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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, October 30, 2015

Putin's Challenge and the End of an Era

Vladimir Putin's intervention in Syria may or may not keep Hafez Assad in power, but it marks the end of the era of presumed American omnipotence that began with the end of the Cold War in 1990.  The United States has been shocked by Putin's new move, but something like it somewhere in the world was inevitable sooner or later.  Essentially, Putin has simply adopted the new rules of international conduct followed by the Clinton, Bush II and Obama Administration to his own purposes.  Because of the disastrous impact of those rules upon our own standing in the Middle East and our ability to act, he is having no trouble doing so.  In addition, his goals, while hardly worthy ones, are so much more realistic than ours have been that he has a significantly better chance of success.

The new American doctrine was first enunciated by Paul Wolfowitz, then in the Defense Department, in 1992, when he penned a famous memo arguing that the United States should now strive to prevent the emergence of a new peer competitor and, essentially, rule the world.  That was not the view of his ultimate boss President George H. W. Bush, who had shown that he believed in the UN Charter, or of Secretary of State James Baker, or even, at that time at least, the view of Wolfowitz's immediate boss, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.  But it apparently struck a chord within Wolfowitz's own Boom generation, because the Clinton Administration, especially in its second term, picked up that ball and ran with it.  Bush I had gotten United Nations authorization for the war against Iraq in 1991, but Clinton went to war with Serbia on NATO's behalf without it.  Putin, who was just coming to power at that time, was outraged, and U.S.-Russian relations have never been the same since.  This, however, was nothing compared to what happened under George W. Bush beginning in 2001-2.

George W. and his administration claimed the right to overthrow any regime that either sought weapons we did not think they should have, or supported international terrorism.  He assumed that western-style democracy would follow the deposition of dictators like Saddam Hussein.  He went into Iraq with almost no international support, beyond that of Great Britain, whose Prime Minister, Tony Blair, shared Bush's religious faith in the righteousness of their cause.  The result was not democracy, but tens of thousands of deaths, the ethnic cleansing of four million Iraqis (two million of whom left the country), the installation of an Iranian-backed Shi'ite government in Baghdad, and now, the fragmentation of Iraq into three states, a Shi'ite one, a Kurd one, and a Sunni one now ruled by ISIS.  That, one should think, would have persuaded subsequent Administrations to tread more lightly in the region, but it did not.

Barack Obama has continued down the same path three times.  In 2010-11 he blessed the Arab spring, when the neoconservative fantasy of democratic revolution throughout the Middle East seemed to be coming true.  That resulted within a couple of years in an Islamist government in Egypt, which in turn was brutally overthrown by the Egyptian military. Then, purportedly moved by human rights concerns, he took the lead in bringing about the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, throwing that country into a civil war that continues today,  And last but not least, he announced, not long after the beginning of the civil war in Syria, that Assad must step down.  Even before the sudden rise of ISIS, the US proceeded on the assumption that it could sponsor reliable, relatively secular allies among the opposition who would take Assad's place.  That was the same fantasy that had led us into Iraq ("Iraq has always been pretty secular," Paul Wolfowitz famously told Terri Gross), and it has been equally successful.

Ever since Clinton in 1999, the United States has in effect claimed a right to take military action anywhere that we feel it serves our interest to do so.  Even before that, Clinton had struck Al Queda camps in Afghanistan with cruise missiles.  Bush, of course, went into Iraq.  Obama pushed the no-fly zone in Libya and has begun bombing once again in Syria and Iraq.  All of this has taken place without UN authorization or a declaration of war.

When Communism fell in 1990, as I have noted repeatedly here, the US assumed that our values and our influence were now supreme,. Others felt differently.  Both the Chinese and Russian governments have repeatedly made clear that they do not accept this view, and that they are especially opposed to the idea that the world has a right to depose authoritarian governments on the grounds of human rights violations.  Ironically, in so doing, they, not we, are standing up for the original principles of the UN, which was based, as it had to be, on respect for national sovereignty.  Putin has spoken repeatedly and tellingly about the weaknesses in the U.S. world view.  Last year, he decided to show us that we could not simply promote a pro-western government in Ukraine, annexing the Crimea and starting a border war.  Now he has taken another huge step: adapting American principles for his own purposes in Syria.

Putin, like us, has taken sides in a Middle Eastern civil war--and has now deployed troops and planes and begun combat missions on behalf of his side.  We really have no legal basis for complaining, since this is exactly what we have done in Libya, in Syria, and in Iraq.  The difference, alas, is that while we have lined up behind a non-existent "moderate opposition" in Syria, Putin is assisting one of the real contenders for power, Hafez Assad, as part of a coalition of allies including Iran and Hezbollah.  We on the other hand have no real allies in the fight now.  Putin may in part be reacting to the Iranian nuclear agreement, of which he is a part, by trying to ensure that he,. not the US, will be Iran's leading ally in the years to come.  That would tend to push the U.S. to the Sunni side of the on-going conflict in the Middle East, which we do support in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.  But the Sunni side in Syria now is effectively ISIS, and we cannot ally with them.  I am not even convinced that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are more concerned by ISIS than they are by the Shi'te leadership of Iran and Syria and the Shi'ite insurgency in Yemen.

As ye sow, so shall ye reap.  George H. W. Bush, the last of seven presidents from the GI generation, thought that the end of the Cold War could usher in the world ruled by law and the UN that he had fought to create.  But his Boomer and Gen X successors, including his own son, decided that they lived in a new era of U.S. omnipotence, and acted accordingly.  Almost no one--especially in the political arena--stood up to say that this vision was based on false principles, and that it was Washington's responsibility as the leading world power to stand for impartial principles.  Putin, or some one like him, was the inevitable result.  We now find ourselves engaged in the Middle East in a traditional great-power struggle for influence in a region increasingly devastated by anarchy.  While Putin may not be able to restore Assad's control over all Syria, he may well keep him in power for a long time to come.  In a hopeful sign, a peace conference is meeting to discuss bringing the conflict to an end, and not only Russia and the U.S., but even Iran, is attending.  I hope it succeeds relatively rapidly, because I don't think any of the likely presidential winners will be interested in going ahead with it after 2017.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Crisis of American Politics

The resignation of John Boehner and the Republican failure to elect a new Speaker yesterday are the biggest symptom yet of the deep crisis in our political life.  Although obviously not as serious as the civil war, it is becoming the worst since 1860-1, because it definitely threatens our ability to govern ourselves.  It results from at least 35 years of ceaseless anti-government propaganda and from the irresponsibility of the Republican leadership--as well as the inability of Democrats to take much interest in the details and possibilities of government, either.

Essentially, the position of Grover Norquist, a lobbyist, that the federal government needs to be shrunk to the size that it can be drowned in a bathtub, has become orthodoxy among too many Republicans.  While Boehner and the majority of House Republicans seem to understand that we need more or less the government that we have, between 40 and 50 House Republicans, most of them elected in the last three elections, do not.  Many of them apparently live in a bubble of wealthy contributors and Tea Party activists.  That is why they complain that they have not been able to deliver the "change" that they claim their constituents expect, including the repeal of Obamacare and, now, the defunding of Planned Parenthood.  They evidently feel no obligation to make our institutions work because they do not believe in them.  Sometimes it seems that shutting down the government isn't their nightmare, but their fondest dream.

The disease from which they suffer is having other effects.  Every single Republican now peddles the same doctrine of lower taxes, the repeal of the ACA, no funding for Planned Parenthood, fewer regulations, and so on.  The Republicans have now grown two generations of dedicated cadres who want to undo the last 100 years of our history.  Meanwhile,. the Democrats have bred almost no one actively working to preserve and extend the ideas of the Progressive Era and the New Deal--although Bernie Sanders, born when FDR was still President, seems to be one of the exceptions.  The Republicans know what they want; most Democrats appear as lukewarm defenders of the status quo.That is why the Republicans seem to be able to hang on to the momentum in our political battle, even though the American people do not want much of what they are selling.

This morning on NPR I heard an unlikely source point to another problem: the failure of authority at all levels of our political system.  For 40 years, a commentator (whom I did not initially identify) said, we have had political reforms decentralizing our government, legislative bodies, and political parties, and making it harder and harder for anyone to exercise effective leadership.  The Speaker of the House no longer enjoys power over committee assignments and campaign funds, and thus has no way to bring his troops into line.  The commentator,. who stated this very telling point without a hint of partisanship, turned out to be David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush.  Rather than dismiss the remark based upon its source, I take all the greater pleasure in commending Mr. Frum for his insight because he happens to be on the other side of the aisle.  Alas, today news stories report that the rebels want to weaken the speaker's power.

Another unfortunate species of chicken bred thirty years ago has also come home to roost in the Republican coop this week: the idea that politicians' sex lives are newsworthy.  Republican lawmakers, it seems, received emails accusing their leader, Kevin McCarthy, of having an affair with a Republican colleague. She denied it, but there is no way of knowing whether it played a role in his decision to give up the speakership.  I have no idea whether the accusation was true, but a government composed of people who have never been guilty of an affair would be chosen on a very poor basis. I for one do not want it.

There is an obvious, though unlikely, solution to the situation in the House: the election of a new Speaker by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, together with an agreement to keep funding the government at current levels, forget about Obamacare and immigration, and leave Planned Parenthood on its own.  That would be the equivalent of a Parliamentary National Government, such as Britain formed in each of the two world wars.  It would definitely isolate the anti-government revolutionaries, and it would also force some Republican presidential candidates, in all probability, to support the deal.  I do not expect it, but I I thought I would put it forward to introduce a ray of hope into perhaps the most hopeless American political moment that I have ever lived through in 68 years.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

When Print was King

The name William Allen White is largely unknown to Americans today.  White was born in Kansas in 1868, making him an exact of contemporary of two of my heroes from the Missionary Generation, W. E. B. Dubois and Henry M. Stimson.  His father was a doctor and a Protestant and a Democrat; his mother was born a Catholic, orphaned, raised a Congregationalist, attended college, and was, as White repeatedly puts it, a "black abolitionist Republican."  White was born in a small town, Eldorado, where, as he proudly explains, the first building to go up was a two-story state of the art schoolhouse.  He describes his childhood in detail rivaling that of Thomas Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel, and he is astonishingly frank about his emotions throughout his life.  He frankly confesses that he hated a younger brother who arrived on the scene when he was about four, and that he was not at all sorry when the brother died a couple of years later.  White eventually attended two colleges, including the University of Kansas, but he did not graduate, largely because he was already deeply involved in journalism.  After working for the Kansas City Star, he started his own paper, the Emporia Gazette, in the 1890s, and remained its editor until his death in the midst of the Second World War, whose conclusion he, like Franklin Roosevelt, did not quite live to see.

White's generation, as I pointed out in No End Save Victory, probably lived through more dramatic technological changes than any other, and he describes the impact of all of them, save the airplane.  (White died in the midst of working on his autobiography, and he had only reached the  mid-1920s when he put it down.)  But he also lived through enormous political changes which he describes in great detail.  In his youth, he freely admits that he was a happy child of the upper classes who saw nothing wrong with the established order.  And as a matter of fact, he became famous during the 1896 campaign between McKinley and Bryan by writing an editorial, "What's the Matter with Kansas?", that went viral (via the telegraph) and was redistributed in millions of copies byMcKinley's campaign manager Mark Hanna. The matter, the editorial claimed in language reminiscent of contemporary Republicans, was that populism was driving capitalists (he did not say "job creators") and wealth out of the state.  White was by this time a Republican.  He had reached his twenties without party affiliation, and his only strong political view at that point was opposition to the protective tariff, a Republican shibboleth.  But he joined the party, he said revealingly, because he wanted to have a real impact on public affairs, and joining one of the two parties was the only way to do so.  It is one of  the many tragedies of contemporary American life that that attitude is nearly extinct and that young men and women are more inclined to distrust any political party.

I was constantly reminded, reading the early chapters of White's book, of the far greater role politics played in American life in the nineteenth century than it does today.  Without the radio, movies, or large-scale spectator sports, it, along with commodity prices, was the main source of day-to-day entertainment in the land, and millions of men and women, like White's parents, took it very seriously. As a Democrat, White's father waited patiently for the return of his party to power after the Civil War, and by the early 1880s, he was well acquainted with the new Democratic governor of New York, Grover Cleveland of Buffalo, in whom he was pinning his hopes.  It is hard to imagine anyone in America today, of any age, who could have identified an up-and-coming politician from another part of the country as a possible President at a comparable stage of his career.

"What's the Matter with Kansas"--whose title was borrowed, of course, by Thomas Frank, in a book several years ago on the rise of the Republican right--introduced White to the upper reaches of the Republican Party, including both Mark Hanna and McKinley himself.  Meanwhile, he was making a name for himself as an author of newspaper articles and books, and making important connections in the New York publishing world.  He was also an important figure in Kansas politics, and he describes the politics of the Gilded Age in great detail, explaining how railroad lawyers carefully built up networks of influence in every town so as to control party conventions ,who in turn elected legislatures, who in their turn elected U.S. Senators.  Corruption today, of course, is more straightforward, since politicians beg money from corporations directly, and it is no longer necessary to cultivate reliable supporters among the population at large face to face.

Trips eastward on the train became a regular feature of his life.  A great turning point occurred in 1897, when White went to Washington to avoid being appointed the postmaster in his small town, and heard that the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, wanted to meet him.  White was immediately seduced by Roosevelt's concern for economic justice and the common man, and Roosevelt, from the next-older generation, became the great inspiration of his life.  This was the beginning of White's conversion to Progressivism.  He did not want Roosevelt to become Vice President in 1900, and indeed, he tells, much more frankly than TR's recent biographer Edmund Morris, how it was Senator Platt, the Republican boss of New York, who arranged the nomination to get TR out of New York, where he had become Governor after his exploits in Cuba in 1898.  White hoped that TR might succeed McKinley in 1904, but as it turned out, an assassin's bullet raised TR to the White House.

White returns again and again to the Progressive platform that developed thanks to Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, and others in the first decade of the 20th century. It included the direct election of Senators, direct primaries to nominate candidates for all offices, the eight hour day, new rights for labor, and some control over the Trusts. Women's rights were another part of the platform, and Progressives pushed not only for women's suffrage, but for an eight-hours day for women, knowing that factories that employed both sexes would have to extend the same benefit to men as well if it passed.  It was, as White emphasizes, a bipartisan movement, which by 1912 commanded majority support in both parties.  But it was not, White says repeatedly, a movement of the masses, but rather of the middle class, who believed for moral reasons that the economic order had to be reformed and the benefits of progress spread more widely.  Not for nothing, as I have noted before, have ideologues like Glenn Beck identified Theodore Roosevelt as the source of the evils of the 20th century.  It is exactly the idea that the distribution of income and wealth has to reflect moral principles that the Republicans have been trying to wipe out since Reagan, and that Bernie Sanders is now trying to revive.

White realized during TR's presidency that while his hero talked a moving game of justice, progress, and war on the "plutocracy," he was always willing to make necessary compromises to get anything done, and his entourage always included one George Perkins, a partner of J. P. Morgan.  (Morgan saved TR and the country in 1907, when he singlehandedly stopped the third major panic of White's life, after 1872 and 1893.)   Roosevelt left office in 1909, of course, and his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, immediately turned into putty in the hands of conservative Republicans.  In 1912, Roosevelt took Taft on for the Republican nomination under the new rules, winning every primary but losing at the Convention thanks to the strong-arm tactics of the party leadership and the corruption of southern Republican delegates.  It was because he felt cheated out of the nomination, not for ideological reasons, that TR, with White's support, decided to bolt the party and run on a Progressive ticket.  That doomed Taft but elected Wilson, whom White found nearly as congenial politically--although he never warmed to him personally at all.

Prohibition and pacifism were both common among Progressive men and women.  (White notes the emerging female presence in progressive politics, including friends of his like Susan B. Anthony, Ida Tarbell, and Edna Ferber.)  White, who drank very little all his life, shared both views, and sympathized with Wilson's desire to stay out of the First World War, rather than with TR's frantic attempts to get the United States into it.  Looking back on these events nearly thirty years later, White realized how the war had doomed Progressivism.  He strongly supported Wilson's war aims, and he took his family to Paris where he covered the peace conference, gradually realizing, as he wrote, that Wilson ws being outmaneuvered by Clemenceau, who was turning the League of Nations into a mechanism to maintain the old balance of power.  White also visited the American-occupied Rhineland, where he was struck by the excellent relations between the German population and American troops.  The Germans, he noted, were shocked by fraternization between American officers and their men, and could not believe that the men obeyed their officers out of respect, rather than fear.  White was devastated by the defeat of the League of Nations, which he blamed partly on Wilson's refusal to compromise.  He was even more devastated by the nomination of Warren Harding for President (following the unexpected death of TR in 1919), and his decision to endorse Harding was one of the most difficult of his adult life.  White met Harding several times during his Administration and regarded him as a victim of the men around him. Unfortunately White died before he could discuss Calvin Coolidge, although he had already left behind a biography of Coolide, A Puritan in Babylon, which I have never read.

Although White was a journalist rather than a historian, I identified with him throughout much of the book.  He had loved politics all his life, and he was keenly aware of the great historical changes through which his country was passing in a way that most of my contemporaries have not.  I have no doubt that he would have instantly grasped the insights of Strauss and Howe.  He loved to read, and he was, like myself, a pianist, albeit of a different sort.  He was an all-around intellectual and devoted to his two children, one of whom, his daughter Mary, died tragically after a riding accident when she was about to enter Wellesley College.  And he wrote constantly.  The difference, alas, was that there was a national market for his ideas.  He became wealthy, by the standards of his time, based upon his writing of both non-fiction and fiction.  I think White would have enjoyed reading this blog on a weekly basis--but in his day, it wold have had many more readers.  That is a commentary on the differences between his era and mine, not any differences between him and me.  Like Henry Adams, he is a kindred spirit to whom I shall return, even though he died a few years before I was born.