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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Friday, January 31, 2014

Psychology, politics, and the 1960s

During the 1980s I became very interested in the relationship between individual psychology and politics.  I was very influenced by the works of the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, who had renounced the orthodox Freudianism in which she had been trained in favor of an emphasis on what had actually happened to people as children and how it affected them as adults.  She applied her theories repeatedly to Hitler and the Nazis, and I taught a course which included one of her books and a lot of historical fiction that explored the emotional origins, if you will, of totalitarianism.  I have not done very much of that kind of thing in m commentaries on contemporary political figures here, however, except perhaps in some of m posts about George W. Bush while he was president.

At the moment I am re-reading another of my favorite books on psychology, Jealousy, by Nancy Friday, one of the outstanding thinkers of the Silent generation.  The book moved me so much when I first read it that I wrote her a long fan letter, and I was amazed several years later to get a phone message from her on my answering machine.  She had been preparing to move, evidently, and had come across my letter and decided to respond. We had a couple of conversations, but that was all, and I have never met her.  I was rereading the book for other reasons--and I have not been disappointed, it's a remarkable work in many ways--but suddenly, I saw the answer to a question that has been bothering me for some time.  It relates to what happened to my own generation in the 1960s.

The first couple of hundred pages of Jealousy spend a great deal of time on the related concept of envy, drawing upon the works of the psychiatrist, Melanie Klein.  Envy to Klein and Friday (who never had any formal training in psychology) does not simply mean wanting what some one else has, although it can mean that.  It originates, Klein thought, in the infant's relationship with its mother in general and its mother's breast in particular.  The infant loves, and desperately needs, both the mother and the breast, but he or she also lives with the terrible knowledge that the mother can at any moment withdraw and withhold it.  To be subjected to this awful arbitrary power, Klein and Friday argue, inevitably makes the infant hate the mother and the breast, as well as love them.  The same pattern lasts throughout life.  One cannot, Friday believes, be completely or even largely emotionally dependent on someone else without resenting and hating them as well, and much of the drama within relationships turns on that point.

Nancy Friday was never especially interested in the political implications of her findings,. but I am.  And the specific historical episode I want to use them to investigate is the student revolt at Berkeley in 1964--the beginnings of the student revolts that swept the nation for about the next six years, defined the Boom generation, and began the repudiation of nearly everything our GI parents had stood for.  That revolt began as a controversy over a long-standing ban on political activity on campus, which had forced political organizers of all types to set up their recruiting tables just outside the campus.  I had read a new book about these events, drawing largely on FBI files, a couple of years ago, and something had really struck me.  It came from one of the most famous speeches of the fall of 1964, by Mario Savio, a young man from New York who had come to college at Berkeley. Savio had a brilliant mind, particularly in the sciences, but he was also an emotionally troubled person whose demons, it turned out,  prevented him from really getting going for the whole of his relatively short life.  He had spent some of  1964 in the Freedom Summer project in Mississippi, where his colleagues Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were killed.  And here are the paragraphs that left me shaking my head from that speech.  If I could understand the appeal of these words to my contemporaries, I thought, I would understand a great deal that I have never been able to figure out.

Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights. This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time in Berkeley. The two battlefields may seem quite different to some observers, but this is not the case. The same rights are at stake in both places -- the right to participate as citizens in democratic society and the right to due process of law. Further, it is a struggle against the same enemy. In Mississippi an autocratic and powerful minority rules, through organized violence, to suppress the vast, virtually powerless majority. In California, the privileged minority manipulates the university bureaucracy to suppress the students' political expression. That "respectable" bureaucracy masks the financial plutocrats; that impersonal bureaucracy is the efficient enemy in a "Brave New World."
In our free-speech fight at the University of California, we have come up against what may emerge as the greatest problem of our nation -- depersonalized, unresponsive bureaucracy. We have encountered the organized status quo in Mississippi, but it is the same in Berkeley. Here we find it impossible usually to meet with anyone but secretaries. Beyond that, we find functionaries who cannot make policy but can only hide behind the rules. We have discovered total lack of response on the part of the policy makers. To grasp a situation which is truly Kafkaesque, it is necessary to understand the bureaucratic mentality. And we have learned quite a bit about it this fall, more outside the classroom than in.
As bureaucrat, an administrator believes that nothing new happens. He occupies an a-historical point of view. In September, to get the attention of this bureaucracy which had issued arbitrary edicts suppressing student political expression and refused to discuss its action, we held a sit-in on the campus. We sat around a police car and kept it immobilized for over thirty-two hours. At last, the administrative bureaucracy agreed to negotiate. But instead, on the following Monday, we discovered that a committee had been appointed, in accordance with usual regulations, to resolve the dispute. Our attempt to convince any of the administrators that an event had occurred, that something new had happened, failed. They saw this simply as something to be handled by normal university procedures.
The same is true of all bureaucracies. They begin as tools, means to certain legitimate goals, and they end up feeding their own existence. The conception that bureaucrats have is that history has in fact come to an end. No events can occur now that the Second World War is over which can change American society substantially. We proceed by standard procedures as we are.
The most crucial problems facing the United States today are the problem of automation and the problem of racial injustice. Most people who will be put out of jobs by machines will not accept an end to events, this historical plateau, as the point beyond which no change occurs. Negroes will not accept an end to history here. All of us must refuse to accept history's final judgment that in America there is no place in society for people whose skins are dark. On campus students are not about to accept it as fact that the university has ceased evolving and is in its final state of perfection, that students and faculty are respectively raw material and employees, or that the university is to be autocratically run by unresponsive bureaucrats.
Here is the real contradiction: the bureaucrats hold history as ended. As a result significant parts of the population both on campus and off are dispossessed and these dispossessed are not about to accept this a-historical point of view. It is out of this that the conflict has occurred with the university bureaucracy and will continue to occur until that bureaucracy becomes responsive or until it is clear the university cannot function. 

Now thanks to Bill Strauss and Neil Howe, I can easily understand one aspect of the speech: the idea that the older generation believed that history was over, thanks to the triumph of the Second World War.  That was, as we shall see, an exaggeration in many ways, yet it had more than a grain of truth to it.  Like the Jefferson-Hamilton-Madison Republican generation that wrote the Constitution, the GIs did not believe that any great truths about life remained to be discovered.  But what I still stare at in amazement is Savio's breathtaking comparison of students at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964 with the black population of the State of Mississippi at the same moment.  

The Negroes of Mississippi, as they then preferred to be called, were at that moment among the more disenfranchised and terrorized peoples of the world.  They could not vote, they lived in an entirely segregated society, and any perceived show of disrespect towards a white person could easily be punished by death.  A year before the Mississippi Summer, Medgar Evers, the head of the Mississippi NAACP chapter (and a veteran of the Second World War) had been shot and killed outside his home by Byron de la Beckwith, who had promptly been acquitted by an all-white jury.  James Meredith had already graduated from Ole Miss, but the second black student to be admitted there had been expelled for carrying a hand gun with him on campus, and I am not sure whether any new ones had been admitted in the fall of 1964 or not.  The state was extraordinarily poor, and hundreds of thousands of Mississippians probably lacked indoor plumbing.  

And what of the students at the University of California at Berkeley?  I feel confident that those students, especially in the humanities and social sciences, had at their disposal a far better education than their counterparts today, because the western intellectual tradition was still near its peak.  Most of them had grown up in the most prosperous state, probably, of a very prosperous nation.  Its public school system was excellent.  And their tuition was--free.  That was the remarkable legacy of the first half of the twentieth century in what was already the nation's largest state, and one of the most progressive in its politics in the country.

And what about the rest of Savio's characterization of the older generation?  Was it truly dedicated to perpetuating a racist status quo?  No, it was not.  Just a few months before he spoke Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.   The Voting Rights Act was only a few months more ahead. Lyndon Johnson had already declared war on poverty.  And--crucially from this perspective--large scale American involvement in the Vietnam War had not yet begun.  Indeed, within a few more weeks the Berkeley administration that he railed against would yield on the question of political activity on campus, in sharp contrast to the white power structure of Mississippi.  Yet Savio's listeners responded favorably to his comparison of themselves with the oppressed black people of Mississippi and to his dismissal of the older generation all the same.  How was this possible?

I know some of my contemporaries, even now, will not want to hear this, but I think Nancy Friday provided the answer thirty years ago.  These students were indeed among the most favored young people in the history of the world--but they owed everything to their parents' generation, and they were tired of being grateful for it.   What their parents had given, their parents could take away.  And tragically, within less than a year, their parents' generation began doing just that, drafting tens of thousands of young men every month to fight in a mistaken, hopeless and very long war.  That step did validate the Boomers' envy of their parents power.  But the Berkeley revolt, the first of so many to come, that took place among the most favored young people of all, proves that Vietnam was not the original cause of the revolt, because the United States was not yet in that war when it took place.  I can see no other explanation than envy, as defined by Klein and Friday, for my contemporaries' total repudiation of the extraordinary institutions that our parents and grandparents had created.  The long term results have been extraordinary.  When Savio spoke, the state of California spent several times as much on its university system as it did on its prisons.  Now those percentages have been reversed, and today's Berkeley students pay tens of thousands of dollars of tuition every year.

Because these were defining events in my own lifetime, they still make me angry and sad.  But a great historian, as I often like to say, does not argue with history.  Every era reflects certain aspects of human nature, and the generational rhythm that Strauss and Howe recognized guarantees that new generations will not, as Lincoln put it, be content to shore up an existing edifice.  The authors of Genesis (whom I believe to have been human beings) wrote the first episode of this story in the tale of the Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve were expelled for daring to make their own judgments of good and evil.  Those authors, however, got the story wrong in one crucial respect.  In real life Adam and Eve would have not only risked their punishment willingly, but left the garden happily, certain that however beautiful it might be, they would somehow do better.  That is the real rhythm of history, and the reason that it has never been characterized by uninterrupted progress, especially in the realm of politics.  But it is also the reason that future generations will one day return to truly inspirational political work--whether we are around to see it or not.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Obama speaks

When Barack Obama graduated from Columbia College in 1983, he began building his resume.  He spent two years working in New York, one in the private sector and the second in a non-profit, whereupon he moved to Chicago and spent the next three, famously, as a community organizer.  As he explained in his autobiography, which I reviewed at length here some years ago, he learned about the impact of de-industrialization on working-class communities, but apparently without concluding that anything drastic had to be done change the new directions in U.S. economic development.  From there it was off to Harvard Law School, where he cultivated good relations with students of all political factions and won election as editor of the Harvard Law Review.  Graduating in 1991, he moved back to Chicago, became a part-time faculty member at the University of Chicago Law School, and joined a law firm.  His autobiography, Dreams from my Father,  was published in 1995, and he was elected to the Illinois State Senate in the next year.  Election to the Senate followed in 2004, the year that he became a national figure by making a spell-binding speech at the Democratic National Convention.  During the next four years he published a second book, much less good in my opinion than the first, and in 2011 he launched his miraculously successful campaign for the Presidency.  Obama already belongs to a very select group in American history:  by the time he leaves the White House, he will have been President longer than he ever held any other full-time job. 

Over the last two months or so, Obama sat for a lengthy series of interviews with David Remnick, leading to a very long piece in this week's New Yorker.  In 2007, we learn, Obama told Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband Richard that he wanted to be "a President who makes a difference," not a Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce.  If the Affordable Health Care Act survives its problems he undoubtedly will.  In the last few months the possibility of definite achievements in foreign policy--especially a nuclear deal and even, conceivably, the resumption of normal relations with Iran--has emerged, largely, it would seem, thanks to John Kerry.  Yet he will not, as Remnick stresses and Obama must himself acknowledge, have realized his dream of healing the bitter division between red and blue America, and it seems very unlikely that any additional major progressive steps are on the horizon.  His advisers, Remnick reports confidently believe that demographics will keep Democrats in the White House for the next two election cycles at least thanks to minority voters, but that, it seems to me, is trusting people to vote based upon who they are, not upon what one party has actually done for them.  Time will tell.

If the Affordable Health Care act overcomes its problems it will benefit millions of Americans, and it may build new constituencies for Democrats at the polls,  That of course is one reason Republicans have opposed it so fanatically.  But it will not have reversed a dangerous trend in American life.  We spend much too much money on health care--50% more, at least, than most advanced countries.  Under the Affordable Care Act we will spend even more, because more people will be insured through the current system.  And that, sadly, is characteristic of every major step Obama has taken in domestic affairs.  Nowhere has he really taken on a dangerous trend in American government and begun to reverse it.  We will never know whether, flushed with victory and armed with Congressional majorities in 2009, he might have done so.  What we do know is that he did not try.

Remnick was in fact rather gentle in his questioning on certain key points.  At no time, for instance, does he ask the President why almost no one from a major financial institution has faced criminal charges for steps that led to the crash of 2007-8 and the damage that still remains from it.  Faced with that crash, Obama did not, like FDR, cite is as a moral failing in need of a moral solution.  “Our distress comes from no failure of substance,” Roosevelt told the nation in his first inaugural.  “Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness
and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated.  Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men . . .The money changers have fl ed from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit."  Obama, unlike FDR, immediately surrounded himself with men like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner who had helped create the new financial structure that had broken down.  He has spent five years trying to reform it, but it is far from clear that anything fundamental has changed, or that we will not face a new crash--perhaps not as bad, but bad enough--within a few more years.  Rather than focus on these policy issues, Remnick returns repeatedly to the President's personal qualities, especially his difficulty engaging with other politicians and finding ways to bend them to his will.  The same problem, I think, has been an even greater handicap in foreign policy. 

Nor, as Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in a fine article in the current New York Review of Books, has Obama done anything to reverse the long-term trends affecting the federal budget.  For the past 30 years--since Ronald Reagan--these have included lower income and corporate taxes, higher payroll taxes, a steadily growing percentage of federal outlays going to social security and health care, a defense budget that dwarfs those of other nations of the world (now also supplemented by a gigantic intelligence budget), and a steadily shrinking share for discretionary spending, especially on infrastructure.  Sachs, whose piece, "Our dangerous budget and what to do about it," can be downloaded from his own web page, points out that the net effect of four years of struggle with the Republican Congress was to make the Bush tax cuts permanent for all but a tiny fraction of the population.

And, of course, in foreign policy, Obama has kept more of George W. Bush's initiatives in place than he has dismantled--the exception being the Iraq War.  He sent more troops to Afghanistan for four years, evidently, according to Robert Gates, without any great belief that they would accomplish very much.  The national security state is as large an intrusive as ever and Obama shows no signs of slowing it down.  Talking to Remnick, he justifies drone strikes on the grounds that they are killing people who want to attack America.  Remnick did not push him on whether they might be generating even more people who want to do so.  In an astonishing statement--to my mind at least--he rates the success of any of his key foreign policy initiatives today--the Iranian nuclear deal, a settlement in Syria, or an Israeli-Palestinian peace--at less than 50%.  That may be accurate, although the Iranian deal seems to have a better chance than that, but I think it was far too resigned a statement for a sitting President to make, and hardly a vote of confidence for his Secretary of State.  Obama has decided, Remnick argues, that American military force can no longer reshape the world. I agree, but the President has not done much to find useful alternatives.

Franklin Roosevelt, a sailor all his life, delighted in taking the nation on a voyage to new and uncharted waters, and led both the United States and the rest of the world into new territory.  Obama wants to steer the ship capably and fairly--but without any fundamental changes of course.  Curiously, while he repeatedly refers to Lincoln as his favorite President,  FDR never comes up, despite the explicit, public comparisons between the two that were all the rage only five years ago.  It is not, to be sure, fair to blame only Obama for not being FDR.  Roosevelt drew upon progressive traditions that had been growing up for forty years--the parallel, in the early twentieth century, to the growth of economic conservatism in our own time.  He filled his cabinet with strong personalities determined first to transform the United States, and then, beginning in 1940, to make democracy prevail in a world war.  Obama would have had trouble finding such men and women today--but I see no evidence that he really looked.

Despite everything he has had to face, especially from the Republican party, Obama still trusts the system.  His rather stoic view of life emerges at another point, a discussion of concussions in football.  Obama, evidently a devoted NFL fan, shrugs off the issue, remarking that the players knew what they were getting into and accepted the risk.   Even if that is true, and in many cases it isn't, it may be an inadequate reason to continue to encourage tens of thousands of high schoolers to risk their long-term health on the gridiron every year.  Obama did not have an easy childhood.  His family situation was chaotic, at least until he moved in with his grandparents. Like so many members of his generation, he has responded by giving his daughters all the stability that he did not have.    In a striking statement, he says he thinks "I'm pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin."  That might explain why, when faced with choices between doing too much or too little, he usually picks the latter.  "The President of the United States cannot remake our society," he says, "and that's probably a good thing. . . .Not probably. It's definitely a good thing."

There are times, alas, when an old order collapses and a President, together with his advisers and a majority of the nation, must try to remake our society, and Obama became President in the midst of such a time.  So did Lincoln and FDR, and they managed to do what was necessary, and in Roosevelt's case, much more.  Obama, who has had to make peace with so much in his own life since earliest childhood, has made peace with his inability to do so.  Near the end of the article, he takes some comfort, ironically, in recognizing that despite the achievements of Lincoln, his favorite President, it took another hundred years to secure civil rights for black Americans.  He will leave office as the first black President, and it seems there is a good chance that the first female President will succeed him.  That will be the positive legacy of our age: the opening of opportunity, at the highest levels, to women, minorities, and gays.  That may be an inspiration.  The society that we shall leave behind is not.


Friday, January 17, 2014

The fall of the modern state

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books arrived today, and I immediately sat down to read the third installment of Mark Danner's long piece about Donald Rumsfled, Errol Morris's documentary about him, and the Iraq War.  Unfortunately I can't link it for you because it's for subscribers only, but I'm hoping Danner plans to publish the whole series as a book.The events he described are only a decade old, but they seem much further away.  Barack Obama came to office determined to put the epic battles among Boomers behind us, and in some ways he has managed to do so.  It is rather striking how little attention we pay to the utterly disastrous eight-year tenure of George W. Bush, even though, from where I sit, it created the world we now live in just as surely as Franklin Roosevelt's had created the world into which I was born in 1947.  In the dedication of my new book I thank Roosevelt's generation for the world they left me.  I do not think anyone will ever write a similar dedication to George W. Bush--certainly not in 2078, 69 years after he will have left office.

Every generation, alas, takes its parents and grandparents achievements for granted.  Thirty years ago psychologists expected young men and women to parent their children the way they were parented.  It is now clear that they were far more wrong than right: parents much more commonly focus on giving their children what they did not get, while assuming that their own inheritance will pass on like magic.  GI parents generally focused on providing their Boomer children with the material abundance they lacked, and were shocked when their children found themselves without a moral compass and had to look for their own.  Today, Gen X parents obsessively watch over their children's every move, the exact opposite of the style of the Silent generation, who were too busy in the 1960s and 1970s discovering individual freedom in midlife to worry about what their children were doing at all.  As it is with families, so it is, alas, with nations.

The Bush Administration stated its view of history in its infamous national security strategy of 2002, a blueprint for a new world.  "For most of the twentieth century," it read, "the world was divided by a great struggle over ideas: destructive totalitarian visions versus freedom and equality.
That great struggle is over. The militant visions of class, nation, and race which promised utopia and delivered misery have been defeated and discredited. America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones. We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few.We must defeat these threats to our Nation, allies, and friends."  Yes, it was true: by 2002 liberal capitalist democracy was still standing, while both Fascism and Communism were nearly completely consigned to the dustbin of history.  Unfortunately, the neoconservatives believed in a kind of capitalist Marxism: they regarded this development as an inevitable product of history, not a great achievement of several generations of Americans and western Europeans, much of which was already eroding away.  That was the only way that they believed--as Danner reminds us--that a quick invasion of Iraq, followed by an immediate American withdrawal, could produce a western-style democracy with limited government and low taxes.   In fact, Iraq--and, we now know, much of the Middle East as well--was seething with sectarian conflicts that would make the establishment of a stable democracy impossible.  The Middle East now looks more like Europe in the first half of the 16th century than Europe and America in the 20th.

The process that created the world into which both George W. Bush and myself were born had begun several centuries earlier, based on the idea that human reason could transform human affairs.  That insight was at least as important as the idea of the rights of man in creating the modern world.  It could, and was, applied by authoritarian governments like the Prussian monarchy and Napoleon's empire as well as by more democratic ones.  And it was enshrined in our Constitution, with its injunction to "promote the common defense and provide the general welfare," as well as the authorization to pass any laws "necessary and proper" for the carrying out of the essential functions of government.   What was far more important, however, as the nineteenth century progressed and turned into the twentieth, was the shared belief in human reason and science as the source of truth.  That was so generally established by the 1930s that Franklin Roosevelt stressed the need to supplement science with moral values, to make sure it served the true needs of mankind.  That is what he tried to do.

Last week I watched the new, two-hour American Experience about the year 1964--the year that Strauss and Howe identified, correctly, as the beginning of the last Awakening in American life.  Although the show included some rather over-the-top Boomer academics, I thought it was generally excellent, because it was about new ideas emerging on both the left and the right to destroy the postwar consensus.  The Beatles, the Mississippi Summer freedom project, the Berkeley protests that began that fall and The Feminine Mystique spoke for the Left; the Goldwater campaign spoke for the right.  And as Theodore H. White hypothesized in a remarkable passage in The Making of the President 1964, the Goldwater campaign was in the long run perhaps the most important political development of the year.   Certainly Phyllis Schlafly and Richard Viguerie  glowed with pride as they remembered the beginnings of the movement that made them so successful--and that did so much to undo the Enlightenment vision of a world ordered by reason.

By the time of the invasion of Iraq, the United States had been stripping away the modern state for more than twenty years.  That showed in the way the invasion was carried out--with ludicrous assumptions, as Morris shows, substituting for the massive forces (probably at least half a million men) that would have been needed to establish order in most of a country of 25 million people.  The Bush Administration would believe anything to make its dreams come true, and it tried to sponsor Achmed Chalabi, who is widely thought to have been an Iranian intelligence agent, as the new Iraqi leader, only to find that he had no traction.   Anwar Al-Maliki has turned out to be a reliable Iranian ally as well.

Danner remarks at one point that the Bush Administration threw away the American people's reflexive support for foreign wars.  That in fact had been ebbing since Vietnam, and Bush senior only revived it briefly in 1990-1 by carefully limiting his objectives.  In any case, our withdrawal was inevitable.  We no longer call upon the mass of our young people for foreign wars--just or unjust--and we have now raised two generations who know little or nothing about the history of foreign relations or the role that war has played in shaping the world.  That is another legacy of the Boom generation, which banished those topics from the historical curriculum.  The Middle East will now have to look after itself.

John Kerry, born late in 1943, is now showing a real example of old-time statesmanship.  He struck the deal to destroy Syria's chemical weapons and he is trying--almost certainly in vain--to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  He is, like me, an Ivy League graduate from the 1960s, the son of a diplomat, and a vetaran of the Army (although my service did not involve any combat, as his did.)  He knows what being Secretary of State is about--and I think he is showing that his predecessor didn't.  Alas, our Gen X President, who sadly has shown no real aptitude for or interest in diplomacy, is probably much more representative of what lies ahead.   Reason no longer anchors our domestic politics, or world politics.  That will have many consequences.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Who lost Fallujah?

I was rather astonished in 2002-3 when so many distinguished members of my generation came out in favor of the Iraq War.  It wasn't simply neocons like William Kristol who plumped for it, but liberals like the Canadian Michael Ignatieff (whom I met when I was about four years old) and New Yorker writer George Packer.  The enterprise struck me as extremely dubious from the beginning even though I did not realize how little real glue held Iraq together.  Once serious trouble started in the middle of 2003 I could see that we were not going to be able to achieve our objective of a stable and friendly Iraq, and that was a major theme of these posts from late 2004 when I began them until the Obama administration took power. I was at times too pessimistic about the surge, which did manage to quiet things down after a year of heavier American casualties, but that did alter the fundamental calculus of the situation.  Now that an Al Queda affiliate has at least temporarily seized Fallujah, which Americans fought so hard to secure, it is just as well to review it.

The question we faced in Iraq was the same question the United States faced in Vietnam, the French faced in Algeria and the Israelis face in the West Bank.  Can an occupying power, with the help in some cases at least of local auxiliaries, put down an insurgency and maintain order?  The answer, historically, is yes--but only as long as the occupying power is willing to remain in force.  The French Army argued for years that they had defeated the Algerian insurgency before de Gaulle decided to withdraw around 1960, and although they only did so by putting a large portion of the Algerian population into concentration camps, their claim was true as far as it went.  The United States never had any real trouble holding onto the major population centers of South Vietnam except during the Tet offensive, and even then they regained control within a few weeks.  The Israelis have learned how to keep the West Bank relatively quiet.  But the problem, of course, is that such success lasts only as long as the occupying power is willing to stay.  The Israelis do seem willing to remain in the West Bank more or less forever, but the other powers were not.  The United States could not possibly have stayed in Iraq indefinitely and would have been mistaken to do so.  The war failed in its objective because it was not based upon the political realities of the situation.

The real significance of the war in Iraq, we can now see, was to unleash the violent Sunni-Shi'ite conflict that now seems likely to set off another thirty years war in the Middle East, with disastrous consequences.  I do not know if future historians will conclude that our adventure was mainly responsible for that conflict, and I am inclined to think that it was not.  Its roots go back at least to the Iranian revolution in 1979.  By going into Iraq and dismantling the Ba'athist regime, the US created a Shi'ite state that naturally became an ally both of Iran and of the Assad government in Syria.  We also created an effectively independent Kurdistan, but we could not satisfy the Sunnis and the Shi'ites inside Iraq at once.   The Maliki government has shown no talent or inclination for conciliating the Sunnis, and now, helped by the war across the border in Syria, Al Queda has taken root in Anbar province again.  I do not know if they will be able to hold Fallujah, but they will remain a source of trouble for years, and the civil war in Iraq has been re-ignited again.

Long-delayed historical change often occurs with shocking suddenness.  For the whole of my life, the government of the United States has undertaken to use military power to control events around the world.  By the time I was 25, in the latter stages of the Vietnam war, I had concluded that this was a miostake and I thought my countrymen had done the same, but I was wrong.  In 1974-5 President Ford and Henry Kissinger eagerly involved us in the Angolan civil war--a conflict between rival Marxist revolutionary movements--in order to show that Vietnam had not made us gunshy.  Reagan intervened rather tentatively in Central America and the Middle East, held back in large measure by cautious military leadership, and Bush I fought the Gulf War successfully.  Then my own generation took the fall of the Soviet Union as evidence that nothing now stood in our way.  The Afghan and Iraq wars resulted.  Now neither one of them seems likely to accomplish very much.  Meanwhile, George W. Bush also destroyed the economic base of the federal government.  More crucially, a new generation has come to power.

Gen X generally distrusts institutions, including the federal government,  It has suddenly become clear that the younger leadership of the Republican Party is not very interested in the United States' role in the world.  Among Democrats there is a significant faction eager to intervene for humanitarian reasons, but they too seem to be losing ground.  Suddenly, as the New York Times pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the United States has no way of stopping the religious war in the Middle East, fueled by Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other.  More than twenty years later it is clear that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not destined to lead to US hegemony.  It was the beginning of a general decline or collapse of political authority in large parts of the world--a frightening yet totally unanticipated development, and one which we have no idea what to do about.

Newspapers are now full of stories of American veterans, especially Marines, viewing the developments in Iraq incredulously.  Some of them are bitter, but almost none of them seems to believe that we should send troops back, and no one, of course, is asking us too.  Robert Gates in my opinion has also done the nation a disservice in his new memoir by blaming President Obama for not doing enough in Afghanistan, when the President's mistake was probably to do as much as he did.  The President evidently doubted whether the Afghanistan surge would work, but he lacked the courage to follow his instincts and, as usual, took a political middle course.  That protected his re-election, but it couldn't prop up the Karzai government that effectively. 

During the 22 years I spent at the Naval War College there was a great deal of talk about how the Defense Department had replaced the State Department as the main arm of our foreign relations.  That is now leaving us without a foreign policy, since the Defense Department can no longer deploy resources to any trouble spot.  I still think the withdrawal of American military power is good for America, and ultimately, good for the world.  The United States will suffer for decades because of the money, energy, lives and national unity that were squandered in Iraq at a critical moment in our history.  But the loss the our ability, as leader of the western world, to shape the future, is nothing to celebrate.  We seem to have lost the power not only to impose our will, but also to inspire by example.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Prohibition and gay marriage

Those familiar with Strauss and Howe--led by myself--have been busily comparing the last twenty years or so to the period 1920-40 or so.  In each case, social issues gave way to economic crisis--although with very different political and economic results, so far at least.  What struck me this week, reading about the Utah federal judge who overturned the state's ban on gay marriage, is that gay marriage is playing the same role in this crisis that Prohibition played in the last one, and with the same result.

When Prohibition was ratified in 1919, it commanded very broad support.  Only two states, Connecticut and Rhode Island, failed to ratify the 18th amendment.  Progressives viewed it as an engine of social improvement, while conservatives thought it would hold down the restive lower orders.  Similarly, gay marriage in the 1990s entered American politics as something to be against, and very few politicians stood up for it.  The Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, refusing
any federal recognition of gay marriage, by votes of 85–14 in the Senate and  342–67 in the House.  Although Bill Clinton typically both opposed gay marriage and the bill, he signed it.  But the issue heated up in 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court argued that the Constitution required recognition of gay marriage.  Facing a tough re-election battle, George W. Bush, with Karl Rove's encouragement, decided to make this a national issue once again. Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which went nowhere.  More importantly, ballot measures to prohibit it went on the ballots of a number of key states that November, including Ohio.  They were uniformly successful and undoubtedly helped pull morally conservative voters to the polls.

It took 13 years for the United States to decide that Prohibition had been a catastrophic mistake, giving rise to organized crime as we know it, and to elect Franklin Roosevelt and repeal the 18th amendment.  A lame-duck Congress passed the twenty-first amendment, repealing it, in December 1932, The twenty-first amendment, repealing prohibition, and 36 special state conventions ratified it by the end of 1933.  Yet there was a catch. The repeal amendment carved out an exception to the commerce clause and gave every state total power over the production and sale of alcoholic beverages within its territory. That is why Pennsylvania state troopers can still confiscate cars they stop carrying out of state liquor into the Keystone state, and why I cannot mail-order wine here in Massachusetts.  Several states remained dry for decades.  The question is whether the resolution of the gay marriage issue will be similar.

Several dozen states now recognize gay marriage, and the Supreme Court, in a narrow vote, struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.  The trend is running overwhelmingly in favor of it because of a huge generational divide on the issue.  The vast majority of young people support it; the older people who feel threatened by it are dying off every day.  And federal judges can claim, as the one in Utah did, that failure to recognize gay marriages conflicts with the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment.  Other judges in other districts have however decided the issue differently, and it is headed for the Supreme Court.

I will be surprised if the Supreme Court follows the Utah decision's lead.  This seems like a good opportunity for Anthony Kennedy to line up with his conservative brethren.  But based on the experience of Roe v. Wade, and I will not be especially disappointed if the Supreme Court leaves the issue in the hands of the states.  Our regional divide is already a terrible national problem.  It will take longer for Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and various other states to come around on this issue, but I am confident that they will.  It will be healthier if their own people and their own legislatures make that decision.  What is important is that opposition to gay marriage, which was taken for granted only 17 years ago and helped win a presidential election ten years ago, has now become a liability and is clearly in retreat.  Like prohibition, homophobia is destined for the dustbin of history.