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

Saturday, February 29, 2020

End of a Boomer War

The New York Times has just reported the announcement of a deal between the US and the Taliban that will end our armed involvement in Afghanistan within 14 months.  That is good news.  It  has been obvious for years that we will never get any closer to our objective of an Afghanistan in our own image than we have now--which was not close at all.  Like the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, the Taliban have commitment, organization, and sanctuary that the successive Afghan governments we have sponsored never had.  We insisted on real elections as well as the forms of democracy in Afghanistan--as we did not in South Vietnam--and as a result, our client government is now fighting over the results of the last election.  There is an excellent chance that the Taliban will control most of the country within another three years.  That will not necessarily have any real impact on the security of the United States, any more than the loss of South Vietnam did.  It frees us of a burden that we should never have undertaken.

The defining foreign policy experience of my generation was of course the Vietnam War, but its legacy was far more complicated than many of us ever realized.  Bill Strauss and Neil Howe wrote nearly 30 years ago that the only thing that Boomers agreed upon about Vietnam was that their elders had mismanaged it--either by starting it in the first place, or by failing to win.  The Vietnam debacle did influence the leaders of the GI and Silent generations for nearly two decades.  Even though, as Theodore Draper pointed out many years ago, no establishment figure ever suffered for supporting the war, the Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush I administrations avoided any similar quagmires, no matter how anti-Communist their rhetoric might have been.  George H. W. Bush and James Baker deserve particular credit on this score.  They settled the conflict in El Salvador with a compromise and stuck to a limited objective in the first Gulf War.  The restraints began to come down under Bill Clinton, who signed a Congressional revolution committing the US to the fall of Saddam Hussein.  They came completely off under George W. Bush.

Even before 9/11, we know now, the Bush II Administration was contemplating an invasion of Iraq. 9/11 shifted their focus to Afghanistan.  Then began a series of wars and interventions, first in Afghanistan and Iraq, and later, under Barack Obama, in Libya, toppling yet another government with disastrous results, and in Syria, where we could do no good.   My contemporaries were convinced that they could transform third world countries with air power, encouragement, and a search for effective, friendly clients. They couldn't.

As early as 1974, when the Ford Administration decided to intervene covertly in the Angolan civil war, I was shocked to see how few people seemed to have learned some obvious lessons from Vietnam that I never abandoned.  American intervention in third world civil wars could wreak havoc and sometimes maintain a friendly regime in power but it rarely if ever seemed to get it on a stable footing.  When 9/11 occurred it was less than two years after I had published American Tragedy. Just a couple of weeks after it, the journal of the now-defunct Historical Society asked me to contribute to a short symposium on its significance.  I too had been affected by 9/11, of course, and I knew we had to take some action in Afghanistan, but I hadn't forgotten what I had learned before either. This is what I wrote.

No Clear Lessons from the Past
by David Kaiser

On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt labeled the attack on Pearl Harbor a “day that will live in infamy,” and Congress declared war on Japan.Three days later the United States was at war with Germany.Three years and nine months later, with about 300,000 young Americans dead, our enemies were entirely defeated, and the creation of a new world began.The destruction of the WorldTradeCenter and the attack on the Pentagon may have had a similar emotional impact upon the American people, but the task of eliminating the threats posed by terrorism makes the Second World War seem almost simple by comparison.It is most unlikely that we will suffer 300,000 people killed over the next four years, but it is equally unlikely that we will have eliminated terrorism by then either.

Although the United States seemed woefully unprepared when the Second World War broke out—all the more so since the Pacific fleet had been crippled—both the problem we faced and the eventual solution were already quite clear.As Churchill put it in his memoirs, the new coalition of the Soviet Union , Britain and the United States had many times the combined resources of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and the eventual destruction of the Axis was only a matter of production, mobilization, and deployment—that is, of time.We understood both the threat—the Axis military forces—and the appropriate response—the eventual conquest of two medium-sized countries, Germany and Japan . Despite many further reverses during 1942, the allies rapidly achieved superiority and reached their objectives.

Comparisons between September 11 and Pearl Harbor—focusing on America’s unpreparedness and the emotional shock felt by the nation—have already become commonplace. Beyond that, however, this historical analogy offers little guidance. The threat is not a purely military one, nor can it be easily dealt with by military means.Apparently, the threat is a large, well-trained organization—allied to other similar organizations—based in a remote and unfriendly country, but living everywhere and nowhere. Osama bin Laden has made clear that he wants to eliminate American influence, and the regimes that depend on it, from the Middle East. His weapon is not traditional war, but terror. Ideally, terrorists represent a problem for law enforcement rather than the military, but law enforcement agencies in various Middle Eastern countries allow them to operate—some from ideological sympathy and some out of fear.In theory, that deprives these governments of all legitimacy and makes them enemies of the United States. In practice, it may make the problem we face insoluble for many years to come.

World reaction suggests that the United States can now build a broad coalition designed to make it impossible for organized terrorism to operate anywhere— a coalition including not only Western Europe and our Asian allies, but also Russia and other former Soviet States, which have already been victims of terrorism themselves. Arab states such as Egypt and Algeria, well accustomed to terrorist threats, also seem willing to participate. But even if we set aside Iraq, the full cooperation of the predominantly Muslim nations is highly unlikely.

Although we now have a right and a duty to strike at any perpetrators we can identify, it seems to me far from certain that the kind of precision strikes in which the American military now specializes will be able to destroy Osama bin Laden, much less his organization, within Afghanistan. That country is very large—approximately 1000 by 400 miles of mostly mountainous terrain—and has a population of more than twenty million people. The Soviet Union had no success operating there; can our army expect much more? Can we really commit the resources necessary to establish law and order in a hostile country in which Muslim fundamentalists are the strongest political force? Can we conquer Iraq, which the Bush administration clearly suspects of complicity, at the same time? Is the western world prepared to re-occupy large portions of the Middle East for decades to come?

And there are further concerns. Bin Laden and his associates could flee to a neighboring country—Iraq is mostly likely. Is there any doubt that they would continue trying to mount fresh outrages? New security measures may make another incident like September 11 unlikely, but other kinds—some even worse—are entirely possible. Won’t a greater American presence in the region increase the number of their recruits? Might it not actually topple some friendly governments?

The new anti-terrorism coalition which must now form—and which needs, if at all possible, to work through the United Nations—must discover effective means of putting pressure on states that refuse to cooperate. These may include refusing to allow their nationals to live abroad—a draconian measure, certainly, but one that seems to be both logical and appropriate, given the difficulty of distinguishing innocent people from terrorists who threaten thousands of people. But perhaps most important of all, we must enlist all the nuclear powers of the world in an attempt to inventory and secure every single nuclear warhead in their possession. Clearly, the men who flew planes into the World Trade Center would have detonated such a warhead if they could have gotten their hands on it. This is the most urgent problem that we face.

Given the nature of modern society and its vulnerabilities, we will not be safe from hijackers and bombers until effective and cooperative political authorities essentially rule the world. Missile defense will do nothing to bring that about. No matter what happens, we will probably have to endure more attacks for at least ten years. We must try to establish some momentum toward a true new world order, and the role of traditional military force in this process is anything but clear.

David Kaiser, a historian, teaches at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Harvard University Press, 2000) .
[end article]

Certainly some of my comments were not born out.  Bin Laden did flee Afghanistan, but not to Iraq.  he fled to Pakistan, where the government evidently sheltered him for about a decade.  I did not realize the extent to which the transformation of the Middle East would become the goal of the Bush Administration, pushing anti-terrorism into the background.  The threat of nuclear terrorism turned out to be overblown.  Many of my concerns however have turned out to be more than warranted.  And because the establishments of both parties remained committed to this hopeless war, Donald Trump will now reap the political benefits of disengaging from it.  I am very happy to see that the whole, I kept my head while many around me (and above me) were losing theirs.  I was not the only one, but we were too few.  Now the attempt to extend the American empire seems to have led, by a circuitous route, to its global retreat, and perhaps to its end.


Saturday, February 22, 2020

It's early 1938 in America

The 2010s have resembled the 1930s in one critical respect:  both experienced the collapse of old political orders around the western world.  The laissez-faire capitalist order that had essentially ruled the United States since the Civil War fell victim to the Depression and gave way to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.  In Germany, where the First World War had already destroyed the German empire that began it, the successor Weimar Republic--which put a new, shaky political structure on top of the same bureaucracies--also died during the Depression and gave way to Nazi totalitarianism.  The Spanish civil war brought Fascism to Spain.  The political systems in the powers that had won the First World War, Britain and France, survived the decade, although the French government lasted only until its defeat in 1940 and Britain under the wartime national government began to transform out of all recognition as well.  In the Far East, the Japanese military and naval leaders terrorized the civilian government into submission, paving the way for the Second World  War in Asia, while the Chinese state had to retreat into the interior to survive at all.

In today's west, the political elites that have governed the most important nations have lost the confidence of their peoples.  This has happened most dramatically in the United States and Britain, of course, where two demagogues, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, have seized the reins of the leading conservative parties and won electoral victories of different sizes.  The established parties in Germany are steadily losing ground,   In France, Emmanuel Macron led a new majority party into power three years ago and is giving the best example anywhere in the West of a functioning democracy, even though some of his measures have aroused stiff opposition.   Because the United States remains the world's leading democracy--albeit, at the moment, one of the least inspiring ones--developments here are still crucial at least to the rest of the western world.  This week it has become clear that we have reached a turning point comparable to what Germany experienced early in the fateful year of 1938.

Gleichschaltung--roughly, "coordination"--was the German word the Nazis used to describe the way that they handled the established institutions of the Weimar Republic, whose constitution, as it happens, remained in force right up until the end of the Second World War.  It began in government ministries and spread to state and local governments, educational and artistic institutions, and some major economic institutions.  It did not involve wholesale purges of personnel.  Instead, it installed Nazi leadership in various institutions (although not all of them), removed some dissident or Jewish personnel, and began adapting institutional goals to Nazi purposes.  The bulk of officials fell into line.  Meanwhile, for the first five years of his rule, Hitler, like Trump, benefited from an expanding economy.  In neither case did the new leader deserve all the credit. The German recovery had begun in 1932, and the American one in 2010 or so.  In addition, although both new governments presided over full employment, that hardly meant that everyone was happy, especially in Germany, where shortages of basic goods had become a big problem by late 1935.

Meanwhile, Hitler had established new institutions to handle domestic security and law enforcement.  The SS and SA had created a network of concentration camps within months of his taking power, sending several hundred thousand political opponents into them for some months or years.  In 1936, Hermann Goering's Four Year Plan had begun reshaping the German economy to meet the needs of rearmament for war.  New bureaucracies began persecuting Jews, encouraging them to leave the country and eventually stripping them of citizenship.  Trump has done nothing comparable.  Even regarding immigration, where his treatment of illegals has some parallels with the Nazis' early policies towards Jews, he has relied on the ICE bureaucracy, although it has taken him some time to get leaders into power over ICE that share his views.  And in Germany, until 1938, the key national security bureaucracies--the ministries of foreign affairs and the army--remained firmly in traditional hands, advising against overly dangerous moves and reassuring potential foreign enemies.

That changed in early 1938, when Hitler suddenly removed his foreign minister, the diplomat Constantin von Neurath, and the War Minister, General Werner von Blomberg and Army Commander Werner von Fritsch.  The Nazis used more or less spurious accusations of personal misconduct to justify these moves.   Neurath gave way to the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, a wine salesman whom Hitler had made Ambassador to Britain, and Hitler abolished the post of war minister and took over the supreme command himself.  Relieved of any high-level opposition, Hitler proceeded to annex Austria and provoke the dangerous Munich crisis in the fall of 1938, enabling him to dismember Czechoslovakia and occupy most of it early in 1939.  The Nazi-Soviet pact and the outbreak of European war followed later in that year.

Donald Trump, as I have written several times before, has much more in common with the Emperor William II of Germany that with Adolf Hitler.  Unlike Hitler, he has no real ideology and no sweeping plans for the future.  While Hitler saw himself as the leader of the Aryan race in a struggle for existence against other races, Trump sees himself as lonely and embattled, almost without any real allies.  For this reason, Trump, unlike Hitler, has never been able to trust any man or woman with real independence and ability with serious responsibility.   Trump in addition lacks any real grasp of national economics or international politics, whereas Hitler had some real insights into both.  Trump spends his life trying to make his own views--his instincts and impulses--prevail against those of everyone around him.  Since so many of his views fail to reflect reality, this struggle never ends, and becomes more desperate as time goes on.   Like Hitler, Trump draws sustenance from a devoted mass following and from an adoring broadcast network.  The real innovation of the Republican Party in general and Trump in particular has been to allow the opposition press to function while simply ignoring its views, except to turn it into a whipping boy.  Active enemies apparently rally the base better than made-up ones.

It is now clear that Trump's control over the federal government has entered a new phase with two critical aspects.  First of all, anyone with his own strong views about anything has left the administration some time ago.  Mick Mulvaney is a shameless sycophant, and Mike Pompeo at State completely identifies with the President and labels anyone who challenges him as a Democratic plant.  William Barr has put the Justice Department firmly in the President's corner, despite his recent attempt to sound independent.  Richard Grenell, a very loose and partisan cannon as ambassador to Germany, has now become acting Director of National Intelligence, apparently to make sure that nothing reflecting badly the Trump Administration and its Moscow supporters leaks out.  He has hired Kashyap Patel, a former staffer to Trump acolyte (and Ukraine co-conspirator) Devin Nunes, to "clean house" in the intelligence committee, according to a report.  Robert O'Brien, the inexperienced national security adviser who replaced John Bolton, starts meetings on policy issues by handing out the presidential tweets on the subject and going from there.  And White House staffer Johnny McEntree, a former personal aide to the President, is looking through the State and Justice Departments for disloyal political employees to replace.  The federal government, in short, is looking more and more like the Trump organization--and we know how the great enterprises of that organization have turned out.

Trump, to repeat, is not Hitler.  Hitler's complete Gleichschaltung of the German national security establishment led almost immediately to a hopeless attempt to conquer Europe at the risk of world war, which in turn led to the destruction and long-term partition of his country.  Trump has no such plans, merely an overpowering need to feed his ego daily and persuade the world that he is indeed the smartest and most effective leader who has ever lived.  Illegal immigrants are by far the largest group personally threatened by his policies, although his administration is also rolling back various protections for gay and transgender people.  All of us, however, will suffer enormously from our government's descent into sycophancy and chaos.  It now lies with the voters to save us in November.  That is far from a hopeless prospect.  Nearly every trial heat shows Trump losing to any of his major Democratic rivals.  Polls in key individual states are also encouraging.  The supposed unelectability of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic front runner, is not supported by the data at all.  The question is whether enough of our fellow citizens care enough about maintaining a functioning democratic government to vote out the man who is destroying it.  The survival of democracy here and elsewhere is once again the key issue of our crisis, just as in 1861 and 1932.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Collapse of American Politics, Part II

The election of 2016, I have often remarked, showed that American politics as we have known them at least since 1960 had collapsed.  A serial bankrupt and reality tv star  had ridden fame and resentment to the White House--and neither major party had come up with a candidate who could beat him.  The situation was obviously particularly critical within the Republican Party, which could not field an effective candidate.  Hillary Clinton did, after all, win the popular vote by 3 million votes, although the Democratic nomination process showed her vulnerabilities as well.  Unfortunately, the biggest lesson of the 2020 primary process so far is that the collapse of our political system continues.   The Democratic Party this year is having the same problem that the Republicans had last time: it has not produced a national political figure who can win the nomination.

Many of the Democrats I know expected something completely different.  They saw AOC and the squad as the wave of the future after 2018 and thought that progressives were taking over the party as a prelude to taking over the country.  I think the early signs tell us clearly that this is not going to happen.  Yes, Bernie Sanders narrowly won the popular vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but he got less than half the votes in New Hampshire that he got in 2016, and his fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren is rapidly dropping off the radar.  Fivethirtyeight.com shows him with the best chance of winning the nomination among the candidates, but it also shows a deadlocked convention as more likely.  On the Republican side, a consensus unity candidate might have beaten Trump in 2016, but no such person existed.  That is happening among the Democrats this year as well.  Joe Biden, upon whom the party establishment counted, is flaming out quickly, just as he did in 1988 and 2008.  The relatively centrist candidates from Generation X--Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker--crashed and burned before a single vote had been cast.  Pete Buttigieg (a Millennial) and Amy Klobuchar (a late-wave Boomer) have drawn some support based on their personalities and their demographic novelty, but neither one has shown much polling strength around the country.  The really interesting question about Buttigieg, it seems to me, is whether his big-tent moderation will prove to be more characteristic of Millennial politicians than Ocasio-Cortez's left wing militance. I suspect that the answer is yes.

The Democratic establishment needs a savior, but they are not turning to any elected Democratic official Instead, they have seized upon Michael Bloomberg, listed this month as the ninth-richest person in the U.S., with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $61.8 billion.  Bloomberg won his two terms as mayor of New York as a Republican.  Like Biden, he was born in 1942 and would turn 80 in the middle of his presidential term.  The billionaire (or, in Trump's case, self-proclaimed billionaire) candidate may become the norm in our politics.  The other Democratic candidate who has been gaining some ground lately is hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, whose net worth is estimated at $1.6 billion.  He has spent ten times more money than the next-highest candidate in both Nevada and South Carolina.  Such men can finance their own big tv ad campaigns, and they seem to have a stature among the public at large that politicians lack.  Our politicians, of both parties, have failed to address very real problems such as immigration, climate change, the impact of globalization, and the cost of health care for decades, and the public, at some level, knows it.  From Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, the less experienced major candidate has won every one of the last seven elections.  That should tell us something about the American public's taste. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has used emergency powers that accumulated during the Cold War era to rewrite our Constitution.  He is building a border wall with Defense Department money that Congress appropriated for entirely different purposes.  This too could be a portent of things to come.

I am afraid that the reputation of politics and politicians may get worse as the year goes on. In 1956, when I was 9, I saw the Democratic convention take two ballots to decide a hot race for the vice-presidential nomination between Estes Kefauver and John F. Kennedy.  It was one of the most exciting things I had ever seen, but I did not know that it would be the last time that a convention had to take more than one ballot on anything for the next 60 years at least.  There is a good chance that it will happen at Milwaukee when the Democrats meet this summer--and if it does, the result will probably be disastrous.  Neither the convention chairman nor the delegations will have any experience with actual balloting, and the spectacle may make the Iowa caucuses look like a model of efficiency.  Donald Trump would benefit in such a case.  All this has profound causes on many fronts, and I hope to discuss them further in months to come.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Romney for Vice President?

I have said many times that we are in the fourth great crisis of our national life, parallel in its own way to the periods 1774-94, 1860-68, and 1929-45.  Because the George W. Bush Administration squandered the feeling of national unity after 9/11 in disastrous, useless wars, and because the Republican party remains determined to undo the domestic order we inherited from the last crisis, this one has been marked by an increasing erosion of our political traditions and a disintegration of our political order.  A serial bankrupt and reality tv star now occupies the White House and rules the Republican Party with an iron hand, and he has survived his impeachment for perverting foreign policy to promote false allegations against a political rival.  We also face tremendous economic and environmental problems, but I am beginning to think that we will not really be able to address them without a major change in our political climate.  We need something dramatic to restore a sense of civic virtue to the nation.  A bipartisan government might do it.

Both Lincoln and FDR used this tactic in our last two great crises.  Three members of his wartime cabinet--Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair--came from the opposition Democratic Party.  In 1864, facing what looked like a difficult re-election campaign, Lincoln replaced his first Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, with Tennessee Demorat Andrew Johnson, the only Senator from the Confederacy to remain in his seat and support the war for the Union after secession.  That selection, of course, turned out disastrously after Lincoln's assassination, when Johnson moved to allow the South to restore white supremacy without slavery, but it did help re-elect Lincoln and make victory possible.  FDR also drew on progressive Republicans from the beginning of his Administration, including Harold Ickes, his Secretary of the Interior and head of the Public Works Administration.  He took another critical move in June 1940, when the fall of France and the threatened defeat of Britain had forced him to make serious preparations for war.

In that  month, Roosevelt replaced his Secretaries of War and of the Navy with two very prominent Republicans.  His fellow New Yorker Henry M. Stimson had already served as Secretary of War under Taft and Secretary of State  under Herbert Hoover, and he was now a key figure in efforts to sanction Japan for its war on China, and an advocate of a peacetime military draft.  Roosevelt's selection of him confirmed his own interest in a sudden, vast increase in the US Army.   Even more interesting was his choice of Chicago newspaper publisher Frank Knox as Secretary of the Navy.  Knox, who had served in both the Spanish-American and First World Wars, had run for Vice President on the Republican ticket in 1936, violently attacking the whole New Deal in general and the new Social Security Act in particular.  Two years later, he had published an anti-New Deal Polemic, We Planned it that Way,  "Without fully recognizing it," he wrote, "Mr. Roosevelt has taken us far along the path of socialism.  This path leads straight into Communism, Nazism, Fascism,  or whatever 'ism' the fancy of the moment dictates it be called."  But Knox also believed in a strong US Navy, and he and Roosevelt had maintained friendly relations.  About 8 months earlier, in the fall of 1939, Roosevelt had offered him the Navy Department, but Knox had declined so as not to anger his fellow Republicans. Now he accepted.  Senior Republicans blasted both men of joining the hated New Deal Administration, but Roosevelt won another smashing election victory in November 1940, and Stimson and Knox remained at their posts through all or most of the war.   Meanwhile, Britain had moved in the same direction.  Winston Churchill took office as Prime Minister in May 1940 partly because Britain obviously needed a truly national government in its time of trial, and the leaders of the Labor and Liberal Parties would not serve with Neville Chamberlain.  Ministers from those parties sat in the Cabinet all the way through the war.

This year's Democratic candidate, whoever it turns out to be, might take a comparable step by selecting Mitt Romney as his vice presidential candidate.  Since his decision to vote to convict President Trump of abusing his powers, Romney has become a symbol--almost our only one--of nonpartisan commitment to our fundamental civic values.  He decided that the fate of the country was more important than his standing with his fellow Republicans--and the Democrats' chances in November depend to some extent on convincing Republican voters of the same thing.  His policy stances in 2012 were those of a mainstream 21st century Republican and there were few if any of them that I agreed with, but he showed a lot of political flexibility as governor of Massachusetts, and he need not have any great influence upon policy in a Democratic administration in any event.  Alas, one aspect of the current situation militates against such a choice.  538.com now lists Bernie Sanders as a narrow favorite to win the most delegates (although not necessarily to win a majority before the convention.)  Sanders will turn 79 this year and recently had a heart attack, and many Democrats would oppose the risk of Romney succeeding him should he become the candidate.  Vice President Biden is nearly as old, although his chances have taken a big hit and may well take another next Tuesday in New Hampshire.  The process of selecting a presidential nominee threatens to be long and difficult.  Whoever wins, the party and the nation might benefit from a selection clearly designed to foster greater national unity.

Both sides, in our current political struggle, cherish the fantasy that it can end with a complete victory of the competing ideas of either Republicans or Democrats.  I do not believe that it can.  We need more of a consensus and we may need to build it upon genuine respect for our institutions, rather than specific policy outcomes.  This week, Mitt Romney did his part to contribute to that process.