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Friday, May 24, 2013

Peace at last?

 President Obama confirmed once again last Thursday that Dwight Eisenhower, not Franklin Roosevelt or JFK, is his real role model.  Generationally Obama and Eisenhower represent the same Nomad archetype, Ike from the Lost generation and Obama from Gen X, and they both believe in a degree of bipartisanship, an end to crusades, and an attempt to retrench.  More specifically, Obama wants--as he has made clear again and again--to put the Boomer-inspired controversies that have dominated the last 40 years behind us.  And now, he hopes, by the time he leaves office, to declare an end to the war on terror.  In one sense this decision is long overdue.  In another, it ignores critical remaining problems for which we simply have no solution.

In quoting James Madison to the effect that no nation could preserve its liberty through endless war, Obama implicitly drew a huge lesson from the last seventy years of American history.  Our liberties have been threatened in many ways since the Second World War and our Constitution has repeatedly been infringed--never more so than in the last ten years.  But in addition, a substantial faction of our political establishment, led by neoconservatives, actively embraces endless war.  They saw the collapse of Communism not as the onset of a peaceful era, but as an opportunity to make American power supreme everywhere.  After 9/11 they--and President Bush--eagerly embraced the image of another decades-long struggle against radical Islam parallel to the Cold War against Communism, which could itself have been fought at much less cost.  They will be heard from again in days and weeks to come, but I expect them to lose this fight. The President's speech matched the national mood.  We are sick of crusades.

The "war on terror" was George W. Bush's attempt to mobilize the energies of the nation as Lincoln and FDR had done, but because of his lack of real vision and the ineptitude of much of his team, he accomplished very little indeed.  He did not manage to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden, his triumph in Afghanistan turned out to be very temporary, and the invasion of Iraq was a disaster.  Ten years later, Iraq is fragmented and still in the midst of a low-level but worsening civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis. Its government is effectively an ally of Iran.  Many old regimes in the region have fallen, as Bush and his Administration hoped they would, but hardly any of the post-revolutionary nations seem on their way to stability.  Indeed, perhaps the weakest part of President Obama's speech referred to these developments, using language that could have come from the mouth of his predecessor.

"So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia. As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking. We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred. Moreover, no two countries are alike, and some will undergo chaotic change before things get better. But our security and values demand that we make the effort.

"This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists. We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements – because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism. We are working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians – because it is right, and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region. And we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship – because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with peoples’ hopes, and not simply their fears."

The government of the United States remains convinced, in short, that the Enlightenment vision of state and society will remain the only viable model for the future.  But that model worked in the west and became in the twentieth century an example to the rest of the world because westerners deeply believed in it and made it work.  It has now lost ground to the model of a globalized capitalist economy which holds political systems in thrall.   Islam, not the Enlightenment, appears to be the most powerful force in the Muslim world.  And lastly, the Israeli government does not share Obama's vision for peace with the Palestinians.  It is indeed resolved to endless war and it has in many ways dragged Washington in its wake.  The President did show some welcome realism, when he identified the real problem that has encouraged the US to rely upon drone strikes: that large portions of the world are completely ungoverned.  His solutions to that problem, however, were almost surely wildly optimistic.

The speech was perhaps the first thing the President has done in the last five years to justify his Nobel Peace Prize--but it is only a speech.  It seems quite possible that John Kerry, the new Secretary of State, might have had something to do with it, and he seems far more interested in serious diplomacy than his predecessor. Rather than simply calling again and again for the fall of Hafez Assad, for instance, Kerry is actively seeking the help of the Russian government in bringing about a settlement of the civil war in Syria.  This is the only hope, however forlorn it may be, of avoiding another disastrous bloodbath and a regional religious war comparable to the one that struck Central Europe in 1618-48.  But it will not be easy.

It is a pretty well-kept secret, but President Obama has not shown any personal diplomatic skills as President.  He tends to be rather wooden with foreign leaders, and he has not shown the great skill of Presidents like Kennedy and Bush I in sizing up and recognizing foreign leaders' problems so as to figure out they can help him solve his own.  Kerry is a diplomat's son and he has set to work.  The President set out a worthy goal, one which coincidentally echoed the conclusion of the last lecture I delivered at the Naval War College a little more than a year ago.  He will have a real legacy if he can achieve it.  


Bruce Wilder said...

It was as much the hunger strike at Guantanamo as developments in Syria, which prompted Obama's (or Kerry's) new forays into policymaking. Guantanamo is a monument to the forces of corruption and incompetence, which threaten to bring down the Enlightenment model.

And, on that score, I don't find much to hope for in Obama's remarks. He's concerned about the image problem, not that hundreds of men have been wrongly detained, and denied fair process. The "worst of the worst" turned out to be, maybe, 3% of those initially identified among those captured. Do you suppose Obama's murder-by-drone programs -- also, apparently, in a phase-down -- have any better record of false positives?

Obama may think he's the reincarnation of Eisenhower (something that might please Obama's maternal grandfather), and maybe there are some parallels in style, but contrary to Truman's dictum about poor Ike not knowing what to do, when he gave an order in the Oval Office, and nothing happened, Eisenhower was a superb politician, in an operational sense -- he knew what needed to be done to get a large-scale organization into motion. Obama cannot figure out why you have to prosecute banksters after a financial crisis.

I suppose if George W. Bush or Dick Cheney or Sam Alito represent the shadow side of the Boomer Generation, then Kerry represents its brighter, more genuinely idealistic side. The problem with the Boomers is that they never understood how the well-regulated world they were handed, worked, or what it took to keep it working well. And, the later cohorts of boomers knew less and less.

The so-called Greatest Generation, and their predecessor, Truman & Eisenhower's generation, were painfully aware of the consequences of letting a civilization fail -- of letting the international state system fall apart into World War or the political economy fall into a Great Depression. Once the inevitable post-war Red Scare and the hysteria over sexuality of the late 1940s and early 1950s was a spent force, the Cold War was actually good for the American experiment in constitutional government. As you pointed out with regard to Kennedy's diplomatic appointments, America was on its best behavior in the late 1950s and early 1960s; many long overdue constitutional promises were fulfilled in that idealistic spirit.

I don't think even the best of the current generation in power have any idea of how to design or manage effective institutions, internationally or domestically. Institutional awareness and thinking faded out in the 1950s and 1960s, as good institutions became an accomplished fact, instead of an aspiration and subject of struggle.

Too many of those in power now just see the value of cashing in. You can see it in the difficulty Democrats have had in marshalling Congress critters to oppose Obama's plan to reduce Social Security benefits. The attitude of even most "liberal" Democrats in Congress is to look for a deal, a quid pro quo, a payoff, in return for reducing Social Security benefits, for betraying their constituents.

Dismantling and running down the institutional infrastructure has become habitual. We're cashing out the New Deal and the Great Society, and the infrastructure of a great country, physical and spiritual.

Shelterdog said...

David--You omitted one other thing Obama and Ike had in common. According to the then-John Birch Society (today, the Tea Party), Ike was a "“dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” and that the government of the United States was “under operational control of the Communist party.”

Bozon said...


Many thanks for this post.

Re ' peace at last '

Didn't Chamberlain say something like ' peace in our time '.....

Lately I have mused that a return to territorial aristocracy and monarchy, if not also imperialism, were it Western, would be a lesser of evils than the anarchic laissez faire, liberal, Eastern tending, civilizational chaos, now unfolding, which we have foisted first on the European ancient regime since WW I, and on the world in the 20th century.

all the best

Bozon said...

Many thanks for the link to the lecture.

all the best,

tructor man said...

I agree with your post and Mr. Wilder's comments. But even more ominous, I see the US heading into a 'permanent war on terror' whatever it's called. The advent of "Big Data", unprecedented surveillence, illegal invasions of privacy and press freedoms, all bode ill for any hope of dismantling the over-reaching military-financial elite hold over our Republic. Our elections are now rigged by big money corruption of both parties, meanwhile, ultra-right GOP governors and legislatures are rapidly dismantling nearly ALL safety nets and most of public education. Here in NC, they are cutting Medicaid, refusing to accept the $$Billions in health dollars from Obamacare, laying off 12,000 teachers, eliminating the cap on class size, abolishing teacher assistant positons staewide.
There's not a peep from Democrats and only the NAACP has demonstrated against these draconian measures. There's even a GOP bill in the NC Legislature to trasnfer the actual public school buildings away from local school boards and give it all to County Commissioners -- the most highly political and unaccountable politicos in most counties!
McCrory installed Mr. Pope (NC's "Karl Rove") as Secretary of the Budget, and they are hell-bent on raising taxes on working & middle class to give tax cuts to millionairs. Where will it end? Already NC has plunged to 48th in public-school funding per student.