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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...

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Judge Kavanaugh--A Different Perspective

I hadn't intended to blog about the Kavanaugh hearings, for various reasons, but an excellent story in this morning's New York Times  fact-checking Kavanaugh's testimony convinced me to do so.  I have never wanted Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court for the same reason that I didn't want Clarence Thomas there in 1991: that I knew I would not approve of the opinions he was going to hand down.  I believed Anita Hill's story, but I have to admit, at the risk of offending some readers, that I never thought she accused him of anything all that serious, since he neither touched her nor tried to punish her for failing to respond to his advances. She accused him of being a jerk, which is not a crime, although I know that courts have now defined it as creating an unfriendly environment, which is actionable.  On the court, Thomas has been even worse than I could imagine then.  Perhaps I should explain further: I was brought up to take politics extremely seriously, and non-violent sexual misbehavior among politicians much less so.  Today very few people take politics that seriously but many more, especially liberals, are obsessed with sexual misconduct.  This leaves me a bit out of step but I can't help it.

Kavanaugh has obviously been accused of more serious offenses, although all of them happened a long time ago and will be difficult to confirm.  Not for nothing did the sex crimes prosecutor that the Republicans hired to question her declare after the hearing that she would not have prosecuted Kavanaugh if the alleged offense had been brought to her.  I have been fascinated with the details of the case because, while I am 18 years older than Kavanaugh, I grew up in exactly the same neighborhoods, spent summers in them when I was in high school and college, and recognize both the geography and the ambiance in question.  I want to contribute one fact that many news outlets are confusing.  While the drinking age in Maryland, where he lived, was 21 in 1983 (and in 1965), 18 year olds could buy and drink wine and beer right over the border in D.C., and we did, a lot.  A junior in high school like Kavanaugh--who played two varsity sports--had plenty of older friends who would have been glad to buy for him.  I don't think I drank as much beer as he seems to have, but I drank plenty, too.

The Times story, by the way, introduced me to my first real hero of this sad controversy, a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh's (and a Republican!) named Lynne Brookes, who said that the judge had "mischaracterized his drinking."

'He frequently drank to excess,”'she said. 'I know because I frequently drank to excess with him.'

"Like Judge Kavanaugh, Ms. Brookes, a Republican, was an athlete who went to a prestigious graduate school after Yale. She disputed the implication in his testimony that he could not have overindulged because he was too busy studying and competing in athletics. 'It is completely possible to do both,' she said."

 The piece got me thinking because it shows very clearly how Kavanaugh gave misleading or pretty obviously incorrect explanations of many details that have emerged from his past, such as those in his yearbook entry.  Several have a clear sexual connotation, which he denied.  They reminded me of a few senior entries in the 1964 and 1965 yearbooks of my own prep school, Loomis, but ours were in essay form--written by classmates, not the subject himself--and any references to sexual conquests, of which there are not many, were much more discreet and never identified a woman by name.  18 years later, of course, a lot of barriers to sexual discussion had come down.  If Kavanaugh had testified that the yearbook editors had written his entry based upon various legends, some true and some false, I would have believed him. Instead he said he wrote them but denied their obvious meanings.

That got me thinking about who Kavanaugh might actually be--not in the context of youthful sex and drinking, but as a lawyer, judge, and potential Supreme Court appointment.  Here, it turns out, the comparison with Clarence Thomas is even more apt.  Both represent a relatively new kind of potential Supreme Court Justice: the career apparatchik and ideologue.  One could fairly say that the conservative Republican movement that has reshaped our political life and law over the last few decades created their career path, which really lacks any counterpart on the Democratic side.

Since Clarence Thomas came first, let's start with him.  Born in extremely modest circumstances and raised by a single parent and grandparents, he made his way from South Carolina to a Catholic seminary in Missouri, and then to Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he graduated cum laude.  He then attended Yale Law School where, he explains in his autobiography, he constantly faced doubts that he would have been admitted without affirmative action.  But while at Yale he met the man who shaped his career, John Danforth, then the Missouri Attorney General.  He was Danforth's assistant in Missouri from 1974 until 1976, when Danforth was elected to the Senate.  After three years in private practice, working for the Monsanto Chemical Company, Thomas joined Danforth as a legislative assistant in 1979-81.  By this time Thomas had become an ideological conservative, influenced by authors including Thomas Sowell and Ayn Rand.  In 1981-82 he was an Assistant Secretary of Education and then, from 1982 to 1990, he was Chairman of the US Equal Opportunity Commission.  Anita Hill worked for him there.

I did not remember that Thomas had replaced Robert Bork, of all people, on the District of Columbia Court of appeals in 1990, where President George H. W. Bush had placed him at the urging of Senator Danforth.  Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black member of the Supreme Court, stepped down in 1991, and Bush tapped Thomas, then 43, to replace him.  I see no need to rehash what happened during his confirmation hearings.

On the court, Thomas has developed an increasingly conservative view of the Constitution which seeks to undo most of the increased role of the federal government in the economic and social life of the country as it evolved during the 20th century.  He has argued that the the federal regulation of both industry and agriculture are unconstitutional.  He was the first justice to favor throwing out the key section of the Voting Rights Act and lived to see a 5-4 majority come around to agreeing with him.  He defended all the extreme anti-terror measures of the Bush Administration, has sided with the government against criminal defendants in many cases, and has opposed affirmative action in several contexts.  He has argued that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and that the Constitution does not include a right to privacy and therefore does not protect gay rights.

Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas shared the Catholic religion as children, but that was about all.  Kavanaugh was born in the D. C. area to a father who was a lawyer and corporate executive, and a mother who originally taught high school but went to law school and became a judge after her only child was born.  He attended an elite prep school, as we all know, where he was evidently a very good student and a star athlete, and Yale College admitted him without any benefit of affirmative action.  He graduated cum laude in history--which at Harvard would represent a good, but not outstanding academic performance--but was then admitted to Yale Law School, which was a very high bar to pass.  He became a Notes Editor of the Yale Law Journal.  I have not been able to discover anything about his parents' politics but he might easily have been one of millions of Gen Xers who were disgusted by Jimmy Carter (who became President when he was only eleven) and inspired by Ronald Reagan.  In any case, at Yale Law School, he intersected with a powerful political-legal current.

At the conclusion of the dozen-year period between Thomas's entry into Yale Law School and Brett Kavanaugh's, in 1982, conservative Republicans founded the Federalist Society.  The Yale Law patron of the Federalist Society, Prof. George L. Priest, got to know Kavanaugh, partly, it seems, o the basketball court.  Graduating from Law School in 1990, Kavanaugh clerked for Judge Walter King Stapleton of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.  While Kavanaugh was working for him, Stapleton wrote a majority opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that essentially eviscerated Roe v. Wade, but which was overturned by the Supreme Court thanks to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.  Prof. Priest then recommended Kavanaugh to another appeals court judge, Alex Kozinski.  Kavanaugh then interviewed for a clerkship with Chief Justice Rehnquist, but failed to get the position--the first serious setback, it would appear, of his whole life.

In 1992, fatefully, Kavanaugh held a fellowship in the office of then-Solicitor General Ken Starr, and followed that up with a Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom he now hopes to succeed.  Leaving the clerkship in  1994, he went back to work for Starr, who was now the independent counsel investigating Whitewater, and, eventually, much else besides.  While there, we now know, Kavanaugh--now in his late thirties--zealously pushed for the investigation of conspiracy theories about the death of Vincent Foster, to see if it had been murder rather than suicide.  After the Lewinsky revelations he pushed for a most explicit and intrusive interrogation of President Clinton about the details of their relationship (which, I continue to believe, was of no business of anyone but the two consenting adults involved.)  In 1997 he landed his first job in private practice--as a partner in the Washington firm of Kirkland and Ellis, which had been Ken Starr's firm.  (All facts courtesy of Wikipedia.)  He returned to Starr's office after only one year and helped prepare the Lewinsky report.

Kavanaugh returned to Kirkland & Ellis in 1999, and became, among other things, the counsel for relatives of Elian Gonzales who tried unsuccessfully to prevent him from returning to Cuba.  In December 2000 he joined the legal team of George W. Bush to help stop the recount in Florida.  Then he joined the White House Counsel's office under Alberto Gonzales, and from 2003-6 he held other positions in the Bush White House.   Bush originally appointed him to the D.C. Court of Appeals in 2003, but the Democrats blocked him for three years, citing excessive partisanship--a judgment in which I must concur.  A Republican Senate confirmed him in 2006.  He immediately became controversial. He has served there until now.

To summarize: Clarence Thomas took 17 years from his graduation from Yale Law School to ascend to the Supreme Court.  He spent 3 of those years in private practice, 11 years working in Republican state and federal administrations, and one year as an appeals court judge.  If Kavanaugh is confirmed 28 years after his graduation, he will have spent 4 years in clerkships and fellowships, about 2 years in private practice, about 4 years working for Ken Starr, and 12 years as an appellate judge.  Before becoming a judge he participated zealously in several of the most partisan and sensationalist Republican offensives of our era:  the Starr investigation, the Elian Gonzales case, the 2000 Florida recount controversy, and, in the Bush White House, the design of detention and interrogation policies after 9/11.

This post is moving further afield than I anticipated but it behooves me to compare these career paths to those of other incumbent appointments.  Let us begin with the Republicans.  John Roberts, who was a very brilliant history student at Harvard as an undergrad (he graduated in 1976, the year I became a full-time faculty member), had a career similar to these two but at a more distinguished level.  He went from Harvard Law (1979) to two clerkships for an appeals court judge and for Chief Justice Rehnquist, and then to six years' worth of positions in the Reagan Administration in the Justice Department and the White House.  After just 3 years of private practice he became  deputy Solicitor General under George H. W. Bush.  Ironically, although Bush put him on the D. C. Court of Appeals in 1992, the Senate did not confirm him and the appointment lapsed.  He therefore spent the Clinton Administration in 8 more years of private practice, where he remained until 2003, when George W. Bush finally managed to get him onto that same court, after the Senate, then Democratic-controlled, had failed to confirm him in 2001-2.  In 2005, he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  Samuel Alito graduated from Yale Law School in 1975, he held a circuit court clerkship for a year. Then he spent 4 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey (1977-81), 7 years in the Reagan Justice Department,  and3 years as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey (1987-90).  George H. W. Bush then appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and he sat there until 2005 when Bush's son appointed him to the Supreme Court.  He alone appears to have no experience in private practice at all among today's justices. (None of them, I believe, has ever run for any office of any kind, which is a much more serious gap in my opinion.)  Neil Gorsuch was a classmate of Barack Obama's at Harvard Law, graduating in 1991.  He held 3 years' worth of clerkships, two on the Supreme Court,  and then spent 8 years in private practice.  In 2005 he joined the George W. Bush Department with responsibility for all cases having to do with the war on terror.  Then he was appointed to the Appellate Court for the 10th Circuit where he served until last year when President Trump nominated him to the Supreme Court.  Roberts, Alito and Gorsuch have all been members of the Federalist Society.

Stephen Breyer seems to have graduated from Harvard Law in 1964, and he clerked for Justice Goldberg and held positions in the Justice Department from 1965 through 1967. He then appears to have joined the Harvard Law School faculty although he returned to Washington in 1973, working for the Watergate Special Prosecutor, and became chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1979-80.  Then he returned to Harvard for the next 14 years.  He was primarily a legal academic.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg did a two-year clerkship after law school (1959-61) and then held positions in law schools, chiefly as a professor, from 1961 until 1980, while simultaneously doing a great deal of litigation on behalf of women's rights.  President Carter appointed her to the D. C. Court of Appeals in 1980 and she remained there until 1993 when President Clinton put her on the Supreme Court.  She was a legal academic with no previous Washington experience.

Elena Kagan, who appears to have had one of the more brilliant college careers of those under discussion, graduated from Harvard Law in 1986 and clerked on the D. C. Appeals Court and the Supreme Court for two years.  She then was in private practice for five years, but left to serve on the University of Chicago law faculty from 1991 to 1995.  Her former boss, Judge Abner Mikva, brought her into the White House Counsel's office in `1995 and she worked in the Clinton White House until 1999.  President Clinton tried to put her on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia then, but Republicans blocked her confirmation.  The University of Chicago declined to rehire her but Harvard Law took her on and she served as a professor and Dean from 1999 (I believe) through 2009.  President Obama appointed her Solicitor General in that year, and appointed her to the Supreme Court in 2010.  Like Breyer, she had spent most of her working life as an academic, interspersed with stints in Washington, before reaching the Supreme Court at age 49.

Sonia Sotomayor, who joined the court a little earlier than Kagan, also had a brilliant career as an undergraduate at Princeton and graduated from Yale Law in 1979. She did not secure a clerkship but worked in the district attorney's office in New York for four years, and in private practice for three more.  She appears to be the only Justice who was appointed to the bench by a President from the opposite political party, George H. W. Bush, who choice her for a district court position in 1991 (she was confirmed the next year at the age of 38.)  After 17 years on that court she was appointed by President Obama to the Supreme Court in 2009. 

Clerkships and service in the executive branch have been the mains paths to the federal judiciary among these judges.  If Kavanaugh is confirmed he will be the 7th of 9 sitting justices who came from other positions on the federal bench.  He would also, it seems very fair to me to say, have taken the most partisan path to the bench and to the Supreme Court of any of them and he will have had the least real-world experience of any kind before becoming a judge.  He was a zealous Republican apparatchik--as was Thomas.  None of the Democrats on the court have had careers that were really similar to either of theirs.  And that remains, for me, the biggest reason why neither of them should ever have been chosen for the Supreme Court.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Some of the President's Men

On Tuesday, thanks to a strange combination of circumstances, I found myself for the first time in an amazon.com bookstore in the Dedham Mall.  Inevitably, I suppose, I picked Bob Woodward's new book, Fear, off the shelf, and within 20 minutes I knew that I was going to buy it.  I have now read it.  It's gotten a great deal of attention, of course, but only at a very general level, focusing on the President's iffy relations with his staff.  The book is actually an interesting study of the Trump Administration's dealing with three issues:  tariffs, immigration, and national security policy, especially with respect to North Korea and Afghanistan.  It also includes a particular perspective, which we shall explore, on the Mueller investigation.  I learned a lot from it.

All Bob Woodward's books are based on conversations with favorite sources, and he rarely makes any attempt to conceal who they are.  In this case, his principal sources appear to be Lindsay Graham. who describes his own bromance with President Trump in considerable detail; former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; former chief economic adviser and Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn; Steve Bannon; former staff Secretary Rob Porter, who had to quit the White House over accusations of spousal abuse; White House trade adviser Peter Navarro (although I was not as sure about his role as the others): former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus; former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster; White House Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert; and former Trump attorney John Dowd.  Although retired Generals James Mattis, now Secretary of Defense, and John Kelly, now White House Chief of Staff, play very big roles in the book, I did not see any clear evidence that either of them had been much of a source for it.   Donald Trump has no one to blame but himself for the book, which is composed mostly of the recollections of those who found it impossible to work for him.

Let's get the boilerplate out of the way.  President Trump is an unstable, narcissistic, constantly abusive man, who uses verbal abuse to assert control over everyone around him.  Steve Bannon apparently saw Trump do this with both Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, who had the political experience Trump lacked, during the campaign, and there are far too many other instances of this tactic in the book to be worth mentioning.  The text also confirms his short attention span and his inability to keep medium- and long-term goals in mind.  Several subordinates, including Kelly, have tried to institute some kind of regular procedure for White House decision-making, but without success.  Trump gives orders, and subordinates begin implementing them, before other more important subordinates know what has happened.  That is why some have been driven to removing dangerous policy papers from his desk before he can sign them, or trying to make sure that they never get there in the first place.  All of this is rather frightening, and one of the key reasons why Trump should never have been President, but it is not the main thing I saw in the book.

Donald Trump does hold strong, anti-establishment views on certain issues, and believes with some justification that voters preferred him in 2016 because of them.  One might argue, indeed, that Fear as about Trump's own attempts to make democracy work by imposing those views on the federal government and the Republican establishment.  Thanks to Cohn and perhaps Navarro, we learn the most, probably, about his views on globalism and international trade, which break very sharply, of course, with mainstream thinking in both political parties since the late 1940s.  Trump genuinely believes that the open international economy that the US has worked so hard to create hurts the US far more than it helps us.  He believes that a trade deficit with any country proves that we are being taken advantage of--especially if the United States is also helping pay for the defense of that country.  "Globalist" is one of his favorite epithets.  In the first fifteen months or so of his presidency, however, he could not make much progress against the united opposition of the Secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin (who does not seem to have talked to Woodward), his chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, and the heads of his national security establishment, all of whom were firmly committed to the postwar world order. He did however bring some allies into the government, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Cohen and White House adviser Peter Navarro, who share his views that tariffs can help the United States.  Cohen, in fact, left the White House early this year, when those advisers managed a successful end-around and Trump actually imposed tariffs on China, much earlier than had been thought possible.  That was only the beginning, of course, of successive rounds of tariffs, as well as of the renegotiation of NAFTA.  So far our free trade agreement with South Korea has survived Trump's attempts to do a way with it.  We do not know how much further Trump will be able to go, or what these steps will do to the US economy.

A second, more interesting case, for me, was Afghanistan.  Here Woodward's treatment reveals a lot not only about Trump, but about our national security establishment 17 years after 9/11.  It has learned nothing.

In his own way, Donald Trump seems to have grasped an essential truth of our time: that creating a new Afghanistan in our image of democracy is an entirely hopeless enterprise, and that it has little or nothing to do with the problem of preventing terrorist attacks in the United States or elsewhere.  Successive administrations have ramped our commitment there up and down for political reasons without facing these facts, and when pushed, senior military a civilian national security types still argue that a new 9/11 might be mounted from Afghanistan if we ever pull out.  These views confirmed for me, once again, the extent to which George W. Bush and his administration reshaped our view of the world, disastrously, by arguing that the democratizing of a whole region was necessary to protect us at home.  The saddest expression of such views in the book come from Lindsay Graham, who bluntly told Trump that the United States is fighting an endless war against evil in the world, from Nazism through Communism to Islamic extremism, with some new threat already waiting in the wings.  Generals Kelly and Mattis also believe that Iran represents a serious threat to US national security (Woodward's book did not reach the point at which Trump actually junked the Iranian nuclear agreement.)  Trump argued repeatedly with Kelly, Mattis, and H. R. McMaster about Afghanistan and would have been delighted to give up the whole enterprise--but in the end, he caved, and the commitment increased slightly again and loosened rules of engagement. He had to give up the idea of turning responsibility for the war over to the CIA because the agency didn't want it--they want it to remain the Pentagon's failure, not theirs.   On the other hand, the President has carried out another threat and suspended security assistance to Pakistan, finally recognizing, perhaps, that our Pakistani "ally" has been on the other side of the Afghanistan war all along.

The arguments over Afghanistan fit into a broader fight--famously argued out, without result, in the "tank" at the Pentagon--over the fundamental principles of post-1945 foreign policy, in which Trump does not believe. That meeting ended without agreement on anything--trade, troops in South Korea, or what to do about Iran--and after Trump left, Tillerson called him a "fucking moron." The international order, he thinks, hurts us more than it helps us.  Unable to change his mind, both Mattis and Tillerson began simply blowing the White House off over a number of key issues pretty early on.  Tillerson, of course, has now given way to Mike Pompeo, who is falling in line on certain human rights issues, and Mattis is rumored to be on his way out soon.  On trade, Trump has made some personnel changes that allowed him to move policy in the direction he favors--which, let us face it, is what elected Presidents should do. But it is not yet clear that the President will have a team more in line with his own thinking, especially since John Bolton, who has replaced H. R. McMaster--who kept trying to persuade the President with facts--and Bolton remains an ardent neocon.

Woodward ends the story of the crisis over North Korea well before Trump's summit with Kim Jong Il in Singapore--another hint of truly new policies.  His account of that crisis will raise your hairs.  Successive administrations have thought seriously about a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, but have backed away because it might be too dangerous.  They also have the fantasy--very popular in many contexts in recent decades--that they could transform the whole situation with a decapitation strike that would kill Kim Jong Il.   At one point Trump was narrowly prevented from perhaps setting off a war by pulling US military dependents out of South Korea, which the North might easily have taken as a signal of an imminent US attack.  The military trained for an all out conventional strike against North Korea in the fall of 2017, Mattis, on the other hand--like many of the officers I worked with at the Naval War College--accepted realistically that the United States could deter North Korea, and that it had no choice.

What has happened since Woodward turned in his book has opened up new vistas.  Trump evidently decided against the military option and adopted a new "solution"--to make peace with North Korea thanks to his own personal relationship with Kim Jong Il.   This seems to be his favorite solution for intractable international problems, and Woodward reports him saying similar things about the relationship he claims to have with Xi Jinping of China.  (He does not discuss relations with Russia or the summit with Putin.) So far, Kim Jong Il seems willing to play along with this fantasy, but without making the really serious concessions necessary to assure that he is giving up his nuclear weapons.  In any case, it seems most unlikely that the idea that we cannot allow North Korea to threaten the US with nukes--one also enunciated by Barack Obama--will go away any time soon.

And thanks again to Lindsay Graham, we learn a good deal more about the other issue Trump appears to care the most about, immigration.  Along with White House aide Steven Miller (who is a minor character in this book), Trump is convinced that the US needs a wall and an end to "chain migration," which allows individual immigrants to bring in their families.  Graham is a moderate on immigration but bizarrely, there is nothing in the book, I believe, about the idea of a path to citizenship for our 11 million illegals, except for the DACA cases.  Here Trump feels strongly enough to have blocked any compromise even on DACA with a bipartisan group in Congress.  The next time he tweets about the necessity of the wall, I shall be reminded that this is the way he has also talked about imposing tariffs and pulling troops out of  South Korea or Afghanistan--topics upon which he is loathe to give up his views even though he can't get his way.

Woodward does not seem to have any sources inside the Mueller investigation, and his treatment to Trump, Russia, and related issues is somewhere between weak and non-existent, because his only source was the President's former attorney John Dowd. Dowd evidently convinced himself that his client was innocent (as attorneys are wont to do) and that since the White House provided all available evidence--without showing collusion--there wasn't any.  He only feared that Trump would commit perjury if he testified. The Cohen and Manafort guilty pleas occurred after the book was done, and I don't think this section of the book will hold up.

I put the book down feeling more strongly than ever that there are at least two different levels to the Trump Administration. On the one hand, the President is giving certain key Republican constituencies such as the Federalist Society, the religious right, and the Koch lobby almost everything they want, including a conservative Supreme Court, a completely different attitude in the Department of Education, and an end to a whole host of environmental regulations.  This is largely what any Republican President would have done, and lies squarely within the long-term trend of US politics since the 1980s.  On the other hand, Donald Trump has his own ideas about tariffs and national security--and is moving closer to implementing many of them.  Meanwhile, much of our national security posture--a legacy of the Bush II and other administrations--is, indeed, doing us no good.  This situation leaves essentially no room for thoughtful, good government, or for time and energy to address a whole host of very serious problems at home, including health care (which Woodward also left out) and infrastructure.   The problem is not simply what Trump and the Republicans are doing, but what they will inevitably fail to do.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Reflections on US Foreign Policy in the Age of Empire

During my childhood, the government of the United States assumed responsibility for the fate of the entire non-Communist world.  I discovered while researching American Tragedy that the Eisenhower Administration had written policy statements pledging to defend every threatened area of the world against hypothetical Communist aggression--and to use nuclear weapons to do so.  That led Ike to the brink of war over Laos in the waning months of his term in office, and it created enormous pressure on John F. Kennedy to intervene massively in both Laos and South Vietnam during 1961.  Kennedy, however, refused to do so, against the unanimous advice of his senior advisers.  He repeatedly argued taht South Vietnam would be a terrible place to fight.  Within months of his death, however, Lyndon Johnson had decided to send large numbers of American troops to save the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam once he was re-elected, and in 1965 he did just that.

That decision, of course, eventually destroyed the public consensus on the need to defend territories threatened by Communism.  The number of American troops in South Vietnam reached half a million in 1968, peaking early in the next year at a little over that figure, and 14,000 Americans died there in that year--about three times the entire American killed in action since the "war on terror" began in 2001.  President Nixon did not abandon the objective of maintaining a non-Communist South Vietnam, but he eliminated the American ground combat prsence by 1972 and signed a peace agreement in January 1973.  The United States, however, had never managed to set up a South Vietnamese government that commanded the support of its people or fielded an army that could stand up to the North Vietnamese without US help. When the North Vietnamese attacked again in 1975, South Vietnam collapsed.

The National Security bureaucracy, as Andrew Bacevich as pointed out, did not abandon the objective of defending the non-Communist world after Vietnam.  Even before Saigon fell, the Ford Administration tried to involve the US covertly in a civil war against a Soviet-backed regime in Angola.  But Vietnam did make military leaders, in particular, much more cautious about the use of American ground troops overseas.  Jimmy Carter in 1979 started a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and pledged to defend the Persian Gulf region by force if necessary, but no one put that resolve to the test.  The Reagan Administration became more confrontational with the Soviet Union, and it seemed at the time as if some of its civilian leaders wanted to use US forces in Central America and the Middle East.  The military resisted, however--except for the brief, ill-fated deployment of the Marines in Lebanon--and there were no more big foreign wars.  As long as members of the Silent generation like Colin Powell, who had been junior officers during Vietnam, led the US military, caution prevailed.  Powell in 1991 also helped ensure that the US would limit its objectives to liberating Kuwait, not overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and thus ensured that the first major post-Vietnam conflict would result in a quick and easy victory instead of another quagmire.

The Boom generations' advent into power began to loosen these restraints. Bill Clinton sent some troops into Somalia, and in his second term, he committed the US to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and fought a war for the independence of Kosovo.  The advent of the George W. Bush Administration moved us into a completely new era.  Its leaders came into office determined to remove Saddam from office. Then came 9/11, and they committed themselves to nothing less than a campaign to determine the political future of the Muslim world, by any means necessary.  The campaign began with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it has continued--under three Administrations--to include support for the Arab spring, two episodes of regime change in Egypt, the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya, drone strikes from West Africa to Pakistan, and now, support for a Saudi war in Yemen and a new confrontation with Iran.

The war in Afghanistan has gone on for nearly 17 years.  Given that Afghanistan had at least three times the population, spread over a much larger area, of South Vietnam, it is not surprising that a much smaller American and allied troop commitment failed to stabilize the country. Now the foreign forces have mostly been withdrawn and the situation resembles the situation in South Vietnam in 1964 (before the massive US intervention) or in 1975 (on the eve of the North Vietnamese offensive.) We have never managed to establish an effective Afghan government or military, and government security forces are suffering major defeats in much of the country at the hands of the Taliban, supported, it is now recognized, by the government of Pakistan.  The Arab Spring did not lead to democracy in much of the Middle East, and led to a catastrophic failure of democracy in the leading nation of Egypt.  The Iraq war has fragmented Iraq and led to the birth of ISIS.  Turkey is now a hostile nation.  By any rational measure, the policies undertaken by George W. Bush in 2001 and continued, in many ways, by his two successors,. have catastrophically failed.

Yet they continue--because the national security establishment has learned to keep them off the public's radar.  We still have lost less than one tenth of the men who died in Vietnam, and we have very few ground troops fighting anywhere.  The country has largely lost interest in the Middle East.  But US drones are killing suspected militants over a huge swath of territory--even though there is no proof that these killings do anything but harm in the long run, either.  We now seem to be running a failed policy on automatic pilot, and we are too concerned with our domestic crisis to pay sustained attention.

President Trump, of course, has renounced the whole thrust of post-1945 US foreign policy, treating NATO like some kind of protection racket, moving from free trade to protectionism, and repudiating the very idea of international norms and institutions.  These too are very serious steps and deserve more discussion at another time.  But he is far from our only problem.  We must eventually be forced to the conclusion that we might have reached long ago: that the Muslim world, like the European one, will have to work out its political development on its own.  In any case, that is what it is doing--whether Washington likes it or not.  It will be some time, apparently, before out political leadership resumes serious discussion of our place in the world, and perhaps makes a new accommodation to a new reality.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Danger of dictatorship?

I have been planning today's post for at least a week and will stick to the plan, but some comments on the notorious anonymous New York Times op-ed that appeared yesterday will not be out of order.  I definitely do not think, to begin with, that it was written by either of the administration's leading retired Generals, Chef of Staff John Kelly or Secretary of Defense James Mattis.   While it certainly isn't unheard of for senior military officers to speak out, they do so publicly, not covertly.  Nor do I think either of these men would have made the fulsome comments about Trump's domestic policies.  The leading candidates, in my opinion, are Dan Coats and Nikki Haley.  I will be amazed if the secret can be kept very long, and the firing of whoever it turns out to be will deepen the crisis for the White House.  That in turn will raise the issue I now turn to: the issue of what drastic steps the President might take to save himself and his rule.  President Trump is making more and more threats on social media, and I don't think we can rule out attempts to carry them out as he fights for his political life, and, possibly, his freedom.  There are three possible steps that particularly alarm me.

The first is one that I expect him to attempt after Judge Kavanagh has been confirmed--and perhaps even before the midterms.  That is the firing of Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, and their replacement by compliant stooges who will end Robert Mueller's investigation.  Trump, both the Times op-ed and Bob Woodward's new book make clear, lives in a fantasy world, and really believes that the Mueller investigation is a deep state conspiracy against him.  It threatens his presidency and his liberty.  Don McGahn, the White House counsel who protected Mueller, is leaving the White House.  I think Trump was persuaded not to try to fire Mueller earlier because McGahn was working so hard to secure the resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy and his replacement by a second, crucial Supreme Court appointment.  That will be done soon, and Trump and his more hard line aides might conclude that firing Mueller before the midterms might help energize his base, who have heard how important it is to fire Mueller every night for at least a year on Fox News.

A second campaign that seems already to be beginning is a concerted attack on voting rights, disguised as an attack on immigrant voter fraud.  Yesterday it developed that the Justice Department has issued an extraordinary request for detailed voting records from the state of North Carolina, designed, it seems, to find evidence of large-scale voting by non-citizens.  There is no evidence that such large-scale fraud has taken place, but this Administration is fully capable to trying to manufacture some, just as they are trying to strip citizenship from Hispanic-American citizens delivered by midwives in territory near the Mexican border.  The one card that Republicans have not yet tried to play is one that I discussed here some years ago:  an attempt to restore property qualifications for voting.  There is no bar in our Constitution or laws against such qualifications, which states might impose as they did in the early decades of the Republic, and they would provide a way for red state Republicans to stave off the consequences of demographic change.

Lastly, the administration might take up the President's recent call for some kind of restrictions on social media designed to make sure that they give equal time to conservative outlets.  Again, there is no real data, it turns out, to support the claim that google disfavors conservative outlets in news searches--a claim that found its way from a right wing publicist to Fox News, and then directly to the Trump twitter feed.  Google favors the most popular sites, and mainstream media sites have a viewership that dwarfs Breitbart or even Fox.  Trump has however committed himself to the idea that the mainstream media are conspiring against him and would obviously feel that steps to make his view of reality more popular would be justified.

Having listed these possible steps, I still don't think that the second and third are likely to go very far.  They would be enormous undertakings requiring a cadre of dedicated apparatchiks to put into effect.   The only such cadre that Trump seems to have at his disposal is ICE, which as I have said before is zealously carrying oiut his policy of ethnic cleansing against immigrants.  In addition, we have seen no large-scale outbreak of violence on Trump's behalf, a major characteristic of the totalitarian movements of 80 years ago. I do not, however, expect Trump's presidency to go down without a fight, and I do think he has people around him who would favor measures like these.  And that is why I, unlike many of my Facebook friends, do not hold it against Gens. Kelly and Mattis for remaining at their posts to try to ensure a minimum of reasonable governance, and why I respect the attempt of the Times's mysterious op-ed writer to sound the alarm and restart some discussion inside the Administration of the application of the 25th Amendment--a discussion which, he says, has already taken place.  We will, I think, face some kind of serious constitutional crisis during the next two years.