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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Pelosi and Clausewitz

Suddenly, thanks to the patient and effective work of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman John Murtha—the first national office holder to argue for an end to American involvement in Iraq—the United States faces a political crisis over the Iraq War. Yesterday’s events took everyone by surprise (including me), and to judge from today’s Times, the major media are reacting very slowly and failing to recognize how serious the situation is. Because continuing the war requires more money, the House of Representatives can, if it chooses, exercise a veto upon it. After the Senate fails to pass this bill (as it surely will, even if a majority of Senators, as is quite likely, would vote for it), the appropriation will have to go to conference, and the House would have to agree, and then pass, a measure that fund the war without a withdrawal deadline. They may not do so, all the more so since the country, to judge from polls, stands squarely behind them.

Clausewitz remains the indispensable reference on matters relating to war, and this is no exception. To understand what is happening today, we can begin with one of his more famous, but also more misunderstood passages—his definition of war as a “paradoxical trinity.” I quote:

“War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant characteristics always make war a remarkable trinity--composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.”

I shall stop there for a moment, saving the few sentences—which have created a lot of confusion—for the time being. Essentially, Clausewitz is defining war the way the fire triangle defines fire. Just as fire needs heat, fuel, and oxygen, war needs 1) primordial violence, passion and hatred; 2) a battlefield on which the two sides try to make things happen (the real meaning, the book makes clear, of “the play of chance and probability”); and a political or policy objective (the same word, politik, has both meanings in German, the language of Clausewitz’s work.

Applying this to the Iraq war—and critically, to both sides—tells us a great deal. The Iraqi contestants have plenty of passion and hatred and do not shrink from primordial violence, either against the American-led occupation or against each other. But passion has lagged in the United States, and President Bush, sadly, is now spending more time trying to arouse passion against the Democratic opposition to the war than against our various enemies in Iraq. We certainly have a battlefield, which includes the bulk of the Iraqi Arab population, but our troops have never been numerous enough to control more than a fraction of it at any given time. But our policy objective—a free, democratic, friendly, pluralistic Iraq—has proven to be a mirage. A new article by George Packer in last week’s New Yorker on the fate of Iraqis who have dared to work with the United States shows beyond any doubt that we trust no Iraqis and have established no lasting political foothold in the country. (The article deserves a post all its own; I mention now merely that the American authorities have stopped hiring Iraqis at all—they are importing Jordanians into the Green Zone instead.) It is madness, of course, to fight for an impossible political objective, and that is what Speaker Pelosi, a real American hero, means when she declares, “The American people see the reality of the war; the president does not.”

And that leads us back to the second part of my Clausewitz quote, which follows the first directly:

“The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of the government alone.”

These two sentences have given birth to the widespread misconception that Clausewitz’s trinity is composed of the people, the army, and the government. It isn’t—the actual three elements are those identified above—passion, the battlefield, and policy. But Clausewitz expected to find the passion within the people of the warring state, he counted upon military leaders to try to win the war on the battlefield, and he expected the political leadership rationally (see above) to design the goals of the war. Unfortunately, life is not always that simple. President Bush has often identified himself as a man motivated more by “instinct” and by faith than by reason, and he now seems motivated more by a passion to prove himself right than by any reasoned appreciation of the facts. Moreover, his rhetoric increasingly makes the American troops he has kept in Iraq, not broader foreign policy considerations, the stake which, he claims, we are fighting for. That is actually a very dangerous attempt to rouse the passion of some Americans (those with ties to the military) against others (those who oppose the war.) That worked for Richard Nixon, but only because he was winding down his war, not escalating it, at the same time. And yesterday, one of the most moving speeches in the House came from a recently returned veteran of the Iraq war, who echoed John Kerry’s famous statement in 1972 and defied the House to explain to the men who had fought and died under his command why we should continue indefinitely to do for the Iraqis what they will not do for themselves.

The American people, meanwhile, have lost their passion for the war and, as in Vietnam, have reached the conclusion that the chance of reaching our objectives does not justify further sacrifices. In my opinion, they were right about that in Vietnam and they are right now. (I shall take up the actual consequences of our eventual withdrawal from Iraq later.) The House of Representatives reflected the conclusion of those who elected it in its vote yesterday. Clausewitz lived in the early 19th century, a great age of rationality (as I point out in Politics and War,) and he was accustomed to political leaders who could calculate rationally. We have learned to our sorrow that many cannot, especially in the midst of war.

Clausewitz’s goal in On War, indeed, was to help reason rule conflict, even though he understood that passion would play a key role. Indeed, near the beginning of the book, he wrote that civilized peoples were ruled by reason, barbarians by passion. That, in my opinion, was too optimistic a view. But in an attempt to prepare his contemporaries for the kind of situation we face today, he explained exactly how nations should react when their goals have become too expensive to achieve.

“Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by the political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”

That is a simple, logical statement. It is also what Clausewitz, borrowing from contemporary philosophers, would have called an ideal type: it expresses how things should work in theory, but not how they always work in practice. He wrote his book to try to close that gap. It is a never-ending task. Yesterday the House of Representatives did its part.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Has foreign policy changed?

I am somewhat upset with myself this morning because I didn't follow up on an idea a couple of weeks ago and now am forced to do so by further events. I haven't been very kind to Condeleeza Rice here, and in particular, I have repeatedly expressed skepticism about the supposed change of course she had produced in the foreign policy of the Bush Administration. The deal over nuclear weapons with North Korea, which John Bolton promptly attacked, showed that these rumors had some truth to them, at least with respect to that issue. It was a welcome step back towards sanity that might actually reduce the number of nuclear powers by one--even though it only makes up for six years of useless confrontation driven by neoconservative ideas. Today the New York Times includes more evidence that the shift is real: a long interview with Robert Joseph, the leading non-proliferation specialist in the State Department, who frankly opposed the deal with North Korea because he thought it would allow the regime to survive longer and who now argues that the foreign and defense policy bureaucracies are back in charge. Clearly, the hawks no longer feel so in charge. In addition, over the last month the drumbeat of confrontational rhetoric towards Iran has quieted down.

All this is mildly encouraging, but not all the trends are running in the same direction. Mr. Joseph is gone, but Phillip Zelikow has been replaced by Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins, a student in the first lecture course I ever gave, who advocated war with both Iraq and Iran in the wake of 9/11. His appointment has led to a lively three-way controversy in the mildly conservative magazine The National Interest (available on line), in which two of the three controversialists suggest that he is being rewarded for having been recklessly wrong. They quote some of his early op-ed pieces, but they do not mention the one I blogged about last year, in which he argued that the American military had suffered a significant defeat in Iraq and desperately needed a victory somewhere else to restore its prestige. It seems to me very unlikely that Cohen is going to contribute to any significant change in our Middle East policy.

I would guess, then, that the struggle between hard-liners and less hard-liners (that is the most left-wing description I can think of for Rice, who advocated the preventive war doctrine as National Security adviser), is continuing. Perhaps Vice President Cheney's health problems have temporarily changed the balance of power, or perhaps the White House is too distracted by its domestic problems to ride herd on State the way it previously did. Rice is also making a show of a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, although she does not dare go further than to meet with a couple of ministers in the new unity government who do NOT belong to Hamas--not with a real representative of that government. (Meanwhile, in a perhaps significant bellwether of things to come, Nicholas Kristof essentially endorsed Jimmy Carter's position on that conflict last weekend.) The winds have changed a bit over the last couple of weeks, but we have also had heavy snow here in central New England, and that does not mean that spring will be with us soon.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Partisanship and corruption

I do wish I could find more good news to discuss here, but from what I can see, both American politics and foreign policy are still in an accelerating decline, whether measured by morality or effectiveness. And as a matter of fact, I'm increasingly fearful that only a genuine catastrophe--at home, not in some distant land--will allow us to focus our energies and start moving forward. Here are a few examples of what I am talking about.

The other day the House of Representatives passed a resolution opposing the troop surge in Iraq. That was, in a way, good news, but I was appalled to read that the resolution passed on an almost totally party-line vote--that not one Republican voted for it. The contrast with the Vietnam era could hardly be more striking, since from the very beginning of the conflict that war aroused opposition among both Democrats and Republicans--J. William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield,Wayne Morse and George McGovern on the Democratic side, and John Sherman Cooper and George Aiken on the Republican. Conservative Southern Democrats, although silent on the issue, expressed plenty of reservations to Lyndon Johnson as well. Bipartisan alliances were very common in the GI-controlled Congresses of 1958-74, and the country was better off for it. When Lyndon Johnson attacked critics of the war he was not seeking simple political advantage. Actually the change towards partisanship began under Richard Nixon, who helped orchestrate the purge of an anti-war Republican Senator from New York (Charles Goodell) and tried to make supporting his Vietnam policies more of a litmus test--but who still had to face bipartisan resolutions limiting what he could do in Indochina, and eventually saw the Congress muster the 2/3 majorities necessary to halt the bombing of Laos and Cambodia. Not even Chuck Hagel voted for the anti-Iraq resolution in the Senate the other day, however--although Gordon Smith of Oregon did.

The White House/Justice Department scandal is even more appalling evidence of how far we have sunk. Overwhelming evidence has accumulated over the years that Karl Rove regards the federal government and the dispensation of federal dollars simply as a means of bolstering the Republican party. Texas observers noted how often he managed to arrange the announcement of investigations of Democratic candidates during election campaigns--investigations that usually failed to materialize. (Perhaps the use of that tactic was what led George W. Bush to suggest that the real story was the timing of the revelation when, in the last week of the 2000 campaign, he had to admit to an old drunk driving arrest in Maine.) As my soulmate Paul Krugman told us last Monday, the real story here is not about the few prosecutors who have been dismissed because they would not get with the program, but with those whose performance has pleased the White House--the vast majority. Here is the key paragraph from his column, which every American should think seriously about.

"Donald Shields and John Cragan, two professors of communication, have compiled a database of investigations and/or indictments of candidates and elected officials by U.S. attorneys since the Bush administration came to power. Of the 375 cases they identified, 10 involved independents, 67 involved Republicans, and 298 involved Democrats. The main source of this partisan tilt was a huge disparity in investigations of local politicians, in which Democrats were seven times as likely as Republicans to face Justice Department scrutiny."

Once again Richard Nixon provides an interesting point of comparison. It was not until early 1973, after his overwhelming re-election (quite a contrast to Bush's two results), that he decided to try to politicize the federal government, beginning with a demand that all political appointees submit their resignations. That attempt backfired, however, and during Watergate Nixon had to contend with a few intrepid, independent individuals in his own Administration, such as Elliot Richardson, William Ruckelshaus, and ultimately John Dean, who would not go along with the program. Now coincidentally, Fred Fielding, Dean's assistant White House Counsel under Nixon--who was never charged with any Watergate wrongdoing--is White House counsel today, and he may be the man who has insisted on releasing the damning emails on the real reasons for the dismissals of the prosecutors--a most un-Bush like step to have taken. But I can think of only three high appointed officials, including one cabinet officer, who have spoken out against this Administration after leaving office--Paul O'Neill, John Diullio, and Colin Powell's chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson. It seems possible today to insist upon higher standards of partisan loyalty.

It is becoming easier and easier for Democrats like myself to use data like this simply to show that they are wrong and we are right (see two posts ago), but that will not help the country all that much. The great civic achievements of our past--the New Deal, the Second World War, the civil rights movement, and the founding of the western alliance--were all to some extent bipartisan in character. But all of them directly addressed real problems: a depression that had left 25% of Americans unemployed, totalitarian threats to conquer Europe and Asia, the Communist political threat to the same territories, and the legacy of slavery. It may be, as Krugman suggested in an earlier column (albeit with a last-paragraph disclaimer) that we are on the verge of a credit collapse that will demand real federal economic action. No one wants to see anything like that, but it's a paradox of human history that greatness is largely a consequence of emergency. And we still need greatness.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

More Vietnam Echoes

In Iraq as in Vietnam, ultimate success depends upon political, not military, factors. The goal of a free, united and democratic depends upon a government enjoying broad support, just as the goal of an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam depended upon a government stronger than the Viet Cong. Neither was, or is, possible. The Viet Cong were too well-organized and too effective at neutralizing and infiltrating the South Vietnamese Army and government for any Saigon Administration to overcome them, and none of the major political groups in Iraq want what we want--they all stand for the interests of one of hte principal ethnic groups. What is extraordinary is how we are traveling over the same futile paths in Iraq that we did forty years ago in Vietnam.

The chief symptom, of course, is our search for the leader who will magically achieve our goals--the search that took us in Vietnam from Diem to Khanh to Ky and to Thieu, and that has already taken us in Iraq from Chalabi (who never took office) to Alawi to Jafari to Al-Maliki. Changes of government are punctuated by attempts to make the incumbent change his spots. The Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations repeatedly asked Diem to broaden his political base, but he always refused, and when it had shrunk to his own family, he was overthrown. Khanh became a neutralist, and thus had to go; Ky gave way to Thieu, who won an election (albeit with barely more than a third of the total vote) in 1967, and then arranged to run unopposed in 1971. (Some reports have stated that the American Ambassador offered Big Minh a very large sum of money to run in an attempt to give that election more legitimacy.) At the critical juncture of late 1964, the Johnson Administration initially adopted a plan that required improved South Vietnamese government performance before the US began military action. The improvement did not however take place, and the Administration stood the problem on its head, arguing that American bombing of North Vietnam would give the South Vietnamese the morale boost necessary to begin putting their house in order.

The "surge" in Vietnam evidently reflects exactly the same policy, as enunciated by Stephen Hadley in his famous November memo. Prime Minister Al-Maliki, he noted, had failed to broaden the base of his government by reaching out to moderate Sunnis--and the memo actually argued that an American troop increase in Baghdad might give him the maneuvering room to do so. The surge is duly taking place, but the Bush Administration actually provided Congress with a list of "benchmarks" which the government was supposed to meet in order to show that it was doing its part, including a new oil law, the reform of the constitution, a new de-Ba'athification law, and local elections. Yesterday it had to admit that the benchmarks had not been met by the assumed deadline, that they would not be met at least until the end of this year, and that therefore, the surge would probably last longer than anticipated.

There are two problems with this approach. First, Maliki's Shi'ite coalition has no interest in making at least most of these changes--it is founded on de-Ba'athification and a constitution providing for federal reasons. Secondly, the Sunni insurgency (which, I notice, the government and mainstream press are finally acknowledging is still getting larger) doesn't want a protected minority status in a Shi'ite-led government. In short, the government won't do what we want, and it probably wouldn't help anything if they did. As in Vietnam, an American troop presence remains the only way to stave off catastrophe--Communist victory in that case, or civil war among Islamic extremists in this one. Meanwhile, the new draft oil law, which gives foreign companies unprecedented rights, will surely anger all nationalist Iraqis.

The American military, meanwhile--having tried, but failed, to start bringing the Iraq adventure to a conclusion late last year in an effort to restore the health of American ground forces--is laying the groundwork for a new effort along those lines. Pentagon generals have recently been quoted as advocating the "Salvadorean option," that is, 55 advisers, for Iraq. But El Salvador had a government that controlled a good deal of its territory--and in the end it managed to settle its war with communist guerrillas (something necons in the 198os had claimed was not possible.) Advocating the Salvadorean option, it seems to me, amounts to recognizing that our Iraqi adventure is going nowhere and arguing that it is time to wind it up. I agree, but we should make a political effort to create a federal Iraq first, rather than simply watch the country descend into a much worse civil war.

The Administration is also busily floating nightmare scenarios about the consequences of withdrawal, including Al Queda terrorist bases in "Sunnistan" after we leave. That is a possible consequence, but I see no reason to believe it is likely. That Al Queda has found Iraq a fertile recruiting ground and propaganda weapon does not mean that Sunni Iraqis would want it to play a major role when their insurgency is over, any more than Saddam Hussein did. We have many enemies in the Middle East but they are not unified--which is why more sensible Administrations managed to maintain a foothold in the region for the last few decades. As soon as we abandon the re-creation of the Middle East in our own image, we will have diplomatic options to exploit. But that seems at least two years off.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

On being right

My comments about the Boom generation have drawn angry comments from time to time, but my thinking on the subject has made some advances during the last year, partly through teaching and more recently as a result of the Vietnam conference I mentioned last week. Today the topic is on my mind because of a Sidney Blumenthal item in Salon, and I hope that I can make my position clearer and even perhaps to bring a few skeptics on board.

Blumenthal reports that Karl Rove is running a White House book club for the President. He picks a book and invites the author and a number of intellectuals--according to him, neoconservatives--to discuss it with George W. Bush. The latest gathering featured Andrew Roberts, who recently completed (as he saw it) Winston Churchill's "History of the English-Speaking peoples." Here, for non-commercial use, is what some one told Blumenthal about the meeting.

"For this Bush book club meeting, the guest was Andrew Roberts, an English conservative historian and columnist and the author of "The Churchillians" and, most recently, "A History of the English-Speaking People Since 1900." The subject of Winston Churchill inspired Bush's self-reflection. The president confided to Roberts that he believes he has an advantage over Churchill, a reliable source with access to the conversation told me. He has faith in God, Bush explained, but Churchill, an agnostic, did not. Because he believes in God, it is easier for him to make decisions and stick to them than it was for Churchill. Bush said he doesn't worry, or feel alone, or care if he is unpopular."

Now it drives many of my contemporaries crazy, as I found out again last weekend, when I cite Bush as an exemplar of our generation. That isn't surprising, for reasons that I will get to in a moment, and it's true that he is particularly extreme. But even though more educated Boomers, like Churchill (who also came from a Prophet generation) are agnostics rather than believers, Bush was expressing perhaps the chief characteristic of the Boom generation--a certainty that whatever we believe, and whatever we want, must be best, not only for us, but for everyone. More significantly and tragically, most Boomers, like Bush, don't really care whether they can put their beliefs into practice outside their own narrow sphere. Righteousness, for us, is its own reward.

It is, in retrospect, easy enough to see how this happened. First, growing up during the peak of American self-confidence (1946-64),we breathed air that told us we were special-
-as the Mickey Mouse Club put it prophetically, "the leaders of the twentieth century." We were encouraged to think for ourselves. And then, as we hit young adulthood, the catastrophe of the Vietnam War encouraged us--indeed, required us--to confront our parents' sad fallibility. For many, it was an easy step to conclude that our parents knew nothing about anything--that we indeed had the right and the duty to recreate the world from square one. Nor was the legacy of Vietnam unambiguous: as Bill Strauss and Neil Howe wrote in Generations, the only thing Boomers agree about regarding Vietnam is that their elders mismanaged it. For every John Kerry or David Kaiser who knows we never should have begun the war in the first place there is a Jim Webb or George W. Bush who is certain that we should have won it.

We have other unfortunate characteristics as well. Teaching "Generations in Film" this January, I used Twelve Angry Men to show midlife GIs at their best, and asked the students to make a list of virtues and vices, based on what they saw on the screen. The vices they identified included being emotional, irrational, confrontational and carried away with ones feelings. "This is making me very depressed," I said as the exercise continued, and then I explained why: the vices were virtually a definition of Boomers. They reminded me of some of the cries I heard from the SDS in the late 1960s: "We've had enough of your reasoned discourse!" And so it is with our President: faith is better, for him, than reason.

But the key that explains how hard it is for Boomers to see themselves as other generations see them (especially the younger ones--and if you don't believe me, ask them), is that these are collective traits that manifest themselves individually. Because liberal and conservative Boomers share the same self-righteousness, each sees the other simply as hopelessly wrong. More to the point, each tends to surround himself with like-minded people, as liberals have done within academia and conservatives in their own burgeoning think tanks, publications, and television networks. And with rare exceptions, neither side pays much attention to the actual effects of what they think and do--rightness is its own reward.

These traits, I think, are severely hampering the Democratic majority as it begins to attack the Bush Administration. They are holding some interesting Congressional hearings, but I am not sure how much good they will do. We have had one-day spectaculars on cash for Iraq and the situation at Walter Reed, but will we have sustained follow-up, either in the form of legislation or investigations that lead to indictments? It is painfully easy to point out how badly the Administration has fouled up, but it is much harder actually to declare that the war in Iraq has been lost already (as Jacob Weisberg pointed out the other day) or to call for a roll back of tax cuts on the rich. (Indeed, since the latter course would probably fail and perhaps make the Democrats unpopular, it would cast doubt on their righteousness.) The situation is oddly parallel to that of the late 1960s when the folly of the Vietnam war had become obvious. And although Richard Nixon prolonged it needlessly and never admitted it was wrong, he did, slowly but surely, bring it to an end. Amazingly, we are now at the chronological point--four years on--when withdrawals from Vietnam tentatively began--but we are increasing our commitment to a losing cause instead of reducing it.

We will not begin reducing the decline of American business, government, and yes, academia, until we start recognizing that producing a good result is more important than being "right" according to what we have always believed. That was how FDR eclipsed Herbert Hoover and his acolytes, who believed in free market principles with the same devotion that neoconsevatives reserve for their foreign policy. (I am sad to report, too, my favorite pair of FDR's Prophet contemporaries, Charles A. Beard and W. E. B. Dubois, were both too committed to their own version of righteousness to appreciate what he had done, and ended their lives in isolated opposition.) In his time another Prophet, Lincoln, initially angered his Abolitionist contemporaries as well as southern fire-eaters because he would not go as far as they, but he proved that he, and not they, knew the path to the result they desired. We now need another leader like that, and it is depressing to note how many candidates on both sides (including Edwards, Gingrich, Giuliani and Romney) have found actually holding office, standing for elections, and doing the people's business a useless distraction from the real business of running for President. That may be, indeed, a symptom of another generational failing. Boomer politicians, in general, are not a very impressive group--perhaps because successful politicians actually have to pay attention to those who disagree with them, and that's something Boomers don't like to do..

Perhaps my biggest debt to Strauss and Howe is that they taught me to think beyond politics and to see commonalities across ideological lines. My contemporaries react hostilely because they feel this as a challenge to their identity. "You can't use Bush to judge a whole generation," one said last week--but I can. He is, it is true, more of a caricature than an real archetype, but his traits, however exaggerated, are those of his contemporaries. And that may even account in part for how much he and his Administration have managed to get away with. At some level, his contemporaries in the upper reaches of other American institutions understand that he is only doing what they have done, or would do, if they had the chance--but their impact, of course, would be good!

Sunday, March 04, 2007


The past week was very busy, culminating in an all-day conference on Vietnam yesterday, and tomorrow I must leave for two days. I regret there will be no new post this week, but I'll try to make up for it late in the week.