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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Conservatives discover generations

It's been a long time since I reviewed the basics of generational theory here, and most long-time readers must be familiar with it, but since I now have so many new ones every week, a quick summary may be in order to put this week's remarks in context.

The theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe, as I have mentioned, sees a period crisis in the life of the United States (and, I have concluded, of other nations as well) every 80 years or so (1774-1794, 1860-1872, 1929-45, 2008 - ?). Those crises are closely related to a generational rhythm that produces a new generation every twenty years. Each generation belongs to one of four archetypes, known as Prophets, Nomads, Heroes, and Artists. Each generation also has a specific name. The current generations are Boomers (Prophets, born 1943-60), Gen Xers (Nomads, born 1961-81), Millennials (Heroes, born 1982-2002?) and Homelanders (artists, who have been born for at least a few years now.) During the previous cycle the Hero generation were the GIs, now frequently known as the "Greatest" generation (born about 1904-24), and the Artist generation was the Silents, born 1925-42, many of whom are still active in public life and about whom I have written a great deal here.

Today's media and politics are dominated by Boomers and Xers--but the last election was dominated by Millennials, who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama and provided his margin of victory. Millennials had a very different kind of upbringing than either Boomers, who were largely left to themselves within a very stable environment(as the children of the greatest country on earth, how could they go wrong?, and Xers, who had to deal with by far the highest percentage of broken homes and got the least attention from their elders of any living generation. The parents of Millennials--led by Boomers--gave them very structured lives in which they were expected to perform, in one way or another, at least 12 hours a day. They did, for the most part, perform, but they also expected, and received, rewards. My Millennial students at Williams would do anything I asked--but they got very angry when I tried to change the rules in the middle of the game. They were extremely capable, and they had a rather frightening trust in older generations.

Now as the last election showed, Millennials are the greatest threat to the right-wing ethos and policies that gained ascendancy in the United States between 1981 and 2008. What is rather fascinating is that leading conservatives seem to be figuring this out. Here is what Glen Beck, of all people, had to say about Millennials this week.

I do know that there was a story in The Wall Street Journal yesterday about trophy kids going to work. These are the kids that we've raised and we've told them, "Who's super special? You are." And we've never told them anything bad. Well, now they are starting to enter the workforce, and I love this. We're now having these, what do you call them, consultants to help new employers adjust to the employees. Consultants are coming in and saying, "Look, you've got to adjust the way -- because you've got new employees. " Now here's a Boston-based consultant doing the other, coaching a group of college students for job interviews. Who had a consultant for a job interview? Did anyone within the sound of my voice have a consultant that you hired to help you with job interviews? My gosh. Get over yourself. Go out and get a frickin' job. Consultant, what a bunch of pansy -- I'm sorry. I digress.

Anyway, she said to them, "How do you believe your employers are going to view you?" She even gave them a clue. She said, "The word I'm looking for begins with the letter E." One student raised his hand, said "Excellent." Another student rhymed in with "Enthusiastic, energetic." Not even close. Here was the correct answer. "Entitled." The students collectively responded, "What?" Some were surprised. Others were hurt that they would be viewed as people who think they're entitled.

Here's the problem with the Millennial generation, and this is the problem -- I'm telling you, I've said this for years. You want your -- go ahead. You want to be a helicopter parent, you save them for everything, do you know what some companies now have parent day? In the corporation where your parents can come? You bring your parent to work, that's the last day you are coming to my office. I mean if they want to have a sit-down with me. If they want to come by and see your office, that's cool. You want to have a sit-down? Get the hell out of my office. I think we need more people with this theory: Get the hell out of my office. Now, we're not going to be able to do that because soon the government will be able to protect everyone so you'll not be able to fire everyone. You can live more like they live in France where, I'm not kidding you, countries have whole sections of floors dedicated to people who just sit in an office and do nothing because the state won't let them fire them. You can't fire them. So they just, "You're moving down to 12. Well, have a good time." And people just go to work and they sit in their office and they do nothing! That's where we're headed. In the meantime, until the government tells me I can't do it anymore, get the hell out of my office. Don't you feel like that? Don't you want -- some guy who would come to you when he's applying for a job and he wants to work and the next thing he's like, "Well, I've got a consultant to help me." Well, I don't know about you, but you seem to be doing fine, but I'm not going to work like that. Get the hell away from me.

The Millennials that are coming in now, employers are beginning to realize that that is the future workforce and they want to shape the job towards their life rather than have their life adapt to the workplace. I mean, that's all well and good, but... get the hell out of my office. "Although members..." this is from the Wall Street Journal. "Although members from the other generation were considered somewhat spoiled in their youth, millennials feel an unusually strong sense of entitlement. Older adults criticize the high maintenance rookies for demanding too much too soon. They want to be CEOs tomorrow. More than 85% of hiring managers and human resources executives say they feel that Millennials have such a strong sense of entitlement than older workers according to a survey," blah, blah, blah. "The generation's greatest expectations, higher pay, 75%." "What? You're paying what?" "Yeah, that's what I'm paying. Get the hell out of my office." Flexible work schedule, 61%. Promotion within a year, 56%. More vacation and personal time -- oh, I've got a lot of personal time coming your way. Get the hell... can you finish the sentence? They really do seem to want everything, and I can't decide whether it's an inability or an unwillingness to make tradeoffs," says the assistant dean and MBA and admissions director at Stanford University. A study of 18 to 28-year-olds found that nearly half had moderate to high superiority beliefs about themselves. The superiority factor was measured by responses to statements such as, quote, "I deserve favors from others." How about this one? "I know that I have more natural talent than most." They don't want to work 40 hours a week. They happen to wear clothes that are comfortable. They want to spice you will the dull workday by listening to their iPods if they want to. And, "If corporate America doesn't like it, too bad for them." Really? Get the hell out of my office. We have a problem with arrogance in this country. This is what I was talking to you about a little bit yesterday. We have a real problem with arrogance and if you are a religious person, you know what happens whenever people become arrogant. "Oh, they're destroyed." We've got to reconnect with humility. We've got to reconnect with doing the right thing. We've got to reconnect with who we are. We're going to be forced soon to reconnect with what our grandparents taught us and how my generation and older, what they learned. No, you know what, I'm sorry. I can't say my generation and older. Because the generation right before me is so damn screwed up, I don't know what the hell they're doing. The people who were raised in the Sixties, you are the people responsible for what we're living in right now. You people have -- "Oh, I care about the planet. I care..." oh, shut up. You dope-smoking hippies, look what you have brought us now. And because you were in charge of the curriculum, everybody gets a trophy. You know what? There are losers in life. There are losers in life. The losers in life are the ones who don't really try very hard because everything is owed to them. The losers in life are the ones that expect a trophy even though they're in 18th place. The winners are the ones that try. Those are the winners. They may not always exceed but they try. When you couple arrogance with the Social Security problem, when you couple the idea of, "I know I have more natural talents than most, I deserve favors from others," when you couple that with "What about the old people? Are we going to take care of the older generation?" "No, they've done nothing but stand in my way the whole time." Who's going to get the medical care when Social Security really, when it comes down to it, Medicare, Medicaid, when it comes down to universal healthcare? When you're going to have to make a decision because we can't afford good healthcare for everybody, somebody's not going to get a kidney transplant. Somebody's not going to get heart surgery. Somebody's not going to get kidney dialysis. Somebody's not going to get that surgery. Who's it going to be? Is it going to be the Millennial that doesn't give a flying crap about anybody else but themselves because they're special, look at all the trophies they won? Or is it going to be the 80-year-old who's already lived past their time? I mean, look what they have done. You know the answer of that as well as I do.

Now like everything else Beck says, this is intentionally inflammatory, and one of its major implications--that Millennials haven't had to work for what they have-is ridiculous. I would estimate that today's kids spend at least ten times as much psychic energy on the problem of getting into college, for instance, as my generation did. But what is interesting is that Beck, in a way, knows what he's talking about, and is angry for a very good reason. These kids do not share his values and they are not going to. Beck believes in the free market--including the free market in hatred, his product--because it has made him rich and famous. Millennials won't believe in it unless it delivers for them, and they shouldn't. And like the last Hero generation, the GIs, they are going to pose a huge problem for our society in an age of economic decline. They will expect us to find jobs for them, and they have the votes to make sure that we do so. They will probably save a lot more of their money than Boomers and Xers have, and they will want to make sure to provide for their old age. In short, they are going to explode the conservative fantasy that the years 1933-80 were an aberration in American history that has now been consigned to the ash-heap of history.

I was reminded as soon as I read this of another conservative comment on a Hero generation. In 2004, at the height of the campaign, Grover Norquist talked a bit indiscreetly to a Spanish reporter about the GI generation. He didn't date it quite right, but his basic point--which I quoted here at the time--was correct.

Two million people who fought in World War II and lived through the Great Depression die every year. That generation has been an exception in US history, because it has defended anti-American policies. They voted for the creation of the welfare state and for obligatory military service. They are the Democratic base, and they are dying

And we've had four more years pass where the age cohort that is most Democratic and most pro-statist, are those people who turned 21 years of age between 1932 and 1952--Great Depression, New Deal, World War II--Social Security, the draft--all that stuff. That age cohort is now between the ages of 70 and 90 years old, and every year 2 million of them die. So 8 million people from that age cohort have passed away since the last election; that means, net, maybe 1 million Democrats have disappeared…
This is an age cohort [the GIs] that voted for a draft before the war started, and allowed the draft to continue for 25 years after the war was over. Their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations. Before that generation, whenever you put a draft in, there were draft riots. After that generation, there were draft riots. This generation? No problem. Why not? Of course the government moves people around like pawns on a chessboard. One side spits off labor law, one side spits off Social Security. We will all work until we’re 65 and have the same pension. You know, some Bismarck, German thing, okay? Very un-American. Very unusual for America. The reaction to Great Depression, World War II, and so on: Centralization—not as much centralization as the rest of the world got, but much more than is usual in America. We’ve spent a lot of time dismantling some of that and moving away from that level of regimentation: getting rid of the draft. . .

Norquist knew what he was talking about. The death of retired GIs probably accounted for George Bush carrying Florida by over 100,000 votes in 2004 after losing it, barely, in 2000 (according to the most thorough recount.) The GIs had not been consistently Democratic: social issues had led them to vote for Nixon and then for Ronald Reagan. But they had been protected by the federal government all their lives, from child labor legislation through lower marginal tax rates beginning in 1964 to higher Social Security benefits, and they had lobbied effectively to keep things that way.

What Norquist didn't realize, apparently, was that new Millennials were being added faster than GIs were dying. And while they apparently will not have to undergo a draft that will put 20 million of them in uniform, they will expect our government to address their particular problems at every stage of their life. And if Barack Obama can persuade them (as I don't think he has yet) that he is addressing their problems, a new Democratic majority will indeed be reborn.

In Roosevelt's day the media was controlled by Missionaries (his own prophet generation, born 1863-1884 or so), and the Nomad Lost generation, born 1885-1903. Most of them hated him. Not until after the Second World War did GIs become the dominant voice in the media. That, too, is a parallel to the situation today. But well before that, they had become the dominant force in politics--as voters, not candidates. I do not know if Republicans in the 1930s attacked them, too, as spoiled brats who needed government hand-outs--but I strongly suspect that the answer is yes.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Human achievement?

For the past two weeks I have been reading most of Neil Sheehan's new book, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War. Sheehan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for securing the Pentagon papers from Daniel Ellsberg back in 1971, has now written two substantial works of recent history. The hero the the first, A Bright Shining Lie, was John Paul Vann, a fellow member of the Silent Generation, who saw the flaws in American strategy in Vietnam but could not give up the idea, after his reckless personal behavior had helped force him out of the Army, that we could win. The hero of this one is some one of whom I do not think I have ever been aware, Bernard Schriever, a German-American Air Force officer and engineer whom Sheehan regards as the founder of the American ICBM program. And although many of the events of this book took place during a time securely within my memory, they seem as remote, in many ways, as the days of Pearl Harbor and D-Day, Napoleon and Wellington, or the Thirty Years War. The book--even more than the one I am working on now on American entry into the Second World War--is about another America, one whose strengths and weaknesses become extraordinarily apparent as time goes on.

Researching my own book, I recently read a column by Drew Pearson and Robert Allen from August 1941, purporting to describe President Roosevelt's mood. The President, they said--and rightly so--was deeply engaged in preparing the nation for war, but he was less jovial than in the past. During his first eight years he had put people to work, helped build bridges and dams, and established the beginnings of the American safety net. Now circumstances forced him to tend to the construction of warships, bombers and tanks instead. That choice had been forced upon the United States by political crises in Europe and East Asia but it was not a happy one. Pearson and Allen did not know that FDR was about to make an even more fateful choice: the decision to launch the Manhattan Project, which culminated, four months after his death, in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Roosevelt had looked forward to a postwar world of peace and prosperity. Secretary of War Stimson, along with some (but clearly not all) of the scientists who had built the weapon, understood the need to bring it under international control. Meanwhile, in one of my favorite, little-known documents, some senior military officials in Washington had presciently sketched out the military situation that they expected the United States to face when the war was over. Without knowing about the atomic bomb, they anticipated a stalemate. . "After the defeat of Japan," they wrote, "the United States and Russia will be the strongest military powers in the world. . . .the relative strength and geographic positions of these two powers are such as to preclude the military defeat of one of these powers by the other, even if that power were allied with the British Empire." That in my opinion was a sound judgment both before and after the development of atomic weapons and could have provided the basis for a sensible postwar foreign policy. Unfortunately, that was not to be.

As I had occasion to discuss in an article published a couple of years ago in a collection, the first war plans formulated for a conflict against the Soviet Union, beginning in 1947, did not foresee a stalemate: they planned on an atomic strategic bombing offensive against the Soviet Union that would lead to its complete defeat. This remained our plan throughout the 1950s, even though at the outset we surely lacked, and indeed may never have attained, the capability to bring it about. Much of the responsibility surely lies with the Air Force, which secured its independent status in 1947 based upon the largely mistaken idea that strategic bombing had won the Second World War and could therefore win the wars of the future. Without ICBMS--or, until the very late 1950s, intercontinental bombers--the need to plan for such a war vastly distorted our whole foreign policy. To cite just one example, it probably led to our long, painful, and currently troubling alliance with Pakistan, simply because that nation provided bases that would allow medium-range bombers to reach targets in the Soviet Union. All the while, the Soviets--who never believed in long-range strategic bombing--were steadily improving their air defenses, which, when tried on American planes in Vietnam, turned out to be formidable indeed. The guiding spirit of the Air Force, first as chief of the Strategic Air Command and later as Chief of Staff, was Curtis LeMay, one of the villains of Sheehan's book, who not only counted upon strategic bombing to wipe out the Soviet Union (and refused to recognize that bombers might be obsolete), but also thought that it could solve other problems, like Castro's regime in Cuba or the Vietnam War, if only the Air Force were let alone to do the job.

Sheehan thinks the ICBM was the key weapon of the Cold War and his book is about the men who pushed for it and developed it. The two main heroes are Schriever, an immigrant from Germany who actually built and tested the first (though not the most useful) missiles, and John von Neumann, the Hungarian-born mathematician and refugee who made major contributions to mathematical theory, high-speed computing, and nuclear physics. Like so many Americans during that period, von Neumann viewed the Soviet Union as essentially similar to Nazi Germany--that is, bent upon world domination--and thought that it was necessary for the United States not only to deploy but to use decisive weaponry against it. He made the ICBM program happen because he predicted early in the 1950s that a sufficiently small hydrogen warhead could be developed to be delivered by a missile into the heart of the Soviet Union. That prediction proved true.

The bulk of Sheehan's book is a story of engineers at work, making this happen, while outwitting bureaucratic rivals like LeMay (who feared missiles as a threat to his beloved bomber force), circumventing the budgetary strictures upon which President Eisenhower tried to insist (with a big boost from the Sputnik launch), and overcoming one technical problem after another. Watching them solve these enormous challenges, I could not help but wonder what similar advances had taken place during the last thirty years or so. Sadly, no non-defense project has ever had so much government money and so much engineering talent focused upon it as has sophisticated weaponry. The comparable advances in recent decades, I suppose, have been in the field of computer science, transforming the use of information in ways whose consequences we cannot yet predict. Diagnostic health care has made major advances but there have been relatively few big breakthroughs in treatment or prevention like the vaccines and new drugs of the first half of the century. And we have had no comparable effort in fields like clean energy or mass transit, even though we are talking about such things now. Unfortunately the United States has changed from a country of engineers and industrialists to a country of lawyers and financial analysts; younger, hungrier countries like China and India, as well as the defeated nations of the Second World War, may be the source of the next great breakthroughs. Our private economy, certainly, has not been able to generate a demand for engineering talent, or capital to put it to work, comparable to that which was mobilized for the Second World War and the Cold War, except in the field of computer science and information technology.

And meanwhile, was the great achievement of Schriever and company worth it? Was it as valuable as Sheehan claims? As soon as the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb in 1949 the United States government decided that it had to develop the H-bomb as well, and from there it was only a small step to von Neumann's conclusion that we needed the means to deliver a huge number of those weapons onto Soviet cities, one against which the Soviets could not defend. One dissenter was George F. Kennan, who argued very provocatively in one of his most brilliant and least-known internal papers that before doing so, the United States should make another effort to ban atomic and nuclear weapons. The reason, he argued, was that such weapons were so purely destructive that they could never serve the positive foreign policy goals of the United States. "By and large," he wrote, "the conventional weapons of warfare have admitted and recognized the possibility of surrender and submission. For that reason, they have traditionally been designed to spare the unarmed and helpless non-combatant. . .as well as the combatant prepared to lay down his arms. This general quality of the conventional weapons of warfare implied a still more profound and vital recognition: namely that warfare should be a means to an end other than warfare, an end connected with the beliefs and the feelings and the attitudes of people, an end marked by submission to a new political will and perhaps to a new regime of life, but an end which at least did not negate the principle of life itself.
"The weapons of mass destruction do not have this quality. . . .They cannot really be reconciled with a political purpose directed to shaping, rather than destroying, the lives of the adversary. They fail to take account of the ultimate responsibility of men for one another, and even for each other’s errors and mistakes." (Readers with a free hour can read Kennan's entire argument here. I do not think they will feel they have wasted their time.)

But Kennan was overruled. So, a few years later, was General Matthew Ridgway, then Chief of Staff, when he suggested at an NSC meeting that the execution of our war plan against the Soviet Union could not possibly serve the interests of the United States. In reply, President Eisenhower himself "said he was speaking very frankly to the Council in expressing his absolute conviction that in view of the development of the new weapons of mass destruction, with the terrible significance which these involved, everything in any future war with the Soviet bloc would have to be subordinated to winning that war. This was the one thing which must constantly be borne in mind, and there was little else with respect to war objectives that needed to worry anyone very much." The work on ICBMs and other delivery systems not only went ahead, it proceeded so rapidly that by the time the first SIOP, or nuclear targeting plan, was completed by the end of the Eisenhower Administration, there were far more available warheads than targets, leading to the multiple targeting of nearly every one.

The Soviet Union, Sheehan stresses, also had an ICBM program, and gave the arms race something of a push when it launched the first earth satellite. It was however far behind ours, as it turned out, and took many years to catch up quantitatively. (What I have read in recent years suggests that it never caught up qualitatively.) In fact, the two missiles whose development takes up most of the book--the Atlas and Titan--were cumbersome, liquid-fueled vehicles of dubious military utility. It was the Minuteman, to which he devotes much less space, that became the backbone of the US deterrent. Meanwhile, before the deployment of ICBMs, our desperate desire to deploy missiles within range of our enemy led to the placing of intermediate-range missiles in Britain, in Italy, and in Turkey. And that in 1962 led the world to the brink of nuclear war when Khrushchev sent intermediate range nuclear missiles to Cuba, as well as tactical nuclear weapons. Faced with that situation, the American military and much of the American political establishment wanted an immediate invasion of Cuba. That, we now know, would have led to the detonation at least of tactical Soviet nuclear weapons (including one that would have incinerated the Guantanamo naval base), and therefore, almost surely, to a general nuclear exchange. The only reason that it did not, as Sheehan acknowledges, was that John F. Kennedy did what Kennan had hoped some one would do, and took responsibility for Khrushchev's mistake and his predecessors, first by giving Khrushchev a chance to back down and secondly by promising secretly to withdraw the missiles from Turkey and Italy.

Perhaps the American reaction to the events of 1939-49 (from the outbreak of war in Europe until the Soviet nuclear explosion) was perfectly natural. Certainly there is no undoing it now, and no denying that we emerged from the Cold War intact. Yet one of the most poignant moments in Sheehan's book was a reference to Albert Einstein, who by 1950, according to Sheehan, deeply regretted having written the 1939 letter to Franklin Roosevelt that got the Manhattan Project going, because it had now led to a nuclear arms race. "Politics," Einstein once said, "is much harder than physics," and so it proved over the next few decades. We can take comfort now that we are no longer constantly prepared to unleash thousands of nuclear warheads upon an opponent just as ready to do the same. To have reached that point was not an achievement of which the human race can be proud. The task of unleashing human creativity for more beneficial aims, and of finding a civic purpose as compelling as, but less destructive than, war, still remains.

[Regarding the hoax email circulating under my name, I have fantasized for months that some big-time conservative talk-show host woudl call me about it, since they love Obama-Hitler comparisons. (One small town host did call, but my courage failed me, and I immediately disowned it instead of waiting until she had me on the air.) Well, that hasn't happened, but something similar did. Someone posted a supposed excerpt from a hoax undergraduate thesis by Barack Obama on a blog, and conservative writer Michael Ledeen picked it up as real. Rush Limbaugh got it from him and ran with it on Friday. When Rush's researchers rather tardily found out the truth, he said--you'll never guess--that it didn't matter, because we all know Obama believes these things anyway. See mediamatters.org for the full story.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The enduring Republican victory

[People are still arriving here because they have received an email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler. They are also still calling my home, contacting the public affairs office of the Naval War College, and deluging another David Kaiser with emails. I did not write, and do not agree with, that fraudulent email. You may however be interested to read the following post. Meanwhile, here is the best explanation I've found of why that email is so incredibly popular.]

The Obama Administration's difficulties on the domestic front, I think, reflect a long-term shift in American opinion. In 1968, after 35 years of largely Democratic ascendancy which had created a relatively egalitarian economy and established a strong role for the government, the Republican Party, increasingly led after 1976 by its conservative wing, began its successful campaign to establish a national majority. Their strategy had two major aspects. The first--which was largely handed to them, as Lyndon Johnson himself realized, by the great civil rights act--involved picking up the southern white vote, which became nearly as reliably Republican as it had previously been reliably Democratic. The second involved a long campaign to change Americans' minds about the proper role of government. The Republican Party has temporarily at least lost its majority--but the enormous influence of that campaign remains.

We can see that influence reflected in three major, related issues: the economy, the federal budget, and health care. Taking the first two first, our economy has been (and is still being) enormously distorted by the enormous profits available to the financial industry. Because taxes on capital gains have become so low (and because some of the biggest players in the financial game, hedge fund managers, can evidently claim nearly all their income in that form), traders and private equity firms can make, and keep,enormous profits. Meanwhile, the federal budget defect--already swelled to gigantic size by eight years of George W. Bush--has doubled again because of the recession. (I strongly suspect, and hope to show, that one reason that federal revenues have become so recession-sensitive is that they are so largely composed of payroll taxes.)

Now the solution to both of these problems, is, actually, rather obvious: a return to high marginal tax rates--something between 50%, which is common in Europe,and 90%, which the US levied from the time of the Second World War until 1965--on high incomes--say, incomes of over $2 million a year--from whatever source derived. If quick profits will go the federal government, managers will no longer seek them. There will be far more incentive, as there was half a century ago, to re-invest profits in expanded firms, actually producing more, rather than fewer jobs. And we will have a prospect of a long-term reduction in the deficit.

Yes, by historical standards, this is obvious--but thirty years of Republican propaganda and lobbyists' contributions have made this solution not just impossible, but unmentionable. This morning's Washington Post informed me, to my amazement, that the Obama Administration does not even intend to allow various Bush tax cuts to lapse! We have found that enormous, largely untaxed incomes do not stimulate the economy: higher wages for average Americans do. But we can't even talk about this solution--it's comparable to suggestions that we stage a Leninist revolution, undo women's liberation, or bring back slavery.

Something even more striking is happening with regard to health care. Everyone seems to understand that we spend too much on it and can't afford to go on at this rate. But Republicans and lobbyists seem very close to having killed the public option because it would be a cheaper form of health care.. What we need, we cannot have. The broader problem is obvious. Cheaper health car4e means that many people will make less money out of health care--especially insurance companies and drug manufacturers. I have not heard even one participant in this debate suggest that there is something immoral about profiteering on medical care. Instead, the papers are filled with stories of the ways in which lobbyists are trying to make sure that a new bill will mean no less, and perhaps more, money for health care interests.

I am concerned by all this because I think that both the political future and that of the Obama Administration depend on facing these issues squarely. A health insurance "reform" that costs even more money will eventually have huge political costs for Democrats. Endless deficits with no end in sight will pose the same problem, and the collapse of yet another Wall Street bubble could easily return the Republicans to power. We cannot solve these problems without removing some of these taboos. The press, which consistently gives the most space to the shrillest voices on the right, has been no help either. The Administration has shown the courage to defy the conventional wisdom on several foreign policy issues, including missile defense and Iran, without apparently incurring political costs. Let us hope that it finds the courage to do the same on the far more critical domestic front.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why Obama won the prize

Like everyone else, I was quite astonished yesterday morning when I went on-line and discovered that Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Fortunately, the topic I had planned on writing about today has become even more relevant because of that decision. Upon reflection, I think I understand the committee's choice, and indeed, am inclined to believe that it reflects a sound appreciation on its part of the turning point at which the world finds itself. This is especially hard for Americans to grasp, I would suggest, because the spectrum of opinion in America is so radically different from opinion in every other advanced industrial country, as well as in much of the third world. Indeed, when Rush Limbaugh commented yesterday that "conservatives" like himself found themselves in agreement with the Taliban that Obama did not deserve the prize, he was saying something surprisingly profound. As usual, I shall try to make my point with the help of an analogy, this one from 100 years ago.

The first President to win the Nobel prize was, of course, Theodore Roosevelt, who received it in 1906 in recognition of having mediated peace between the Russians and the Japanese, after two years of very costly war. The second was Woodrow Wilson, whom I have had a chance to study more closely in recent years, and whose career reveals a lot about how the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world has changed over the last 100 years. Wilson when he assumed office held a view, very popular among Americans not only then but for the next 25 years or so, that the world's problems stemmed from the failure of nations to act according to established laws and rules. He and his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, were at the forefront of a movement to conclude arbitration treaties with various powers to provide an alternative means of settling disputes. That movement, however, had not caught on among the major European powers, who were still relying on a mix of diplomacy, alliances, and larger military establishments to secure their interests. In 1914 diplomacy failed and the First World War broke out.

Two nations, for different reasons, unleashed that war. First, Austria-Hungary--faced with a long-term threat to its existence from Serbia and other new states, which included the state-sponsored Serbian terrorism that killed the heir to the throne at Sarajevo--adopted the exact same policy that the Bush Administration embraced in 2001 after 9/11. Because the Serbian state sheltered terrorists, it had to be removed by force. The Bush Administration implemented this policy both in Afghanistan, where it at least had some plausibility, and in Iraq, where it did not. In the latter case, the Bush Administration, like Vienna in 1914, submitted an ultimatum which was clearly designed to be rejected to provide a pretext for war, and disregarded the attempts of the recipient of the ultimatum to comply. Germany, meanwhile, seized upon the Austro-Hungarian-Serbian crisis as a good chance for a trial of strength with France, Russia, and if necessary Britain, and encouraged the Austrians to proceed, blocking diplomatic attempts to find a solution and unleashing a world war. Wilson was appalled, and spent two and one-half heroic years trying to find a peaceful solution to the war. In his last attempt, his great "peace without victory" speech in January 1917, he carefully avoided any judgment of the rights and wrongs of the conflict, calling for a peace based upon impartial principles. Neither side was interested. The British bitterly reproached him for what we now call "moral equivalence," and the Germans decided on unrestricted submarine warfare in an attempt to force Britain's surrender, even though they knew that it would force Wilson into the war.

It is hard to say how much freedom of action Wilson had in 1917, but I have become convinced that his decision to enter the war was a mistake. Tragically, Wilson's estimate of the situation was right: Europe desperately needed a compromise peace, in which neither side was as yet seriously interested. Such a peace might conceivably have come about had we stayed out of the war; there was no chance that it would do so after our entry, because the Allies would trust in their increasingly superior resources. After the Armistice--one which left Germany at the Allies' mercy--Wilson tried but inevitably failed to write his principles of impartiality into the Versailles Treaty. But traditional authority had already collapsed all over central and eastern Europe--most notably in Germany and in Russia--eventually allowing totalitarian movements to take over, and unleashing an even bigger war. Still, Wilson in 1919 became the second sitting President to receive the prize.

During the last 64 years, the United States and its allies have managed, remarkably, to make Wilson's dreams reality among the industrialized nations of the world. Under a succession of Democratic and Republican Administrations from Truman through Clinton, the richer nations came together, confronted Communism, and eventually saw it fall. After three generations of peace among them, their military establishments--event our own--have fallen to historically very low levels. No wars have taken place within advanced nations in all that time. While the Third World has been the scene of terrible conflicts, virtually the entire population of the advanced nations today has lived their life untouched by war.

The Nobel Committee, it seems to me, awarded its prize to President Obama because of its concern over the trends of the last nine years. Two new elements transformed the world situation in 2001, with disastrous consequences. They were, respectively, Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda on the one hand, and the conservative Republican Administration of George W. Bush on the other. What is confusing Americans today is that while the world recognizes both of them and the ideas and strategies they represented as very serious dangers, the United States does not.

Last month, at the ninth anniversary of 9/11, I saw several commentaries arguing that Bin Laden had been a failure. They were wrong. Bin Laden, along with George W. Bush, is to date the most influential figure of the new century. I have become increasingly convinced that we have never really understood what Bin Laden was trying to do, or what his real goals are. He is not really very interested, I now believe, in what happens in the United States or even in Europe. For decades he has been fighting a civil war within the Muslim world, most notably in his native Saudi Arabia, where he hates the government partly because of its association with our own. 9/11 was an attempt, I think, to provoke the United States into direct intervention in the region, because that would provide a focal point for extremist resentment and further tend to discredit our allies there. The Bush Administration's decision to invade Afghanistan and then Iraq played into his hands, all the more so because the United States lacked sufficient forces to do either job effectively. But those decisions also represented a decisive change in American foreign policy, one that threatened the whole postwar consensus in which the world had thrived.

As I have said here many times, the decision to invade Iraq, in particular, was a repudiation of all the principles of international law for which the United States had stood, at least in theory, since Wilson. The Bush Administration's National Security strategy embraced international anarchy, by claiming the right to overthrow any regime that might develop weapons which we did not think they should have. We should not have been surprised that it received almost no international support, with Britain alone among advanced industrial countries supporting it. Since 1945 the United States had been the leading supporter of international organizations; now, under Bush, they became impediments that stood in the way of what we judged we had to do. (Last night Rachel Maddow, in an excellent feature on the prize, ran a clip of John Bolton explaining that the United States government had no interest in the United Nations except to the extent that it could promote American objectives.) Bush also extended the anarchic philosophy to our ally Israel, by declaring that Israel would keep any territory that it had settled and wanted to keep in a final peace agreement. He declared, and implemented, a policy of indefinitely detaining and torturing captives and denying them any legal recourse, in violation of numerous laws and treaties which the United States had either passed or signed and ratified. And, of course, prodded by Dick Cheney, he spent about six years threatening Iran with war if it did not desist from its nuclear program.

It is, of course, perhaps the greatest difference between the United States on the one hand and Europe and Northeast Asia on the other, that they have experienced first hand the consequences of a philosophy of international anarchy, as practiced beginning in the 1930s by Japan and Germany, while we have not. The Second World War left them destroyed and destitute while raising us to new pinnacles of prosperity and power. And thus, their commitment to an orderly world has been much stronger, and remains so--partly because the aftermath of the war lasted so much longer in those countries than here, as well. The Nobel Committee, in my opinion, was reacting to signs that the United States was indeed getting back on track before it was too late.

They were not a moment too soon. The last year has shown just how difficult it will be to reverse the damage the Bush Administration did. Although we are slowly exiting in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has gotten much worse, and threatens to spill over into Pakistan. Iran has made considerable nuclear progress. President Obama tried, and in effect, to withdraw the critical concession Bush made to the Israeli government in order to promote peace. And the President is disinclined to treat the torture and detention policies of the Bush Administration as crimes. Yet the President has shown by both word and deed that he believes in a different world and a different foreign policy. His speeches, like Wilson's have inspired the world. And although the media have underplayed it, the Iranian agreement to allow Russia to enrich its uranium is an absolutely critical concession for the whole non-proliferation effort. It is, indeed, exactly the solution proposed by Graham Allison in his book, Nuclear Terrorism. The prize will undoubtedly give a boost to the President's broader goal of working towards the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The decision not to station useless anti-ballistic missiles in the heart of Europe reversed another disastrous step, one which had begun to undermine the peaceful structure of post-cold war Europe. (How many Americans realize that the Russians, in retaliation, denounced a conventional forces treaty that kept their troops away from the border?)

The reason, I think, that all this is hard to understand here in the United States, is that conservative Republican positions, which the rest of the world fears and abhors, are regarded here as mainstream. "The prize quickly loomed as a potential political liability — perhaps more burden than glory — for Mr. Obama," said today's New York Times. "Republicans contended that he had won more for his star power and oratorical skills than for his actual achievements, and even some Democrats privately questioned whether he deserved it." Yes, sadly, a large percentage of the American population--and probably a larger percentage of our punditry--still believes that unrestrained force and disregard for law are the solutions to the problems we face in the world. An entire media complex, including a whole television network and 90% of the talk radio industry, will decry the award. (No totalitarian movement ever had such a media presence before it seized power.) And thus, in the long run, both the hopes of the Nobel Committee and of the President himself depend on the development of a new American consensus--the kind of consensus that Wilson failed to develop on behalf of the League of Nations, but that Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower managed to build, first on behalf of intervention against the Japanese and Germans and then on behalf of the Cold War.

The world has voted. The rest is now up to us.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Afghanistan - An historical perspective

[Every day, hundreds of people reach this blog thanks to an email circulating under my name, comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler. It remains necessary for me to state that I did not write it and do not agree with it. I would appreciate anyone who has received it hitting "reply all" and passing that along. More information on the origins of the email is available here.]

Although I grew up amidst government decision-makers at various fairly high levels, I evidently decided at some unconscious level that their life was not for me. Like some of the characters in Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle, I prized time to think more than influence, and of that I have had plenty. Yet as you all know, I inevitably wish, from time to time, that I could bring a lifetime of study to bear at a critical moment. The trade off is real and clear: had I spent my life pursuing the positions that would give me influence, I would have much less to say. But I have seldom felt a stronger urge to make my views known than in the last two weeks, after the release of General McChrystal’s classified assessment of the situation in Afghanistan kicked off critical decisions in Washington about what to do.

General McChrystal’s assessment and his recommendations for the future lay out a detailed and very ambitious plan for the expansion of both American and NATO (ISAF) and Afghan forces in Afghanistan and for a change in strategy to take the initiative away from the Taliban and make major progress towards securing the country under the control of the Afghan government within several years. The unclassified version of the document, to begin with, does not specify exactly how many new forces will be needed or exactly where they will be stationed. The document boldly and courageously advocates changes in the approaches of US forces, including better language capabilities, a different relationship with the population, and more focus on governance, but some doubt whether current training and service schools generate enough troops who can perform these missions. The document also calls for a vastly increased civilian effort and we cannot know if the necessary resources will be available.

Historical examples—particularly China in the late 1940s, Vietnam, and Iraq—help put these recommendations in historical context and, in particular, raise certain questions involving both the resources that will be required from the United States on the one hand, and the political changes which must take place in Afghanistan, if such as a strategy as has been proposed is to work. More importantly, the Obama Administration has to answer questions about the broader purposes of our involvement and the consequences of various possible courses of action.

In historical perspective, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Initial Assessment is its characterization of the insurgency on the one hand, and the Afghan National Government. Although observers with experience in Afghanistan are nearly unanimous in their belief that the bulk of the Afghan people do not want a return to Taliban rule, the Quetta Shura Taliban emerges from the assessment as a formidable, well-organized force—far more similar in its scope, organization and tactics, it seems to me, to the Viet Cong than to the various different opposition groups that we have faced in Iraq. Like the Viet Cong, it is setting up a parallel shadow government in much of the country, levying taxes, and using effective information warfare. The Afghan government, on the other hand, is described as commanding little authority and even less confidence. “The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and [US and NATO forces'] own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government. These problems have alienated large segments of the Afghan population. They do not trust [the Afghan government] to provide their essential needs, such as security, justice, and basic services. This crisis of confidence, coupled with a distinct lack of economic and educational opportunity, has created fertile ground for the insurgency.”

The controversy over the recent election seems to represent a further step backward for the government. The blunt assessment is commendable, but inevitably raises questions as to whether the proposed strategy can succeed. In previous cases in which the United States has successfully assisted a local government in a counterinsurgency, such as South Korea during the Korean War, El Salvador in the 1980s, or the Philippines in the 1950s, the host governments, while far from perfect by American standards, have been far more effective than the Afghan government seems to be now. The description above inspires even less confidence than contemporary evaluations of the Chinese Nationalist government in the late 1940s or the various governments of South Vietnam, which were not successful. A new long-term American commitment requires either some confidence that the Afghan government can indeed make such revolutionary changes, or alternatively, a strategy that relies on traditional local elites rather than on a central government that as yet exists only on paper.

Recognizing current political problems, the assessment calls for a new, broad, deep commitment of American and other NATO forces to live and work among the Afghan people and help establish new, effective governmental structures linked to the national government in contested areas of the country. The numbers of people involved, which the assessment does not mention, must be carefully analyzed to provide a sense of the magnitude of the task. Afghanistan has about 31 million people, of which more than 40% are Pashtuns and thus the principle targets (at least for the time being) of the Taliban. Iraq’s population is estimated to be about the same as Afghanistan’s, but the Sunni population, which posed the bulk of the security problems, is only about 33% of the country. More importantly, the population of Afghanistan is far less dense, far less urban, and far more dispersed, suggesting that the provision and supply of adequate US forces for these new tasks will pose a substantially greater problem than the attempt to secure Iraq in 2007-9. After 8 years of war and repeated deployments in both Afghanistan and Iraq, our senior leadership must ask whether we can deploy and maintain resources adequate to General McChrystal’s proposed strategy. The supply of these forces may also present serious problems, since Afghanistan is a landlocked nation whose land communications with the outside world have recently proven vulnerable to attacks. The maintenance of public support within the United States will also remain a serious and critical problem.

Why are we fighting in Afghanistan? General McChrystal’s assessment reflects the Bush Administration’s original goals for Afghanistan in 2001 and its original approach to the war on terror. Those goals demanded the establishment of cooperative regimes in countries where terrorists had previously found safe havens. Since a friendly, unified, effective government of Afghanistan remains our objective, General McChrystal did his duty in making his best determination of how that might be achieved. Yet after eight years, it seems absolutely essential for the highest authorities, both civilian and military, to ask whether that sweeping objective is the best strategy for securing the United States and its allies against terrorist attacks. One can very easily argue—as a scholar at the Army War College in Carlisle did some six years ago--that it is either impossibly utopian or far too expensive in the long run to be practical. Two weeks, suspects in a plot to make terrorist attacks within the US have been arrested. According to press reports at least one of them was trained overseas—but in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Effective domestic intelligence and law enforcement, however, have evidently been sufficient to stop this plot here at home. The situation in Pakistan is of course also of tremendous concern to the government of the United States, but it is far from clear that our involvement in Afghanistan to date has improved it from our point of view. And indeed, as is now generally recognized, we face the continuing problem in Afghanistan that very important elements within the Pakistani government do not share our objectives there, but regard the Afghan Taliban as an important ally. More limited objectives in Afghanistan deserve attention. Taliban strength seems mostly confined to Pashtun areas, leaving the possibility of maintaining a foothold in the country, and a capability to strike against terrorist camps, without making an enormous and doubtful effort to establish the authority of the central government over the whole country.

More than 60 years ago, the Truman Administration and Congress debated the question of further US assistance to the Chinese Nationalist government, then locked in a civil war with the Chinese Communists. China at that moment was surely as important strategically to the United States as Afghanistan is today, and its eventual loss to Communist could, and most certainly did, have significant negative consequences for American foreign policy for a long time to come. Secretary of State (and former Chief of Staff) George C. Marshall—one of the very greatest strategic thinkers the United States has ever produced—knew the situation first hand when he testified in executive session before a Senate Committee in early 1948. He was entirely preoccupied with trying to secure important areas of the free world against Communism. Yet in analyzing the situation in China he spoke wisely and courageously. He began by listing the very significant aid which the United States had given the Chinese government already, and continued:

“All the foregoing means, at least to me, that a great deal must be done by the Chinese authorities themselves—and that nobody else can do it for them—if that Government is to maintain itself against the Communist forces and agrarian policies. It also means that our Government must be exceedingly careful that it does not become committed to a policy involving the absorption of its resources to an unpredictable extent once the obligations are assumed of a direct responsibility for the conduct of civil war in China or for the Chinese economy, or both. . . .
“There is a tendency to feel that wherever the Communist influence is brought to bear, we should immediately meet it, head on as it were. I think this would be a most unwise procedure for the reason that we would be, in effect, handing over the initiative to the Communists. They could, therefore, spread our influence out so think that it could be of no particular effectiveness at any one point.
“We must be prepared to face the possibility that the present Chinese government may not be successful in maintaining itself against the Communist forces or other opposition that may arise in China.”

General Marshall did not believe, in short, that dubious chances of success justified transferring the very substantial resources necessary to help the Nationalist government from other tasks, such as the establishment of the NATO alliance and the rebuilding of the European economy. And indeed it is very possible that a full-scale intervention in China—advocated at the time by powerful voices in Congress and the press—would have done incalculable harm to American foreign policy as a whole in that critical period. Both the United States and, ultimately, the Chinese people, weathered the very serious short- and medium-term consequences of the fall of China to Communism.

General McChrystal has done exactly what he was asked to do: he has provided a frank assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and of what he believes is necessary to achieve the broad objective which he has been given. But before proceeding, higher authorities must do at least three things. First, they must seek out independent assessments of the chances that this new strategy would be successful. Second, they must accurately estimate its material, human and political costs, and ask whether those costs are justified by the value of the object in comparison to other needs both foreign and domestic. And thirdly, in my view, those two exercises must inevitably lead to some re-evaluation of our goals in Afghanistan in general and our strategy in the war on terror in particular, in light of both our successes and failures during the last eight years.