Featured Post

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

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

Saturday, June 30, 2007

A British analogy

It has been fashionable in conservative circles for decades to compare the United States in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century to Britain in the interwar period. Any attempt to reach accommodations with adversaries has been labeled "appeasement," neoconservatives have adopted Churchill as their hero, and Norman Podhoretz even suggested many years ago that an increasing tolerance of homosexuality indicated national weakness. I do not find these particular analogies very convincing, but from another, more geopolitical perspective, the analogy holds up well. Both nations, having won a victory they did not really know what to do with, have found themselves with new and even greater responsibilities in the same part of the world, the Middle East, and both are having a terrible time matching their resources with their objectives. Indeed, they are using some of the same tactics.

The British victory in the First World War, although much more costly, was analogous to the US victory in the Cold War--especially because both involved a collapse of authority in the territory of the old Russian Empire. The British in the early 1920s took advantage of that collapse and the concurrent end of the Ottoman empire to move into the Middle East, adding mandates in Palestine, Jordan and Iraq to their existing occupation of Egypt. (All this has been described in detail in a newly popular book, David Fromkin's The Peace to End All Peace.) Previously they had both defended the Ottoman Empire against Russian encroachment and tried to encourage reform within it, but the Ottomans' decision to enter the First World War put all their vast territories up for grabs. The British thought they could set up client states all over the region and realize their dream of a solid bloc of British-controlled territory from the Suez canal all the way to India.

Paradoxically, however, the British after 1918 were eagerly demobilizing the unprecedented draftee army they had raised to beat Germany and cutting their military spending. They still had the Indian Army to help police the empire, but as veterans of centuries of imperial rule, they knew that they could not put enough boots on the ground to rule these vast territories. They decided to rule on new technology, especially on air power, to pacify remote regions. If a tribe revolted, machine-gunning a village or two from the air, they thought, would do the trick. They relied on such tactics both in Iraq and on the Northwest frontier between India (what is now Pakistan) and Afghanistan--then as now, a constant source of trouble. I first discovered this aspect of interwar British policy when I started working on my dissertation 35 years ago. Reading British cabinet papers from the early 1930s, I discovered a controversy over proposals to abolish aerial bombing at the 1932 Geneva disarmament conference. The idea was popular in British opinion, but the Colonial Office and the War Office immediately protested that such a step would make it impossible to deal effectively with Iraq (by then theoretically independent) and Afghanistan. The Foreign Office decided to propose a compromise: to insert the words "in Europe" into the proposal to abolish bombing. They were delighted when the other major powers, including the United States, agreed. (In the end, after Hitler took power, the disarmament conference ended in failure.)

The United States and its allies now find themselves in the same dilemma in the same regions, and we are adopting variants of the same tactics. The problem is particularly severe in Afghanistan, where we have far fewer troops than in Iraq. NATO seems to be customarily responding to Taliban attacks with air strikes on villages where the Taliban is believed to be based. Time reports that 6,000 Afghans have died in the last year, 1500 of them civilians. Other estimates counted 90 civilian deaths in the last week and several hundred this year. President Karzai has publicly complained about this. Air strikes, which have become much mor accurate, are a constant temptation for the United States because they are so easy to carry out and require so few people, but they are only effective in the long run if we can be certain they are hitting insurgents. Such certainty is extremely difficult to achieve without some one on the ground.

In Iraq we seen to be relying more upon patrols and raids by soldiers, but air strikes are occurring there, too. A couple of days ago, the BBC carried a story about a June 22 helicopter strike that US authorities claimed had killed 17 insurgents in an Iraqi village. The villages say that it actually killed 11 local village guards who were trying to keep insurgents out of the village and who, when the attack occurred in the middle of the night, were helping the Iraqi army raid a house. It is not clear that air power, in situations like these, can kill more real enemies than innocents, and thus, that it can do anything to establish lasting peace.

Another parallel involving Iraq comes from an extraordinary letter that the legendary T. E. Lawrence, one of the main instigators of the Arab revolt against the Turks, published in the Times on August 8, 1920. I quote in full:

The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.

The sins of commission are those of the British civil authorities in Mesopotamia (especially of three 'colonels') who were given a free hand by London. They are controlled from no Department of State, but from the empty space which divides the Foreign Office from te India Office. They availed themselves of the necessary discretion of war-time to carry over their dangerous independence into times of peace. They contest every suggestion of real self- government sent them from home. A recent proclamation about autonomy circulated with unction from Baghdad was drafted and published out there in a hurry, to forestall a more liberal statement in preparation in London, 'Self-determination papers' favourable to England were extorted in Mesopotamia in 1919 by official pressure, by aeroplane demonstrations, by deportations to India.

The Cabinet cannot disclaim all responsibility. They receive little more news than the public: they should have insisted on more, and better. They have sent draft after draft of reinforcements, without enquiry. When conditions became too bad to endure longer, they decided to send out as High commissioner the original author of the present system, with a conciliatory message to the Arabs that his heart and policy have completely changed.*

Yet our published policy has not changed, and does not need changing. It is that there has been a deplorable contrast between our profession and our practice. We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish Government, and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil. We spent nearly a million men and nearly a thousand million of money to these ends. This year we are spending ninety-two thousand men and fifty millions of money on the same objects. (Note: The British had about 2/3 the number of men in Iraq that we have today. The population of Iraq is more than ten times greater than it was then.)

Our government is worse than the old Turkish system. They kept fourteen thousand local conscripts embodied, and killed a yearly average of two hundred Arabs in maintaining peace. We keep ninety thousand men, with aeroplanes, armoured cars, gunboats, and armoured trains. We have killed about ten thousand Arabs in this rising this summer. We cannot hope to maintain such an average: it is a poor country, sparsely peopled; but Abd el Hamid would applaud his masters, if he saw us working. We are told the object of the rising was political, we are not told what the local people want. It may be what the Cabinet has promised them. A Minister in the House of Lords said that we must have so many troops because the local people will not enlist. On Friday the Government announce the death of some local levies defending their British officers, and say that the services of these men have not yet been sufficiently recognized because they are too few (adding the characteristic Baghdad touch that they are men of bad character). There are seven thousand of them, just half the old Turkish force of occupation. Properly officered and distributed, they would relieve half our army there. Cromer controlled Egypt's six million people with five thousand British troops; Colonel Wilson fails to control Mesopotamia's three million people with ninety thousand troops.

We have not reached the limit of our military commitments. Four weeks ago the staff in Mesopotamia drew up a memorandum asking for four more divisions. I believe it was forwarded to the War Office, which has now sent three brigades from India. If the North-West Frontier cannot be further denuded, where is the balance to come from? Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the wilfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Baghdad. General Dyer was relieved of his command in India for a much smaller error, but the responsibility in this case is not on the Army, which has acted only at the request of the civil authorities. The War Office has made every effort to reduce our forces, but the decisions of the Cabinet have been against them.

The Government in Baghdad have been hanging Arabs in that town for political offences, which they call rebellion. The Arabs are not at war with us. Are these illegal executions to provoke the Arabs to reprisals on the three hundred British prisoners they hold? And, if so, is it that their punishment may be more severe, or is it to persuade our other troops to fight to the last?

We say we are in Mesopotamia to develop it for the benefit of the world. All experts say that the labour supply is the ruling factor in its development. How far will the killing of ten thousand villagers and townspeople this summer hinder the production of wheat, cotton, and oil? How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?

Eventually the British reduced, and then gave up, their imperial role in Iraq, giving way to a succession of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that developed a middle class of a few million people. Most of them have fled Iraq during the last six years. When the US has concluded that it, too, must give up, some kind of reconstruction may begin. More importantly, we may begin making foreign policy based upon what is, rather than what we would like to see.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Prime Minister

The Washington Post yesterday began a long series on the unprecedented influence of Vice President Cheney. Today's story deals with the development (in Cheney's office) of the detention policies for suspected terrorists, but future articles in the series will also discuss his role in economic policy and many other matters. They make it clear that the Bush Administration has led us to disaster essentially by gutting, and ignoring, the whole federal structure as it has evolved, literally, since the beginning of the Republic. Not only the bureaucracy--that Republican bogeyman for 65 years--but also the Cabinet, including loyalists like John Ashcroft as well as moderates like Colin Powell--have been completely bypassed by Cheney's office. National Security Advisor Rice, as has been known for some time, lost her autonomy to Cheney during Bush's first term (and is now in renewed battles with him as Secretary of State over Guantanamo and, very likely, Iran.)

The second piece in the series goes into more detail on Cheney's role in the development and implementation of torture policies, in which he managed to overrule not only Justice Department lawyers (including Theodore Olsen, the Solicitor General whose wife died on 9/11 in a hijacked airplane), and the White House counsel's staff. He has managed to block appointments at Justice when the appointee did not share his views. Essentially, he has not only decided what policy should be, but used his staff to make sure it was implemented.

It is not clear whether the series will take this up, but it seems clear to me that the same process brought about the Iraq war. Cheney took the lead publicly in defining the threat, arguing that Saddam was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. By that time (in the late summer of 2002) Condi Rice had already told Colin Powell that the President had already made the decision to invade Iraq. It may turn out that Scooter Libby, not Rumsfeld, was the real patron of the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon, which cooked the intelligence to support the war. And he was pretty clearly behind the attempt to discredit Joseph Wilson--which, a former high Administration official has confirmed to me personally, wasn't really an attempt to discredit Wilson at all, but an attempt to intimidate the CIA from leaking any embarrassing information again.

President Bush for the last six years has focused on "staying on message." It is beginning to look, really and truly, as though that is all he does. Like a British monarch giving a series of King's speeches, he is the public face of the Administration's policy but he is neither designing it or directing it except in the most general (and never-varying) terms. And indeed, some of his own most deeply held beliefs--such as the need to promote democracy--have not really been reflected in policy because the Vice President does not share them.

At least two broader historical currents have contributed to this disaster. One is the traditional American distrust of big government, which began with the Founders and survived the civil war. The New Deal changed the minds of a majority of Americans, but conservative Republicans never accepted the changes it wrought, and they forged an alliance with southern whites and religious conservatives in the 1980s that got Bush close enough to victory in 2000 to get him into the White House with the help of the Supreme Court. The second strain, of course, is generational. Boomers--and although Cheney is technically two years older than the oldest Boomer, his coming of age was slowed by his decision to drop out of Yale, he did not graduate from college until 1965, just as Vietnam was getting underway, and he went straight to Washington. Already a conservative Republican, LBJ's travails inevitably fired him with the boom generation's customary contempt for higher authority and everything their parents had wrought. (Cheney's parents, actually, were Democrats.) His unhappy experiences at Yale, from which he dropped out (or flunked out), undoubtedly contributed to his hatred of the eastern establishment, something he seems to share with his boss. More importantly, however, virtually the whole Administration is staffed with Boomers--conservative boomers with as little respect for the work of the New Deal and of the 1950s and 1960s as the SDS had forty years ago.

It makes sense that such profound policy changes had to be accompanied by profound institutional changes, too. That is the only way they could happen. And it may be, as Bush and Cheney obviously hoped, that too much damage has been done to reverse the process.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Executive Privilege, media blindness

Today's New York Times includes a story on the supoenas issued for Harriet Meiers and Sara Taylor, two former White House officials. Written by Sheryl Gay Stolberg--whom I hope eventually sees this--it is a disgrace both to the author and her editors, as well as a more general indication, yet again, of how far we have sunk in the 35 years since issues of executive privilege first became national news.

What is truly shocking about the story is that it is written completely from the perspective of the Administration. The story never explicitly states who issued the supoenas--the Senate Judiciary Committee. Instead it simply says that they were issued by "Democrats," which is both partisan and misleading, since the supoenas have the support of some Republicans on the committee. The White House, in short, is once again the victim of that disgruntled mass of blue-staters--not of the legal process initiated by a (more recently) elected, equal branch of the government of the United States, which is doing its job by trying to find out how the Executive Branch may have abused its power for political purposes. You have to read more than half of the story to get to a reference to Charles Schumer, " a New York Democrat who is one of those leading the investigation in the Senate, but who isn't even the Judiciary Committee chairman.. The words "Judiciary Committee" NEVER APPEAR in the story; Arlen Specter is described simply as another "leading lawmaker." Nor is this all. Three men were asked to comment on the situation--all three of them, Ari Fleischer, Charles Black, and David Rifkin, Republicans who have served in or are close to the Bush White House. And they confine their comments completely to the political dynamics of the situation. No one comments on the underlying legal issues involved.

It was not always so. Watergate, which occurred when I was 25 and a grad student, was my real education in what democracy and responsible government mean. I received enormous help from Raoul Berger, a rather elderly legal scholar and concert violinist, who published two remarkable books in the early 1970s, Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems, and Executive Privilege: A Constitutional Myth. He made it clear, as Sam Ervin did before all our eyes, that the inquisitorial power of the legislature really had no constitutional limits--executive privilege depended on what he called "bootstrap precedents" enunciated by successive Presidents from the White House--and that the power to question individuals who were paid by, and spending, taxpayers' money under oath was really the only way to know what our government was doing, much less to do something about it. I fell in love, really, with the drama of our new attempt to rein in the executive and I still believe that Watergate was a triumph of American democracy. The press understood much of that at the time too--given the Pentagon Papers case, which turned on similar issues, they could hardly have missed it. Yet in today's story there is not the slightest indication of, or any quote from a legal authority discussing, a truly critical constitutional question. There's nothing but a fight between the White House and "Democrats," a fight which is not yet in its final "act," and the critical question is whether Karl Rove will receive a subpoena, not whether the executive will be allowed once again to exploit its power for ideological reasons out of sight of the American people.

I am rather amazed that Stolberg's editor didn't even insist upon what I thought was the basic rule of contemporary journalism--get a comment from both sides. But even if he or she had insisted, the story would be a sad commentary on how even the elite eastern media is contributing to the degradation of American political life.

I should not conclude, however, without passing on another parallel thought--about the degradation of the Congresional process. Several times during my childhood--both in school and, I think, in the World Book encyclopedia which was my almost constant companion at home--I went over elaborate diagrams describing how bills were introduced, considered, and passed by the Congress of the United States. They were introduced (normally in the House), referred to committees that held hearings and filed reports, debated, and passed, first by one house, and then by the other. Differences were resolved in a conference committee. I have no idea whether students still see diagrams like those, but they would, it seems, be a waste of time. The immigration bill was drafted by a very small bipartisan group (including, I regret to say, Edward Kennedy), and introduced into both Houses without a single committee hearing. It deserves to fail on those grounds alone. This is yet another example of my own generation's contempt for both the ideas, and the procedures, that our forefathers left to us.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Reaping the whirlwind

Two weeks in Europe can't help start you thinking about the present and future of the United States. The French pay more than twice as much for gas as we do, and there are no SUVs on the road. Meanwhile, for much less than the price of an air ticket, you can take a TGV train which, when you are paralleling a highway, passes the cars as if they are standing still. Electronic billboards on the train platforms tell you exactly where your own train car (which is marked on your ticket) will stop. The Swiss, I learned from a permanent European resident, did some very creative linear programming to allow their citizens easily to figure out how quickly they could reach almost any destination by train, and partly as a result, they have the lowest rate of auto ownership in the first world. These are only a few of many indicators of the fundamental difference between the two sides of the Atlantic: the everyday emphasis on the needs of the whole society, rather than of individuals, that pervades European life. The Europeans have preserved the tradition of a strong state while renouncing militarism and formal imperialism. The United States has done the reverse.

That wasn't the only eye-opener. I did not remain a full-time news junkie during these two weeks but just reading the Paris Herald Tribune (a remarkable newspaper) and the international Guardian (which showed up every morning in my hotel lobby), and looking at the French headlines, was enough to make clear that the Europeans are living in different mental universes. Stories in the US press strained to put a positive spin on President Bush's diplomacy at the G-8 summit; European headlines made no such pretense. They headlined, for example, statements by experts that Bush was obviously trying to sabotage, rather than promote, action against global warming. Meanwhile it was the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, and both the BBC and the press ran numerous articles on what is actually happening in the West Bank. Indeed, they ran big stories on a new map released by a UN agency that actually shows the extent of Israeli control in the West Bank. Maps in the US papers have accustomed us to thinking that the new fence represents the limit of Israeli ambitions, but that is not the case. The entire eastern border of the West Bank is under Israeli military control, and the new Israeli road net, from which Palestinians are barred, runs all over the country. You can see the map here.

Which leads me to the real story of the last six years: the successful attempt by Islamic radicals to launch a civil war all over the Middle East that will drive out western influence. Thanks to George W. Bush, Osama Bin Laden will go down in history next to Lenin as one of the most successful revolutionaries of all time. (Bush will perhaps be linked to General Ludendorff, who allowed Lenin to return to Russia in 1917--but he has played a far more active role in the process.) For about 30 years since the early 1970s, one American administration after another had maintained US influence in the Middle East by cooperating with various authoritarian (and at times, even totalitarian) Arab regimes, while also doing nothing to stop Israeli expansion in to the West Bank and trying to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. That policy became more and more unpopular among neoconservatives, partly because the Arabs would not make peace on Israeli terms. When the Cold War ended they concluded (even as the American military was being reduced in size by more than half) that our time to remake the region had come. 9/11 was the excuse. Meanwhile, George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice--prodded by Israeli hawk Natan Sharansky--decided a mixture of conquest and democracy could create pro-American and even pro-Israeli Arab regimes.

Instead, we have created chaos in which radicalism thrives. Many crises are getting worse in the region, and at least two are almost completely our fault. On the northern border of Iraq, Turkish troops are massing for a punitive expedition into Kurdish areas where, they claim, Kurdish terrorists operating within Turkey have a safe haven. The State Department--which remains as eager as ever to lecture every government in the world on proper behavior--has announced that this is not the right way to solve the problem. But how can we possibly make a credible case against a preventive attack? The Kurds do threaten Turkey; we conquered Iraq based on claims of threats against the United States that did not exist. Nor, evidently, did the Iraqi Kurds frighten the Turks so much even during the 1990s when they enjoyed effective autonomy, since they still had to worry about Saddam. This is one of the consequences of the invasion that we will be living with for many years, long after Bush and company have left office.

Meanwhile, Hamas and Fatah are engaged in a true civil war--one which, although the US press doesn't like to mention this, has discredited our government more thoroughly than almost anything could. Two years ago Hamas won the election that we had insisted upon holding. The United States government promptly confirmed what Palestinian Hanan Ashwari has been saying--that to the US (and to Israel) the only acceptable Palestinian is a Zionist--one who accepts Israel's right to exist and renounces any Palestinian rights within Israel. It promptly refused to cooperate with the new elected government, or with the compromise coalition government that Hamas and Fatah eventually put together a few months ago, and both withheld most aid from that government and convinced the European Union to do the same. Denied the power it had won through legitimate means, Hamas--which might well have been willing to agree to some sort of truce with the Israeli government similar to the situation that evolved during the 1970s between East and West Germany--turned to violence, and has now eliminated the Fatah presence in Gaza. Mahmoud Abbas, our chosen instrument in the Palestinian territories, is now going to try to hang on in the West Bank.

The message of this story is clear: as far as the United States government is concerned, the job of Palestinians is to behave exactly as we wish. Yet even if they do so, it is not clear (as the UN-issued map shows) that they will achieve anything like a viable Palestinian state. Things are getting more and more shaky in Lebanon as well, where this Administration forced out the Syrians, who had effectively kept order for a long time. We have destroyed the old order in Iraq, in the Palestinian territories, and in Lebanon, without the slightest evidence that something better (from our point of view) would replace it. And now we must cope for the foreseeable future with something much worse, partly because our behavior has validated every accusation that radical Arabs make against us.

We now know, too, that the Iranian regime attempted to settle its differences with us on quite a generous basis in 2003, but the Bush Administration (which has not as yet been questioned about this as it deserves to be) undoubtedly simply took that as a sign of weakness that encouraged it to turn up the heat. ("I don't do carrots," John Bolton has recently been quoted as saying.) Iran's stance has become more radical and its influence has increased, taking advantage of the opportunities we created in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. Today's New York Times says that a battle is in progress between Condi Rice and the State Department and Dick Cheney and his office over whether to bomb Iran. I am not confident about the outcome.