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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...

Sunday, September 30, 2007

What Orwell might have said

The other night I began thumbing through a volume of George Orwell's Second World War journalism--the second volume of the 1968 edition of his collected works--and came across something I had completely forgotten about, a letter he wrote to the Times of London on October 12, 1942. Orwell was my first serious academic interest--I wrote my senior thesis on the development of his thought during the 1930s in 1968-9, although I have never figured out a way to get it into print. This is hardly the first time, nor will it be the last, that I have occasion to quote him here.

Let us remember, for a moment, what the situation was in 1942. Europe was, of course, threatened by totalitarian rule, both Fascist and Communist. Orwell had viewed both first hand in Spain in 1937 and had written very critically of both. He had also despaired of western civilization briefly in the late 1930s, but when war broke out in 1939, he realized that English civilization was worth fighting for, and that even if liberty and popular rights were only half-truths in Britain, that was far, far better than what they would be under German rule. He never changed that view. By the time he wrote this letter Britain had survived the threat of invasion, the 1940 blitz had killed tens of thousands of his fellow citizens, the Germans were still apparently winning the war in the Soviet Union (although the Stalingrad debacle was not far off), and, although he may not fully have realized it, the Final Solution of the Jewish Question was in full swing.

Now what moved Orwell to write this letter was a propaganda war between the British and Germans over the treatment of prisoners of war. In their one-day raid on Dieppe the British had captured some Germans, and the Germans claimed the British had put them in irons. (They may well have handcuffed them to prevent them from escaping.) The Germans announced that a certain number of British POW's would be put in chains, in clear violation of the Geneva Convention (which German POW camps generally observed with respect to western European prisoners, though not towards Soviets). In retaliation the British government had announced that it would chain some German prisoners. Orwell wrote because this decision, he felt, had generated "extraordinarily little protest." He continued:

"By chaining up German prisoners in response to similar action by the Germans, we descend, at any rate in the eyes of hte ordinary observer, to the level of our enemies. It is unquestionable when one things of the history of hte past ten years that there is a deep moral difference between democracy and Fascism, but if we go on the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth we simply cause that difference to be forgotten. Moreover, if the matter of ruthlessness we are unlikely to compete successfully with our enemies. . .
"It seems to me that the civilized answer to the German action would be something like this: 'You proclaim that you are putting thousands of British prisoners in chains because some half-dozen Germans or thereabouts wer etemporarily tied up during the Dieppe raid. This is hypocrisy. . . .At this moment we cannot stop you maltreating our prisoners, though we shall probably remember it at the peace settlement, but don't fear that we shall retaliate in kind. You are Nazis, we are civilized men. This latest act of yours simply demonstrates the difference.['"

As I have tried to suggest here in some posts in the past, one of the things that disturbs me the most about our handling of Islamic terrorism is our extraordinary lack of perspective. There is simply no rational way that the threat we face today can be equated even to the threat of Communism, much less that of National Socialism and its Japanese and Italian allies. And Britain in 1942 was far more threatened than we can ever be. Yet this most remarkable of Englishmen did not allow his bearings to be unhinged. He believed his country worth fighting for precisely because it stood for certain basic standards of decency, which he wanted to respect at all costs.

The letter in retrospect is a credit to Orwell, and I don't think I will have to tell anyone why I chose to quote from it today. But it isn't that great a credit to Britain. The Times did not publish it.

Going back to the Constitution

This morning, Senator John McCain is quoted as making the following statement in an interview for a Christian website when asked his opinion of a Muslim candidacy for Presdient:

“I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles, that’s a decision the American people would have to make, but personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith.”

McCain has apparently forgotten--or doesn't care about--the following provision of the Constitution of the United States (Article VI):

"The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

For the moment the Republican Party has definitely repudiated some of our most fundamental Constitutional traditions, and the nation must decide whether we want to preserve them or not.

Friday, September 28, 2007

President Bush, with his hair down

The other day, the Spanish newspaper El Pais published a transcript in Spanish of a conversation between President Bush and Spanish President Aznares in February 2003, just before the Iraq war. Juan Cole at juancole.com has discussed this and linked it. (See also the original here. I have translated it. Here is the entire text, in English. The translation was a challenge, since Bush's (and Rice's) words have been translated into Spanish and I must translate them back again; but some of the President's characteristic phraseology was easy enough to recognize. Here is my text, with a few [?]'s as appropriate.

President Bush. We are in favor of obtaining one second resolution in the Security Council and would want to do it quickly. We would want to announce it Monday or Tuesday [24 or 25 of February of 2003].

President Aznar. Better Tuesday, after the meeting of the Council of General Subjects of the European Union. [Is important to maintain the momentum impulse] obtained by the resolution of the summit of the European Union [in Brussels, Monday 17 of February]. We would prefer to hope until Tuesday.

PB. It could be Monday evening, , considering the time difference. In any case next week. We will write the resolution so that it does not contain obligatory elements, that it does not mention the use of the force, and that it states that Saddam Hussein has failed to fulfill his obligations. That type of resolution can be voted for by many people. It would be something similar to which was obtained on Kosovo [the 10 of June of 1999].

PA. Would it come before the Security Council before and independently of a parallel declaration?

Condoleezza Rice. In fact there would not be a parallel declaration. We are thinking about as simple resolution as it is possible without many details of fulfillment that could serve so that Saddam Hussein used them like stages and consequently to fail to fulfill them. We are speaking with Blix [head of the inspectors of the UN] and others of his team to obtain ideas that can serve to introduce the resolution.

PB. Saddam Hussein will not change and will continue playing. The moment has arrived to remove him. That’s the way it is. I myself will from now on try to use the subtlest possible rhetoric, while we seek the approval of the resolution. If somebody vetoes, [Russia, China and France has next to the U.S.A. and United Kingdom the right to a veto in the Security Council as permanent members], we will go ahead. Saddam Hussein is not disarming. We must act right now. We have shown an incredible degree of patience until now. There are two weeks left. In two weeks we will be militarily ready. I believe that we will obtain the second resolution. In the Security Council we have the three Africans, [Cameroun, Angola and Guinea], the Chileans, the Mexicans. I will speak with all of them, also with Putin, naturally. We will be in Baghdad at the end of March. There’s a 15% chance that Saddam Hussein will be dead or gone away. But that chance did not exist before we showed our resolution. The Egyptians are speaking with Saddam Hussein. It seems that it has indicated that he could agree to exile himself if he could take one billion dollars and all the evidence of weapons of mass destruction. [Muammar] Gaddafi has said to Berlusconi that Saddam Hussein wants to go away. Mubarak says to us that there are chances that he may be assassinated.

We would like to act with the mandate of the United Nations. If we acted militarily we will do it with great precision and focus on our objectives. We will decimate the loyal troops and the regular army quickly will know what they are dealing with. We have sent a very clear message to the generals of Saddam Hussein: we will treat them as war criminals. We know that they have accumulated an enormous amount of dynamite to blow up the bridges and other infrastructure and blow up the oil fields.. We have planned to occupy those wells immediately. Also the Saudis would help us by putting in the market any necessary oil. We are developing a very strong package of humanitarian aid.. We can win without destruction. We are planning for Iraq after Saddam, and I believe that there are good bases for a better future. Iraq has a good bureaucracy and a relatively strong civil society. It could be organized in a federation. Meanwhile we are doing everything we can take care of the political needs of our friends and allies.

PA. It is very important to depend on a resolution. It is not the same to act with it as without it. It would be very advisable to get in the Security Council a majority that supported that resolution. In fact, it is more important to get a majority that if somebody vetoes it. We think that the content of the resolution should say among other things that Saddam Hussein has lost his opportunity.

PB. Yes, by all means. It would be better than that to make a reference to “necessary means” [talks about to the resolution type of the UN that it authorizes to use “all necessary means”].

PA. Saddam Hussein has not cooperated, has not been disarmed, we would have to make a summary of his breaches and to deliver a more elaborate message. That would for example allow Mexico to shift its position. [in reference to change its opposition to the second resolution, that Aznar could know from the lips of president Vicente Fox Friday 21 of February in a meeting in Mexico City.].

PB. The resolution will be done in any way that can help you. Give me some ideas as to its content.

PA. We will give you some text.

PB. We do not have any text. Only one criterion: that Saddam Hussein disarm himself.. We cannot allow Saddam Hussein to extend the time until the summer. After all he has already had four months in this last stage and that is more than sufficient time to disarm itself.

PA. That text will allow us to sponsor it and to be its coauthors and to obtain much more support.

PB. Perfect.

PA. The next Wednesday [16 of February] I see Chirac. The resolution already will have begun to circulate.

PB. That seems to me very good. . Chirac knows the reality perfectly. His intelligence services have explained it. The Arabs are transmitting to Chirac a very clear message: Saddam Hussein must go. The problem is that Chirac is thinks he’s Mister Arab, and in reality this is making life impossible. [?] But I do not want any rivalry with Chirac. We have different points of view, but I wanted to leave it there. [?] Give him my best regards. Really! The less rivalry he feels between us, the better for all.

PA. How will the resolution go with the report of the inspectors?

Condoleezza Rice. We have no report as of February 28 except that the inspectors will present a report on March 1, and it will not reach the Security Council until 6 or 7 of March of 2003. We do not expect great things from that report. Like the previous ones, it will be a mixed bag. I have the impression that Blix will be now more negative than what before it was on the attitude of the Iraqis. After the appearance of the inspectors at the Council we must anticipate the vote on the resolution one week later. The Iraqis, meanwhile, will try to explain that they are fulfilling their obligations. It will neither be certain nor sufficient, even if they announce the destruction of some missiles.

PB. This is Chinese water torture. We must end it.

PA. I agree, but it would be good to have the maximum possible support. Have a little patience.

PB. My patience is exhausted. I do not think I’ll go beyond the middle of March.

PA. I do not request to you that you have an infinite patience. Simply that you do everything you can to get everything in order..

PB. Countries like Mexico, Chile, Angola and Cameroun must know that what is at stake is the security of the U.S.A. and act with a sense of friendship towards us.

[President Ricardo] Lakes must know that the Free Trade Agreement with Chile is pending of confirmation in the Senate and that a negative attitude in this subject could put ratification in danger, Angola is receiving funds from the Millennium Account and also they could be in jeopardy if the do not show themselves positive. . And Putin must know that his attitude is putting Russian-American relations in danger.

PA. Tony would like to arrive on March 14.

PB. I prefer the 10th. This is like the game of bad cop and good cop. It doesn’t matter to me to be the bad cop and that Blair is the good one.

PA. Is it certain that Saddam might go into exile?

PB. Yes, that’s possible. Also that he might be assassinated.

PA. Exile with some guarantee?

PB. No guarantee. He is a thief, a terrorist, a war criminal. Compared with Saddam, Milosevic would be Mother Teresa. When we enter we are going to discover many more crimes and we will take them to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Saddam Hussein thinks he has already has escaped. He thinks that France and Germany have ignored their responsibilities. [???] He thinks about of the demonstrations of last week.

[Saturday 15 of February] protects him. [?] And he thinks that I am very weak. But his entourage knows otherwise. They know that his future is in exile or a coffin. For that reason it is so important to maintain the pressure on him. Gaddafi tells us indirectly that that is the only thing that can finish him. The only strategy of Saddam Hussein is delay, delay, delay..

PA. In fact the greater success would be to win the game without firing a single shot and entering Baghdad.

PB. For me it would be the perfect solution. I do not want the war. I know what wars are . I know the destruction and the death that they bring with them. I am the one that has to console the mothers and the widows of the dead. By all means, for us that would be the best solution. In addition, it would save $50 billion. [sic]

PA. We needed you to help us with our public opinion.

PB. We will do everything that we can. Wednesday I am going to speak on the situation in the Middle East, on a new scheme of peace that you are aware of, on weapons of mass destruction, and on the benefits of a free society, and placing the history of Iraq in a broader context. Perhaps that will help you.

PA. What we are doing is a very deep change for Spain and the Spaniards. We are changing the policy that the country had followed in the last 200 years.

PB. I, like you, am guided by a sense of historical responsibility. When in years to come history judges us I do not want people to ask themselves why Bush, or Aznar, or Blair did not face their responsibilities. In the end, what people want is to enjoy freedom. Recently, in Rumania they reminded me of the example of Ceausescu: it was enough that a woman shouted “liar” at him to make all the repressive machinery come down. It is the uncontainable power of freedom. I am convinced that I will obtain the resolution.

PA. So much the better! [?]

PB. I made the decision to go to the Security Council. In spite of the disagreements in my Administration, I said to my people that we had to work with our friends. It will be wonderful to secure a second resolution.

PA. The only thing which worries me about you is your optimism.

PB. I am optimistic because I believe that I am in the right. I am at peace with myself. We have the task of facing a serious threat to peace.. I’m incredibly irritated by the insensitivity of the Europeans to the sufferings that Saddam Hussein inflicts upon the Iraqis. Perhaps because he is brown, distant and Muslim, many European think that everything is ok for him. I will not forget what once Solana once said to me: why do we Americans think the Europeans are anti-Semitic and incapable of facing up to their responsibilities? That defensive attitude is terrible. I must say with Kofi Annan I have magnificent relations.

PA. He shares your ethical preoccupations.

PB. The more the Europeans attack me the stronger I am in the United States.

PA. We must secure the esteem of the Europeans for your strength.

In my experience as a historian I have frequently found that heads of government are more revealing and more at ease with their counterparts than with their subordinates. One could say many things about this conversation but I will confine myself to one major observation: President Bush is indeed who he says he is, and has not changed--he is as certain as ever. He has used the same phraseology about "facing up to our responsibilities" and about what history will say about Iran. America needs to face these facts.

More on Sunday.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Hillary Rodham Clinton, and us

I spent last week on vacation in central California and used my flight time to read two substantial books. The first was Michael Crichton's State of Fear, in which Crichton tried to debunk global warming, and the second was Carl Bernstein's biography of Hillary Clinton. I shall leave Crichton's most interesting polemic for another time. The Clinton biography left me profoundly depressed--all the more so because it has garnered so little attention. Bernstein worked very hard on it, and although it has in the end almost nothing to say about the last seven years of Senator Clinton's life, it provides plenty of food for thought--none of it very inspiring.

Both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton exemplify one of the things that has been going wrong with American politics for the last half-century--the critical importance of name recognition and fundraising contacts. Party leaders and party activists picked Presidential candidates exclusively until the early 1900s, when primaries began to come in. The party leaders, however, dominated the process right up until 1960--and that kept politics as more than a vehicle for personal ambition. The party leaders had to worry about one critical issue: who could win. They also knew that any candidate upon whom they settled could count on his party's established base, and upon a cadre of activists in swing states. But that whole tradition went up in smoke during the 1960s--and ever since then the nominating contests have been free-for-alls in which every candidate and his staff essentially care only about themselves.

Something else, meanwhile, had already transformed the process: the importance of national name recognition and, apparently, contacts with each party's leading fundraisers. Vice Presidents were the first to benefit from this development. Astonishingly, not a single Vice President (save those who actually had inherited the Presidency) ever even became a national candidate for President from John Adams until Richard Nixon, but Nixon inaugurated an entirely new trend. Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush and Al Gore all parlayed terms as Vice President into presidential candidacies, and Bob Dole even used an unsuccessful (and, actually, fairly disastrous) campaign for the office to turn himself into a national figure. Strikingly, Humphrey, the elder Bush and Gore had all failed even to get their parties' nominations in earlier runs for the Presidency, but four or eight years near the center of things were enough to make them front-runners, candidates, and, in one case, a President. Ronald Reagan meanwhile showed that an acting career could be an entry into high-level politics, and during the whole last third of the twentieth century only two obscure politicians, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, reached the White House under their own power. Both benefited from crowded primary fields during the early going.

George W. Bush and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton represent a new stage in this process--they achieved national prominence through their family connection to Presidents. His father's Presidency "made my life," our current leader has generously acknowledged, and it is certainly hard to imagine him becoming President of the Texas Rangers or Governor of Texas without it. As for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bernstein details at length, as others have done before, the myth that has held her inner circle together for 35 years--the idea that she would inevitably have become a Senator and probably a President had she not moved to Arkansas and married Bill Clinton. That this is possible I do not doubt, but to regard it as inevitable is almost incredibly naive, given the role that pure luck has always played in the making and unmaking of political careers. Hillary Clinton became a national figure because her husband became President. That, and that alone, gave her both the name recognition and the fund-raising contacts that enabled her to win election to the U.S. Senate and to secure the support of leading Democratic fundraisers in her race for the Presidency.

Today's New York Times confirms that Clinton is today a solid front-runner, even if her lead in national polls is bigger than any edge she has in the first three key states. I have to admit that I found this depressing even before reading Bernstein's book, and I find it even more so now. And at the risk of alienating still more liberals who cannot stand it when I identify similarities across party lines, I have to say that what struck me as much as anything as I read his well-researched book were the similarities between her and the man she wants to replace.

To be sure, I think Clinton would be a considerably better President than Bush, and her values are certainly much closer to mine; yet I put down this book wondering how much her values matter to her. The principle characteristic they share is an extraordinary self-righteousness, combined with a congenital inability to admit a mistake, much less a fault. Religion, surprisingly, plays a role in both cases. Clinton's Methodism has evidently given her, too, the sense that she is a soldier doing the Lord's work, and it has also given her a feeling of superiority over morally flawed beings, most notably her own husband. The investigations she and her husband had to cope with increased her self-righteousness. Here I am sympathetic--neither Whitewater nor the travel office firings nor the President's sexual escapades, in my opinion, would ever have become major controversies in a halfway rational world. Hillary Clinton felt persecuted, and she was right. Yet the fact remains, as Bernstein shows, that she made many misleading statements about her role in the travel office firings and her legal work for James McDougald and that her behavior generally showed a complete unwillingess to admit error. Meanwhile, her secrecy fetish (which seems to have if anything gotten worse during her Senate career) and her questionable political instincts had a lot to do with the catastrophic failure of the Clinton health care proposal. Loyal Democrats, of course, were willing to forgive all of this. They saved the President (rightly) from conviction on trivial charges, and she emerged from it all, astonishingly, as a liberal icon.

I am above all concerned about the possibility of her nomination for one reason: I am very doubtful that she can win. All the scandals of 1993-2001 will be revived in a general election campaign, and rumors of new romantic indiscretions on her husband's part already abound. (Once again, let me make myself clear--I do not think such issues should be a part of our political life--but in the era of Boomer self-righteousness, they have become such, and the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.) Simple electoral math is not encouraging. To win a Democrat must carry Florida or Ohio, and I see no particular reason to believe that Clinton can. She will surely energize the Republican base and contribute to the continuing polarization on social issues. Her candidacy may revive the war between the Clintons and the press. And meanwhile, it is not clear that her election would solve our most pressing problem.

As it turns out, Clinton has made one mistake over the last seven years--her vote for the Iraq war. And typically, she has explained that as some one else's fault, claiming to have believed that George W. Bush really did simply want a bargaining chip to get UN inspectors back into Iraq. (As my former Senator Lincoln Chafee--who has now left the Republican Party--pointed out in an op-ed some time ago, he had introduced the perfect resolution for anyone who took that view, but she did not vote for it.) In fact, I believe that she voted that way for three reasons: that it was the safe thing to do, that she was determined to prove that she could be as tough as any man, and that she feared annoying her large Jewish constituency, whose leaders were firmly behind the war. All those factors also suggest to me that she will not rapidly end the war, but rather try to show that she can make it a success. That would firmly enshrine our attempt to control the Middle East by force as national policy, and I don't think we can afford that.

That Hillary Clinton stands on the threshold of her party's nomination is a tribute both to the weaknesses of contemporary American politics and to her own ambition, energy, and ability to incarnate the aspirations of a significant minority of Americans. It is not, however, to me, anything to be very happy about. I hope that my fellow Democrats will think very hard about this decision. I'm for Obama.


The moveon.org ad about General Petraeus was, in my opinion, unwise. Just because President Bush has given the general all responsibility for national strategy (in theory at least) is no reason why we should as well. Still, the following item from mediamatters.org is of interest.

Before MoveOn's "General Betray Us," there was Limbaugh's "Senator Betrayus"

Summary: Rush Limbaugh has called the MoveOn.org "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" advertisement "contemptible" and "indecent," but months earlier, on his radio show, he told his audience that he had a new name for Senator Chuck Hagel: "Senator Betrayus." Though Limbaugh has taken exception to accusations that he has attacked the patriotism of his political opponents, the "Senator Betrayus" remark is one of several instances in which Limbaugh has done so.

On September 10, MoveOn.org's much-discussed advertisement headlined "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" critical of Gen. David Petraeus, appeared in The New York Times. On the September 11 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh called the advertisement "contemptible" and "indecent." However, months earlier, on his radio show, he told his audience that he had a new name for Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE): "Senator Betrayus." On the January 25 broadcast (subscription required) of his radio show, Limbaugh broke from his commentary on an interview of Vice President Dick Cheney on the January 24 edition of CNN's The Situation Room to say: "By the way, we had a caller call, couldn't stay on the air, got a new name for Senator Hagel in Nebraska, we got General Petraeus and we got Senator Betrayus, new name for Senator Hagel." A day earlier, Hagel had sided with Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in voting to approve a nonbinding resolution declaring that Bush's escalation in Iraq was against "the national interest."

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Turning Point

The fourth great crisis of our national life is upon us. The first (1774-1794) created our republic; the second (1857-68, or 1857-72 in the South) preserved it; and the third (1929-45) made us a leading world power. Ever since Strauss and Howe published The Fourth Turning at the end of 1996, their readers have been speculating about when the crisis would come, and what it would be about. President Bush’s speech last Thursday, in my opinion, answered those questions. We now know the issue that the next ten years will decide: the nature of the United States’ role in the world in general and the Middle East in particular. We shall either emerge, for good or ill, as the world’s remaining imperial power living in a long-term garrison state, or we shall step back and begin to allow the world to take care of itself again.

The issue of our world role is comparable in importance to that of slavery in the nineteenth century, and it has undergone a comparable revolution. Both slavery and world power were legacies of the last crisis. The Founding Fathers in the 1780s hoped and believed that slavery might disappear on its own, abolished it in many northern states, and banned it from the Northwest Territories. In the same way we demobilized our forces in the late 1940s and, until the Korean War, had very little thought of staging large forces overseas. Twenty-five years into the “Civil War saeculum,” as Strauss and Howe called it, slavery suddenly became a huge issue for the first time, in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The aged Jefferson watched the controversy with horror “This momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. . . . I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.” When Lincoln, nearly two decades later, observed that the men of distinction among his contemporaries would never be satisfied with “shoring up the existing edifice” that Jefferson and his generation had created, he might well have read that letter, which had been published in 1829.

The counterpart to the Missouri compromise in our own time was the Vietnam War. As I have shown in my last book, the United States government had decided that it would fight Communism almost anywhere in the 1950s, but the crisis in Vietnam in 1964-5 put that resolve to the test, and Lyndon Johnson went ahead. In so doing he drew a new “line coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political” through our body politic, and particularly through the postwar Boom generation that was asked to fight the war. The Boomer left turned its back on war and on the whole political system its fathers had created and built a citadel in academia. The Right, after a temporary eclipse, embraced imperialism and strength. But meanwhile, the older generations—Johnson’s contemporaries the GIs, and the Silent generation, the parallel to the Compromisers (Webster and Clay) of the nineteenth century), eventually wound up the Vietnam War and avoided any similar adventures for about fifteen years—in the same way that slavery, after the Missouri compromise, was kept in the background for another twenty years, forbidden even to be discussed on the floor of Congress. Certainly we remained a world power, but we also abandoned the military draft. Within the military those who had lived through Vietnam kept us out of anything similar until 1990 (and, if they could have, would probably have avoided that war as well.)

The slavery question revived as a result of the Mexican War, leading first to the Compromise of 1850—the last desperate stroke of Clay’s generation, bitterly resented by most of Lincoln’s contemporaries, the Transcendentals, on both sides—and then four years later to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that upset the Missouri Compromise. The Gulf War of 1990-1 was our Compromise of 1850. The Congress barely authorized it and the country watched it with terror, but wise leadership kept the war short and not very disruptive. Yet the younger hawks—the Wolfowitzes and Perles and William Kristols and, as it turns out, George W. Bush—were deeply disappointed with its indecisive results, just as younger southerners would have preferred secession to compromise in 1850, and younger northerners bitterly resented the Fugitive Slave Act that was part of it.

9/11 was the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the prototype civil war that followed—the catalyst that made the old rules obsolete and put the critical issue squarely on the table. And the Iraq War was the Dred Scott decision, even though it has not yet provoked John Brown’s raid. Both announced the complete repudiation of previous traditions. Dred Scott threw out all attempts to restrict slavery, and the Iraq War repudiated the United Nations and the principles of international law which our fathers had fought to establish. But neither, oddly, was really enforceable. Dred Scott woke up the North. The Iraq War has failed, in part at least, because we had much less than half the forces that would have been necessary to make it successful.

Last Thursday, President Bush once again tried to drag the whole country in his wake.

“This vision for a reduced American presence also has the support of Iraqi leaders from all communities. At the same time, they understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency. These Iraqi leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America. And we are ready to begin building that relationship -- in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops.

"The success of a free Iraq is critical to the security of the United States. A free Iraq will deny al Qaeda a safe haven. A free Iraq will counter the destructive ambitions of Iran. A free Iraq will marginalize extremists, unleash the talent of its people, and be an anchor of stability in the region. A free Iraq will set an example for people across the Middle East. A free Iraq will be our partner in the fight against terror -- and that will make us safer here at home. . . . .

“Whatever political party you belong to, whatever your position on Iraq, we should be able to agree that America has a vital interest in preventing chaos and providing hope in the Middle East. We should be able to agree that we must defeat al Qaeda, counter Iran, help the Afghan government, work for peace in the Holy Land, and strengthen our military so we can prevail in the struggle against terrorists and extremists.

“So tonight I want to speak to members of the United States Congress: Let us come together on a policy of strength in the Middle East. I thank you for providing crucial funds and resources for our military. And I ask you to join me in supporting the recommendations General Petraeus has made and the troop levels he has asked for.”

The consensus for which the President is calling obviously does not exist, even within his own national security establishment. Several press reports have now made clear that General Petraeus is virtually the odd man out among the senior military, most of whom want a rapid, substantial withdrawal from Iraq to rebuild the military. But the Republican candidates-especially Rudy Giuliani, who is now getting foreign policy advice from Norman Podhoretz, and John McCain—will fall in line—and the Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton, will have to respond. And if a Republican wins, he will have to put up or shut up--which probably means an attempt to reinstate the draft and double the size of the Army and Marines in order to secure the Middle East.

No candidate as yet has articulated a real vision of a different foreign policy, as I tried to do here in my entry of April 14. The people and the Congress want the war ended, but they are not articulating what that would mean or where we would go from there. Depending on developments in the next year, the Democratic presidential candidate may find it more prudent not to do so. But the need to find a new rationale for non-intervention cannot be delayed after January 20, 2009. In so doing, a new President can draw upon an important historical parallel from the history of another nation—but that is a subject for another day.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Point of the Surge

This morning both the New York Times and the Washington Post have long articles on Iraq--the former on the situation on the ground, a most unusual piece of reporting, and the latter an interesting study of the bureaucratic battle in Washington. They suffer, oddly, from the new function of the lead paragraph and from the competition between them. The Times lead fulfills that new function: to try to show that the story is willing to give the Administration the benefit of any doubt. It reads:

"Seven months after the American-led troop “surge” began, Baghdad has experienced modest security gains that have neither reversed the city’s underlying sectarian dynamic nor created a unified and trusted national government.

"Improvements have been made. American military figures show that sectarian killings in Baghdad have decreased substantially. In many of Baghdad’s most battle-scarred areas, including Mansour in the west and Ur in the east, markets and parks that were practically abandoned last year have begun to revive.

"The surge has also coincided with and benefited from a dramatic turnaround in many Sunni areas where former insurgents and tribes have defected from supporting violent extremism, delivering reliable tips and helping the Americans find and eliminate car bomb factories. An average of 23 car bombs a month struck Baghdad in June, July and August, down from an average of 42 over the same period a year earlier.

"But the overall impact of those developments, so far, has been limited. And in some cases the good news is a consequence of bad news: people in neighborhoods have been “takhalasu” — an Iraqi word for purged, meaning killed or driven away. More than 35,000 Iraqis have left their homes in Baghdad since the American troop buildup began, aid groups reported."

It's those second and third paragraphs that kill me, and particularly the statement that "military figures" show that sectarian killings are down. Karen De Young of the Post explained that one last week--the military only counts a dead Iraqi as a sectarian killing if he or she was shot in the back of the head--if you are shot from the front, it's an ordinary crime. As I mentioned last week, every other count shows sectarian killings up last month, and the Times story certainly explains why--the civil war in Baghdad is continuing and clearly cannot be stopped.

The Post story focuses on Admiral Fallon, the new CENTCOM commander, who apparently has never believed that the surge is working or could work and is very concerned, as are the Joint Chiefs, with the effect of the war on the military (a concern that also played a big part in the winding down of the Vietnam War.) Indeed, it leaves the impression that only two or three major players believe in the surge any more--the President, the Vice President, and General Petraeus. But reading it, I began to feel more and more deeply that I now understand why we had a surge--to save President Bush and his leading advisers' self-image, and to insure that our eventual failure in Iraq would be blamed on someone else.

As the Post reminds us, the Iraq war seemed all but over last fall. Conditions had deteriorated rapidly throughout 2006 in Iraq, American casualties, as I mentioned were going up, and the American people had repudiated the war at the polls. Failure was, as it is now, only a matter of time. But acknowledging that was something that President Bush simply could not do.

The President, along with the neoconservatives in and out of government who trumpeted and still trumpet the glories of this war, have staked their entire self-image on this war. To admit that it was all a hopeless mistake would completely unhinge their self-image. Thus, to paraphrase Karl Rove, they had to create a new reality. Outside the government Fred Kagan and William Kristol (both second-generation neoconservatives) stepped forward with a plan: more troops. The President could not resist it. And General Petraeus, whose dissertation (which I read recently) showed in the 1980s a great concern with showing that the US Army could handle counterinsurgency missions, stepped forward to lead it. (I do not however want to heap too much responsibility on the general--had he never joined the Army, there would, I am sure, have been some one else.)

The point is not that the surge is going to work--the point is that its success or failure, rather than how to get out of Iraq, became the lead story for 2007 and will remain so into 2008. Meanwhile, and this is one of the best parts of the Post story, Ed Gillespie at the White House started a 24/7 propaganda operation at the White House to bully the press, legislators, Petraeus and his staff, and conservative bloggers with optimistic talking points. This has kept enough Republicans in line to frustrate Democratic attempts to build a veto-proof majority. It has also evidently intimidated Democrats from simply refusing to vote more money for the war, which would require only the majorities that they have. And it has insured, almost certainly, that there will be as many American troops in Iraq on January 20, 2009 as there were when the President announced the surge on January 10, 2007--indeed, probably a few more. The President, meanwhile, as we learned last week, is thinking about "replenishing the coffers" on the lecture circuit and starting a freedom institute in Dallas.

And that will do for George Bush and the Republican Party what the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 did for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger--allow them to claim for the rest of his life that he won the war in Iraq, and that the eventual catastrophe was some one else's fault. ("If it feels good, do it, and if you've got a problem, blame some one else.") The Army and the Marine Corps will be in a completely deplorable state, the Iraq civil war will be continuing, we will have lost more than half of our credibility and influence in the Middle East, and Afghanistan, to judge from current trends, will be looking like a losing battle too; but the new Republican myth will be solidly established, and it will be a courageous new President indeed who immediately begins to pull out. It might be better, indeed, if it turned out to be a Republican, leaving the blame where it belongs. The least likely new President to begin a quick withdrawal, in my opinion, would be Hillary Clinton, who will be determined to show that she can be as tough as any man.

It disturbs me greatly to see how many policy makers still accept that idea, it seems, that failure in Iraq, which is inevitable, is not an option. A recent experts' report notes that the Iraqi police force is hopeless, which is true, and has the gall to suggest that we should disband it and start from scratch! Senator Clinton actually calls for Maliki's replacement, rather than announce more sensibly that who will govern Iraq is not properly the concern of the United States. Again and again centrist pundits intone that while it was a mistake to go into Iraq, getting out will be catastrophic--ignoring that the great humanitarian catastrophe we fear has already occurred, and will probably only be marginally worse after we leave.

In 1948, when I was a year old, Charles A. Beard warned in his last book that America's world role would destroy American democracy. Beard was wrong about American intervention in the Second World War, which he had opposed, but he identified a real danger which is now coming to pass. For 60 years Americans have increasingly believed--especially within our leadership--that we have a right and a duty to determine who should govern just about anywhere in the world. (Only in the Bush Administration 2002 National Security Strategy did this become official policy, however.) Meanwhile, we have a habit of electing people as President who have a highly developed sense of their own uniqueness and an inability of admit that they are wrong, and a national security bureaucracy which, while it can recognize the folly of particular foreign adventures, still lives off of our world role. Worst of all, since Vietnam, Republicans have lived off the idea that opposition to foreign intervention is weakness at best and treason at worst. I listened to Limbaugh for about an hour on Friday, and he and his callers were agreeing that media figures who, for instance, suggested that we not believe President Bush on the eve of the Iraqi War (one media figure whose name I didn't recognize had supposedly said we should trust Saddam Hussein) were truly treasonous. (It didn't occur to either Limbaugh or the caller, of course, that on the issue of WMD Saddam was telling the truth.) Such accusations have resonated sufficiently among the American people to help decide the Presidential elections of 1980, 1984, 1988 and 2004, and to win Republican control of the Senate in 2004.

Indeed, one could argue that failing foreign adventures, which the "reality-based community" will inevitably oppose, are now a key element of Republican strategy. The first President Bush won a significant foreign policy victory in 1991 when he liberated Kuwait, but that didn't allow him to demonize domestic opponents, and he lost the election. His son turned catastrophe into victory. When I reviewed The Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe in 1996, I had to speculate on what might cause the next great crisis, and I predicted that it would be a problem that our own response tended to exacerbate. The crisis in the Middle East, so far, is filling the bill.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Counting in Iraq

This is my second post today--see below for a completely different subject.

Things are getting more Orwellian as the day of the Petraeus/Crocker report arrives. Juan Cole on his much-read blog has complained about Administration statements regarding American casualties and encouraged bloggers to do what they can to bring out the truth. Since there are new developments, another month having passed, I shall do my bit.

This is what Tony Snow said two days ago at the White House:

"The real question that people have is, what's going on Iraq? Are we making progress? Militarily, is the surge having an impact? The answer is yes. There's no question about it. What you've had is the number of ethnic and religious sectarian killings down by 75 percent. You have a doubling of weapons cache seizures. You have a reduction in bombing violence, in bombing killings of U.S. and coalition forces. There have been a number of -- you have kills and captures way up when it comes to those who have been fighting against the government."

Beginning with Iraqi deaths, we have two sets of figures. The Administration provides some, and the website icasualties.org, the source for all my data, provides others, combining Iraqi security forces and civilians. Their figures are based upon press accounts and, as they bluntly admit, are surely low. Here is what they show for Iraqi civilian deaths over the last year and a half.


Now these figures confirm that things are not at their worst--during last August and September and again in February and March, Iraqi deaths were in the 3000 per month range. Even if we bias our calculation to the maximum extent, however, and compare the worst month (September 2006) to the best recent month (June), we do not arrive at the 75% reduction to which Snow referred. And in fact, these killings are still around 50% higher than they were in the first half of 2006--surely a rather bizarre definition of "progress?" And over this weekend, after I drafted this post, a series of new and escalating figures for August civilian deaths have appeared, now topping 2000.

Snow's statements about reduced American deaths are even more bizarre. Here are the last year's figures for them.

Military Fatalities: By Month
8-2007 8140852.7431
7-2007 7981882.8431
6-2007 101701083.630
5-2007 126321314.2331
4-2007 1041211173.930
3-2007 8110822.6531
2-2007 8131853.0428
1-2007 8330862.7731
12-2006 112121153.7131
11-2006 7062782.630
10-2006 106221103.5531
9-2006 7232772.5730
8-2006 6510662.1331
7-2006 4312461.4831
6-2006 6102632.130
5-2006 6991792.5531
4-2006 7615822.7330
3-2006 3102331.0631

Last month I questioned whether the July figures really showed a downward trend. With August in the same range as July, it looks as if we are in a new phase--or rather, that the particularly intense phase of combat that began along with the surge in April and lasted three months seems to be over. It would seem that, particularly in May, American troops must have stormed quite a few hostile areas, much as they did in Fallujah in November 2004 as soon as the presidential election was over, in the costliest month of the war (141 dead.) Now casualties are back down somewhat--to the level they were at in the first three months of 2007, before the surge began. When one adds in the wounded--a very complex process, since weekly and monthly figures on icasualties.org don't seem to match perfectly--the picture is even murkier. Thus, as I pointed out earlier, although coalition KIA fell by 20 from June to July, American wounded rose during July from 609 to 655, with the increase divided evenly between those who returned to duty within 48 hours and those who did not. So far August wounded are reported at 558, the lowest figure since before the surge.

Tony Snow did not mention the increased rate of internally displaced persons in Iraq. He did, however, do something else administration spokesmen have begun to do--he cited the enemy body count of increased dead and (see last week's post) detained insurgents. Of course, as in Vietnam, we will never know how many of them actually are insurgents--or how many were insurgents before they were detained, instead of after. But the idea that the surge is decreasing Iraqi and American casualties does not seem to be true--at least not yet.

Hypocrisy in America

When Karl Rove resigned I made a remark about Republican homophobia that drew a hostile comment. This week Republican homophobia is in the news again—and the morning papers say that it will claim its next victim, a Republican Senator, by the end of the day. Republican hypocrisy is, of course, a source of satisfaction to any good Democrat like myself, but I still find this episode more depressing than satisfying, and it proves at several levels how far we have to go.

In the wake of the revelation of Larry Craig’s arrest and guilty plea for suggestive (though not overtly obscene) actions in a Minneapolis airport rest room, one of his local newspapers published an article indicating a long history of rumors, accusations, and even unsolicited denials, going back to another Congressional page scandal (of which I had no memory at all) in the early 1980s. Craig, in fact, got married for the first time, when in his early forties, in the wake of that scandal. Whether Craig is gay—or perhaps I should say, how gay he is—I have no idea. Some evidence suggests that whole issue is more complicated than a lot of us think. Not long ago I saw an extraordinary documentary about a North Carolina murder case, The Staircase, in which an extremely intelligent gay male prostitute testified that the vast majority of his clients, he thought, were basically heterosexual, but felt an occasional need for a man. I’m sure such people have a difficult time balancing everything out, but I’m not about to condemn them just because I’ve been a hopeless heterosexual for my whole life.

In any case, Craig seems to have had impulses he could only pursue furtively. What I speculated a few weeks ago, in effect, was that his whole-nine-yards conservative Republicanism might be a defense against those impulses, a frantic attempt to repudiate unacceptable parts of himself. Certainly the Reverend Ted Haggard seems to have been in that predicament as well. It makes me sad that people are driven to such denial, but it makes me very angry that their problems have become our problems through the mechanism of the political realm. Not content with suppressing whatever nasty impulses they might have, “conservatives” are determined to suppress them in everyone else, too—and that right, as the Supreme Court has fortunately recognized, they do not have.

Craig’s arrest is a consequence of various kinds of homophobia. I was stunned, perhaps naively, that gay men are still trolling in public restrooms. Gays, like straights, can now troll in bars, on the net, or in the ads in their local alternative newspaper without having to fear offending a totally unwilling target—but not, of course, if they feel they absolutely have to conceal their impulses. But I was even more stunned that the Minneapolis police are still detailing officers to catch them doing it. Craig’s tactics were certainly quite discreet. I don’t think I would have recognized them for what they apparently were had it been me in the next stall. But the officers knew what to look for, and made an arrest. Actually had I been Craig’s attorney (and I’m not an attorney), I would have been tempted to tell him to fight the case. The state would have had a hell of a time proving that tapping his foot meant that he wanted sex. The point, of course, was that the kind of man who still finds it necessary to seek sex in that manner would be much too frightened to do anything but plead guilty—as Craig was. He didn’t even dare consult a lawyer—because, perhaps, he accepted the view of some of his fellow conservative Republicans that gays are beyond the pale in American society.

For the past forty years the United States has been trying to grow up with respect to issues of private sexual behavior. We have made only uneven progress. Millions of gays do live uncloseted lives, which is a good thing. But this has provoked an extraordinary backlash without parallel in any other western country, and in political life, although divorce is now accepted (especially, it would seem, among Republican presidential candidates), any extramarital indiscretion is, literally, news. Europeans cannot understand this attitude. This morning I read that some people are complaining that while Craig is about to resign, his colleague David Vitter, who had to admit patronizing a New Orleans brothel, has not. I’m sorry, frankly, that either of them might—just as I was appalled (and I said so in print at the time) that Bill Clinton was dumb enough to answer questions about his private sexual behavior under oath.

The contrast between our views of public and private transgressions is most depressing as well. We can’t take any action against officials who subvert the constitution or corrupt the political process through the Justice Department, it seems, but we can drive any closeted gay out of public life. It reminds me of one of my favorite episodes in American history, the election of 1884, in which reformer Democrat Grover Cleveland was favored to beat machine Republican James G. Blaine, who had had to admit taking a bribe to influence legislation. Then, after Cleveland’s nomination, it turned out the lifelong bachelor might have fathered an illegitimate child years before. His candidacy seemed doomed until a supporter suggested a sensible solution to the country’s dilemma: let Blaine, whose private life was exemplary, be returned to private life, while Cleveland, whose public life was spotless, reached the summit of our public life. The country, by a narrow margin, agreed. Would it today?