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Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Elusive Senator McCain

The best mathematical analysis suggests today that John McCain is most unlikely to be President. Fivethirtyeight.com, which uses statistical techniques initially developed to understand baseball and simulations to draw conclusions from polls, gives him less than a 1/20 chance of winning the election today, and the map on electoral-vote.com shows Obama leading in states with 375 electoral votes, and 317 in states in which he leads by at least five points. (Exactly four years ago that site predicted the 2004 result almost perfectly.) Obama surged this week in Ohio and Indiana, tending to confirm my suspicion that in states like those the idea of “spreading the wealth around” does not seem as un-American as McCain and Palin would like us to think. Should these projections hold up McCain will become a historical footnote. I have in the last months became increasingly disturbed by the possibility that he could become President, but I also feel that I know less about him and what really makes him tick than any presidential candidate that I can remember. None have had more contradictory images.
Perhaps McCain is still living off his extraordinary ability to butter up the press; never having met him, I cannot tell. Yes, he has been a man of independent views who defied his own party on campaign finance reform, tobacco issues, immigration, and (indirectly) the appointment of conservative judges. Today’s New York Times, summarizing his career, repeats his favorite talking point, that this has enabled him to build coalitions across the aisle. (It also confirms that he has both befriended and enraged Senators on both sides of the aisle.) But how much has all this actually accomplished? Yes, in 2005 the “gang of fifteen,” of which he was a member, headed off the “zero option” that would have tried to push through judicial nominations by majority vote, but now McCain is promising to appoint more justices like Scalia, Roberts, Thomas and Alioto. The immigration bill—a middle-of-the-night deal if ever there was one, crafted without any legislative hearings at all—was a failure. Campaign finance reform was a limited success, but public financing has probably been overtaken by events, including Obama’s extraordinary success, now. Even Barack Obama (who really has kept his promise to stay away from personal attacks to an extraordinary degree) gave McCain credit in at least one of the debates for standing up to President Bush on torture, failing to note that McCain had eventually caved in completely. And his other platform plank—his opposition to earmarks—is disingenuous in the extreme. Like any other longstanding Senator, McCain has gotten where he is by favoring certain friendly contributors, from Charles Keating back in the 1980s to certain Indian gambling tribes whom he has favored against rivals to Donald Drummond, an Arizona developer whom he helped acquire part of Fort Oard, California. He has played the game and played it with gusto.
A recent article in Rolling Stone—which painted a very negative portrayal of McCain’s entire life without having significantly to stretch any facts—suggests that McCain, like George W. Bush, has spent much of his life trying to measure up to his father and grandfather, both distinguished Navy admirals. (The article made it very clear that McCain, even if he had never become a POW, did not seem likely to rise to the top of the Navy.) More generally, he faced one of the dilemmas of his Silent generation. McCain was already nine years old on V-J day and would never have the opportunity to fight in a great crusade like the Second World War. His own war, Vietnam, turned out badly for both himself and the country. It is yet another unconscious vindication of Strauss and Howe that McCain’s favorite President is Theodore Roosevelt, who was about as old on the day of Appomattox as McCain was in 1945, and who developed a simililarly pugnacious temperament to compensate. McCain concluded one of his autobiographical works by saying that although he might never become President, he could still become the man he always wanted to be—a rather odd comment, one should think, for a man of over 60 who had come quite close to reaching the top of his new profession. He has used these memoirs repeatedly to apologize, both for his behavior as a POW (which I do not see as anything to be ashamed of) and some of his campaign tactics, and I wonder whether he will do the same in a new book in a year or two about this campaign. And to me, the same kind of uncertainty about himself comes out almost every time he faces the camera during this election. He knows what he is supposed to sound like—firm, experienced, decisive—but he can’t seem to do it convincingly. His hint of a smile suggests self-love, his lowered voice tries to give new gravity to whatever he is saying, but all this says to me that he is playing a part—and not playing it very well.
McCain reminds me of another Silent Senator, a fictional one—a New York liberal, played by Alan Alda, the title character of the excellent 1979 film, The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Not only are there similarities in their personal lives—both have a Silent first wife, and a Boomer lover, played marvelously in the movie by Meryl Streep—but both are constantly torn between a vague sense of wanting to do good and the political imperatives of every situation, which in both cases, apparently, have been explained by Boomers. (In Joe Tynan’s case the Boomers are his lover and his chief of staff, a wonderful character; in McCain’s they are the Rove acolytes who have taken over the campaign and overruled him on point after point, most notably regarding the choice of a Vice-Presidential candidate.) Tynan eventually betrays his principles by betraying a friend, an aging southern Senator played brilliantly by Melvyn Douglas. McCain has betrayed his supposed principles by succumbing to the worst, McCarthyite type of negative campaigning in an attempt to discredit Barack Obama.
Yet in one respect McCain’s thinking does seem to have become clearer—frighteningly so. McCain initially won the heart of the media partly by refusing to talk demagogically about Vietnam. Indeed, the funniest story I ever heard about him came from an old friend, a journalist, who heard it from McCain himself during the 2000 campaign. McCain was reminiscing about a long day on the campaign trail during his first run from the Senate, which was managed by his mentor Barry Goldwater. Talking in 2000 about his own run for the Presidency, Goldwater declared, “You know, John, if I had won in 1964, you never would have had to spend all those years in a North Vietnamese prison camp.” “You’re right, Barry,” McCain replied. “If you had won, I would have spent them in a Chinese prison camp.” That was both funny, insightful, and implicitly skeptical about the whole Vietnam enterprise—but those days are gone. Two or three Sundays ago, Gary Trudeau devoted his strip to a conversation between two soldiers in Iraq. The superior explained that McCain wanted the United States to stay and win in Iraq to prove that we could have stayed and won in Vietnam—and that since we could have won, we didn’t really lose. And Trudeau did not pull that idea out of the air. McCain had said almost exactly that during the first debate with Barack Obama.

And I'll tell you, I had a town hall meeting in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and a woman stood up and she said, "Senator McCain, I want you to do me the honor of wearing a bracelet with my son's name on it."
He was 22 years old and he was killed in combat outside of Baghdad, Matthew Stanley, before Christmas last year. This was last August, a year ago. And I said, "I will -- I will wear his bracelet with honor."
And this was August, a year ago. And then she said, "But, Senator McCain, I want you to do everything -- promise me one thing, that you'll do everything in your power to make sure that my son's death was not in vain."
That means that that mission succeeds, just like those young people who re-enlisted in Baghdad, just like the mother I met at the airport the other day whose son was killed. And they all say to me that we don't want defeat.
A war that I was in, where we had an Army, that it wasn't through any fault of their own, but they were defeated. And I know how hard it is for that -- for an Army and a military to recover from that. And it did and we will win this one and we won't come home in defeat and dishonor and probably have to go back if we fail.

That was a rather extraordinary statement, but one of enormous strategic significance. The U.S. Army was never defeated in Vietnam—as long as it remained it could fight the enemy to a bloody standstill. In the same way, the U.S. Army and Marines have now shown they can at least reduce violence in Iraq to manageable levels—as long as they stay there. What neither the Army nor the rest of the U.S. government could do it Vietnam, however, was to create a South Vietnamese government and army that could deal with the enemy—and they, not the US, were defeated after we left in 1975. In the same way, our goal of a unified, allied and democratic Iraq is likely to fade away after the inevitable American withdrawal there, but that will not be the fault of the American military, but rather of the civilian leadership that embarked upon a hopeless war from the beginning. We do not need another President who does not understand that—or who uses the rawest of emotions, a mother’s pain, to try to rally support for a war he favored for years before 2003, and that has done enormous harm to the United States abroad and at home and wreaked disaster in Iraq itself.
Barack Obama, it seems, also had an opportunity to express his feelings about the war to General Petraeus himself during his visit last summer, and here, reportedly, is what he said after Petraeus made the case for remaining in force for as long as was necessary to secure stability. "You know, if I were in your shoes, I would be making the exact same argument," he said. "Your job is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. But my job as a potential Commander in Chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security." That prism, he made clear, indicated the necessity of beginning a substantial withdra
Obama has been very clear about the war from the beginning: that it was for many reasons a mistake to undertake it, a mistake which no possible outcome can vindicate. A war, sometimes, is like a marriage: the critical decision is the one to get into it. If it goes badly there are endless ways to rationalize, to hope for a better future, or to try to make it work; but if the decision was a bad one from the start, nothing will work. Obama seems to understand that, and that, I think, is the kind of President we need now.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

General Powell's Finest Hour

I have never met General Colin Powell, and I have not always agreed with the stances he has taken in public life. While he had an outstanding record as a senior military leader and handled the Gulf War brilliantly as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I was angry when he effectively blocked President Clinton’s attempt to allow gays to serve openly in the military, and of course I regretted the role that he played in getting us into the war in Iraq (although I do not believe, as a few have suggested, that he had the power to have stopped the war.) He has long struck me as representative of the Silent generation: a sensible man, a mediator, and a believer in compromise and government by reasonable men. Such members of Artist generations—those born in the midst of great national crises, who grow to young adulthood in periods of postwar consensus—often become tragic figures late in life, like the Compromisers Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and the Progresssive Woodrow Wilson, because their wise counsel is ignored by younger Prophet leaders on both sides as the nation plunges towards catastrophe. That was General Powell’s fate in the first Bush Administration. But General Powell’s story, as it turned out, was not over, and this morning, face to face with his fellow Silent Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press, he performed a truly heroic act, crossing party lines to endorse Barack Obama for President. It is, I think, a move likely to have a substantial effect on the remainder of the campaign, and, more importantly, to lay the foundation for a broader attack on our national problems after Senator Obama becomes President on January 20.

The way General Powell presented his decision typified the best of his generation. He said, and I believed him, that he had spent many months pondering his course of action, and supplementing his long acquaintance with John McCain, whom he refused to criticize directly, with many contacts with Barack Obama. It was clear to me, as one with long experience with the American military, that he had measured Obama the way he had measured hundreds of his subordinates—by his capacity to do the enormous task which he had undertaken. He was evidently especially impressed by Obama’s response to the economic crisis. Although he did not specifically say this, the virtues which he attributed to Senator Obama—an inquiring mind, an ability to master data, and an unfailingly calm and unflappable approach—are also those of a great military leader. This, he seemed to say, was not a man who would make snap decisions based on ideology—and indeed he is not.

The test which General Powell implicitly accused Senator McCain of failing is also a military one: a failure to establish a command climate reflecting his own values, and a failure to control his troops. Senator McCain’s own military background has some relevance here. He was a fighter pilot, and among the American officer corps, fighter pilots play an almost uniquely individualistic role. While they depend upon their fellow pilots in action and upon their maintenance crews to keep their planes going, they do not have to worry about motivating and coordinating subordinates very much. Using a clam and even tone and measured language, General Powell delivered a scathing indictment of the McCain campaign: the robocalls, the obsession with Bill Ayers (which Brokaw disgracefully echoed, seeming to suggest that Ayers’s failure to repudiate his terrorist acts somehow reflected upon Obama, which it does not), and the choice of a Vice Presidential candidate who, as he put it, clearly is not ready to be President. The last point will be particularly telling, it seems to me, precisely because Obama has been so careful not to make any such statement himself—he has stayed above such things. Being a former military leader in what is now a multicultural Army, Powell was not bound by political correctness, and was not afraid to call Palin unfit just because she happens to be a woman, nor should he be. And Powell explicitly rejected Republican extremism on social issues when he said that he feared two more Republican appointments to the Supreme Court.

The most moving moment of his presentation occurred, I thought, towards the end, when he once again brought up the accusation that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and answered it in terms reminiscent of my own childhood and his youth. He isn’t, of course, he said, but what if he were? Has that become a crime in the United States, and are not young Muslim boys and girls entitled to dream of becoming President like the rest of us? That echoed both John Kennedy and FDR, and I am not aware of a single elected official who has shown comparable courage since 9/11.
We should not underestimate the difficulty of what Powell has done or the consequences he will have to endure. Having been for twenty years one of the most recognizable and popular men in America, he will now be subjected to one of the worst and most hate-filled attacks in the history of talk radio. Just as military men have to face hostile firepower, courageous politicians (especially in a time like this) have to be able to deal with endless invective, and I am honestly not sure which is more difficult. Yet he has made a contribution to our national life at least equal to any that he made in uniform. He surely would be a most valuable member of an Obama Administration—and in a far more prominent jobs than the ones Brokaw so patronizingly illuminated (Ambassador at large to Africa, or mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) It is sad, as I remarked yesterday, that there are almost no Republicans like him left in high elective office, but perhaps he can also help found a kind of Republican Party in exile that might begin to bring the party of Lincoln into the twenty-first century.

Thank you, General Powell. Your country never needed you more than it does right now, and you were there to help.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A new era?

I am too cautious to make a firm prediction, but every indicator increasingly suggests that Barack Obama is going to win on November 4. Two key states, Florida and Ohio, remain maddeningly close, and I still cannot quite trust the Senator's 7-point lead in Virginia, but even without any of those Obama would secure 289 electoral votes from states in which he has an established lead of five points or more. The nation's press is rallying behind him (perhaps because of the constant Republican attacks on its integrity), and most remarkably of all, he disposes of more than twice the financial and advertising resources of his Republican opponent. Behind that lies two huge stories: the incredibly successful Obama grassroots fundraising operation, to which I have modestly contributed myself, and McCain's decision to accept public financing and the limits that went with it. Given the presence of long-term Republican operatives high in his campaign, I do not believe that he made that decision simply out of public spirit. For some reason--and I would like to know what it is--the millions that twice put George W. Bush into the White House were not going to be available for him. A little less than four years ago I pointed out that the blue states were overwhelmingly wealthier than the red, and this time around they have made that difference count. In addition, McCain's selection of Sarah Palin has lopped off an intellectual segment of the Republican coalition, exemplified by Christopher Buckley, who have finally become alarmed by the company they have been keeping. (Bill Kristol, on the other hand, feels that Republican hate-mongering has not gone far enough.) On another front, Colin Powell (who to date has refused to endorse either candidate) will appear on Meet the Press tomorrow, and rumors have it that he will endorse Obama, putting the Republican foreign policy realists firmly into his camp. Thanks to the American people, better-educated and better-off Americans will perhaps be able to stop being defensive about their beliefs--including their belief in reason itself.

Obama, however, will if he wins take over the government of the most divided country since 1860--in some ways, more polarized even than at that time. Current polls suggest that the Democrats will win 249 House seats, making a gain of 46 since 2005, and 59 Senate seats. The threatened Republicans, moreover, are largely in blue states (although some of them are also in the South.) The Republican Party has reduced itself to a rather narrow, and frightening, slice of American opinion. The McCain campaign reflects this, because McCain has not deviated in the slightest from the orthodoxy of its three main branches--tax-cutters, neoconservatives, and angry evangliecals--on any major issue. He is losing above all, in my opinion, because the country has at last grasped the truth about the Republican mantra of the last 30 years: upper-bracket tax cuts do not stimulate the economy as a whole. It is a symbol of McCain's and his party strategists' isolation that he actually believes he can win votes by quoting Obama's wish to "spread the wealth around" as if were equivalent to "promoting homosexuality" or "supporting terrorism." Most Americans now realize that the wealth needs to be spread around more, thank you. On foreign policy McCain was already firmly in the neoconservative camp in 2000 and has never wavered, and his campaign and Republican supporters are now relying largely on race-based appeals to resentment (see their latest robocalls, or listen to Rush Limbaugh for an hour or so next week and you will see what I mean.) John McCain was reduced yesterday to reviving a shibboleth from the past, accusing Obama of promoting "welfare" as if Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress had not taken that venerable whipping gal off the table a dozen years ago. Yet these ideas, while at long last repudiated by the American people, will come January dominate the Republican Party to an even greater extent.

The Republican Party will remain after November perhaps the most rigidly disciplined and narrowly based party in American history. Even the opposition crises in the two previous great crises in American life included a much broader range of opinions than today's Republicans. The Democrats in 1861-5 included quite a few firm supporters of the Union and the Northern side of the war (including Andrew Johnson, whom Lincoln unfortunately put on the ticket in 1864.) The Republicans in the New Deal era included great progressives like George Norris of Nebraska, Hiram Johnson of California, and William Borah of Idaho, who voted for a great deal of New Deal legislation at home even though they were isolationists abroad. But having spent 30 years building a constituency by railing against the federal government (except, of course, the Department of Defense), the Republicans have literally nothing to offer now that we need a government again. Many of them remain in denial regarding the necessity, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, of a large national government. Several times in the last few weeks I have heard Republicans railing that George W. Bush was not a true conservative, and that he should have been able to drastically restrain federal spending and cut taxes even further. In fact the difference between the parties over the last 40 years has not been about the need for a large federal government--that has been a given. The Democrats have recognized the need to pay for it--the Republicans have not.

Newt Gingrich in 1994 was right: he was the real revolutionary, eager to undo the work of the last 60 years (a campaign already undertaken under Ronald Reagan, the conservative hero to whom McCain appeals again and again in vain) and return us to the late 19th century. But because his revolution--like so many others in the past--was built upon false premises, its success led almost at once to its failure. Thirty years of lower taxes and de-regulation did lead us back to the 1920s, but with the same consequences. (I recall that Reagan had learned from his conservative intellectual mentors to revere those tax-cutters of an earlier age, Calvin Coolidge and Andrew Mellon. He did not live to see his work turn out like theirs.)

Just yesterday the Wall Street Journal editorial page lamented that the Democrats may be stronger than they have been since 1933 (they should have said 1935) or 1965, and suggested that the country would not vote them back if they realized this. In fact they will not be that strong--their majorities were much larger then--but in any case we will not be going all the way back either to the beginning of the last crisis (when 25% of the population was unemployed) or to the end of the last High. Obama is winning above all because he wants to usher in a less ideological age. That is a gamble, but so far he is winning it. But if he succeeds as President it will be with new measures, new men and women, and new rhetoric. No past, however glorious, returns--because the new generations that make the future do not remember it or revere it. The great crisis will lay the old order to rest and create a new one. That is the way of all organic life.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Looking Forward

I am not going to feel really confident about this election before news on the night of November 4 seals the deal, but the polls, as reported on electoral-vote.com, are looking more and more encouraging. As many of you must know by now, the map color-codes states into three categories for each party: "barely" ahead (4 percentage points or less), "weakly" (5-9 points), or "strongly" (10 or more.) I question that choice of words--a 7- or 8- point lead is hardly a weak one, in my opinion--but this method does a good job of illustrating trends. Obama has for the moment passed an important milestone--his "weak" and "strong" leads now total 282 electoral votes, and 277 even if one deletes West Virginia--a result that for the moment really seems too good to be true--or seven more than he needs. His leads in Ohio and Florida are still within the margin of error, but if his five-point lead in Virginia holds up he will not need either one. The obvious panic in the McCain campaign is quite understandable.
There is meanwhile an extraordinary article in the New Yorker by George Packer--whose writings on Iraq I have discussed at length--on another critical bombed-out landscape, the towns of semi-rural Ohio. Gradually, learning what the last 20 years have actually done to the working class of the United States, Packer realizes the real reason that Democrats have been having so much trouble with white working-class voters. It isn't racism, religion, or guns (and Packer, to his credit, quotes the context of Obama's notorious remark along those lines, to show that Obama himself understands this quite well.) The real reason is that it has been so long since the Democratic Party actually did anything to help these people economically. The national leadership's decision not to take any stand against de-industrialization, union-busting and the erosion of health care and retirement benefits has left white Americans with little or no reason to vote Democratic. The same trend was evident in Congress two weeks ago, when the Democratic leadership could not come up with a real alternative to the bail-out, one that would intuitively have appealed to the middle-class Americans whose votes they seek. Packer found almost no enthusiasm for McCain, but many of the people he met declared their intention not to vote at all. If Obama actually does win he will be under enormous pressure to find ways actually to start redistributing income downward again--perhaps, as he has indicated in campaign documents, by New Deal-type public works projects, which we certainly desperately need. (The economic hemorrhage accelerated this week, of course--an issue I will save for later--and the next President certainly faces a severe recession.) Whether he will actually take some steps away from globalization--as FDR very definitely did in 1933, devaluing the dollar and torpedoing a World Economic Conference--is another very interesting question. In last week's debate McCain talked about naming Warren Buffett Secretary of the Treasury; I would have like to have heard Obama suggest Joseph Stiglitz, a critic of the excesses of globalization. The Democrats' poor fortunes in the rust belt simply confirm the immortal words of Harry Truman: "When the people have to choose between a Republican and a Republican," he said, "they'll take the Republican every time."

Obama will if elected face an enormous challenge on the domestic front because it has been so long--nearly thirty years--since the government really cared about wage-earners, and there are far fewer of them, and in far more vulnerable positions, today than there were then. Packer didn't talk to any factory workers--there were none left in the region he visited. He interviewed waitresses, health-care workers, and the unemployed. We have not faced, much less grappled with, the consequences of abandoning our role as a country that makes things. Some of this change was undoubtedly inevitable, but it did not have to go as far as it did. Whether it could be reversed now, I do not know.

Crises no one wants to discuss are also looming in foreign policy, where Obama--like FDR in 1932--has decided to play it safe. For Roosevelt--who in early 1932 feared the opposition of media magnate William Randolph Hearst--that meant renouncing membership in the League of Nations, for which he had campaigned as a vice-presidential candidate in 1920. For Obama it has meant parroting Republican positions on Georgia, Israel, and Iran, and calling for more troops in Afghanistan. Some interesting developments--one completely unreported in the US--are however suggesting how changes in these policies might come about. During the first week of October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel--the most pro-American chancellor in Europe--went to Russia and gave a press conference in which she expressed opposition even to putting Georgia and Ukraine on a path to NATO membership, much less admitting them--the opposite of both Obama's and McCain's positions, but one which recent events clearly call for. UN observers and a British general, meanwhile, have declared that there is no military solution to events in Afghanistan, only a political solution involving all interested parties, including the Taliban. (Pakistan's long-standing support for the Taliban is of course creating a new crisis with that country.) For quite a while now I have wondered how we could work so hard on the supposed promotion of democracy abroad when our democracy at home was so desperately in need of work. The economic crisis may pave the way for a saner foreign policy.
It will not do so, however,without opposition. Yesterday John McCain had perhaps his one moment of glory during his sorry campaign, when he told an angry Republican at one his rallies not to be scared by the prospect of Barack Obama in the White House. Earlier in the week McCain had resisted what appeared to be tremendous pressures from his own camp--including from Sarah Palin and his long-time supported Bill Kristol--to raise the subjects of Jeremiah Wright and William Ayres in the debate. McCain has made many appalling compromises during the last few years--most notably his cave-in on torture, which Obama has been too polite to mention--but there are evidently some lengths to which he will not go. However, the 24/7 hate campaign waged against Obama in emails, on Talk radio, and on Fox news will not stop if he is in the White House. Roosevelt faced the same kind of assault for the whole of his Presidency, even without the internet. We are indeed fortunate to have discovered some one who can apparently deal with this situation calmly. Like the steadiness of a general on a chaotic battlefield, this is an aspect of leadership we need in the coming crisis.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


I often refer to Strauss and Howe, Bill James, and Camille Paglia as the contemporaries who have really opened my eyes in ways that no one else could. I should also mention one other .
That says it all.
See longer post, below.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Woodward once again

Although Bob Woodward's new book, The War Within, is selling briskly, the economic meltdown (which I absolutely expect to continue despite the bail-out passage) and the election have diverted attention from it and, more importantly, from the situation in Iraq, upon which John McCain had counted to ride into the White House. For me, however, it is a source of extraordinary interest for at least four reasons. First, even though I work for the Department of Defense myself (albeit about 400 miles form Washington), I had no idea that the senior leadership of the American military during 2005-6 was just as eager to get American troops out of Iraq as I was. Secondly,it seems that as a result, something close to a coup d'etat was required to end run the entire civilian and military bureaucracy and put in place a new strategy--the surge--that had been written at the 99.44% pure neonconservative American Enterprise Institute. And thirdly, I did not realize that while I was writing in 2005-6 that the Iraqi experiment in democracy was obviously fragmenting the country into three parts, well-placed Americans who had the opportunity to see for themselves--led by the Baker-Hamilton commission--were reaching exactly the same conclusion. And last but not hardly least, I have correctly identified the critical issue for American foreign policy in the next ten to twenty years: are we going to continue to hopeless effort to dominate the Middle East by force, or not? Even in the last year of his Presidency, George W. Bush has proudly done everything he can to try to ensure that the answer is yes.
By late 2005, when Woodward's book begins, the Iraq adventure was clearly not going as planned, but the military--led, ironically, by Donald Rumsfeld himself--was focused upon winding it up. They took comfort, apparently, from Presidential propaganda about the success of the Iraqi elections--elections which I immediately recognized as unmistakable signs that Iraq was breaking apart--and began planning a substantial withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2006. General George Casey, the commander in Baghdad, was outraged in October 2005 when Condoleezza Rice announced that our strategy was "clear, hold and build," because he knew the last two verbs were well beyond our capabilities. General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and thus by law the President's chief military adviser)apparently felt the same way. The assumption that the war would soon be winding down was a convenient excuse for avoiding any serious thought about the tactical problems American troops faced, much less the long-term future of Iraq, which, the conventional wisdom held, would be the business of the Iraqis themselves. That, combined with the President's compulsive aversion to self-doubt, stopped any serious re-evaluation of what we were doing for the next year and a half, as civil war and ethnic cleansing came to dominate Iraqi politics. When Stephen Hadley, the new National Security adviser, started a review in the second half of 2006, he had to keep it a complete secret. Knowledge that the Administration was questioning itself, many felt, would be devastating in the November elections. (An apparent failure to question itself, in the event, proved equally damaging.)
The Baker-Hamilton study group was, as I wrote at the time, an attempt by an aging establishment (composed entirely of members of the Silent generation) to restore sanity to American foreign policy. Traveling to Iraq and speaking to the Iraqi leaders, they found absolutely no real interest in national reconciliation, especially in Prime Minister Maliki's Shi'ite domianted government,which viewed Sunnis as the problem. They did not dare recommend encouraging the partition of the country, knowing that would not possibly accept it, but they did recommend a rapid wihdrawal.
They were not alone. Condi Rice and her senior aids at the State Department had reached a similar conclusion: that the Iraqi government was failing and the United States had to put more power in its hands. A team of highly regarded Army colonels, convened by the Joint Chiefs to review the situation, did not favor more troops, nor did the Joint Chiefs or General Casey. The man who did more than anyone else to make the surge happen, apparently, was a retired Army Lieutenant General, Jack Keane, who had been a favorite of Rumsfeld and a mentor to General Petraeus. Keane in 2006 was a member of the Defense Policy Board, whose functions are not entirely clear, and began pushing the case for more troops and a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq in a private meeting with Rumsfeld in September 2006. Keane then suggested the colonels' review to Pace, but it did not produce the kind of reommendations he favored. By the end of 2006 senior Republicans and officials were asking President Bush to stop using words like "victory" and "win" about Iraq, but he refused. Instead, Hadley realized, as the situation steadily deteriorted in late 2006, that the President wanted more troops, and set about finding anyone who could draw up such a recommendation, starting with William Luti of his own staff. But in the midst of the deliberations that fall, General Keane discovered a new planning shop led by Fred Kagan, a political scientist and close friend of William Kristol, in the American Enterprise Institute.
Going outside the government for support, Hadley on December 11, 2006, brought in five outside experts--two of whom, academics Eliot Cohen and Stephen Biddle, who had once been students of mine. Cohen and Biddle (the latter of whom I have not spoken to for some years) both recommended more forces. Keane made the most sweeping presentation, essentially coming across as an alternate Chairman of the JCS. Calling specifically for five brigades in Baghdad to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy of living among the population. He also urged the President to ignore the argument that this would break the Army and the Marine Corps, even though it was going to require longer tours and shorter rest periods back at home. Two other retired Army generals disagreed, but Keane and Kagan also briefed Dick Cheney. Keane was also instrumental in securing Petraeus's command. With Bush clearly favoring a surge, everyone fell in line. Woodward also confirms my own long-held feeling that no one can work with George W. Bush who does not accept his world view and, more importantly, his own self-image as a determined, heroic leader. In Hadley's case this takes the form of hero-worship. Rice is more subtle but always finds a way to come around. In this case she was highly influenced by an Arab summit she attended in the fall of 2006, in which our Gulf allies lamented that we were about to withdraw, essentially hand Iraq to Iran, and even make peace with Iran over their heads.
The surge led initially, as I pointed out at the time, to heavier fighting and the heaviest American casualties of the war, but things have quieted down dramatically in the last year. Kurdistan is essentially independent; the Maliki government does seem to have established its authority more effectively in Shi'ite areas; and Sunnistan has become, essentially, an American protectorate. Sunni tribal leaders have been induced by the presence of American forces and a steady flow of American money to give up their own insurgency, at least for the time being. Yet there is still little evidence of actual reconciliation between Sunni and Shi'ite or Sunni and Kurd--and therefore, no indication that anything has been built up that will survive an American withdrawal. Army and Marine officers generally believe that one is inevitable no matter who wins the election. A glance at icasualties.org shows that Iraq remains very violent and very divided.
Woodward's book includes on appalling mistake. Referring to now-retired Admiral Fallon on p. 351, Woodward writes, "Fallon was haunted by the 1975 decision by Congress to cut off all funding for the Vietnam War. Like many others, including president Gerald Ford, he felt that the funding cut forced too early an American exit." Both Fallon and Woodward ought to know that Congress never cut off all funding for South Vietnam; it reduced the requested appropriation in 1974, a year and a half after the Paris peace agreement that was supposed to lead to political compromise in the South, and then refused an emergency request in the midst of South Vietnam's collapse in 1975. Conservatives have been blaming the Congress for the loss ever since, but it was the political and military failures of the South Vietnamese government that doomed it. Something similar may well happen in Iraq, but that will only be because Iraqis either could not or did not want to bring about the outcome we desired. That was the real problem in Vietnam.

The book concludes with remarks pregnant with significance. General Petraeus had expected to leave Baghdad for the NATO command in Brussels. But when Admiral Fallon--who never accepted the absolute priority of Iraq, much less war with Iran--was let go last spring, Petraeus's mentor General Keane--surely the most influential general of the decade, if Woodward is to be believed--urged to him to take over CENTCOM instead, claiming that the international center of gravity was now in the Middle EAst. "We're going to be here for 50 years minimum, most of the time hopefully preventing wars, and on occasion having to fight one, dealing with radical Islam, our economic interests in the region, and trying to achieve stability. . .Where should we have bases? Where should we have prepositioned equipment? Where should we have forward industrial bases? Because it doesn't make any sense to keep sending that shift home?" Petraeus has now taken the job. Last April, Keane bluntly told Secretary of Defense Gates that with Petraeus at CENTCOM and his deputy Raymond Odierno in command in Iraq, and Democratic Administration would have to face a higher political price if it wanted to withdraw in 2009. Keane, in short, wanted to lock the strategy in regardless of the views of the American people.
In farewell interviews with Woodward, the Secretary of State and the President expressed similar views. Rice (who also disclaimed any responsibility for the initial failures in Iraq) began by repeating the classic neoconservative administration line about the Middle East--that the status quo in 2001 had been so dreadful that any measures to overturn it were justified. She reiterated that Iran must not secure nuclear weapons, arguing, bizarrely, that an analogy with the Soviet Union would help understand this: "The Soviet Union became nuclear before it became powerful," she said, ignoring the impact of the Second World War, which had brought Soviet troops to the heart of Europe where they would have remained for half a century with our without nuclear weapons. "Before we re-stabilize the Middle East," she said,"let's be careful that we don't just lock in bad deals. . .I don't want to make a grand bargain with the Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad because that grand bargain is going to be a kind of least-common-denominator view of what the Middle East ought to look like. . . .Let's say we have to live with the Iranian revolutionary state for some time. Would Ir ather live with the Iranian revolutionary state with American forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf and Central Asia? You bet." (Here is one historian who does not believe the people of the Middle East will ever accept long-term American presence, and that therefore, such strategies will continue to erode our position.) And echoing Keane, she said that the "epicenter" of American power has now shifted from Europe to the Middle East. "We didn't come here to maintain the status quo," she said. "And the status quo was cracking in the Middle East. It was coming undone. And it was oging to be ugly one way or another. And it just might as well have been ugly in a good cause. And now, with the emergence of Iraq as it is, it's going to be bumpy and it's going to be difficult but big. Historical change always is." President Bush, too, confirmed that there was "kind of a recentering of American power in the Middle East, and once again compared a troop presence there to those in Germany and Korea.

Neither Rice nor Bush would accept the word, but Keane (whom I have never met) sounds ready to admit that he wants an American empire in the Middle East for some time to come. I remain convinced that the absence of serious threats in more developed regions of the world, the salience of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in American politics, and the conservative obsession with confronting America's enemies have enormously distorted ou strategic priorities and given us a decade of military involvement that cannot possibly have a good result. That will be a subject for more commentary in the coming months and years. Meanwhile, I must thank Secretary Rice, whom I have never met, for confirming so much of what I have thought, and argued, about the unshakable self-confidence, the hubris, and the destructive impulses of the generation of Prophets to which she, I, and the current President of the United States all belong. Perhaps come next year a younger leader will be able to harness some of these qualities in a better cause.