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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Can reason beat emotion?

The struggle over health care will, alas, take quite a while to have a significant effect on American lives no matter how it turns out--a political liability in an age of instant gratification. It represents both an attempt to begin to bring the United States closer to other major industrialized countries (and perhaps to keep the United States an industrial country at all), and an effort to restore a critical American political tradition that has been steadily eroding since the Great Society. The outcome remains extremely uncertain--and the passage of legislation this year will be only the beginning in any event--but as I watch the debate unfold, it seems clearer and clearer that our democracy's capacity to function is being tested by this remarkable struggle.

The battle between emotion and reason has been a recurring theme of these posts for years, all the more so since we have replaced a President who proudly relied almost completely upon emotion--his "instincts"--with one who turns more instinctively towards logic and reason than any President since John F. Kennedy. Indeed, the battle between the Democrats and Republicans has become largely a battle of reason against emotion, which is why the Republicans remain the strongest in the least educated parts of the country, and rely so heavily on the most primal emotions, including greed, the desire to kill (gun rights), and the fear of sex. While I remain hopeful that reason can still hold the balance in western civilization, I also believe that its triumph can never be complete. Indeed, the greatest and most destructive wars in history, the two world wars, took place at the climax of the age of reason in the first half of the twentieth century, and the combatants, as I pointed out in Politics and War, claimed, and believed themselves, that they were fighting for rational goals. The almost complete eclipse of reason in our political discourse, however, is at least as great a cause for concern--and that is what President Obama, coolly and persistently, is trying to fight. So far it looks like an uphill struggle.

The Democrats are in effect fighting with their emotional tied behind their back, because forty years of unremitting Republican propaganda have effectively discredited the emotional appeals upon which they used to rely. The experience of the last saeculum (1868-1945) was very different. Beginning in 1896 and continuing through the First World War, the distribution of wealth was a major issue of American politics, and reformers, while only intermittently successful, did not feel on the defensive. They went into an eight-year eclipse beginning in 1920, but came back stronger than ever in the midst of the depression. And so it was that Franklin Roosevelt, in the midst of his re-election campaign in 1936, had no compunction about rousing the feelings of the average American against the plutocrats who had turned against him. I quote:

"We have not come this far without a struggle and I assure you we cannot go further without a struggle.

"For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

"For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace‹business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

"They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

"Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.

"I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master."

Now Roosevelt, as I have pointed out here, actually enjoyed more bipartisan support of which Barack Obama could not even dream during his first term. The Tennessee Valley Authority, to take one example--a huge an unprecedented undertaking designed to put the government into the middle of the economic development of an impoverished region--was actually the brainchild of a great Republican Progressive, George Norris of Nebraska. Perhaps that liberated him to go after the irreconcilables among the Republicans in such emotional terms--and the electorate in 1936 rewarded him with the votes of 48 out of 50 states. Such rhetoric, however, has successfully been demonized by the Republican Party and its media propaganda arms as "class warfare," "socialism," "European-style", and so on, to such an extent that not one Democrat that I can see is speaking boldly and firmly for economic justice. Under Roosevelt marginal tax rates on the richest Americans reached 91%; now Nancy Pelosi is trying to sneak 50% rates on incomes of one million or more into the health bill, a proposal to which the President declares himself "open." The single-payer option, the real solution to our health care crisis, has been defined out of the debate as "too radical" from the beginning. Democrats seem to rely rhetorically on "reform," broader coverage, and cost-cutting (which is most certainly necessary), because true social and economic democracy has become the third rail of American politics. We have had one or two indications that high marginal tax rates might return, most notably at the time of the AIG bonuses earlier this year. If the nation is faced once again with a prolonged period of depression for the mass of the population, combined with the enrichment of the few, higher marginal rates could return. But we are nowhere near that point yet thanks to the long-term success of anti-government Republican rhetoric.
In fact, emotion lies at the heart of the health care debate in another way as well. Health care is one of the stronger sectors of our economy--most, if not all of which, I regret to say, are based upon the exploitation of the most primitive emotions. In the case of health care, the industry, backed by the resources both of the government (Medicare and Medicaid) and generous private health plans, exploits fear--the fear of pain (which gave us Vioxx, an almost completely unnecessary drug), of death (which leads to unnecessary screenings and surgeries for, for instance, prostate cancer), and even of not enough sex (which is fueling the multi-billion dollar "erectile dysfunction" industry which I encounter every time I watch a live American sports event.) The financial sector has grown by devising various forms of financial alchemy, including subprime mortgages and derivatives, both of which for a time turned lead into gold, and are now, in other ways, at work again. The defense industry fuels the fear of war (although that fear, interestingly enough, finally seems to be ebbing as a political force, as suggested by the defeat of the F-22 program.) And the food industry--about which I learned a great deal of depressing information in the film, Food, Inc.,, which I highly recommend--lives off our craving for salt, sugar, and fat. Agriculture and diet based upon health, or even genuine enjoyment of food, would look entirely different from what we have now. Meanwhile, large segments of another growth industry, academia--including the humanities such as literary criticism and history--have explicitly rejected reason in favor of emotional approaches based upon the emotional issues of the late twentieth century. The academy thrives, ironically, not because of what it teaches, but because it remains the gateway to highly paid professions.

Against this background, can President Obama succeed? He has, to be sure, critical emotional assets of his own, most notably his rhetorical skills, his own and his wife's personal charisma and his appeal to the under-30 generation, who are indeed far less emotional than their parents, who still dominate the media. And should he eventually be driven--as I think he will--to abandon bipartisanship by the unremitting hostility of the Republican Party, he will do so with a clear conscience and a good record of having tried.

Turning to other news of the week, President Obama also showed a charming ability to admit error when he substantially repudiated his initial comments about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates. Refusing once again to duck a difficult issue, may I say that I think the President's second, more even-handed comment was very much in order. Most commentators are missing a critical issue in this particular episode. Professor Gates may have been a victim of racial profiling, but not by the police. The police did not initiate the incident--the young woman who saw the Professor and his chauffeur trying to force open the front door did. They were simply responding, as duty requires them to do, to a call. And to be quite frank, the manner in which Professor Gates greeted them did him no credit. The police have become far more aggressive towards everyone during my adult life, and I would suggest that anyone, regardless of race, age, or gender, who speaks to a police officer today in the way that he did is behaving very foolishly indeed. His attempt to dismiss the officers by showing them his Harvard ID, rather than his driver's license, was also unfortunate. Yes, the officer made a bad situation worse by allowing his own emotions to carry him away and putting on the handcuffs, and it would have been better if he had not. But it will indeed be fitting--and further testimony to our President's remarkable political skills--if the whole affair does indeed end with the officer, the professor and the President meeting in the White House for a beer or two. The question of how to translate such an event into the beginning of the reform of the American health care system, however, remains open.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Bad News, Good News

[Although the virulence of the infection is declining, it is still necessary to inform new visitors that if they have been drawn here by an email circulating under my name comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler--an email which generated three phone calls to my home this past week--they should know that I did not write that email, nor do I agree with it. For more information on its origins they should visit this link.

American forces are pulling back in Iraq--not a moment too soon, in my opinion--and the essential impossibility of our objectives there are finally being revealed to the entire world. Several stories last week cited the increasingly tense situation beteween the Kurdish areas--independent in all but name--and the Iraqi government, which involves key disputed territory and has nearly led to armed conflict on several recent occasions. More importantly, today's Washington Post includes a remarkable article on the consequences of the implementation of the new status of forces agreement that has mandated the withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities. Two years or so ago, while that agreement was being negotiated, I am reliably informed that a senior military commander dismissed problems in the talks as a matter of "Iraqi domestic politics," as if Prime Minister Maliki simply had to make a good showing of independence to satisfy his voters. Indeed it was a matter of Iraqi domestic politics, but of a more serious nature. The Iraqis for some time have wanted to reassert real control over their own affairs. The agreement now confines Americans to their bases, forbids them from moving except at night, and forbids them from patrolling except with Iraqi permission. The Post story is based largely on an angry email from an American major general, from which I quote:

The Iraqi order runs "contrary to the spirit and practice of our last several months of operations," Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commander of the Baghdad division, wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post.

"Maybe something was 'lost in translation,' " Bolger wrote. "We are not going to hide our support role in the city. I'm sorry the Iraqi politicians lied/dissembled/spun, but we are not invisible nor should we be." He said U.S. troops intend to engage in combat operations in urban areas to avert or respond to threats, with or without help from the Iraqis.

"This is a broad right and it demands that we patrol, raid and secure routes as necessary to keep our forces safe," he wrote. "We'll do that, preferably partnered. . . .Our [Iraqi] partners burn our fuel, drive roads cleared by our Engineers, live in bases built with our money, operate vehicles fixed with our parts, eat food paid for by our contracts, watch our [surveillance] video feeds, serve citizens with our [funds], and benefit from our air cover." Some months ago, if I am not mistaken, I posted a link here to a youtube video of an American adviser--a senior enlisted man--screaming at a platoon of Iraqi policemen whom he thought were doing their job with inadequate courage and enthusiasm. I couldn't help thinking, as he called them "women" and "pussies" (words faithfully translated, I was able to verify, by his Iraqi interpreter), that many of them might have been tempted to reply that no one had asked him and his countrymen to come to Iraq. In fact many American soldiers do not agree with the spirit of the general's email, and think that we have already done everything that we can usefully do. In any case, claiming that we are owed gratitude for what we have done to Iraq--which will take a long time to recover from the last seven years--is not going to do us any good. Fortunately, as with Vietnam, our unpleasant experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan will probably sour the American public (and the American leadership) on any similar adventures for some time to come.

Yes, the attempt to creat an informal American empire in the Middle East is failing; but this, as I have been reminded all week, is a relatively minor catastrophe in the context of the last 100 years. Since Monday I have been working in the National Archives at College Park once again, investigating American military planning in the most critical 18 months of the twentieth century, the period from May 1940 through December of 1941. For the second time in thirty years, the world's most advanced countries were plunged into total war. As one of several remarkably prescient memorandums by field-grade officers noted as the Germans drove through France, we were threatened with the complete collapse of the British, French, Dutch, and Belgian empires--including the conquest of the United Kingdom itself--and by the worldwide chaos that would result. American observers were also convinced, and with good reason, that a German victory in Europe (undoubtedly coupled with new Japanese advances in the Far East) and the very probable entry of Spain, as well as Italy, into the war, would promote Fascism in Latin America as well. The possible loss of both the French and British fleets to Germany would face the US with an unprecedented threat that we were in no condition to meet. The consensus of opinion--which I now believe Franklin Roosevelt shared--was that we could not afford to commit our destiny to the survival of the British and had to focus on preparing to defend the Western Hemisphere. That, indeed, remained the focus of our military planning for most of the next eighteen months.

That the worst did not happen owed a great deal to factors beyond our control. Hitler certainly could have imposed harsher terms on France and sent troops into Spain, seizing first Gibraltar (which would be untenable with German air power nearby, as I have now discovered), and then positions in North and West Africa. He might easily have won victories against the British all over the Mediterranean, driven Churchill from power, and made peace with a new British government, even if (which was hardly certain) an actual invasion of Britain was beyond his capabilities. But fortunately, Hitler regarded the whole war in the west as an unfortuante diversion from his main goal, the invasion of the Soviet Union. His military advisers advocated most of the steps I listed above, but he insisted on postponing them until after the Soviets had been defeated. That, more than anything else, allowed Britain to survive and allowed the United States time to prepare.

Two subsequent developments have made our world, for all its problems, a relatively safe one. First, the Allied victory and the American decision to create an alliance of all the major capitalist powers put an end to the kind of warfare that had devastated the world in the first half of the century. That alliance persists, and indeed, since the collapse of Communism and the evolution of China, it now enjoys perfectly adequate relations with all the world's leading nations. Secondly, beginning with the war in Vietnam, a striking trend towards demilitarization took root in nearly every advanced country. We all know that the United States has overwhelmingly the most powerful military in the world today, but how many of us realize that our military, as a percentage of our population, is only slightly larger than it was in 1940, a moment when we think of the United States as almost completely disarmed? The rest of the world has followed suit. The only countries whose militaries represent a large portion of their population by historical standards are the two Koreas, Israel, Syria, and Iran--mostly small countries in unusually tense situations. Things may go wrong, but they simply cannot go as wrong as they did in the early part of the twentieth century. Planning for large-scale nuclear exchanges also seems to have lapsed.

How this has happened is a subject for another day. It reflects a loosening of the bonds between states and their citizenry, a trend which in the economic sphere has brought the United States within sight of new catastrophes, but which in the military sphere can only, I think, be regarded as a good thing. Much of the area that comprised the European empires that seemed in 1940 to be on the verge of collapse is now in one way or another "up for grabs"--but not up for grabs by military expansion of industrial powers. That is real progress, and keeping our problems in perspective an only help us deal with them.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

How the Crisis might turn out

That the United States is now in the midst of the third great crisis in our national life no longer seems in doubt. President Obama faces problems on the same scale as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the political stakes for which we are now playing--the future, and possibly even the survival, of the United States as we know it--are just as high. His own approach to the crisis--which I would characterize as far more Lincolnesque than Rooseveltian--is also becoming clear. The question of whether it will work remains open, and probably will be for at least another three years, until he stands for re-election. All we can do now is to speculate about scenarios and assess probabilities.

As in every great crisis, the problems we face are not merely ones of mood, or national disunity--they are real problems requiring real solutions. The two that stand out, clearly, are our collapsing economy and our need to live at peace with the Muslim world, while maintaining the solidarity of the industrialized world that has now lasted for more than sixty years. Simultaneously we face a serious political problem at home: the total alienation of at least a third of the population--by and large, the least educated and affluent white portion of the population--from the Administration. The solution of the political problem, in my opinion, depends on the solution of the first two. The solution of the first two depends--once again, in my opinion--in abandoning business as usual, and that is where the Administration, to date, is not inspiring as much confidence as it might.

For the past thirty years, and especially during the past sixteen or so, the financial sector has fueled our economy. By making what turned out to be irresponsible loans--to consumers holding credit cards, to mortgagees, and, through derivatives and credit-default swaps, to each other--they generated the new wealth that spread demand through the economy. Because we were in the meantime de-industrializing more than any other major economic power, much of that demand fueled the economic growth of other nations, especially in Asia, more or less forcing Asian nations to lend the money back to us and finance our trade and budget deficits. When the impossibility of making good on trillions of dollars of those loans became apparent about 18 months ago, the economic crisis began. Unfortunately--in my view, at least--President Obama picked a mainstream economic team, led by Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, who were heavily implicated in the policies of the last 18 years. As far as I can tell, their economic prescriptions have not yet attempted to undo any of the fundamental causes of our predicament. When they get around to proposing the restoration of something like the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment banking and commercial banking, I will be convinced that some one has grasped the nature of the problem: to put the awesome, inevitably destructive power to create new assets at will back within prett severe limits.

The equally important issue that has not been faced, to put it bluntly, is whether we need a largely new economy. Even as unemployment threatens to pass the 10% figure nationwide, and even as much of the American auto industry goes under for all time, the Administration, from the President on down, grasps at straws, arguing for instance that a decline in the acceleration of unemployment means that we are in some sense on our way to recovery. Such claims are, actually, only marginally more sophisticated than the arguments we heard in the 1990s that the Dow was destined to continue increasing steadily until it reached at least 36,000. It suddenly occurred to me last week exactly what they mean, mathematically: that employment could be expressed as a quadratic equation, with t (time) as the only independent variable. (Less mathematical readers can skip the rest of this paragraph.) Such an equation might postulate that in any given year t from here on out (the 1st year, the second, the third, etc.), the delta, or change in the unemployment rate(let's call it DE, since I don't know how to insert a delta into html), would look something like this:

DE = t2 - 3*t

Resurrecting my high school calculus, the slope of this line, over time, would be the derivative of the equation, which would be 2t - 3 . In the first year(next year, until July 2010), the change in the rate would be -2--an additional two per cent unemployment. At the end of the following year (year 2), DE, measured from this moment, would be -4 -- the rate would not have changed. But by the third year unemployment would at last be steady (32 - 9 = 0), and in the fourth year employment would increase 4%, and so on. At any point in time the slope of the curve representing the change in unemployment would be 2t - 3--starting at -3 right now, it would fall to -1 in a year (the exact kind of decline in new unemployment claims upon which everyone is eagerly pouncing on now), and finally get over 0 -- that is, to a point of rising unemployment--in two years.

The problem is that we really don't have the slightest idea whether current increases in unemployment reflect such an incredibly simple equation--there is every reason to believe that they do not. During the Great Depression the unemployment rate did not increase and decrease smoothly. The increases in unemployment accelerated from 1930 to 1931 and again in 1932, before coming to a sudden halt in 1933, whereupon employment began to rise again. Both Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert of the New York Times have consistently argued that the stimulus wasn't big enough and that it would be necessary to ask for a lot more. It will also be necessary, in my opinion, to sell the next stimulus as, if you will, a defensive rather than an offensive measure--a way to prevent the loss of further jobs, particularly in state and local government, rather than to create entirely new ones. Meanwhile, the Administration will have to be able to make a credible case--certainly by 2012, if not by 2010--that new sectors of the economy, such as green energy projects and infrastructure, are providing hundreds of thousands of genuinely new jobs and can provide millions more. That is what Roosevelt managed to do by 1936, leading to his massive re-election. Roosevelt experimented with planning the economy during his first two years, but put a huge emphasis on public works. Not until 1935-6 did he pass the most enduring reforms of his Administration, the SEC, the Wagner Act (legalizing unions), and Social Security. Obama is beginning with his major long-term reform, health care. We do not know whether this sequencing will work--although the way in which the Democratic majorities in Congress are pushing health care along is an encouraging sign.

On the foreign scene, things will, I am afraid, get somewhat worse in the Middle East. Iraq will lapse into a more or or less violent civil war. No surge, no amount of American help, and no decline in violence (a trend that owed a lot to the completion of ethnic cleansing in much of Baghdad), has managed to undo the basic fact that Iraq is at least two, if not three, nations. The Kurds are moving more rapidly towards Independence and asserting claims to disputed territory and oil. There is good reason to believe that the Sunnis will be violently reasserting themselves within a year. I am not optimistic, as I made clear last week, about the results of the surge in Afghanistan. Iran is going to hold resolutely to its course, although I suspect that Iran, like Israel, will not actually test a nuclear weapon. A US-Israeli deadlock over settlements seems likely. That will enrage certain elements in the media and the foreign policy establishment, but I am not sure that it will have much importance politically. The public seems as sick of our Middle Eastern adventure today as the it was of the Vietnam war by 1973 or so. The real political danger is at home.

Obama, like Lincoln, is moving slowly at home--as rapidly as the political traffic would bear. Just as Lincoln spoke in to the South in terms of friendship right up until Fort Sumter, he began hoping for Republican cooperation. He has compromised on many issues already--including climate change--without getting any. Perhaps the situation at home will have to become more desperate, like the Union military situation in 1862, before he can move more decisively on various domestic fronts. But in any case there is only so much that he can do alone. Lincoln won the conventional conflict that the South chose to wage, but after his death the will was lacking to do more than enshrine legal black equality in the Constitution while allowing white supremacy to return in the South. After three decades of free market consensus, we may not have the intellectual capital to do what needs to be done for the economy, either. But it is still, as the British would say, early days. On this day in 1861 the first Battle of Bull Run was still more than a week away. This will be a long struggle--and that, perhaps, is the rhetorical change I would recommend most strongly to the President. We have been on the wrong track for a long time, and it will take ten to twenty years to rebuild a more just America. The Democrats, sadly, may have lost their only chance to repeal the 22nd Amendment during the George W. Bush Administration--which means that Obama's successors will have to carry on the work to complete it. Meanwhile, let us not, like the northern abolitionists in 1861, despair of a leader who probably has a better sense of what is and is not possible just now than we do.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The prospects in Afghanistan

Last week, I attended some sessions of a conference on irregular warfare. Although it was entirely unclassified, I am not permitted specifically to identify any of the participants (their names, in any case, are not famous), but I can talk about what I learned, both from academics, and especially from several individuals who have spent a lot of time on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who bring other kinds of expertise and experience to bear on the problems there. I am going to talk today about the situation in Afghanistan--a truly tragic situation, and one in which the United States, I fear, is destined to remain involved for some time, and probably without any particularly good result.
The United States is in Afghanistan now to prevent the Taliban from once again taking power in at least a great deal of that country. The Taliban, unlike Al Queda, has never declared any particular designs upon the United States or even, as I understand it, on Israel, but the Taliban regime in the late 1990s allowed Al Queda to establish itself in Afghanistan. More importantly, after the United States initially drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan in 2002, the organization began growing inside nuclear-armed Pakistan, which had previously supported the Taliban regime in Kabul and which may indeed like to see its return there even now. As I have argued before, American policy seems to have created a kind of reverse domino effect: our involvement in Afghanistan, a very poor region of no intrinsic value, has now helped lead to a Taliban threat to Pakistan, a nuclear power.
During the last few years, the Taliban, which appeared to have been completely eclipsed around 2004 in Afghanistan, has retaken large parts of the country. What I heard at the conference was truly tragic. On the one hand, I was very reliably informed by some one in whom I have complete trust, the Taliban is extremely unpopular in Afghanistan. It consists of militant ideologues determined to regulate every aspect of the people's lives, and therefore arouses resentment. In a fair, free and unfettered election, the Taliban would stand no chance.
That, unfortunately, is only half the story. Unfortunately, the rest of Afghanistan is divided into tribes and factions, most of them at least as interested in monetary gain as in coping with the Taliban or uniting among themselves. The Karzai regime, which is certain to be re-elected shortly, is hopelessly corrupt, partly because of the large amounts of U.S. cash of which it disposes. The Taliban, in short, are the most determined, unified, and best organized group inside the country, and thus would be the clear favorites, again, in a civil war. They have established control over much of the countryside mainly in two ways: first, by sheer intimidation, and second, by dispensing justice, something which the national government, despite all our assistance, has not been able to do in much of the country.
It is the great illusion of Americans that just causes triumph because of their virtue--although history repeatedly shows the contrary. What I have said about the Taliban applied just as clearly to the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917-22, or the Chinese Communists in 1945-9, or the Viet Cong, or, for that matter, the Nazis in Germany from 1930 to 1933. (The latter case, ironically, is different because elections did play a key role in bringing the Nazis to power, too, and superior electoral mobilization was one of their main assets.) The victory of those revolutionary movements invariably meant short-run disaster for their countries, even though China and Vietnam managed to get themselves on entirely different paths within a few decades and are now doing remarkably well. Some of these movements won in part by taking advantage of existing injustices, but their victories owed far more to organization, ruthless intimidation, and military effectiveness. Although it has become unfashionable to say so, the genius of the Anglo-American world was to have established stable local and national political institutions, including law courts, by the early 18th century, allowing their people, from that time on, to live in relative peace. This is what much of the world has never managed to do.
The United States in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, has set about drastically accelerating the process of history by trying to create modern institutions on the spot. In both countries cadres of westerners have been dispatched to train police forces, criminal justice personnel, and the military. As in South Vietnam, all this seems to be based upon an unspoken assumption that the local populations will naturally accept what we have to offer. In fact, in my opinion, the opposite is true. In a situation of civil war, is a body of uniformed men trained by a culturally alien foreign power really likely to prevail against determined local opposition? Is it indeed not more likely to be discredited by its association with foreigners? Let us be clear: what we are doing is very, very different from what British and French imperialists did in places like India, Vietnam, and much of Africa. There they themselves created and administered new modern institutions and ran them, in some cases for decades (Egypt) or even centuries (India.) That, especially in India, allowed such institutions to grow real roots and survive the end of colonialism. But the United States obviously lacks both the resources and the will to do anything like that in Iraq, which as about 25 million people, or Afghanistan, which has 40 million. (South Vietnam in 1965, by the way, had about 15 million people.)
Another irony emerged during the conference. When the modern history of Europe began to be written about 150 years ago, it tended to idealize the growth of the centralized, modern state, based on a body of written laws, the entity that had put an end to the traditional societies of the Middle Ages. In the Middle East we have encountered two huge ironies. In Iraq we began by trying to create such a state (albeit with a strongly neoconservative political orientation) from the top down. That project failed disastrously, and the security gains of the last two years occurred because we began working with traditional institutions, the Sunni tribes, whom the Green Zone bureaucrats had initially been ordered to shun. The most modern institution ever to have ruled Iraq, indeed, was the Ba'ath party, under which, I venture to say, the country was far more unified, albeit by brutal means, than it had ever been before or is likely to be again. Certainly Iraq was never more secular than under the Ba'athists. (William Kristol, assuring Terri Gross in 2003 that there would be civil war there because Iraq "has always been pretty secular," didn't realize to whom the credit ws due.) In fact, third world modernization has often taken place in opposition to the West. One conference participant actually suggested that today, one of the most modern populations in the Middle East lives in Mullah-ruled Iran, and suggested, not entirely humorously, that we might do better to let Islamists get into power and give the people a couple of generations to modernize in response to them.
Today the Times has long stories about the movement of the Marines into Helmand province, where the Taliban are strong and the people fear, not without reason, that the arrival of the Marines will bring death and destruction. (Despite all the talk about counterinsurgency, the military is still focused primarily on firepower even now, even though our new commander in Afghanistan has finally put real restrictions on air strikes.) Let us hope that our new offensive will be a replay of the French Challe offensive in Algeria in 1959, which was sufficiently successful militarily to give de Gaulle the excuse to pull out. Late in the conference some of my colleagues and I got into a discussion of why we are in Afghanistan, anyway. None of thought that it had enough intrinsic interest to keep us there, but one argued that we were in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban from getting its hands on Pakistani nuclear weapons. I dissented. The Taliban is now considerably closer to that goal than they were in 2002, and in any case, trying to recreate a country of 40 million people seems an awfully inefficient way of securing about 100 nuclear weapons. Let us hope we find a way out.