Featured Post

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...

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Obama and Eisenhower

As Andrew Bacevich pointed out in his 2010 book Washington Rules, a consensus view of the United States’ role in the world has generally prevailed among bureaucrats, politicians, military officers and opinion leaders since the end of the Second World War.  That view instinctively assumes that any conflict around the world bears upon US interests, and that American military power can and must provide the solution.  While in the wake of the Vietnam War a few leading civilian and military figures called for a reassessment of our assumptions, they quickly faded from view, and when in 1979 Jimmy Carter told his countrymen that military power was not the solution to our energy problems, he was almost laughed out of office.  The end of the Cold War briefly left the foreign policy establishment at sea, but large scale human rights violations and chaos provided new pretexts for intervention in places like Somalia and Yugoslavia.  Then came 9/11, and suddenly, any turmoil in the Muslim world became grounds for American intervention.  Fifteen years later, we find ourselves in the midst of an endless war.

Only weeks ago, Jeffrey Goldberg published a long interview with President Barack Obama in the Atlantic.  The interview seems to me unprecedented: I cannot remember a sitting President sharing his private thoughts on the US and the world at such length at any time in the past.  Both surprising and revealing, it has drawn astonishingly little comment, perhaps because so much of our attention is focused on the election, but it tells us a lot about where we are, how we got there, and, crucially, where we shall probably be in another year or two, after the President has left office. 
I have been very critical of Barack Obama in these pages, especially since July of 2010.  Elected at a critical moment in American history, he missed his chance, I believe, to reverse the domestic course that the United States was on.  Rather than trying to replace the economic system that had developed since the 1980s—marked above all by the growing power of capital—he simply tinkered with it to get it back on its feet.  He did not provide enough immediate help to the American people, resulting in the loss of the House of Representatives and the end of any possibility of serious reform for the rest of his term.  Even his signature achievement, the Affordable Health Care Act, simply enlarged a terribly flawed health care system, rather than trying to reform it.  I have also written that in many ways he continued the foreign policies of his predecessor.  Yet it is clear from the interview that I underestimated him intellectually, and that the two of us, who have never met, actually agree on a great deal about the state of the world, where it is headed, and what the United States can and cannot do about it.  That, however, is only half the story.  Obama’s world view is smarter and more sophisticated than those of his immediate predecessors or his most likely successors, but he has done little to introduce it to his countrymen, and he has not even stuck to it at one or two crucial junctures in his presidency.  In the end, the interview confirms my view of Barack Obama as a tragic figure caught in one of the great crises in American history.  

Goldberg’s article begins with a long account of Obama’s 2013 decision not to intervene in Syria after the Assad regime was found to have used chemical weapons.  Like John F. Kennedy when he refused to send combat troops to South Vietnam and start a major war there in 1961—as I have shown in American Tragedy—Obama reached that decision against the advice of nearly all of his senior advisers, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who insisted that he had no option but to enforce the “red line” that he had laid down.  Obama later explained his decision to Goldberg in words that echoed Bacevich.  “Where am I controversial?” he said. “When it comes to the use of military power.  That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”  

The restraint Obama showed over Syria reflects a broader sense of the limitations of US power that comes up again and again.   While he completely rejects isolationism and believes that only the United States can set a truly international agenda, he does not want an all-encompassing one.  “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery,” he said. “We have to choose where we can make a real impact  . . . There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”  That last sentence is a direct slap in the face of his U.N. Ambassador, the academic Samantha Power, whose book, A Problem from Hell, argued that the US could and should stop genocide anywhere in the world, but the President obviously trusts his own opinion.  The President also spoke realistically about the balance of forces in Syria, where the foreign policy establishment and interventionists like John McCain have assumed from the beginning that the US could transform the situation by standing up mythical groups of pro-US rebels.  “When you have a professional army,” he said to Goldberg, “that is well armed and sponsored by two large states [Iran and Russia] who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict …The notion that we could have—in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces—changed the equation on the ground there was never true.” 

In Syria the President disappointed Sunni allies in the Middle East and the government of France, but at another point in the interview, he echoed JFK once again talking about the importance of allied support.    “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris . . . .We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”  Kennedy in the same way argued in 1961 that the United States should not intervene in Laos or South Vietnam without the support of major European allies.  Johnson, faced with the same situation, concluded that the allies were simply wrong.  Different attitudes towards allied support also distinguished the foreign policies of the first President Bush from the second.

And Obama, has taken positive steps that defy the traditional consensus on specific points of foreign policy.  Both the Iran nuclear deal and the resumption of relations with Cuba went against conventional foreign policy wisdom and drew heavy opposition.  Privately he also questions whether nations like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are truly allies of the United States, and he obviously has grave reservations about the policies of the Israeli government, but those views have not fundamentally changed American foreign policy on his watch.  

The President also has a sense of history and an ability to put the news of the day in perspective—a talent that has been lacking among bureaucrats, military leaders, politicians and pundits since 9/11.  ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” he told Goldberg. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” Regarding the Middle East, he was evidently seduced into optimism by the Arab spring protests in 2011, and he demanded the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which has had disastrous consequences.  Now he has become more skeptical—even about the Turkish government, which he once viewed as a model—but he still looks to some “reformation” of Islam to bring the region into the modern world.  He also deeply and frankly regrets the intervention in Libya, which Secretary of State Clinton talked him into, because it reduced another Middle Eastern nation to chaos and opened up another opportunity for ISIS.  He resisted the calls of his second Secretary of State, John Kerry, to take military action in Syria simply to demonstrate American credibility, the shibboleth that led the US (and Kerry himself) into Vietnam and kept us there for many years.

Nor is this all.  The President has kept the threat of ISIS to the US in perspective.  ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” he told Goldberg. “Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” He has remarked that more people drown in bathtubs in the US than are killed by terrorists.  His cool rhetoric is reminiscent of another one of his heroes, Dwight Eisenhower, who refused in the late 1950s to become alarmed about a “missile gap” which he had excellent reasons to believe did not exist.  Obama also thinks that the US has to focus more on the more functional parts of the Third World, such as Southeast Asia and Latin America, rather than focus exclusively on the Middle East.  And in that region itself, he seems to understand that the Sunni-Shi’ite regional war that is being fueled by Iran and Saudi Arabia is the critical problem tearing the region apart, and that it has to be resolved by those nations themselves.  “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” he says. “An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East 

The President has also thought long and hard about the other great powers of the world.  While he believes Putin’s Russia is on a dysfunctional course, he also told Goldberg bluntly that Ukraine is of vital importance to Russia, but not to the United States, and that we cannot therefore expect our wishes to prevail there.  He also said that the United States will be less threatened by a thriving China than by a China in turmoil, a position with which I agree. 

 Exactly how Obama developed his iconoclastic views remains something of a mystery.  The President lived in Indonesia as a child, but that was a long time ago, and that seems to be the only time in which he immersed himself in a foreign culture.  He does not seem to care much about Europe.  Goldberg does not seem to have asked him what books have influenced him, and he does not volunteer any answers.  But he has thought very carefully about the interplay of long- and short-term factors in history and his sense of the limitations of US power is, in my opinion, far above average for an American political leader.  

What, then, is missing?

          Skeptical though he is, the President may still be too optimistic.  He clearly  believes that the world as a whole is on a path to progress, and that movements like ISIS are an unfortunate detour, provoked by economic and cultural turmoil, that will not change the course of history if we keep our heads.  He rejects Samuel Huntington’s idea of a clash of civilizations, even though he knows from his own experience that Islam is much more traditional and conservative even in Indonesia, where he lived, than it was fifty years ago.  Believing as I do that world civilization reshapes itself every eighty years or so, and that change does not always point in the same direction, I am not so hopeful.  The question of how we will deal with the Muslim world if it becomes increasingly radicalized remains open.   Europe faced that challenge from the 15th through the 17th centuries, and I believe western civilization could again, but we have no blueprint for doing so.

Even in the short run, though, Obama in practice has been a disappointment in two critical ways.  To begin with, as he freely admits, he has not consistently followed his own instincts. In 2009 he allowed the Pentagon to talk him into escalating in Afghanistan, and in 2012 he let Hillary Clinton persuade him to strike at Qadaffi.  Both decisions had fateful consequences and helped keep American policy in the Middle East on the same fundamentally counterproductive course.  He will leave both of those problems to his successor.

The second problem is more general and more serious.  Because he has been inconsistent—and because he has been reticent in most of his public statements—Obama has not sold an alternative vision of American foreign policy to the American people, much less to our political and foreign policy establishment.  In No End Save Victory I documented how Franklin Roosevelt, beginning in 1937, reshaped his fellow citizens’ views of the threats the nation faced and the proper responses to them.  Kennedy put forth a new vision of US foreign policy in his last year in office, calling for true peace instead of confrontation, and Nixon did something similar during his first term.  Ronald Reagan, of course, carefully restored the atmosphere of the Cold War.  But Obama has not tried to reshape American attitudes in a sustained manner.  He obviously feels responsible for what he has done—but he is willing to leave the future to others, and specifically to Hillary Clinton, who showed clearly during her time as his Secretary of State that she shares the traditional postwar assumptions of U.S. foreign policy.  That will make Obama’s legacy rather fleeting.  Unless Bernie Sanders manages to secure the nomination and win the election as President, it is extremely likely, in my opinion, that the US will be involved in another major military action in the Middle East by 2019.  New excuses will inevitably arise, and the impulses which Bacevich documented and Obama chose to reject will triumph once again.

By the time I had finished Goldberg’s article I had begun to think of one of my favorite historical passages.  It comes from George F. Kennan, perhaps the greatest diplomatic thinker the US has ever produced, who was also skeptical about the assumptions of postwar American foreign policy and our ability to move history in our preferred direction.  Kennan in the second volume of his memoirs gave a lengthy and moving account of his dismissal from the Foreign Service by John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, who, Kennan argued, had to get rid of him to distance himself from the containment policy Kennan had explained to the American people—all the more so since Dulles, though he had attacked the idea of containment, knew that he would have no alternative but to continue the policy.  That in 1953 brought Kennan’s formal careers to an end, but the Administration continued to consult him from time to time.  After telling this story, Kennan shared some most interesting observations about Eisenhower, who in my opinion was the President that Obama most wanted to emulate.  And indeed, Obama, like Eisenhower, would have been far more effective when the nation was winding down from one of its great crises, rather than in the midst of one.   Kennan’s appreciation of Eisenhower’s personal qualities and of his impact upon our history has stood the test of time, and while Eisenhower and Obama differ in many ways, certain critical similarities outweigh the differences.  Someday, if serious history survives, I suspect that a sensitive historian will see Obama in somewhat the same way.  

“Dwight Eisenhower,” wrote Kennan, “was in fact, and remains in the light of history, one of the most enigmatic figures of American public life. Few Americans have ever had more liberally bestowed upon them the responsibility of command, and few have ever evinced a greater aversion to commanding.  His view of the presidency resembled more closely the traditional pattern of the European head of state than that of his own country.  In manner as well as in concept of the presidential office—the concept of the President, that is, as the supreme mediator, above politics, reconciling people, bringing them together, assisting them to achieve consensus, softening the asperities—he would have made an excellent crowned head. . . 

“For all these reasons, there was a tendency in some quarters to view Dwight Eisenhower as an intellectually and politically superficial person whom chance, and the traditional love of the American voter for the military uniform, had tossed to the apex of American political life.  The impression was quite erroneous.  He was actually a man of keen political intelligence and penetration, particularly when it came to foreign affairs. Whether he used this understanding effectively is another question; but he had it.  When he spoke of such matters seriously and in a protected official circle, insights of a high order flashed out time after time through the curious military gobbledygook in which he was accustomed both to expressing and to concealing his thoughts.  In his grasp of world realities he was clearly head and shoulders (this required, admittedly, no very great elevation) above the other members of his cabinet and official circle, with the possible exception of Foster Dulles, and even here he was in no wise inferior.

“Dwight Eisenhower’s difficulties lay not in the absence of intellectual powers but in the unwillingness to employ them except on the rarest of occasions.  Whether this curious combination of qualities—this reluctance to exert authority, this intellectual evasiveness, this dislike of discussing serious things except in the most formal governmental context, this tendency to seek refuge in the inanities of the popular sport—whether this came from laziness, from underestimation of himself, or from the concept he entertained of his proper role as President, I would not know.  But it is my impression that he was a man who, given the high office he occupied, could have done a great deal more than he did.”

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Garland appointment and Obama's Legacy

By all accounts, Judge Merrick Garland is an outstanding individual and a dedicated public servant.  In the early 1990s, when he was in his early forties, he abandoned a career in one of Washington's leading law firms to become a federal prosecutor, and he handled the case of what was then the worst terrorist attack in US history, the Oklahoma City bombing.  His selection by President Obama will be one of the last milestones of the Obama presidency, and if a Democrat wins the election in November, it seems very likely that Garland will be promptly confirmed and become part of the Obama legacy.  yet for all that, both Garland's selection, and the controversy surrounding it, once again illustrate what is wrong with our nation today, why liberalism is losing key battles in the struggle to remake America, and why Barack Obama, to put it bluntly, was simply President at the wrong time.  It confirms yet again that while Republicans are fighting to transform America, the Democratic leadership is fighting to maintain a very shaky status quo.

Supreme Court appointments have illustrated the contrast between the two parties for several decades.  In the 1950s, under the leadership of Earl Warren, a progressive Republican, the Supreme Court emerged as a powerful force for social and political change.  It ordered the desegregation of schools, eliminated school prayer, and decreed the redistricting of state legislatures to end favoritism towards rural areas.  In the 1970s it legalized abortion, and more recently it has legalized gay sex and gay marriage.  By the 1980s, conservative Republicans were engaged in a campaign to use court appointments to undo some of those changes and use the court to move the nation in their preferred direction on many issues.  Their campaign moved slowly at first.  President Reagan began his term by appointing Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate, but he later added Antonin Scalia and tried to add Robert Bork.  George H. W. Bush plucked David Souter from obscurity, and Souter emerged as another moderate, but he also appointed Clarence Thomas when Thomas was only 44 years old.  By the time of the George W. Bush Administration the Republicans were taking no chances.  John Roberts and Samuel Alito were both relatively young, impeccably conservative, and nurtured within the new conservative legal establishment that the Republicans had managed to create.  Together with Thomas and Scalia, that four reliable, hard right justices, and with the help of Anthony Kennedy, they established a new individual right to own guns and ended limits on campaign spending.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have appointed reliable liberals, but their appointments have differed from the conservative Republican ones in key respects.  Of their four choices--Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor--only Ginsburg, who had a long background as a woman's rights activist, could be said to come out of an ideological network parallel to the one that spawned the four conservative justices.  That is partly because there is no such broad network abroad in the land--there is no broad liberal judicial creed out there any more, and the academic left in law schools is dominated by critical legal theory, which focuses on race and gender.  In contrast to Scalia and Thomas, whose "originalism" has defined them as justices, none of these four has enunciated any particularly liberal legal doctrine in their time on the court.  And last, but hardly least, the Democratic selections have been significantly older than the Republican ones.  The four conservatives averaged 50 years old at the time of their appointment; the liberals averaged 55.  That means the conservatives, all things being equal, will serve a total of 20 years longer than the liberals.  To paraphrase the last great work by my friend the political scientist James MacGregor Burns, the Republicans have worked much harder and more systematically to pack the court.

Now from the moment that Barack Obama took office, Congressional Republicans have attempted not only to discredit and cripple his presidency, but to continue the Republican assault on the institutions we created from the 1930s through the 1960s.  After their conquest of the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections, they effectively blocked any new liberal measures and carried on a long-term and successful campaign to cut discretionary federal spending.  They did not filibuster the Sotomayor and Kagan appointments, which were made when the Democrats still had a significant Senate majority, but elements of their base were outraged by the gay marriage decision.  Whatever the precedents election year appointments--and there are many--they were bound to use their new Senate majority to refuse to consider an Obama appointment during the last year of his Presidency.  I am bemused by my fellow Democrats' complaints that the Republicans simply should not be allowed to get away with this.  What the Republicans are doing simply reflects a basic fact of political life during our fourth great crisis:  they live in an alternative universe and want to create a completely different United States.  They will not allow any feelings of common ground across the political aisle to get in the way.  Nor, in my opinion, is there any substantial body of swing voters abroad in the land who will punish Republican Senators at the polls this fall for refusing to consider a nomination.  The bulk of the American people will not care.

Among the various names who were mentioned as possible Obama nominations for this new vacancy, the one that caught my eye was Judge Jane Kelly, an appeals court judge.  Judge Kelly has ever run for office--a gap in her resume which she shares with every Supreme Court appointment since Sandra Day O'Connor--but she spent much of her career advocating for the rights of the less well off.  While Hillary Clinton in the Children's Defense Fund and Barack Obama as a community organizer each spent about two years padding their resume with social work, Judge Kelly is the real deal: she was a public defender for almost twenty years.  She would have brought a new perspective to the court, and at age 52, she would have been relatively young for a Democratic appointee, if not a Republican one.  Her choice would also have put great pressure on Senator Charles Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, because she is from his own state of Iowa.  But  the President decided against her--some say because the White House feared attack ads describing some of her clients.

Merrick Garland, on the other hand, will turn 64 this year, making him the oldest appointee to the court in many years.  And while he has a calm and even temperament and has evidently been a wonderful colleague on the D.C. Court of Appeals, he is not particularly liberal.  While he raised questions about the decision to strike down the District of Columbia's gun laws, he also tried to deny judicial review to the prisoners at Guantanamo.  He has not been particularly favorable to the rights of defendants (which ironically, to a liberal like myself, was the strongest part of Justice Scalia's record.)  Interested readers can find a well-informed survey of his positions here.  He is the kind of justice who would do well in a consensus era like the 1950s--just as Barack Obama might have done well as President in a consensus era like the 1950s.  Barack Obama thought from the moment he was inaugurated that he might bring our partisan civil war to an end, and he has never given up that hope.  As a result, his side in our ongoing civil war--the struggle that will redefine America--has been without an effective leader, and the other side has continued to gain ground.

In the 24 hours since Garland's nomination, a likely scenario has emerged.  The Republicans will not now hold hearings on his nomination--but if a Democrat is elected in November it seems that Garland will probably be confirmed.  He will be older and less liberal than anyone that Hillary Clinton, much less Bernie Sanders (whose chances are of course fading), would be likely to appoint.  He will become part of Barack Obama's legacy--a legacy of trying to be more inclusive towards minorities while accepting the economic and political changes that have swept over the US since the 1980s.  That, as I suggested last December, seems to be the direction in which the country is moving, although we certainly have not gotten into that relatively safe harbor yet.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Trump, Clinton and the Future

By this time next week, it seems likely that Donald Trump will have removed the main remaining obstacles to his nomination as the Republican candidate for President.  Every poll in Florida shows him with a comfortable lead over Marco Rubio, who would not survive a defeat there, and most (but not all) polls show him leading John Kasich in Ohio as well.  Ted Cruz will undoubtedly continue his campaign to solidify his position as the standard bearer of the Evangelical right, and will probably win some more primaries in western states, but he has no chance of being nominated.  And I expect most Republican office holders to fall in line behind Trump--if only because giving in to power is what modern politicians do.

Donald Trump is a super-rich businessman with a very spotty financial record, a television celebrity who has never shown any concern for the lives of ordinary Americans.  Yet he is likely to be the major political beneficiary of the economic catastrophe that has befallen the lower half of our population over the last 40 years, and of the general distaste for politics that has gone along with it.  This is not because he is the most popular political figure among less well-off Americans.  Bernie Sanders outpolled Trump by 152,000 votes to 100,000 in New Hampshire and by 595,000 to 483,000 in Michigan.  But Trump is likely to get the Republican nomination while Sanders will probably lose the Democratic one to Hillary Clinton.  That, I would suggest, is because the Democratic party establishment has maintained enough of a base within the party to prevail over an insurgent.  But sadly, this means that the major problems of our country will only get worse, and a whole generation may be turned off of politics for the foreseeable future.

A recent article by Thomas Edsall summarized, once again, the economic changes that have devastated the American working class over the last 40 years.  Hourly wages adjusted for inflation have been nearly stagnant since 1964, and the middle class has shrunk.  The de-industiralization of the US--which has gone much further than in the major European countries--has devastated working class communities in states like Michigan and Ohio.  In a rational world, all this would have strengthened what is supposed to be our left wing party, the Democrats, and led to legislation which would have reversed some of these trends.  But this is not happening. Why?

The reasons, in my opinion, go back about half a century, and particularly to two bad decisions by the last New Dealer to occupy the White House, Lyndon Johnson.  The first, most catastrophic decision was the Vietnam War, which alienated the Boomer left from Johnson and to some extent from politics, and threw away the enormous Congressional majorities he had secured in 1964.  But the second was the redefinition of poverty as a minority problem, not a national one.  Ironically, the first target of Johnson's War on Poverty in 1964 was Appalachia, then as now the poorest region of the nation, and at that time, a Democratic stronghold.  But the problems of Appalachia have only gotten worse over the last 50 years, and it has become a Republican stronghold, now firmly in the pocket of Donald Trump.  The white southern working class has also abandoned the Democratic Party, convinced that Democrats care only about blacks, immigrants, women, and homosexuals.  Both Trump and Sanders voters know that their lot has been getting worse, and that neither major party seems to care very much about it.  Sadly, they are right.

Since the mid-1970s, when the first prominent "new Democrat," Gary Hart, specifically repudiated the New Deal's approach to problems, the Democratic Party has increasingly been dominated by a wealthy establishment that focuses largely on social issues--women's rights, gay rights, and affirmative action--and cooperates with most of the most powerful economic interests in our society, led by Wall Street.  Going with the flow, Bill Clinton in the 1990s appointed Treasury secretaries from the big investment banks, repealed Glass-Steagall, and allowed the orgy of private borrowing that eventually led to the 2008 crash to begin.  Going with the flow,. as Thomas Piketty's book showed two years ago, means promoting increasing economic inequality. Such inequality is the natural result of the operation of the capitalist system and only government intervention can stop it.  Clinton went with the flow in other ways as well.  His crime bill was a key step towards mass incarceration, and his welfare bill left many Americans defenseless.  Urban poverty, as a new book about evictions has shown, has become much worse.   Meanwhile, the leadership of the black community, it seems, had focused on creating a black establishment, especially in politics.  The gerrymandered black districts that were created in most major urban areas became rotten boroughs, firmly under the control of perpetual incumbents, who remained a power within the Democratic Party but do not seem to have been able to do much for their constituents.  Both Bill and Hillary Clinton, obviously, have invested a great deal of time cultivating that establishment, and it has paid off.  Although younger black people have turned against their parents and flocked to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton has nonetheless built up a large delegate lead with the help of black votes, especially in the South.  But most of those votes will be useless in the general election, where Democrats have no chance in the Deep South.

The economic crisis of 2008 revealed the structural flaws in our new economy and the disastrous consequences of deregulating the financial industry.  It also brought Barack Obama into power, and many of his supporters, including myself, hoped that he would become the new FDR.  But it turned out that Obama, like the Clintons, had no fundamental quarrel with the system that had been so good to him.  He too appointed leading financial officials with Wall Street backgrounds, who were determined to "do no harm" to the investment banks that had brought down our economy.  (Until recently I had forgotten my post about Ron Suskind's book, Confidence Men, on January 20, 2012, but it is worth re-reading now.)  Obama's two years as a community organizer padded his resume in the same way as Hillary's work for the Children's Defense Fund, and had as little impact on his world view.  And thus, in 2009, it was the Republicans, not the President, who mobilized middle- and lower-class anger against the financial system and the powers that be, channeling it into the Tea Party and sweeping the elections to the House of Representatives the next year.  They also won control of various state legislatures and locked in their control of the House, probably for the rest of the next decade, through gerrymandering.  That was the end of any attempt to rein in the financial community, as FDR had done, to deal with this crisis.

Because the cost of campaigns and the Citizens United decision have given so much power to large contributors, both parties are now in the hands of the financial community.  Nor is this all.  Every year, the big Wall Street firms recruit an astonishing percentage of the smartest graduates of our leading institutions, guaranteeing the perpetuation of their power.  Many poorer Americans have now seen the light.  Surrounded by gutted factories and neighborhoods, plagued by heroin addiction (brought about, in large part, by big Pharma), and finding higher education less and less acceptable, they realize that neither party cares about their fate.  A substantial part of the poorer white population is opting for Trump, partly out of racism and the resentment of immigration, but also because Democrats like Hillary Clinton have convinced them that they only care about women, gays, and minorities.  (The other night's debate suggested that Hillary might be wising up rhetorically: she talked mostly about economic issues and dropped one of her favorite lines, that doing something about Wall Street would not end prejudice against women, minorities, and the LGBT community.)   But Sanders, to repeat, is drawing far more votes than Trump, and might even now be able to re-orient our politics.  He will probably fail, however--because of the establishment of the Democratic party and its allies in the media.

More than thirty years ago, during the Reagan years, my brother Robert did a weekly commentary on NPR.  I especially remember hearing one of them in my car, a discussion of the new "upper middle class" that now dominated both politics and the media elite.  That elite has shrunk along with our major newspapers and tv networks since then, but its remaining members are as cut off as ever.  They--and their contemporaries in academia--live in a world in which the status of women, gays and minorities remains a key issue--but the economic status of ordinary Americans of all genders, races, and sexual orientations does not.  Like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, they simply can't believe that something could be fundamentally wrong with a system that has been so good to them.  Thus they cannot bring themselves to demand that Clinton release the transcripts of her Wall Street speeches--which she obviously would do if they did not show too much sympathy for her audience.  And thus, Bernie Sanders, who moved to Vermont but never abandoned his radical New York roots, is an embarrassment precisely because he never sold out.  The extent to which the major media outlets continue to belittle Sanders is extraordinary.  The three broadcast network news agencies have practically ignored his campaign. The New York Times's lead story on Wednesday dealt with the impact of the Michigan primary--on Hillary Clinton's campaign.  Even Democratic academics are quick to point out flaws in his economic plans, implying, in effect, that our current economic system is the best that we can do.  That, of course, is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Clinton will probably defeat Sanders thanks to black voters in the Deep South and super delegates who depend on the same  fundraisers that she does.  The question will then become whether wealthier #neverTrump Republicans will be more important than disaffected working class Democrats in determining the outcome in the New South and the upper Midwest, the key battlegrounds in the election to come.  There is little to look forward to in either a Trump or Clinton victory.  Trump's deportation plans will in my judgment lead to violence and chaos, while a Clinton victory will continue the deadlock between Congress and the White House.  Neither one will do anything to replace prevailing economic trends.  If a substantial portion of the Democratic establishment could get behind Sanders, I believe that he might not only win the nomination and the election, but also make significant gains in Congress and perhaps allow us to reverse prevailing trends.  This however remains at this time a very unlikely outcome.

Trump's appeal to poorer whites is significant but it should not be exaggerated.  He has consistently beaten his Republican rivals among all his party's major constituencies.  He will easily make his peace with the Republican party, and his election would immediately be followed by another big round of tax cuts, ballooning deficits, and greater inequality.  Meanwhile, whether he or Clinton were elected, several issues--crumbling infrastructure, relations between the police and inner city populations,. and gun rights--could at any moment lead to a real breakdown of our society.  We need a real civic rebirth more than ever, but it seems unlikely that we are about to get it.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Problems of Boomer Foreign Policy

 [I wrote this post before going on vacation early this week.  I am sure you are expecting to read about the primaries and Donald Trump--but that will have to wait a week. Stay tuned!]

Last Sunday and Monday, the New York Times printed an enormous two-part article on the role of the US government in general and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular in Libya.  It was a terrific and terrifying piece of journalism, one which, in a rational world, might have some important influence on the election campaign.  If I had to guess, I would speculate that perhaps 10,000 of my fellow Americans will do what I did and read it from start to finish.  Essentially, the article tells how Hillary Clinton, goaded by aides and friends with one eye on the 2016 election, took the lead in pushing for military action to insure the fall of Muammar Qadaffi. She took credit for a brilliantly successful operation, and then sat back while Libya descended into political chaos and now, civil war, with disastrous consequences all over the Mediterranean region, including in Europe.  The article is a not reassuring regarding the kind of President Hillary Clinton would be, and I hope any Democrats still on the fence will give it some thought.  But my task here, as usual, is to put these events within a broader context, and in this case the appropriate context is very clear.  The Libyan disaster is the latest of a series of initiatives undertaken by Mrs. Clinton's (and my) Boom generation, beginning with her husband's decision to go to war against Yugoslavia in 1999, exploding into a regional crusade under George W Bush, and proceeding, with only slight interruptions, through the Obama Presidency.  The premise of those policies is that the United States has the right and the duty to make its values prevail anywhere in the world, that it need not take any account of local political realities, and that it can do all this at a very low cost.  Many have tended to associate this policy with neoconservatives (whose leaders now are Boomers), and my friend Andrew Bacevich simply sees them as the logical outgrowth of US policy since 1947.  I however am afraid that my own generation really needs to take the blame.   The reason these policies have continued through three administrations is that our foreign policy establishment has literally no coherent alternatives to offer.

The best way to begin this discussion is to go back to the last Administration in which Boomers did not run foreign policy, that of George H. W. Bush, and look at its major foreign policy initiatives.  Confronted with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker--from the GI and Silent generations, respectively--did not take these huge events as a signal to push US influence as far as it would go.  They promised Mikhail Gorbachev not to extend NATO into Eastern Europe, and they even indicated that they would prefer to see the USSR survive.  In El Salvador, they actually settled a war against Marxist revolutionaries through compromise, the only time the US has ended a major counterinsurgency effort, I believe, in that way.  Most of all, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, they did not go to war until they had secured the support of the whole UN Security Council through very careful negotiations, and they limited their goals to expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.  In June of 2001 [sic], at the commencement of the Naval War College, I heard former President Bush explain--at least as well as I or any of my colleagues could have--why going to Baghdad would have been a dreadful mistake in a commencement address.  It turned out to be a eulogy for the era of sanity in US foreign policy.

Bill Clinton, the first Boomer President, moved only slowly to introduce Boomer foreign policy, but he made at least two key steps.  First of all, he enlarged NATO.  Secondly, in 1999, after reaching a peace accord in Bosnia, he went to war with Yugoslavia to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo--even though Russia and its new leader, Vladimir Putin, totally opposed this step.  That was the end of the new world order that his predecessor had hoped to bring about.  And in a signal of things to come, even though the war eventually detached Kosovo from Serbia and completed the destruction of Yugoslavia, the result of the conflict was that the Serbs, rather than the Kosovars, were largely driven out of the territory that they had shared.  Meanwhile, Clinton, going with the conservative flow as he so often did, put his signature to a "law" committing the US to the goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

The Bush Administration, we now know, came into office determined to achieve that goal, and 9/11 became the excuse to do so.  There is no need to rehash the details of that decision or to remind anyone of the chaos that it unleashed across the Middle East.  Barack Obama became President in large part because Hillary Clinton had voted for that war, but when confronted with the Arab spring in 2011, he also regarded it as an opportunity to dethrone tyrants and spread democracy.  In the same year, that led to the decision to support European military intervention against Qadaffi, ostensibly for humanitarian reasons, but then to bring down his regime as well.  The Times article shows that Clinton and her team decided that overthrowing Qaddafi would be one of her signature achievements.

Rather than recapitulate the article, which I recommend in the strongest terms, I want to fill in one of its gaps.  The parallels between both Clinton's words  and US deeds in Libya on the one hand, and similar statements by her predecessor (and fellow Boomer) Condoleezza Rice on her watch and the mistakes of the Bush Administration on the other, are simply astonishing.  In neither Iraq nor Libya did the US administration have any idea what would happen after the dictator had fallen and relied upon mindless optimism.  In both cases, they relied on would-be local "leaders" whose main qualification was speaking English, making their ideas accessible to US policy makers--and in both cases, such leaders, most of whom returned from exile, turned out to have no local support worth mentioning.  In both cases elections were designed to establish democracy but instead triggered the fragmentation of the country (as I noticed here when the first elections in Iraq were held.)  And in both cases, Rice and Clinton insisted on willfully denying evidence that their policies had been disastrous.  In 2006, in the midst of a war between Israel and Lebanon, she insisted on describing the conflict as part of "the birth pangs of a new Middle East," and renounced any attempt to maintain the status quo ante.  Donald Rumsfeld had similarly dismissed the chaos in Baghdad that followed the US invasion as a "messy" consequence of a new freedom.  Two years ago, Clinton tried to deflect questions about the impact of Qaddafi's fall by complaining about "American impatience," saying that transition to mature democracy "doesn't happen overnight."  In one of his periodic laments about the failure of Iraq to make greater progress, President George W. Bush complained that the US could not find the Iraqi Nelson Mandela, the miracle man who would bring democracy and order, because Saddam Hussein had "killed all the Mandelas."  The Times reports that State searched futilely for a Libyan Mandela as well.

Clinton, the story shows, lost interest in Libya in her last year as Secretary of State, in large part because she wanted to repeat the experiment yet again in Syria, where Boomers of both parties have criticized President Obama--not a Boomer, and proud of it--for not moving more aggressively against Hafez Assad and not once again putting the prestige of the US and the fate of a nation in the hands of mythical "good guy" rebels.  President Obama, the Times story shows, has some good instincts about intervention, but as he showed in Afghanistan as well, he has an unfortunate tendency to compromise with more aggressive, older subordinates, leaving him, often, with the worst of both worlds.  Since leaving office, Clinton has explicitly repudiated Obama's maxim, "don't do stupid stuff," as a guide to the foreign policy of a great power, which, she argues, needs a better "organizing principle."  At the same time, she has blamed the President for the decision on Libya.  Like George W. Bush, she is utterly incapable of ever admitting a mistake.

Not only is Libya now a haven for ISIS, but in another parallel to Iraq, the many, many weapons that Qaddafi cached around the country are falling into dangerous hands all over the region.  Extremists in Libya threaten both Mali and Egypt.  And supposed US allies, the UAE and Qatar, are funding extreme Islamist militias.  Worst of all, Libya's collapse has contributed mightily to the European refugee crisis.  But Clinton still argues that Assad, in Syria must also go.

John Kerry, born on the cusp between the Silent and Boom generations--and the son of a GI diplomat--has moved the United States in a different foreign policy direction.  Clinton's statements on Iran suggest that we would never have reached the nuclear agreement with that country had she remained Secretary of State.Bernie Sanders, another Silent, has explicitly criticized her preference for regime change.  But remarkably, the Boom generation, whose views were initially shaped by the Vietnam War, has not produced a single major political figure or high foreign policy official who has consistently opposed military intervention to transform foreign nations.  Boomers in academia, finance, and foreign policy, have all generally pushed for one particular set of new departures in their fields, and the results are around us for all to see.

Several of my most devoted readers--people of considerable accomplishment themselves--have periodically suggested that I drop generational theory from these posts.  I must admit that this leads me to imagine Galileo hearing from friends that he really ought to give up the idea of a heliocentric solar system, or Einstein being told that he could be a great physicist if he would simply give up this relativity nonsense.  (Before you accuse me of grandiosity, let me point out that I did not discover the generational cycle in American life--Bill Strauss and Neil Howe did.  I will claim credit for one thing:  I am never jealous when smart people come up with something that I know I could not have done--I am simply grateful.)  Boomers have done more than any generation to create the polarized climate of opinion in which we live, and they can't stand the idea that they might have anything in common with people on the other side of the political fence.  Yet younger generations have no trouble figuring this out.  It is because of generational theory that I have been able to contribute something original here, and I know it is  no accident that it has struck such a chord among Americans of many ages, all of whom discovered it more or less by accident.