond me. Here's the link:

The conclusion of the memo was rejected by CIA at the time, rejected by the 9/11 Commission later, and is no longer believed, so far as I know, by anyone--but Feith insists he did nothing wrong.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Quick query


Branica.com keeps track of the hits on this site, which have been stuck at 8-900 per week for quite a while. ( I keep hoping for a new breakthrough.) It also lists the referrers for the last 100 hits or so. Here is the list of the top referrers:

Self Referring / Bookmarker
Google Search
Yahoo Search
AOL Search

That didn't come out quite right--the highest number should be the bookmark number, with google search second. But I'm very curious about what the "blocked referrer" is, if anyone can tell me. .. thanks.


See the weekend's post, below.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Whither the USA?

Today I shall combine material from a few other sources to further assess and evaluate the foreign policy course that the United States seems to be on. To begin with, The Guardian--which along with its British cousin The Independent has repeatedly put the American press to shame in breaking stories about the Bush Administration--reports that military plans for an air attack on Iran are well advanced, and that while the State Department and the Pentagon oppose this step, Vice President Cheney, supported by a vocal neoconservative lobby outside the government (see "The Neoconservative President," below), favors it. Meanwhile, Bloomberg.com has a good story about the State Department, where deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, counselor Philip Zelikow, communications strategist Jim Wilkinson, Robert Joseph, undersecretary for arms control and international security, and John Hillen, the assistant secretary for political-military affairs, have all left during the last year. (Spokesman Sean McCormack nonetheless declares that Rice is "actually a terrific manager" and calls State Department morale "actually very high.'' We are reaching the point where no official of the Administration can speak the truth in public.) And the Administration is trying to identify Iran as the source of the most dangerous IED's in Iraq, surely in order to drum up support for the planned attack. Our leadership is both more isolated and more determined in its ways than ever.

I have remarked many times here during the last two and a half years on how few actual challenges to the overall direction of American foreign policy can now be heard. Yes, everyone outside the Administration and its band of think-tank acolytes realizes that the Iraq war has been a disaster and that Afghanistan is falling as well, but how many are willing to acknowledge that the Middle East is going to be largely lost to American influence for a long time to come? How many challenge the assumption that the U.S. has a destiny to impose its will upon the world and cannot countenance any more setbacks? It turns out that one such person has newly spoken up: William Pfaff, a 78-year old columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, who has an excellent article on America's manifest destiny in the current New York Review of Books. (The link is http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19879). Pfaff initially traces our Messianic spirit back to the Puritans and notes that Woodrow Wilson revived it (although Wilson, as I discovered while teaching about him last fall, was actually somewhat more ambivalent about imposing American will upon other countries than is usually supposed.) Now it has been revived again, in a new form, by the Bush Administration.

Pfaff pointed out something that I had completely missed: a speech by Condoleeza Rice in London in June 2003, in which she rejected the idea of "multipolarity" in international affairs. Pfaff actually overstates the case in the article: Rice did not specifically disown the idea of sovereign states embodied in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, although the Bush Administration's National Security Strategy certainly does so by endorsing, indeed requiring, preventive wars. But she did indeed make some striking proposals and claims, as follows.

In recent months some have questioned whether this is possible -- or even desirable. Some argue that Europe and America are more divided by differing worldviews than we are united by common values. More troubling, some have spoken admiringly -- almost nostalgically -- of "multipolarity," as if it were a good thing, to be desired for its own sake.

The reality is that "multi-polarity" was never a unifying idea, or a vision. It was a necessary evil that sustained the absence of war but it did not promote the triumph of peace. Multi-polarity is a theory of rivalry; of competing interests -- and at its worst -- competing values.

We have tried this before. It led to the Great War -- which cascaded into the Good War, which gave way to the Cold War. Today this theory of rivalry threatens to divert us from meeting the great tasks before us.

Why would anyone who shares the values of freedom seek to put a check on those values? Democratic institutions themselves are a check on the excesses of power. Why should we seek to divide our capacities for good, when they can be so much more effective united? Only the enemies of freedom would cheer this division.

Benevolent hegemony, it seems, will cure the world's ills and establish a lasting reign of freedom and peace. The idea that different states might make different decisions about questions of war and peace must be rejected, because in the past it has led to (among other things) great wars. We need fear nothing because the hegemon is a democracy. Unfortunately, it is more than scoring debating points today to note how Rice's argument that democracy checks excesses has been decisively undermined by the Administration of which she is a part. Our democracy, as Pfaff notes, has re-introduced torture and indefinite detention without trial into the civilized world, now with the concurrence of the Congress. The American people democratically voted against the Administration's foreign policy last November and the Vice President immediately made clear the Administration's intention to ignore their views. The President's subsequent conduct has confirmed this. Moreover, in perhaps the most troubling development, he has ordered surge not only in opposition to both American and Iraqi public opinion and the opinions of the Baker-Hamilton Commission, but against the advice of the entire permanent government, including both the State Department and the Pentagon. Only neoconservatives outside the government vocally pushed for the policy. As I have shown in an earlier post on the Bill of Rights, our founders were too smart to believe that simply establishing a democratic republic would put an end to the abuse of power. In Federalist no. 6, moreover, Alexander Hamilton disposed cogently and brilliantly of the argument that democracies tended towards peace.

Is it not (we may ask these projectors in politics) the true interest of all nations to cultivate the same benevolent and philosophic spirit? If this be their true interest, have they in fact pursued it? Has it not, on the contrary, invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interest, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice? Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by men as well as the latter? Are there not aversions, predilections, rivalships [sic], and desires of unjust acquisitions, that affect nations as well as kings? Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities? Is it not well known that their determinations are often governed by a few individuals in whom they place confidence, and are, of course, liable to be tinctured by the passions and views of those individuals? Has commerce hitherto done anything more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory? Have there not been as many wars founded upon commercial motives since that has become the prevailing system of nations, as were before occasioned by the cupidity of territory or dominion? Has not the spirit of commerce, in many instances, administered new incentives to the appetite, both for the one and for the other? Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.

Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies of the same times. Sparta was little better than a well-regulated camp; and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest.

About ten years ago a colleague of mine was reading the more recent political science literature on the idea of a "democratic peace" when I referred him to that text. He shocked not merely by its brilliance, but by the failure of any of the contemporary proponents of "democratic peace theory" to have even mentioned it."

Pfaff hopes that the United States might actually begin contemplating a non-interventionist policy that leaves other nations free to deal with their domestic affairs, withdraws absolute American support for Israel (which obviously can defend itself), and stop trying to overturn foreign regimes. He is very worried, as I am, that we might even break the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons in a war against Iran. (The other day, starting a new class on Vietnam, I shared with my students some Eisenhower Administration documents stating that nuclear weapons "should be treated as conventional weapons from a military point of view." They were shocked, but they don't seem to have much idea of how near our leadership is to adopting that view again.) But Pfaff has to note the total absence on the political scene of any major figure openly calling for such a shift in outlook.

Pfaff quotes extensively from George F. Kennan, for whom he obviously has as much respect as I do. But he does not cite what remains for me Kennan's most trenchant observations on how the United States had to conduct itself in the emerging Cold War. Taken from the X Article of 1947, these words make clear how much more faith Kennan put in political than military factors--and they state as well as anyone ever could the nature of the problem confronting any great power, and the test which the United States has so disastrously failed for the last six years.

But in actuality the possibilities for American policy are by no means limited to holding the line and hoping for the best. It is entirely possible for the United States to influence by its actions the internal developments, both within Russia and throughout the international communist movement, by which Russian policy is largely determined. This is not only a question of the modest measure of informational activity which this government can conduct in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, although that, too, is important. It is rather a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.

The world today knows that the United States wants to crush those who oppose its Middle Eastern policies and decide which countries should and should not have nuclear weapons, and it rejects those goals. While our internal life is relatively steady, we are hardly regarded any more as a model, and we could enter an internal crisis at almost any moment. We have behaved with unbelievable irresponsibility on the world scene, and we have repudiated our legal and spiritual traditions. If Kennan was right all of this will have serious consequences--and I believe that he was.

P.S. (Sunday, February 11): Vladimir Putin's speech in Munich yesterday, which he was giving as I was writing this post, certainly tends to confirm it. Nor can the United States effectively criticize Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule while we are holding hundreds of captives in indefinite detention ourselves.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Prophet generations

My last post has sparked a couple of interesting comments to which I will try to reply, all the more so since the issue of Prophet generations has played such a big role in what I have to say here.
According to Strauss and Howe, Prophet generations are those born in the wake of the great political crises that create new orders. In American history, they identified the Transcendental generation (born 1792-1821), the Missionary Generation (which I would date from about 1863 to 1884), and the Boom generation (1943-60). In each case, the Prophet generation provided the leaders in the next crisis. Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, as well as Lee and Stanton and Seward and Gideon Welles and Thad Stevens and Alexander Stephens, were Transcendentals; FDR, Hoover, George Marshall, MacArthur, Harold Ickes, and Cordell Hull were Missionaries. Less distinguished members of these generations include James K. Polk and Franklin Pierce, and Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. The major role of Prophets, however, is not political, but intellectual and moral.
The first prophets in recorded history were Adam and Eve, brought into the world that the Lord had created, and found perfect. (I owe this insight to Matthew Elmslie, a Canadian computer scientist who was one of the original contributors to the fourthturning.com website.) Like so many GI parents of the 1950s, he provided them with everything they could possibly need, but forbade them from eating from the tree of good and evil, lest they challenge his view of the world. When they did so, he punished them--and that, to my mind, is the real flaw in the Genesis story, since in real life, as those of us who remember the 1960s know so well, it is the Prophet children who actively reject their parents' creation, rather than the parents who expel them from it. And that has the drama which has been replayed in American history again and again.

The Transcendentals' first contribution to American life was really the founding of American literature; they included Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman and Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe. There, typically, they concerned themselves with the great moral questions of American life, and, in Whitman's case, with the celebration of the Self. All this was all to the good, but their political performance was something else. The Transcendentals, inheriting the federal union, decided that the slavery issue was more important than preserving their parents' work. Northern abolitionists called the Constitution an agreement with hell and refused to compromise to preserve the Union; southern fire-eaters openly called for a new slave empire even if that meant the dissolution of the American Empire. It was Lincoln, one of our two greatest prophets, who actually identified this process in 1838, as it was just beginning, in an extraordinary address which he gave at the Springfield Lyceum as a young man beginning to make his way in politics. Here is how he saw the conflict between his parents' legacy and the ambition of his contemporaries.

But, it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years? And why may we not for fifty times as long?

We hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all dangers may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever arise, would itself be extremely dangerous. There are now, and will hereafter be, many causes, dangerous in their tendency, which have not existed heretofore; and which are not too insignificant to merit attention. That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one.--Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it:-- their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.

Here, then, is a probable case, highly dangerous, and such a one as could not have well existed heretofore.

The drama played out exactly as Lincoln had foreseen it, and he himself played the critical role. After his southern contemporaries rent the Union asunder to preserve and extend slavery, he led the fight to maintain it, but gradually adopted the additional objective of abolition to give the great struggle a new meaning. Meanwhile, the Republican Party emerged from the war dedicated to high tariffs, economic expansion, and free markets (at home) as well, and those principles embodied the new orthodoxy amidst which the Missionary Prophet generation grew up.

The new Prophet generation mounted few direct challenges to the restored constitutional order, but like all such, they focused upon emerging questions of good and evil. The free market, many of them gradually concluded, did not serve the interests of the people, and some government regulation was essential to assure some economic justice, and perhaps to moderate cycles of boom and bust both on the farm and in industry. The Progressive Era saw the first, quite limited response to these concerns. But meanwhile, other Prophets boldly trumpeted the glories of the free market and had apparently triumphed in the 1920s, an era of unbridled capitalism. Like the Boomers who run our economy today, they showed no self-restraint and no concern for those who did not share in prosperity. Their irresponsibility contributed to the Depression, and Herbert Hoover, a devoted free-marketeer, refused even then to abandon his principles.

The intellectual record of the Missionaries before 1929 was more impressive, especially in the social sciences. My two favorite Missionaries in the intellectual sphere were Charles A. Beard and W. E. B. DuBois, both historians of a decidedly political bent. Both saw contemporary events with extraordinary clarity and knew how to put them in context, and both tried to awaken the conscience of the United States to extend the promise of the Constitution in new directions--in Beard's case economic, in DuBois's, racial. But sadly, both of them, in my opinion, eventually allowed a mixture of their high ideals and their jealousy--a critical Prophet trait--to obscure their judgment about the crisis that the nation passed through in their old age. Beard died bitter, having written two brilliant but critically wrong-headed books about FDR's foreign policy and having refused to admit that the Second World War had done any good. DuBois supported the war and even appreciated in 1948 that Negro Americans (as he called them) seemed on the verge of a great new era, but he quickly found himself on the wrong side of the Cold War and ended his life a Communist, dying, in a coincidence with no parallel save the deaths of Jefferson and Adams, on the eve, literally, of the 1963 March on Washington. Missionaries, in any event, oversaw the first great expansion of American higher education and essentially founded the historical profession,discipline of political science, and that of literary criticism. Yet their major writers--Dreiser and Stein and Sinclair Lewis, Sandburg and Frost--do not seem to rise to the level of their Transcendental forbears. (The Lost Generation of Faulkner and Hemingway filled the gap.)

Politically, however, the Missionaries provided the man to solve the crisis they had created, Franklin Roosevelt--as spoiled a child as any Boomer, who had been given a great deal in life without appearing to work very hard for it, but who proved both in the Depression and the Second World War that he had an extraordinary gift, both rhetorically and intellectually, for coping with desperate crisis. It was he, not the "greatest generation" whom he led, who grasped the danger posed by the Axis and took the critical steps--most notably the huge armaments program that he began in 1940--that enabled the country to meet it. He, more than any other man, created the world in which today's Prophet generation has spent their lives, but there is no sign as yet that we have produced his equal.

The Boomers, I now believe, were destined in any event to turn against their parents' world and much of what it stood for. The details of their trajectory, however, owed an enormous amount to their parents' catastrophic mistake, the Vietnam War. That war undoubtedly deserved all the criticism that it received, but it also encouraged the worst tendencies of a Prophet generation. To thousands if not millions of Boomers it was not simply a miscalculation born of hubris or an error in judgment, but rather proof of the fundamental corruption of their entire world--a world which was probably as just, for all its imperfections, as any that had been built up until that time. (It is fashionable to dismiss the 1950s and early 1960s as hopelessly racist, sexist, and homophobic. The last two accusations have more than a grain of truth, but it was actually the GI generation, white and black, that did the most to end legal segregation and give black people the vote. It is no accident that GIs believed in a color-blind society and Boomers have rejected, sadly, that idea.) In any case, the idea that American and western civilization had shown itself to be hopelessly hypocritical and bankrupt spread like wildfire, particularly in American academia, and the humanistic tradition that the Missionaries had put together and that the GIs had (rather lifelessly, to be sure) tried to maintain has been a casualty of the last forty years.

Boomers took longer to take over the economy and politics, but they have shown no more respect for tradition there than in the Academy. Oliver Stone, another brilliant if deeply erratic Boomer, documented their destruction of the economic order in Wall Street, and we now live under a reign of finance capital that any Babbitt of the 1920s could only envy. Republican Boomers have spent the last six years busily tearing down the Great Society and the New Deal, privatizing the government, and taking us on an ill-advised Crusade to rule the Middle East. And I am afraid that they have proven the accusation of our parents--that we were nothing but indulged, spoiled brats--to be correct. GIs might have set out to conquer the Middle East, but they would also have marshalled the resources to do the job. George Bush, who is reduced to arguing that the sacrifice of the American people consists of having to watch bloody images from Iraq on their television screen, suffers from the classic delusion of his generation--that we can have whatever we want without paying for it.

In my own field I have been enormously disappointed by the performance of my contemporaries in the Humanities, all the more so because of the impact it has had on my own career. Both literary criticism and, increasingly, history have become theoretical word games that cannot even be understood by intelligent lay people. Perhaps, as the comment above argues, Boomers have produced great scientists, and I would like to have that case fleshed out. Certainly in medicine we have not, as far as I can see, produced a Pasteur or a Jonas Salk. Drug companies shamelessly try to devise new and marginally more effective palliatives for chronic diseases like arthritis, rather than new vaccines or radical new careers that might actually eliminate one of the remaining diseases as infectious diseases were eliminated in the past. But I claim no expertise in hard science, and if my contemporaries have excelled, more power to them.

Strauss and Howe and Bill James have dazzled me because they literally discovered new ideas about topics of consuming interest. (I can be as jealous as the next Boomer about some things, but not about ideas--I have never felt anything but admiration and thanks towards people who showed me something I couldn't have seen myself.) I suppose I am closer to Paglia and Krugman because all of us have been willing to acknowledge the contributions of our forbears and have rejected (with, in Paglia's case, results similar to mine) the idea that we can safely disregard everything that was written or thought before 1968. In many ways Boomers have improved American life. We eat better and pay more respect to human feelings than our parents' generation, and the status of women has enormously improved. But the more powerful among us have abused our parents' greatest gift: the opportunity, born of having grown up in a quiet era, to think and feel for ourselves, and to regard ourselves as ends, not means. If Barack Obama--who, like Strauss and Howe, feels he was born too late (1961) to be considered a Boomer--becomes the next President, it will probably mean that we are not destined to produce a Lincoln or an FDR, but I will not be able to blame the rest of the country, and especially the younger generations, for casting us aside.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Krugman and Ivins, Buchwald and Myself

Paul Krugman wrote a very nice tribute to Molly Ivins today, correctly identifying her as one of the few columnists who realized, as I did, that Iraq was likely to be a disaster from the beginning, and was prepared to say so. (My own comments to that effect appeared on the internet list H-Diplo, which searchable.) Molly died much, much too soon, but I couldn't help thinking how similar his tribute was to what I tried to do for Art Buchwald two weeks ago. He did it the same way I did--just by telling his readers what she had said. Of course, he was working in a more recent period, but the subjects of our pieces were parallel too. Ivins, like Buchwald, was writing about a hopeless war from the moment it began, if not before.

Krugman is one of a half-dozen or so contemporaries of mine for whom I really have enormous respect. The others include Bill Strauss and Neil Howe, whom I have written about a lot here; Bill James, the baseball theorist; and Camille Paglia, the literary critic who is exactly my age and actually has had, in many ways, a similar career (although she has been a little shorter on total output and longer on celebrity.) Of those five, I have gotten to know three. Krugman actually quoted something I had written in a piece he did in the New York Review of Books, namely, my observation that the US Constitution, which in the 14th Amendment states that the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned, effectively protects the social security trust fund. But my attempts to contact him personally have never gotten anywhere, and the same is true with Paglia, who seems to be something of a recluse. (Many of you have read the end of my book American Tragedy, and the last few pages are rather eerily similar to Paglia's comments on Woodstock in her book of poetry criticism, Break, Blow, Burn.)

I still hope to make contact with those two some day. I'm very sorry never to have met Molly Ivins and we are all really going to miss her. The Boom generation intellectually has been something of a nation of sheep ever since the late 1960s (although now we can distinguish between red sheep and blue sheep), but a few people retained enough individuality to do what Prophet generations are supposed to do. I'd like to think they will be noticed by future generations.

I have been traveling around the northeast this week and won't be back home until Sunday, but I'll try to do something more then.