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Saturday, February 25, 2012

The end of our Islamic adventure

Since the American withdrawal from Iraq just a couple of months ago, the Maliki government has not made the slightest effort to stick to the script that we had written, moving aggressively against Sunni political opponents and making it harder and harder for any Americans to remain in the country. Because no American can remain there without substantial protection provided by contractors--who are under heavy pressure to leave--it is quite possible that within a year or two there will be no Americans left in Iraq--an amazing denouement to a sad chapter in American foreign policy. And today comes the news that two more Americans--officers working in Afghan government buildings in Kabul--have been shot and killed by an Afghan, apparently as retaliation for the burning of Korans at an American base, an act that should lead to some court martials for sheer stupidity. Simultaneously, American activists are going on trial in Egypt. All this should lead us to face facts and gives President Obama an opportunity to do so, but I fear that he will not take it. It isn't his style.

As Andrew Bacevich pointed out in his latest book, Washington Rules (reviewed here on October 13, 2010), the United States after 1945 adopted the idea that we had to be keenly interested in any political changes anywhere on the planet, and to be ready to deploy military force to make sure things went our way. Although the American public has only been willing to stomach a prolonged major war every 15 to 25 years (Korea, 1950-3; Vietnam, 1965-73; Iraq and Afghanistan, 2001-present), Washington has continually intervened in other ways around the globe, and our pretensions to control events seem if anything to have increased after the end of the Cold War, despite the enormous shrinkage of our military forces. 9/11 led us into unfamiliar and unfriendly cultural territory in the Middle East. The time has come for a frank reappraisal.

No matter how tolerant we claim to be of Islam--and in practice, the burning of the Koran is only the latest of a long series of incidents in which Americans acted provocatively towards Muslims--we can never be anything but infidels and apostates in Muslim countries. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the supremacy of western civilization was almost unquestioned, and even in the Islamic world, revolutionaries like Ataturk in Turkey, Nasser in Egypt, and the Ba'ath Party in Syria and Iraq acknowledged this by trying to copy the west. Those days are gone. Militant Islam has returned to earth. George W. Bush's fantasies notwithstanding,there is not the slightest chance of a major Middle Eastern or Central Asian political movement adopting western models for the foreseeable future, much less agreeing to a large long-term American presence. The Far East, where we fought two wars in the 1950s and 1960s, has turned out to be far more hospitable to western civilization than one might have supposed. The Arab world has turned out to be less so. It will evidently have to work out its own political problems without our assistance.

There has been an oddly postmodern aspect to American foreign interventions for many years now. While nearly everyone but a few malcontents like Bacevich and myself accepts the necessity for them--and this includes leftists eager to intervene on behalf of human rights, as well as neoconservatives--administrations periodically have to realize that they are not worth the cost and wind them down. Yet they invariably so, as Bacevich pointed out, without calling the basic premises of American foreign policy into question. Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for President in 2008 in large part because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, but he carefully balanced that stance by endorsing the war in Afghanistan. He faced no real political pressure to continue, much less escalate, that war after he came into office, but he decided to do so anyway despite warnings from the American Ambassador, perhaps because it seemed like a consensus, bipartisan thing to do. It depended however on a fantasy about the transformation we could bring about within the Afghan government. So far from reality was this fantasy that we are now literally in danger of being driven out of the country. One must assume, however, that Obama will do whatever is necessary to keep us there until after the election.

In 1961 John Kennedy went to Europe to meet Khrushchev and stopped in Paris to meet Charles de Gaulle. He asked for de Gaulle's advice on Indochina, and de Gaulle, after recapitulating the French experience there, commented that the West could maintain influence in the newly independent countries of the region provided that it did not try to intervene militarily. As I pointed out in American Tragedy, Kennedy in that same year refused repeatedly to send American divisions to Laos and Vietnam, showing that he understood what de Gaulle was saying. But Washington has never taken that lesson to heart more than temporarily. Obama in his first few months in office sounded as if he might strike a different note, but in practice, he has pursued more of the same. A lobby is now building for intervention in Syria, which is probably due for a long and bloody civil war no matter what we do. We should, in my opinion, stay out.

America intervention succeeded in western Europe and Japan and in South Korea because the political basis for pro-American regimes existed in those countries. It failed in Vietnam and Lebanon and is failing again in Iraq and Afghanistan because that political basis did not exist. Yes, American troops can accomplish something while they are there, but they cannot establish new values or a new regime. Younger generations would welcome a leader who could come out and say this, but I will be very surprised in Barack Obama turns out to be that man.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Harry C. McPherson, 1929-2012

My parents' children got to meet a lot of interesting people. I just learned that one of the greatest of them, Harry C. McPherson, died just two days ago.

This obit doesn't fully convey the man. It couldn't. He was a Texan who came to DC straight out of law school in 1956 to go to work for LBJ in the Senate. He was a new dealer and a liberal (I never knew the detail in the obit about his grandfather. I did meet his father once, a wonderful old Lost.) Somehow, my father, 16 years older, must have met him around 1959 when we came back to DC and they became great friends. Harry got me a summer job in the Senate when I returned from Africa in 1963. Then he got into the subcabinet under JFK, which must be an interesting story, but as soon as Kennedy died LBJ moved him into the White House. He was part of that extraordinarily heroic and tragic period in our history from 1964 through 1968, and he described it with a typical mixture of insight, warmth and calm in his remarkable book, A Political Education. I think we will be hearing more from Harry, shortly, too, when Robert Caro's fourth volume on LBJ, covering the years 1959-64, comes out in just a few months.

Harry was one of my most important teachers about the world of politics. He shared a lot of information with me and with my whole family. In the late summer of 1963 he had been to see LBJ, who was in despair over his lack of responsibility and influence. But he was much more than a pol. I didn't know he planned to be a poet but I did know he was active in a local drama group in DC, and his family came over to our house for play readings a couple of times, which was great fun. He encouraged me to read one of the greatest of political novels--he thought it the greatest, and he could be right--All the King's Men. He also enjoyed hearing me play the piano. I remember in 1967 he was staying with m parents in London, where my father was stationed, and I was home on vacation. He had just been to Vietnam and was returning in a fairly pessimistic mood. "I lay awake this morning asking myself, how can you reconcile the music of Mozart with the Vietnam War?" he said. That was Harry.

More importantly, Harry was one of the only people who ever worked for LBJ without sacrificing his personality, perhaps because he obviously had a great relationship with his own father. "We had an arms length relationship," he told me once, and other historians have found he was not afraid to criticize his boss. Like most bullies, LBJ would back off when confronted by anyone who wouldn't take it, and Harry was among those. He was one of the two key figures--Clark Clifford was the other--in deciding LBJ not to escalate the war after Tet in 1968. He was the drafter of the speech announcing the partial bombing halt, on March 31, 1968 I believe, which concluded with LBJ's own surprise ending, saying that he would not run again.

As the obit shows, Harry became the Clark Clifford of his generation: the man who came to DC to do good and stayed to do well. Yet he also played the role of the Artist archetype. His attempts to settle the case between the government and the tobacco companies remind me of his fellow Artist Henry Clay's equally great and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to ward off the civil war.He remained a great gentleman to the last, and his second wife is a wonderful person as well.

You all know how much I miss the political world of my childhood. I have tears in my eyes right now because he was not only a dear friend, but one of the men who made it what it was.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hopeful signs?

A true patriot, I have always felt, is harder on his own nation than any other because he expects better of it. In the same way, I've spent a lot more time lately criticizing the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party than the Republicans, because they are our only hope. Yet the dynamics of the Republican primary campaign and their attempt to regain power are extremely interesting, and certainly worth some reflection. Here are my thoughts.

Beginning in the 1980s, really, younger Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, began preparing for the coming crisis, even though Strauss and Howe had not yet uncovered the generational rhythm of American life. They began preparing for transformation and war: a war upon government at all levels, and on nearly all the achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society. To fight that war, they recruited every ally they could, beginning back in the late 1960s with southern whites angry at integration and adding religious conservatives to the mix in the 1970s and 1980s. They built their strategy on relentless attack. When Bill Clinton came to power determined to reform health care, they were determined to prove the federal government could not tackle such a task, and they did. They took advantage of unfortunate new customs in American political life--specifically, detailed attention to politicians' personal lives--to harass Clinton for eight years, and even to impeach him. And they won the election in 2000 by purging the Florida voting rolls before the election and using the Supreme Court (and taking advantage of Al Gore's foolish tactics) to prevent a Florida recount. Then came eight years of George W. Bush, who overturned a half century of American foreign policy, crippled the financial position of the federal government, and involved us in a decade of war in the Middle East that seems likely to come to a close without any significant positive results. Because Bush did nothing about the consequences of deregulation, but only made them worse, the economic crisis of his last year in office was, and has been, disastrous. It left the Republicans with no hope in the election of 2008.

Like Richard Nixon in an earlier era, Bush seems to have been the last of his generation of Republicans who could unite the various strains of his coalition. Mitt Romney, a genuine moderate in the 1990s, has had to pander shamelessly to the right on both economic and social issues to have a chance at the nomination, and now he faces new obstacles in the face of Santorum's resurgence. Santorum is either going to lose the nomination race or go down to a dreadful defeat in the November election because the social issues on which he takes such an extreme position have become a loser for the Republicans across most of the country. Gingrich simply has too much baggage. The Republicans have handicapped themselves, perhaps fatally, because anyone who wants their nomination needs to take positions on various issues which the vast majority of well-educated Americans will never accept. In addition, they are depending--as no less a figure than Ann Coulter pointed out to the CPAC convention the other day--on the premise that their absolute hatred of Barack Obama is shared by at least half the population--and it isn't. This is not all. The Republicans are seriously handicapped on economic issues as well because the Tea Party insists on such extreme positions, and because, in one way or another, they are all hypocrites. Romney has repudiated all his earlier moderation, and he is deeply implicated in the economic practices that have cost millions of Americans good jobs. Gingrich has made millions from Fannie, Freddy, and insurance companies. Santorum, who claims the highest moral stature, built up support with earmarks during his Senatorial career and lived off the accumulated good will after he was defeated six years ago. And ironically, the Republicans are paying the price for Citizens' United in their primaries, deluging each other with negative ads paid for by billionaires. No inspiring candidate is going to emerge from this process.

Last year's budget process was a nightmare, but this year's, I am quite sure, will be much worse. There will be no more pretense of reaching a grand bargain: the President now plans to ask for higher taxes and more spending to boost employment, and the Republicans will try to make more cuts. I suspect, once again, that this will ultimately benefit the President. Meanwhile, he has been quick to retreat from any exposed positions on social issues. I was disappointed that he felt he had to compromise on the contraception issue last week, but the compromise won't do any harm from a policy standpoint, and "religious freedom" is a good wedge issue for the Republicans, even though even a majority of Catholics supported Obama on the issue at hand.

The Republicans, ironically,find themselves in a position similar to Republicans in the post-civil war era. Like the radicals of that era who wanted genuine racial equality in the South but eventually had to give up the battle in 1876, these Republicans may well have pushed issues like religious values in public life and cutting government spending about as far as they are likely to go. (I hope readers will not be offended by this analogy: I certainly approve of the goals of the Radical Republicans of the 1860s-1870s and not of today's, but the parallel is about their degree of success.) Today's Republicans also pushed us into a long war, but it engaged only a tiny percentage of the country directly, it has not ended in any kind of memorable victory, and it can't be used, like the Civil War, as a rallying cry. Nor did it produce a Republican war hero like U.S. Grant who could have unified the party and won a couple of elections. And like those Republicans, these ones never disposed of an overwhelming national majority at the polls. The only real popular landslide won by the Civil War Republicans took place in Grant's second campaign in 1872, when the opposition was hopelessly split and weak. The Republicans are trying now to rely on the same trope that they did then: that the Democrats (especially, this time, Barack Obama) are un-American, subversive, and treacherous. By the middle of the Grant Administration those views had lost their power over northern voters. Then as now, however, although both parties belonged to corporate interests, the Republicans had a closer alliance with them.

The economy, of course, remains the critical issue in the election. The last round of job numbers were very encouraging, with new hiring more than offsetting the normal post-holiday layoffs and showing a large seasonably adjusted gain. I still believe the entire industrial heartland will be a difficult battleground, but Barack Obama will have important achievements to point to. The auto industry bailout succeeded, but the Republican candidate will have to attack it. In short, the odds are shifting towards the possibility that Barack Obama, a moderate and reasonable man, will in fact be re-elected. I would be very surprised, however, if the Democrats regained the House of Representatives, and they certainly don't have much change of increasing their majority in the Senate and could lose it altogether.

Obama's re-election will at least prevent the onslaught on government from going too much further. And I must note the possibility that he has done more good than it looks on economic issues. A long-time friend and regular reader sent me this link to a story in New York Magazine, suggesting that Dodd-Frank is already having a very significant effect on the financial community. I think that remains to be seen, but it is possible. I still don't think any new New Deal is in prospect, but if in fact we can avoid another bubble, that will be a step forward. The real process of rebuilding the U.S. economy, however, has not begun.Our politics have become increasingly anarchic over the last 40 years, and recent campaign financing changes will continue the trend. We are not on the verge of the kind of consensus the country enjoyed from about 1953 to 1965, or from 1801 to about 1825. Indeed, I am not sure I shall live to see anything like that again, even if, like my Missionary generation counterpart W. E. B. Dubois (1868-1963), I can live to 95. But if the radical Republicans who have driven our politics relentlessly to the right can now burn themselves out, there will be more hope for the immediate future. This has not however been destined to be a great era of American political achievement.

Postscript, February 12: This extremely interesting story from today's New York Times introduces a new element into the election. It interviews a number of people from Chicago County, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis, most of them conservative activists. But the real point of the article is that the federal government is now supporting a huge segment of the lower middle class, mainly through the earned income tax credit, which is now available to people who make nearly $50,000 a year, depending on their overall picture. It began as a way to let the poorest wage-earners keep more of their money but it has expanded a lot. (Remember, these people are paying payroll taxes.) This may in fact be a big part of the reason that federal income tax rates have plummeted so dramatically in recent years, something I have noted on my blog but I haven't been able to explain.What is remarkable is that most of the people they interview oppose tax increases for anyone and favor government spending cuts. Many claim they don't want the benefits they are getting (although they do want Social Security and Medicare.) These people were the backbone of their local Tea Party and they turned out a 36-year Democratic Congressman last fall.This is a dynamic to watch. If in fact it is widespread, it could make things very difficult for Obama all across the rust belt.

Some weeks ago blooger.com switched to a new interface. To my horror I just discovered that it does not show paragraph breaks in posts, and there does not seem to be any way to fix this. I have just switched back to the old one and will try to fix the problem in any other posts. Sorry.

Friday, February 03, 2012

A report from Iraq

Some weeks ago, a regular reader, whom I believe works in the US Foreign Service, suggested that I read the book We Meant Well, by a Foreign Service officer named Peter Van Buren who served on a Provincial Reconstruction Team during the late stages of the Iraq War. I haven't quite finished it, but you don't have to read a great deal to get the basic picture. I am extremely curious as to the author's age. He has been an FSO for 23 years, and thus he is probably in his mid to late forties (though his picture looks a little older to me), and therefore a Gen Xer. He certainly writes like one. He makes me sound like a hopeless idealist when it comes to American foreign policy, and regular readers know that that is not an easy thing to do.

Our original mission in Iraq, while most unwise and certain, really, to lead to enormous problems, was well within our capabilities: the destruction of Saddam Hussein's Army and his regime. Now Van Buren, who is really an Asian specialist, arrived on the scene rather late. (Both the military and the Foreign Service have had to meet an extraordinary demand for officers in Iraq and, now, Afghanistan. Very few of them, of course, have appropriate language skills, and Van Buren got just a few weeks of training before he went.) Yet despite the success, by the time he arrived in 2008 or 2009, of the surge, the country evidently remained in a state of anarchy. It is not a joke to say that for every American like him, we needed several contractors to feed, house, and above all, guard him. Vietnam, where Saigon remained a functioning, westernized city right up until the end, was never like this. Interestingly enough, the Iraqi government, having gotten rid of American military personnel, is now making noises about expelling contractors as well. A friend of mine in a good position to know suggested that that might mean the end of our Embassy in Iraq as well, since the hundreds of Americans who work there would never be safe without them. (Note: a few days later it was announced that the Embassy is indeed being cut way back.)

Van Buren and his colleagues faced an endless pressure for results. Their mission was to make Iraqis happy and prosperous, in order that they would not be tempted to become insurgents. (Oddly, the Bush Administration took a real New Deal type of approach in Iraq and towards the whole Middle East: employed and happy people, they seemed to think, don't make revolutions.) But they couldn't do this, even though, as Van Buren shows again and again, Americans have spread untold millions of American dollars around Iraq--maybe more. He himself was involved in various economic projects, including a chicken processing plant and an attempt to turn widows (one of the few things, he notes, not in short supply in Iraq) into beekeepers. Virtually every project assumed a commercial and transportation infrastructure that Iraq does not have. A project for a chicken hatchery failed for want of electricity (a problem we have never fixed) to refrigerate them. Virtually every food product we tried to grow was easily undercut by cheap imports from Brazil. We never knew who really could do necessary jobs and who couldn't. Iraq has evidently been getting more and more backward economically ever since the first Gulf War, and we haven't stopped the downward spiral. Indeed, we made it much worse.

We easily forget that two million Iraqis, including most of the Christian community and many of the most educated, fled to Syria or Jordan in the period following the war. Another two million have been internally displaced. This has had many ironic consequences. Iraq has a population of wild pigs, and the Christians used to hunt and eat them. Now they are gone and the pigs are multiplying. This is not the only way in which the occupation was a setback for the values we claim to defend. Saddam had decreed co-education in Iraqi public schools, but the new government has resegregated the sexes. The result is that Iraqi children are on what we called in the 1950s double sessions, and both have to kill time for half the day.

I could go on a long time about this book, which is short, but not an easy read. Van Buren is back home now and he began blogging to publicize the book some time ago, and this got him into trouble with his superiors who accused him, it would seem on a very narrow basis, of leaking classified information. It's not clear how much of a future he still has in the foreign service. (You can read more about these issues by googling him.) But it's clear that we have had very little positive impact--although plenty of total impact--in Iraq, and we will have just as little, I am pretty sure, in Afghanistan. There will be o dramatic collapse, probably, like that of 1975 in Vietnam, and the effect on our society will be much less because we have a relatively small professional army now instead of a very large draftee one. (That is not to deny the enormous impact on surviving veterans, however.) The problem is not with our soldiers: it's with the decision to try to use American military to transform two societies with which we have virtually nothing in common. We never had a chance.Van Buren's book is interesting, because I don't think I have ever read a book on Vietnam whose tone was comparably cynical. It really reads like All Quiet on the Western Front, even though death is nothing like such a constant presence. As such it is a validation of generational theory: the Lost generation that fought the First World War were nomads, as Van Buren probably is. Boomers went to Vietnam with idealism, at least at first, and returned disillusioned; Van Buren was already a skeptic and returned much more of one. Tragically, George Bush took all the unity that emerged after 9/11 and poured it into useless, costly adventures that have increased cynicism about American institutions. This was terrible for America, but the Republicans are still trying to turn it into good politics for themselves.