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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.


serial catowner said...

Frankly, I would just cut all but the first and last paragraphs. I found the stuff in the middle to be confusing and not very convincing, and I probably know more about the periods you discussed than most readers do.

I would be especially wary of extended discussions of "silents" and "transcendentalists" etc. Not only does it weaken the writing, but there is the possibility that you are wrong about some of that stuff, and thus misled by using it as a building block of reason.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

My goodness, how many fronts both hot and warm, are open now in the war now? Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Palestine, Sudan (Eritrea is next)...The US is fighting against all stripes: Sunni, Shia, secular, nationalist...you name it in that part of the world. And the aims are never declared, other than waving around the al-Qaeda scarecrow.

We Americans have no idea whatsoever what the actual aims are but it certainly looks like a war against, well, something Arabian-Iranian-Islamic and maybe with a lot of oil.

The stage looks set by the cabal to frighten the American birdies into the rookery (and I don't mean a cliff, I mean a circle of tall bushes with a hidden net) As you say, the next Republican president will likely remove the mask and ramp up to full-fledged, outright doppel-adler imperialism.

I hate those SOB's Podhoretz, Ledeen and Abrams and I haven't said it enough.

Anonymous said...

"Another nation." Not "another Republic that ended its final Crisis as an Empire." Because I'm not only an avid fan of novels set in Rome's Dying Republic, but I am not alone. They are enormously popular, from Colleen McCullough's mega-series to the murder mysteries of Steven Saylor and John Maddox Roberts. I think it's because people sense a parallel here.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with the Catowner, David. As a long-time reader of The Fourth Turning web site, and fan of the Howe & Strauss theory on cyclical American history, I appreciate how you drew upon parallels with the 70-year history leading up to and through the Civil War. Indeed, the cycle of generations and turnings has been in a similar position. While economic and environmental dilemmas have been at the forefront of speculation as to the coming crisis of the 4th Turning, I think you may be correct in asserting that America's response in the next ten years as the World's Policeman, Guardian, or Shame-faced Bully will determine how we enter the 2020s as a time of mild or catastrophic crisis.

David Kaiser said...

Catowner has made it clear that he doesn't like Strauss and Howe. Apparently I haven't been able to make it clear that I'm not going to change my mind in response to his opinion, and hope to increase general familiarity with their ideas. It's still a free country!

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Every time I turn around, there's some new admission that floors me. This time, the Fed Chairman apparently thought it was part of his brief to urge the President to go to war over oil. So spake Greenspan. Geez.

serial catowner said...

Sure it's a free country (kinda) with freedom of speech (kinda). But let's just consider one sentence here- "The Boomer left turned its back on war and on the whole political system its fathers had created and built a citadel in academia."

That's not exactly true for the "Boomer left" I knew in Seattle. Some of us kicked the corrupt gang out of the City-City Light-Fire Department nexus, making it possible to integrate City Light, the Fire Dept., and the Police, and making it possible to invest in the city, something that corrupted zoning codes had discouraged. We also put an end to the Red Squad and the blackmailing of gays that corrupted local politics, as well as cleaning up the county sheriff's office (27 convicted of taking bribes).

Others saved the Pike Place Market, started Starbucks, re-introduced the idea of "gourmet" (that is to say, well made) breads and other foods, and made an arts community that eventually produced chefs d'ouevres such as the Pilchuck School of Glass. Most of us did not go to school right away; a lot of us became artisans and never went back to college.

As for that leftist citadel of academe, are you referring to the Henry Jackson School of International Studies?

But it turns out this is all moot, a throwaway line, or Pavlovian bell for those intoxicated by the fumes of Howe and Strauss. Read and re-read what follows, nothing seems to be related to the line I quoted- except, perhaps, the subsequent implication that the very men who had created the Augean stables the Boomer left had to clean out, that these GI-generation vets patiently ended the Vietnam War- as though that had been their intention all along and only the Raucous Rebels of the 60s had kept that from happening sooner!

Like I said, it weakens the writing.

Anonymous said...

I usually enjoy your essays but I quit reading this one when I choked on "The Boomer left turned its back on war and on the whole political system its fathers had created and built a citadel in academia." Yeah, well, I got my draft notice in 1968 when I was in graduate school and I didn't notice any towering walls defending me! This is bullshit.

Scott Kohlhaas said...

It's bad, but I'm glad we (Bush) don't have conscription!

Would you be willing to spread the word about www.draftresistance.org? It's a site dedicated to shattering the myths surrounding the selective slavery system and building mass civil disobedience to stop the draft before it starts!

Our banner on a website, printing and posting the anti-draft flyer or just telling friends would help.


Scott Kohlhaas

PS. When it comes to conscription, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!