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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, May 22, 2015

the Politics of Endless War

Today's article has been suggested by two articles written by others.  The first, by my friend Andrew Bacevich,appeared several years ago in Pat Buchanan's publication, The American Conservative, which shares Bacevich's apostasy towards prevailing American foreign policy. Entitled "How We Became Israel," it argued that the United States, like Israel, now defined "peace" as complete dominion over any potential enemy--a policy that inevitably leads to endless war. The second, by conservative Sam Tannehaus, appeared much more recently at Bloomberg.com.  Entitled "The GOP is campaigning for George W. Bush's third term," it dealt with related issues within the context of the Republican contest for the 2016 presidential nomination.  It did not, however, in my opinion, go far enough.

My own view is this: both the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu (and indeed, under every Israeli leaders ince 2000) and the U. S. government since George W. Bush have embarked upon endless wars.  The Israelis are trying to subdue the Palestinians while expanding further and further in the West Bank, while Washington has adopted a far more hopeless goal of wiping out any unfriendly political movement in the Middle East.  Several weeks ago I discussed why I think Israeli policy is destined to fail: despite all Israel's efforts, the Arab population of the West Bank has increased much faster than the Jewish one, and Arabs will soon outnumber Jews within the whole area of Israel, Palestine, and the Gaza strip.  The US crusade, based on a search for mythical good guys who will be loyal allies and share U.S. values, is even more hopeless.  What Tannehaus led me to see, however, is that both of these policies can work politically, especially during the kind of great crisis or fourth turning which both the U.S. and Israel are going through.

The Netanyahu government's increasingly shrill refusal to make peace with the Palestinians is turning the rest of the world against Israel, but this seems to be striking a chord among Israelis who have come to expect nothing else.  Hamas and Hezbollah have sprung up on Israel's borders in response, and Hamas has become the strongest political force among the Palestinians.  That makes peace much harder to achieve anyway, and makes it easier for Likud and its new, even more expansionist allies to argue that Israel has no choice but to rely completely upon itself.  And despite the anguish of more liberal Israelis, on display daily at haaretz.com, this is working, politically.  Netanyahu increased his own vote in the last election, although his coalition now looks a bit fragile.  Fewer and fewer Israelis seem to believe in peace.  The Israeli government's intransigence both heightens and benefits from the fear that is an inescapable part of a fourth turning.

The controversy over Jeb Bush's statements about the Iraq war, which triggered Tannehaus's article, shows that the Republicans are trying to do something similar.  George W. Bush's response to 9/11 was an unmitigated disaster, and the young Republican who told Jeb that his brother had created ISIS was only exaggerating very slightly.  (There is still a conspiracy of silence, by the way, among the American media, which refuses to mention that ISIS is a direct descendant of Al Queda in Iraq, which of course did not exist before the US invasion.)  But such facts do not get in the way of the Republican position that more forceful action is needed against America's enemies in the Middle East, lest we suffer more attacks here at home.  Jeb significantly argued, at one point in the controversy, that any questioning of the wisdom of the Iraq war dishonored the sacrifice of our troops.  Now that our major ground combat role in the region is ending and we, like the Israelis, are relying on air strikes, drones, and occasional raids by special operations forces, the endless war in the Middle East has become almost ideal for maintaining a consensus on behalf of a merciless foreign policy, and feeding the new military-industrial-intelligence complex.  As the Israelis have found on a smaller scale,. drone strikes do nothing in the long run: the supply of bad guys appears to be endless.  Our opponents also enjoy playing this game.  ISIS obviously beheaded Americans on camera to provoke retaliation, and they seem to have strengthened themselves, not least by recruiting from the West, as a result.   They are still gaining in Syria and at least holding their own in Iraq, where they gave up Tikrit but won a striking victory in Ramadi. 

I suspect that Karl Rove originally devised this strategy as a replay of the Cold War.  At least since Richard Nixon, Republicans enjoyed an advantage with the public on national security issues, and Rove made it very clear in the wake of 9/11 that he wanted once again to cast the Democrats as dangerous wimps, arguing that they responded to the attacks by calling for indictments and therapy, while Republicans went to war.  In many ways the Democrats have also accepted the idea that their only option in foreign affairs is to be as Republican as possible, even though Obama has shown some guts regarding Cuba and Iran.  The drone strikes that we are continuing and the air strikes we are making against ISIS make it look as though we are in the fight, even though none of the major combatants shares our values or our interests.  But no one cares.  For Boomer and Xer politicians, it seems, foreign affairs--and even war--and completely dominated by politics.  Neither Hillary Clinton nor President Obama nor any of the Republican candidates seem troubled by the contradictions and self-defeating aspects of our policy during the last 15 years.  Even Rand Paul is edging towards the middle on these questions.

These are difficult days for those of us who grew up believing that knowledge could result in better policy, either at home or abroad.  In weeks to come I will discuss two books, one of which I am still reading, which brilliantly analyze critical aspects of the problems we face in the Middle East, but which have been almost completely ignored by the media in the United States.  We apparently have a consensus on foreign policy comparable to that we had for most of the Cold War.  That one, however, had at least some relation to reality, and I am not at all sure that this one does.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Seymour Hersh, Osama Bin Laden, and recent history

Seymour Hersh's career is a classic case of being in the right place at the right time.  In 1970, as a free-lance journalist of 32 , he discovered that the Army was holding Lt. William Calley for the murder of 100 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, and broke the story.  (It had come to light thanks to the efforts of an army veteran named Ronald Ridenhour, whose remarkable lettrer about the massacre, addressed to various Washington officials, appeared in full in Hersh's book about My Lai.)  That landed him a job at the New York Times,  where he broke at least one major Watergate story. In late 1974, he broke the story of the CIA's "family jewels," a report on domestic spying abuses, which led to the Church and Pike Committee investigations of the FBI and CIA over the next two years.  Regular newspaper work was not for him, however, and he became a free-lance journalist and author again in the 1980s.  In general I have always felt that Hersh could be a good reporter about contemporary subjects, but that his techniques--finding the man or woman who would tell the most sensational story about a past event--failed him when he tried to do history.  The Dark Side of Camelot, about various supposed and real scandals of the Kennedy years, was in this respect quite disastrous, although it undoubtedly made him a good deal of money and was turned into an ABC documentary. 

Hersh was writing The Dark Side of Camelot while I was working on American Tragedy, and at some point I heard through a third party about a claim he was preparing to make.  In 1963, he said, during the Buddhist crisis in South Vietnam, President Kennedy had the legendary intelligence officer General Edward Lansdale come to the White House and asked him to return to Saigon as CIA Station Chief to arrange the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem.  I telephoned Hersh, because my own primary research not only showed beyond a doubt that this story was false, but also suggested how it might have gotten going.  Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, as it happened, HAD asked that Lansdale come out as station chief for the purpose of arranging a coup (not an assassination), but the State and Defense departments and the CIA had all reacted violently against this idea.  And indeed, a tape of a White House conversation recorded Kennedy saying that they all knew who Lodge wanted as station chief, and they knew that he couldn't have him.   Last but hardly least, the White House appointment calendar at the JFK Library did not show a single visit by Lansdale to the White House during 1963.  When I passed all this on to Hersh, he initially became violently abusive, but then calmed down.  Still, the story appeared as fact in his book. I expressed my views of it in print at the time in a review in the Providence Journal.   I ran into him again years later, and he was perfectly polite.

Now, in the London Review of Books.  Hersh has written a sensational account of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, arguing that the Obama Administration has consistently lied about how the operation came about and what happened in it.  He argues that the CIA did not track Bin Laden through a courier--much less with the help of waterboarding--but rather through a tip from a Pakistani official who claimed a good deal of our $25 million reward.  More sensationally, he says that the whole operation was carried out with the full cooperation of two senior Pakistani officials, and that they made sure that the Pakistani military would allow the US helicopters to violate Pakistani air space without interference.  Going further, he says that there was no firefight in Bin Laden's compound and that his body was not buried at sea, and that the Obama Administration went back on promises not to announce the raid for one week after it occurred.

The first thing I need to address is where this story came from, and how Hersh appears to have handled it.  It is based almost entirely, by  his own account,. on lengthy interviews with one unidentified retired CIA official who gave him the whole story.  There is an interesting parallel here, it seems to me, with Ronald Ridenhour's 1969 letter that led to the uncovering of the My Lai massacre.  Ridenhour--like Hersh's CIA source--had not participated directly in the events he described--he had heard about My Lai from a soldier who had been there.  Thanks mostly to Congressman Morris Udall, Ridenhour's letter led to an actual investigation within the Pentagon, and numerous soldiers came forward not only to confirm the story, but in one case, to provide photographs of the massacre.  But in this case--and we are further away in time from Bin Laden's death now than we were from My Lai when that story was broken--Hersh is relying almost entirely on an informant who does not claim to have been there. And that informant does claim to know an extraordinary amount, not only about the raid and how it happened, but also about deliberations at the highest levels of the Obama Administration.

I have no way of knowing, of course, exactly what might or might not be true in Hersh's account. but the burden of proof is on him and on the editors of the London Review of Books. (Hersh has published some very interesting and better-sourced pieces about Iran's nuclear program in The New Yorker in recent years, and I must conclude that that publication decided--wisely in my view--not to touch this one.)  A few of his assertions strike me as plausible and certainly worthy of further investigation.  Most of them, however, do not.  Let me try to explain why--without making any claim to authoritative knowledge.

I do think that some of what Hersh says about the ISI--the Pakistani intelligence service, which is a critical power within the Pakistani government--and Bin Laden is probably true, and indeed, he is not the first one to say it.  Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, the author of The Wrong Enemy, a most provocative book about the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in that book that the ISI was protecting Bin Laden inside Pakistan and that she had identified his desk officer.  That did not surprise me, because I had heard numerous American officials speculate that Bin Laden was living in Pakistan under official protection before.  Gall has now come forward to confirm Hersh's second critical point: that it was an informer, whom Gall identifies, from the ISI who tipped the U.S. off about Bin Laden's whereabouts.  But Gall most definitely does NOT confirm Hersh's claim that ISI leaders cooperated with the United States in the raid that killed Bin Laden.  She does speculate that his story would explain something she already knew--that the police and Pakistani army in Abbotabad seem to have reacted slowly to the reports of the crash of one of the American helicopters at Bin Laden's compound--but to judge from the interview I heard her do when her book came out, she does not, or did not, believe that the ISI leadership was interested in handing Bin Laden over to the United States at all.

At this point I want to shift gears a bit, and turn to the implications of this and other aspects of  Hersh's story, if they are true.  Hersh made a successful career out of exposing government wrongdoing.  As time has gone on, however, he and others have defined government wrongdoing so broadly as to make it impossible for governments to function. This is one such case.

If, which I am inclined not to believe, the United States government, as Hersh argues, managed by threats to persuade the Pakistanis to tell us where Bin Laden was, then in my opinion, the Obama Administration deserves credit, not blame, for that.  Indeed, in my seminars at the Naval War College I frequently suggested to students that we should tell the Pakistani government that we would withdraw from Afghanistan (as they obviously wanted us to do) if they would hand Bin Laden over.  Nor does it upset me that the CIA and the Administration would claim publicly that they tracked Bin Laden through his courier, rather than admit that the tip came from an informant whom they would obviously need to protect.  It does bother me a great deal that CIA officials have gone a step further and claimed (falsely, it seems) that waterboarding played a key role in tracking him down, but the Senate Intelligence Committee report has taken care of that problem for anyone who cares about the truth.

Similarly, Hersh seems to think that it is very serious that the US government might have lied about burying Bin Laden at sea.  That  is possible, but the idea of burying him at sea seemed to me at the time to be brilliant, since it would avoid the propaganda disadvantage of desecrating his remains according to his religion, and also eliminate any grave site that would become a target of veneration or of more terrorist acts.  For the good of the nation it makes perfect sense, and does no harm, to claim that we buried him at sea, and I can't find anything to criticize here.

And that leads me to my broadest point: Hersh's insistence that the details of the killing had to be altered so as to absolve US soldiers and the US government of a charge of murder.  I do not believe there was anything they needed to be absolved of. This was not murder, it was an act of war against a man who had carried on war against the United States and killed more than 3000 Americans.  Taking him into custody would have given him an opportunity to speak publicly to the world, and would surely have provided a pretext for more terrorist attacks designed to free him.  And that kind of situation is the only exception I am still inclined to make to my opposition on principle to capital punishment.  Yes, putting people to death is a barbaric act, but if the criminal's imprisonment is going to lead to more murders by confederates on his behalf, I think governments have no choice but to execute him.  I think that the ongoing drone campaign is a terrible mistake based on false policies and strategies, but I have no objection to the raid on Bin Laden.

Hersh's work, from 1969 until today, illustrates what has happened to the United States in the last half century.  The Vietnam War convinced young Americans who had believed their country could do no wrong that it could do no right.  It accelerated an attack on all institutional, intellectual and moral authority.  The new generation, generation X, that grew up in that atmosphere, is even more cynical than its elders, and tens of millions of Americans now have no trust in government at all.  And that, in turn, makes government impossible.  That is the legacy of the new tradition of investigative reporting as an end in itself, not designed to uncover a specific abuse or serve the greater good.  The American people have lost the capacity to tell a good military operation, or a good public official, from a bad one.

Friday, May 08, 2015

The British Election and western politics

The British election is an interesting milestone in the evolution of western politics.  On the one hand, the Tory Party has won a striking victory which will allow it--by the very narrowest of margins--to form a government without any coalition support.  But the Tories achieved this victory more or less by default, and other aspects of the election confirm the trend towards fragmentation which can be seen almost all over the European Union.  Fragmentation in Britain threatens to break up the country as it has existed for three centuries.  The Scottish National policy now enjoys the hegemony within Scotland that the Irish Nationalists did in Ireland before the grant of Home Rule in 1922, and the Labour Party has been virtually wiped out in its Scottish stronghold.  And even the Tory victgory threatens the fragmentation of Europe, since Prime Minister Cameron has promised a referendum on membership in the EU.   Britain's new constituency map shows an extraordinarily consistent pattern, with urban blotches of Labour seats in London, Wales and the Midlands surrounded by vast conservative spaces in the countryside and suburbs.  The pattern is very similar to recent US elections, except that Britain remains much more urbanized than the US, and the Labour areas are therefore much larger than the Democratic ones.  It should also be noted that on many issues, the Tories are still to the left of the Democratic Party here at home.

As Paul Krugman argued today, this is not a triumph for democracy in one sense, because the British people have endorsed failed austerity policies.  They did so partly because they had no choice. Like mainstream Democrats here, the Labour Party did not dare campaign for more government spending to get Britain out of the recession, because virtually the whole nation has been sold on the myth that too much government spending caused the crash of 2007-8.  I would add that the razor-sharp conservative majority hides a deeper, related threat: that the fragmentation of European politics, like our own gridlock, will make it almost impossible for governments to act, and could even open the way for extreme parties to get into power.  That was what happened in Germany in the late 1920s.  The parties of the Weimar Republic--themselves descendants of parties from imperial Germany--were never as strong as the major parties in Britain and the US, but during the late 1920s, even when the German economy was doing relatively well, they lost strength to several fringe groups.  Then in 1929 came the Great Depression, and in 1930 the Nazis suddenly became the largest party in the Reichstag, while the Communists gained as well.  The government began ruling by presidential decree, opening the way for Hitler to take power in January 1933.  Britain will now be virtually the only nation in Europe where one party controls the government--and that party is committed to having the government do less, not more.

And that raises the real question of the fourth great Atlantic crisis which we are now going through.  The first of those crises, in the years 1774-1802 or so, created stronger states all over Europe and in the US, even though the nature and values of those states ranged from nascent democracy in the US, to a strengthened aristocracy in the British isles, and authoritarian, bureaucratic states on the continent.  The second, in the 1860s and 1870s, instituted forms of democracy all over the region, but without strengthening states very much. The third, from about 1933 to 1955, raised the power of the state to new heights, although democracy emerged triumphant.  The government of every major nation had a mission.  Roosevelt proclaimed in 1936 that the United States was waging a war to show that democracy could work, and he turned that into a real war five years later.  The British Labour government was determined to provide widespread benefits to the people (including free medical care) and organize the economy. After the catastrophic failure of National Socialism in Germany, Konrad Adenauer wanted to turn his nation into a full member of the western community again. De Gaulle created a strong French presidency as an antidote to weak parliamentary parties, and that system has worked quite well for France ever since. 

The trend of weaker parties and weaker states is playing out in other ways.  Both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the equally important Great Transatlantic Market that will link North America and the EU, will deny governments many existing rights to regulate industry, and force governments to compensate corporations when regulations reduce their profits.  Here in the United States we still have a two-party system and the Republicans firmly control Congress, but if they also add the Presidency next year, that will only result in a further drastic weakening of the federal government.  Here in the US we often blame the decline of government on the increased role of money in politics, but what is happening in Europe suggests that broader intellectual and cultural changes are responsible.  European politicians, unlike their counterparts here, do not have to spend hours every day begging for money--yet their policies are rarely any less business friendly than ours.

The post-Second World War generation has thrown away much of our parents' legacy, including the legacy of strong, popularly elected governments acting on behalf of the people.  Here and across the Atlantic, the looming question is whether our societies can hold together and function effectively without such states.