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Saturday, February 23, 2008

A peaceful crisis?

I have hesitated to predict Barack Obama’s nomination here partly from superstition. I am not accustomed to having too many things turn out as I had hoped, and I didn’t want to fall for any false dawn. Yet it seems more and more likely that he will win, and that this election might be a defining moment comparable to 1860 or 1932. And meanwhile, I have been doing some intermittent reading that suggests to me that, for all the depressing developments in recent politics that I have had to mention over these last three and a half years, things are not, in fact, going so badly, and the coming crisis in our political life could be as peaceful as the one that the British underwent during the 1860s.

My main source is Allan Nevins’s The Ordeal of the Union, whose first four volumes I read in their entirety close to thirty years ago, and which I have been dipping in and out of recently late in the evening. (The four volumes on the coming of the Civil War are perhaps the greatest work of American political history ever written; the further volumes on the war itself are, I regret to say, not as good.) Having begun with the Compromise of 1850, I have this time skipped the Kansas-Nebraska Act and gone straight to the election of 1856, the first one in which the new Republican Party fielded a candidate. The atmosphere is familiar, but there are major differences. Nowadays one can hear venomous partisan poisoning on your local clear channel radio station at any hour of the day or night, but in those days mainstream politicians, newspaper editors, and clergy were doling out the same kind of rhetoric—albeit in more inspiring language—over slavery. They represented the Good, their enemies the evil. Northerners at the least were arguing by 1856 that slavery must be confined to its existing home; Southerners were arguing that slaves were property like any other and that they should be able to take them anywhere in the Union—a view that the Supreme Court was about to endorse. The threat of southern secession if Fremont won, more than anything else, ensured Buchanan’s victory in 1856. A number of largely older politicians (and, one might assume, older voters as well), who still held the peaceful preservation of the union to be the supreme value, made Buchanan their choice. They included Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, no great friend of slavery, and, as it happened, Fremont’s father-in-law, who stumped for Buchanan to keep alive the tradition of the now dead Webster and Clay. Four years older there were that many more younger voters and that many fewer older ones; the Democratic Party split when even northern Democrats could not stomach the southern position on slavery; and Lincoln, though winning only a minority, was elected. The civil war followed.

Now the conservative hatred for everything the Democratic Party and Republican allies accomplished between 1932 and 1969 is perhaps equal to anything the northerners and southerners felt in the 1860s, but it has not actually infected leading Republican politicians, who understand, perhaps, that their constituents’ dreams simply can never come true. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the more extreme leftists (especially in academia) have essentially turned their back on politics for the last three and a half decades, and are confining their influence to college classrooms rather than spreading the word on talk radio. That, perhaps, is why Barack Obama thinks he can actually rise above the partisanship of the last two decades, and because there is no consuming issue like slavery to overcome, he may be right.

Nor, however, is there a single issue obviously demanding action, as there was in 1932, when the country was in the midst of almost complete economic collapse and threatened with social breakdown. Roosevelt faced little effective opposition during his first term because the status quo was simply unacceptable. He used that situation to enshrine the government as employer of last resort and regulator of the financial and securities markets. No one, today, believes such a wholesale restructuring of the government is necessary. On the other hand, Roosevelt in 1933 faced no pressing foreign policy problems and, indeed, took a more isolationist stance initially than Hoover had. Obama may want to do the same; he certainly seems willing to give up our imperial project in the Middle East.

The civil war crisis was violent; the crisis of 1929-45 was not, at least at home. Across the Atlantic, our British cousins in the 1860s and 1870s largely transformed their nation from an aristocracy into a middle-class democracy without either civil conflict or a large foreign war. We may, over the next twenty years, may be able to return the compliment and transform the relationship of our government to our society along more western European lines, again without major civil conflict or, perhaps, foreign war. That would be an extraordinary achievement. The bad news is that the Boom generation has been more divisive than the Missionaries (born about 1863-1884) and probably as divisive rhetorically as the Transcendentals who gave us the civil war. The good news is that, for all our bluster, we haven’t had such a big issue to fight about. I hope it will not change.

This may be my last posting for two weeks, thanks to vacation.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Publication of The Road To Dallas

The Road to Dallas will be available within a week or two (simply click the link in the list of books to the right if you want to order it.) I will also be creating a site for it (but that must await my return from some vacation next week.) Meanwhile, the first copy has arrived, and, inevitably, it turns out that some editorial slips involving factual errors have occurred. There are many ways for this to happen in this automated age, but I take full responsibility, and simply look forward to correcting them all in future editions. (Some indeed have been corrected for the second printing, which is already beginning.) Here are the problems I have identified so far, and I shall update as any others emerge.

p. 59, first paragraph: “at his Miami Sans Souci casino” should be “at his Havana Sans Souci casino.”

p. 107, sentence before note 28: “by his predecessor (Helms)” should read, “by his predecessor (Dulles)" .

p. 225, “Butler, amazingly, was not called by the commission or, apparently, even interviewed by the FBI—“ should read: Butler, amazingly, was not called by the commission or interviewed at any length by the FBI—“

p, 403 2nd paragraph, “during the remainder of the 1970s” should be “during the remainder of the 1960s.”

Enjoy the book!

Sorry about the confusion

I apologize for all the confusion, but the good news is that I showed up on time and the program ran. You can easily find it (check Thursday, February 22) at http://wamu.org/programs/dr/.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

In bookstores now

I spent some time this week in a bookstore catching up on some recent non-fiction, including The Bush Tragedy by Jacob Weisberg; The Commission, by Philip Shenon, about the 9/11 Commission; and On the Road to Hell by Michael Scheuer, who was once the head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit and has become a violent critic of Administration policy. I didn’t have time to give any of them (particularly Scheuer’s, which I regret to say has not yet been purchased by a single Rhode Island library) the attention it deserved, but I got quite a bit out of each.

Psychoanalyzing George W. Bush has become a popular parlor game, but I think Weisberg has come closest to hitting the mark of the various attempts I have seen. He is undoubtedly right that the President’s relationship to his father is the key to understanding him—although I don’t think he fully understands what growing up in that kind of family was like. All the evidence I have seen suggests that George H. W. was a typical successful father of that generation, constantly busy with his job, his contacts, and his athletic pursuits, and without much time for his children. The Bushes are a notoriously emotionally stiff lot, and the traumatic death of George’s sister when he was about seven must have been a critical event as well, all the more so since his parents did not even tell him she was gravely ill before she died. (That kind of denial was not uncommon among GI parents, who had spent their young adulthoods putting aside a great many unpleasant feelings and expected their kids to do the same. We did—until the late 1960s.) The father’s attitude in such families tends to change, however, when sons reach the age of 14 or so. At that point the father in effect offers a new bargain: he will start paying some attention to his son, provided that his son agrees to become part of the father’s world, and imitate him to the maximum extent possible. That was what George W., who obviously never wanted to go either to Andover or Yale, did, and it couldn’t have been much fun.

All this must have been much more confusing because, even though he reached the White House, Bush père was never as formidable as he seemed. While the fate of the family revolved around his fortunes, he obviously did little around the house, and he had his own insecurities, intellectual and emotional blind spots, and setbacks. He was never all that good at politics, and remains one of the few Presidents who lost as many elections as he ever won. His Vice Presidency was as humiliating as any, which is saying quite a lot. But in George W. Bush’s universe, he was the center of attention—teaching the oldest son, perhaps, how easy it might be to achieve that stature.

W’s own intellectual endowments, of course, were probably more modest than his father’s, and he clearly did not do very much at Andover (and less at Yale) to develop them. And this leads to Weisberg’s greatest insight, one which historians will have to ponder for a long time. President Bush is incapable of sustained thought—partly because he has no interest in it. He knows how to take an impressive position upon an issue, and few if any Presidents have ever been better at sticking to it, but he has no concept, really, of how to implement it, test it against reality, or reassess. Weisberg repeatedly quotes Bush’s predecessor’s assessment of him: “He doesn’t know anything,” said Bill Clinton, “and he doesn’t want to know anything, but he’s not dumb.” This quality extends even to the subjects Bush seems to care about most, such as religion. While Bush’s basic beliefs are surely sincere, they show very little sophistication about the Evangelical religion. He does not attend church regularly, uses lots of profanity, and has not scrupled to invent some new Christian doctrine when it suits him—the idea, for instance, that the Almighty has granted us all the right to live in a democracy. His religiosity was both a way to distance himself from his family (when he argued with his mother about whether one must be born again to get to Heaven, he was actually challenging her own right to be there) and, as it turned out, to find a political constituency. One suspects that he has what Gary Wills identified 35 years ago as a particularly American attitude towards religion: that his success proves that the Lord is on his side.

The President, then, has relied almost entirely on a set of simple beliefs: American power can liberate the world and impose democracy, taxes and bad and profit is good, etc. Weisberg spends less time on another consequence of all this. The price of admission to his inner circle is buying into his beliefs, and like so many troubled men and women, he has a knack for finding the helpers he needs. He cannot abide any criticism—not for nothing did his minions do everything they could to keep any Democrats away from his campaign events—and he has surrounded himself with people like Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales, who seem just the same. And that leads us to the 9/11 Commission.

I could not read as much of Shenon’s book as I would like, but it was painful. There seems little doubt that neither the Clinton nor the Bush Administrations took the threat from Osama Bin Laden seriously enough, and Shenon makes clear that left to their own devices, the staff of the 9/11 Commission might have produced a much more negative report about both of them. But the Bush Administration, he argues, had a secret weapon, Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia historian who had collaborated with Condoleezza Rice on a book about the re-unification of Germany and (this I did not know) had helped write the national security strategy of 2002 endorsing preventive war. He was frequently in touch with Karl Rove while the Commission worked, and Shenon argues that he was willing to downplay criticism of the Clinton Administration to help save Bush, whose re-election was at stake. Any severe criticism of either Administration was labeled as “partisan.” It will be decades now before we know exactly who knew what before 9/11.

And 9/11 leads us to Scheuer, one of the angrier middle-aged men in America. Scheuer was one of the first American experts on Osama Bin Laden, and now, six years after 9/11, he simply cannot believe that the American government seems to have learned almost nothing about him. He is appalled, to begin with, that the entire political establishment (as he sees it) has managed to sell the country on the idea that Islamic radicals hate the United States for what it is, not for what it does, even though they have never been shy about stating their complaints about our support for Israel, our attempts to secure all their oil at cheap prices, our support for dictatorial clients in the Middle East, and, now, our invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries. We have, he thinks, done almost exactly what Osama would have liked us to do since 9/11, and he has described the Iraq War as “the gift that keeps on giving” to Bin Laden. He concludes the book with a long imagined report from Bin Laden’s intelligence chief in the U.S. (and he is certain such a person exists), repeatedly expressing astonishment that we could have been so stupid in so many ways. And in the end, he has the courage to say what no politician except Ron Paul seems willing to say, namely, that we have no reason to care how Muslim nations rule themselves, and that we must pay more attention to what they think if we want to live in peace with them. (That will not, he adds, solve the problem, and he anticipates a need for a great deal more violence on our part to deal with the threat that already exists.)

Sadly, all these books confirm the famous statement by a senior Bush staffer to Ron Suskind back in 2004—that by the time the “reality-based community” catches up to what is happening, the Bush Administration will have moved on to something else. But I have hopes for the immediate future. John McCain will obviously be running for President on the same myths that have brought us to our present path. A Democratic candidate who can bluntly address fundamental truths either before or after the election will strike a very profound chord among the American people—but he (or, les likely, she) will also antagonize powerful interests. It will hurt to have reality bite us all in the rear end again, but this time mother was right—it will feel better afterwards.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Morning after

Barack Obama took a giant step towards the Democratic nomination last night. CNN's delegate count shows that he substantially closed the delegate gap between him and Hillary Clinton, and now trails by just 1100 to 1039. Since Clinton leads in unelected superdelegates by 223-131, that means that Barack has passed her in delegates chosen by the voters, and if that trend continues, I think most superdelegates will be forced to change their minds and vote for him as well to preserve the credibility of the primary process (which is functioning far better than it ever has in American history.) A terrific fight looms over delegates from Michigan and Florida, but it hardly seems possible that it will be decided according to the results of the rogue primaries they held, in which Clinton was the only participant. Obama has the momentum (and will have more after the "Beltway" primaries this Tuesday), and, astonishingly, greater financial resources. Clinton, on the other hand, can still hope that the same demographics that carried her to victory in most of the Northeast and in California (blue-collar whites and Hispanics) can do the same in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas early next month. That is not impossible.

It is my intention, as many of you know, to provide something new here, and today I am going to present some data on generational voting in the Democratic primaries. Young peoples' interest in politics has been falling since the 1970s, and I remember Bill Strauss telling me around 1998 that only about 1/3 of eligible Generation X voters (born 1961-81) had voted in the 1996 election. Obama, as I have already mentioned, is doing very well among younger voters. He would be winning easily, however, if more of them bothered to vote. Five generations are now voting (although the GIs, who decided just about every election from 1932 until 2000, are a tiny shadow of their former selves now.) The ideal dividing line would be age 47, but the exit polls use 44, dumping a few Generation Xers into the older group. Still, the age data from CNN exit polls is rather astonishing--sad to say, older folk still rule the political world in the US. Here are some figures.

In California 60% of the Democrats and 70% of the Republicans who voted were 45 and over.

In New York 63% of the Democrats and 73% of the Republican voters were over 44.

In Massachusetts, 62% of the Democrats, 63% of the Republicans were over 44..

In Georgia, 64% of the Democrats and a mere 60% of the Republicans were over 44.

In New Jersey, 58% of the Democrats and 70% of the Republicans voting were over 44. (There's a trend here: northeast Republicans are on the endangered species list.)

Missouri, 58% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans, over 44.

By this time you are undoubtedly wondering about the total populations that are respectively 18-44 and 45 and over. In 2005, the last year for which I can find data, the younger group was 54% of the voting age population, the older group 46%. That may have altered about a point in favor of the older group since then, since the early 1960s cohorts (who have passed 44 in the interim) were evidently a little larger than the late 1980s-early 1990s ones that have reached voting age. This would suggest that older Americans are voting at a rate about twice that of younger Americans. (The Republican vote appears to be substantially more skewed towards the elderly than the Democratic, except perhaps in the South.)

It is now too late, sadly, to register for the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4, but there is plenty of time to register in Pennsylvania, where the primary does not occur until April 22. I hope the Obama campaign will take note. Last night, watching Obama speak in Virginia, I realized that the JFK comparison is actually quite appropriate. Both are inspiring, but not in the way people usually think. JFK is remembered above all for his inaugural, which was actually not a typical piece of his rhetoric. His most powerful speeches, on topics like peace with the Soviets and the civil rights bill, drew their strength from their simple, inexorable logic, and from his lack of emotion. Obama is quite similar; he excites, but only rarely gets excited himself. It's a most refreshing contrast to the obviously worked-up emotions of so many Silent and Boomer politicians. His election would be a great thing for America and the world, and I think that it is almost certain to come, even it does not happen this year. A sleeping giant--the young people of America--is awakening.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Saturday news

According to exit polling, Obama has won Louisiana as well as the Washington and Nebraska caucuses. Those polls, of course, were wrong in New Hampshire; but that is what the CNN exit poll said. (Eventually I will explain how I do this. . .)

Friday, February 08, 2008

How to scrap a legal system

The Democratic Party hasn't been in such good shape for many years, quite possibly since 1964. While two very popular candidates compete for its nomination, the Republicans (as in 1964) are nominating a candidate that a large fraction of their party will never accept, and whose age is obviously going to be a problem, especially if Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination. The country is sliding into the deepest recession, probably, since the early 1980s, most Americans have concluded the Iraq war was a mistake, and Democratic primary turnout dwarfs Republican in state after state. Faced with all this, the Democrats, particularly in Congress (where virtually every single blue-state Republican is planning the next phase of his or her life) have decided to play it safe, especially on issues of national security and presidential power. They seem above all to fear that another terrorist attack before the election (a distinct possibility, in my view, since Osama Bin Laden obviously understands how important it is for him to see the United States elect another President who will keep troops in the Muslim world) could rebound on them if, for example, they seriously try to restrict the Bush wiretapping program.

What the new Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, said yesterday, however, really needs some attention. Mukasey should not have been confirmed--and not because of his failure to take a stand on waterboarding (a stand he has now clarified). He should not have been confirmed because he affirmed the Bush/Nixon doctrine of unlimited Presidential power in matters of National Security, and any Congress with any courage and respect for the Constitution should have refused to let that pass. The country could have survived the next year with an acting attorney general, and one branch of government would have been on record supporting the rule of law. Instead, they folded.

What Mukasey said yesterday takes things to a new level. Now that we know the CIA did use waterboarding to torture some Al Queda leaders (something I inferred from a White House press briefing on December 2, 2005, more than two years ago), he announced that although this might have been illegal, the Justice Department could not possibly prosecute it, because the Justice Department had authorized it. The Attorney General has now personally claimed the right Richard Nixon claimed, to authorize any illegal act. Criminal conspiracies are now legal provided that the Attorney General is participating in them.

Readers with long memories may recall that such a scenario is of more than academic interest. The Watergate break-in was apparently authorized by the then-Attorney General, John Mitchell (although only one of two participants in the critical meeting, Jeb Magruder, ever definitely confirmed that.) But not even Mitchell had the cojones to argue that he had thereby legalized the break-in, which is what Mukasey is doing on behalf of John Ashcroft (or, very possibly, some subordinate of John Ashcroft.) An Attorney General who claims the right to exempt officers of the federal government from the enforcement of the law should, in my not very humble opinion, be impeached at once. Meanwhile, I hope at least a few editorial writers and columnists wake up and notice that Mukasey has pushed the doctrine of executive immunity to a new high. Perhaps even a Democratic presidential candidate could find time to take up the issue--and challenge John McCain to agree that the Attorney General can authorize forms of torture and confer immunity upon the torturers at the same time.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The mysterious Senator Clinton

Last Tuesday Hillary Rodham Clinton was generally at her most appealing as both she and Barack Obama basked in the appreciation of a big-time Hollywood crowd. The two seem set for a long battle, and the Democratic Party is suddenly going to learn how its rules work in a close-well-funded race. As I noted two weeks ago, I was very encouraged by the interview she gave the New York Times on the economy, and she certainly has moved a long way on Iraq, promising a relatively rapid withdrawal in a frantic attempt to re-connect with the mass of Democratic primary voters. Unfortunately, every week something seems to happen that sets me to wondering who she really is, whether she can win, and what kind of President she can actually be.

Last week's exhibit A was a long interview with George Packer of The New Yorker. in which she discussed her idea of the Presidency. It read, in part:

Clinton is presenting herself as the candidate who is tough and knowledgeable enough to fix the broken systems of government: the intelligence agencies, the Justice Department, the legislative process, the White House itself. Last week, speaking on the phone from California, she said that a President allows advisers to oversee the running of government at his or her peril. “Otherwise, you cede too much authority, and although it may not be immediately apparent to the public, the government picks up on those signals,” she said. “What we now know about how Dick Cheney basically controlled the information going to Bush means that we’ll never really know how much responsibility Bush should be assumed to have taken with respect to serious decisions. The water will flow downstream, and often pool in great reservoirs of power that will then be taken advantage of by those who have been smart enough to figure out how to pull the levers. And I know from my own experience, and certainly watching how deeply involved Bill was in those areas that he thought were important, what it takes to try to get the government to respond. It’s not easy. We’re talking about this massive bureaucracy . . . and you have to be prepared on Day One to basically wrest the power away in order to realize the goals and vision that you have for the country". . .

If elected President, Clinton acknowledged, she would have to use unifying rhetoric and reach across partisan lines. But Clinton is less sanguine than Obama is about the possibilities of such efforts; she is readier to march ahead and let those who will follow do so. “It’s also important to say, ‘Look, there are certain things we have to do as a country. You may not agree, but let me explain why, and let me try to persuade you. But if I can’t persuade you, we have to go forward anyway.’ And I think that that kind of understanding of the combination of using the bully pulpit but also producing results—managing the government so it doesn’t manage you, so it does act as an instrument of the policies you’re actually implementing—will give proof to what it is I’m saying.”

Everyone who deals with Senator Clinton remarks on her excellent preparedness and knowledge of issues, and those were certainly on display the other night. Yet I must say I shivered a bit as I read the above words, because they seem to me to express a philosophy very similar to that of the Bush Administration, which had no trust in the bureaucracy either and has repeatedly found ways to insist upon its will (even if, as I am beginning to understand, it rarely had the tenacity to follow through or resolve its own contradictions.) If Clinton's statements do not amount to a declaration that Mother Knows Best, I don't know what would. And meanwhile, I do not remember Bill Clinton as a President particularly skilled at moving the federal bureaucracy, much less putting impressive programs through Congress, either--with the exception of his upper-bracket tax increase during his first year in office. Nor does it make me feel any better that her presumed choice for Secretary of State, Richard Holbrooke, is one of the more difficult personalities to have made his way through Washington in recent years, while Wesley Clark, I happen to know, hasn't been very popular with people who worked for him, either.

Exhibit B, from yesterday's Times, probably isn't very significant, but as regular readers will already know, it touched one of my buttons. In a long story about the development of her views on race, she had to acknowledge that her father was basically a bigot. There's no shame in that. John F. Kennedy was rather astonished in 1960 when, after a telephone call sprung Martin Luther King, Jr. from a Georgia jail, King Sr. announced that while he had planned to vote for Nixon because he didn't want a Catholic President, he had changed his mind. "Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father!," JFK said, and added wryly, "Well, we all have fathers, don't we." Her father Hugh Rodham, the Times reported (evidently on her say-so), "was not shy about flinging prejudices across the dinner table. 'He had the views that people of that age and time did,' Mrs. Clinton said." It is of course fashionable among our contemporaries, particularly in academia (Hillary and I are exactly the same age, and I had dates with perhaps half a dozen of her classmates while in college) to assume that the United States was composed entirely of racists before about 1968, but of course, that is not true. Outside the South, her father's views were not mainstream for that time and place, and it was contemporaries of her father, obviously, who passed the great civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965. I am not trying to imply anything about her own views, and I think it's childish for Christopher Edley, a black law professor at Berkeley, to hold her support for Goldwater at the age of 17 against her in the same article, but it simply isn't fair to millions of other members of the GI generation to suggest that bigotry was the norm.

Clinton's worst moment in the debate, of course, was her attempt to explain her vote for the Iraq war and her opposition to the excellent Levin amendment. As Wolf Blitzer (whose career never ceases to amaze me, since he lacks intelligence, charisma, and good looks) gently tried to point out, anyone who didn't realize that President Bush was determined on war was being shockingly naive. She obviously favored war too in the fall of 2002 and she should say so. That, however, is ancient history, and she certainly seems committed to withdrawal now--but so did Richard Nixon in 1968.

We are going to learn a lot about both Clinton and Obama in the months to come. Among other things, if the nomination fight remains close--and everything suggests it will--I predict that there will be a classic convention fight over seating delegates from two large states, Michigan and Florida, who have supposedly been deprived of representation because they insisted on holding early primaries. Clinton may claim, not only that they should get their seats back (a reasonable proposition, all the more so since Florida at least is a swing state), but that she deserves most of them for her supporters because of her decision to campaign there. That, like Hubert Humphrey's attempt to take about half the California delegates from George McGovern in 1972, would be changing the rules in the middle of the game, but that has happened plenty of times before. If Clinton is nominated, I hope she can win. I hope she will be a great President. I just wish I really had any confidence in either one.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Algeria and Iraq. .

Shortly after it became clear that the United States faced a long-term problem securing Iraq, word spread that major Pentagon figures were busily watching the film, The Battle of Algiers. I saw that film when it first appeared in the late 1960s and I have seen it many times since, and I couldn't quite imagine what hopeful message they might get out of it. The film portrays the outbreak of the anti-French campaign in Algiers, the systematic French effort to defeat the Algerian National Liberation Front's (FLN's) urban network that carried it out with the help of torture and systematic investigative work, and the eventual capture of Aly La Pointe, the last surviving bomber. But by 1960--about two years after the end of the battle of Algiers--Muslims were back in the streets by the thousands, and in the next year President Charles de Gaulle made it clear that Algeria was going to receive independence. Despite an attempted military coup and a terrorist campaign by dissident officers--including the former commanding general in Algeria, Raoul Salan--de Gaulle pushed independence through during the next year.

The FLN was a strange organization. Its organization fell somewhere between a rigidly controlled Communist revolutionary movement like the Viet Cong on the one hand, and the host of autonomous terrorist groups and militias now operating in Iraq. Like the Palestinians in the 1970s and 1980s, it found it prudent to base its political leadership overseas, in friendly Arab neighbors, and it won largely because elements of the world community, and then de Gaulle himself, decided to regard it as the legitimate representative of the Algerian people. It tried, but never succeeded, in building up effective conventional forces across the border in Tunisia. It initially got the world's attention by massacring dozens of French settlers in 1955, and triggering even worse reprisals from French soldiers. The course of its war with the French, though, does tell us quite a bit about what to expect in Iraq.

The French, to begin with, enjoyed much more favorable numbers than the Americans ever have in Iraq. Iraq's population is more than double that of Algeria's in the late 1950s, but even now the United States has less than half as many troops in Iraq as the French did. (That may actually represent a similar ratio, however, since American troops are confined almost exclusively to the Sunni areas.) The Algerian population was also more concentrated, but some remnants of the FLN did flee to the remote interior during the war. And the French enlisted more than 150,000 Algerians--the Harkis--on their side--a larger force than the FLN ever disposed of. They did all this largely on behalf of Algeria's one million European inhabitants, known as the pied noirs, who eventually won the support of some of the leading French generals. There are, of course, no pied noirs in Iraq.

The French did manage to dismantle the FLN's urban terrorist networks in 1957-8, and in 1959-60, de Gaulle, who had come to power as a result of a generals' revolt over his predecessors' Algerian policy in 1958, authorized the Challe Offensive, a large-scale move into the hinterlands of Algeria designed--exactly like our own surge--to establish more of a presence among the people and marginalize the FLN. It also involved putting as much as a third of the Algerian population into concentration camps--a parallel, oddly, the massive regroupment of millions of Iraqi Shi'ites and Sunnis. The Challe Plan appeared to have the insurgency on the run, and many French officers always claimed that they had won the war, only to be sold out by the French government. But they did not succeed in securing the enthusiastic support of the population for continued French rule, largely because of the brutal but effective tactics of the FLN.

From the beginning of the war the FLN ruthlessly targeted any Muslims who collaborated with the French--a tactic copied by the Iraqi insurgents, who have put every single Iraqi who works for the Americans at deadly risk and who in the last few months have killed more than 100 leaders of the "Sunni Awakening Movement." The FLN, unlike the Iraqis, even targeted Arabs whom the French had arrested and released, on the assumption that they would only have been released if they had talked. And in so doing, they apparently managed to convince the population that peace would never come so long as the French remained in Algeria. De Gaulle, meanwhile, reached the same conclusion.

De Gaulle's handling of the Algerian situation from 1958 through 1962 was cold-blooded and in some ways cruel, yet it remains one of the masterpieces of late twentieth-century statecraft. On the one hand, he ordered, and welcomed, the Challe offensive, because it showed that the French could restore order in Algeria. On the other, he not only decided to withdraw, but also sold withdrawal to the French nation as a victory. Ever since he burst upon the scene as the self-anointed government in exile of France in 1940, de Gaulle had focused upon the restoration of France as a great power. The generals had helped bring him to power under a new constitution in 1958 because they assumed he would be the last person to give up Algeria. But de Gaulle also had an extraordinary sense of history, and he had realized that the age of formal colonialism was over. He wanted to give France a more prominent role in NATO and in Europe, reduce the influence of the United States over the western alliance, and build a modern nuclear deterrent force--and he realized that it would be impossible to do all this while the Algerian war continued. The Empire, he told his countrymen time and again, had in the past been a mark of France's greatness, but now it had become a burden which France must let go. That was a cruel decision, resulting, inevitably, in the emigration of the one million Europeans from Algeria and the deaths of tens of thousands of Harkis after the Algerians took power, but the French people ratified it in a referendum and never looked back. Algeria has had a turbulent and bloody history in subsequent decades, including another ferocious civil war in the 1990s--but its destiny has been its own.

The surge has certainly quieted things down in Iraq (although 39Americans were killed during January, reversing the downward trend of the previous month, and pretty firmly establishing that the surge has reduced violence to the levels of late 2003, which did not look like a success at the time.) I continue to believe that it has done so largely by co-opting many Sunni insurgents with the help of handsome subsidies. As early as 2003, demobilized Iraqi soldiers were complaining to Americans that the U.S. was not paying them, even though they had offered little or no resistance during the war, and four years later we evidently got the point. In any case, the Petraeus surge does not seem to have proven anything more than the Challe offensive: a larger, more widely distributed occupation force can control most of the population and reduce violence. The U.S. Army will now be able to claim (as the French Army did) that it can successfully carry out counterinsurgencies. But the next American President will face de Gaulle's dilemma--will he or she be willing to station 135,000 Americans in Iraq indefinitely simply to maintain a low level of violence? There is unfortunately not the slightest evidence that the surge has created a political alternative that will allow the United States to withdraw and leave a peaceful and friendly Iraq behind, any more than the Challe Plan did. The surge could conceivably lay the foundation for a relatively peaceful partition of Iraq into three regions, but only if both Sunni and Shi'ite leaders want one--and there is little evidence that they do.

It was interested that John McCain and Joe Lieberman entitled a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, not "The Surge is Working," but "The Surge Worked." That might suggest that McCain, who as I write has as good a chance as anyone to be the next President, is ready to declare a de-Gaulle style victory--but he has on the other hand indicated that he wouldn't mind keeping American troops in Iraq for one hundred years. Both Obama and Clinton, on the other hand, are now pledged to a relatively quick withdrawal--but they will have to find a way to do what de Gaulle did and sell it as a victory. (Interestingly enough, I have little doubt that a referendum of American voters would endorse a withdrawal by a large margin, but such referendums are not part of the U.S. Constitution.) President Bush, who has suddenly become the lamest duck I have ever seen in the White House, has managed to define the Iraq war as the beginning of a new era of liberation, not the last gasp of western colonialism in the Middle East. Perhaps a new President can make a withdrawal the occasion to announce the Arab world that while we will not tolerate terrorists hatching attacks on the United States within their countries, their political destiny must be firmly in their hands.