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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...

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The End of an Era

 Everyone seems to believe that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is in some sense the end of an era, and I am trying to figure out what that era was.  Here are some thoughts, inspired in part by reading the remarkable book by Craig Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers. 

This era began, clearly, not long after the collapse of Communism in 1989, which put an end to the Cold War as we have known it and seemed to leave the United States without serious political rivals on the world stage.  In academia, Francis Fukuyama announced that the Hegelian "end of history" had arrived--a position he has since reconsidered.  At the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz wrote that the United States must now try to make sure that no new "peer competitor" emerged to replace the Soviet Union, and he has since been quoted as saying that the US had ten or fifteen years to eliminate smaller hostile regimes like Iraq before a new peer competitor emerged to defend them.  The new era coincided with a generational shift in American leadership.  While some members of the Silent generation like Colin Powell, Warren Christopher, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Madeleine Albright remained important figures in new era, GIs like George H.  W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft gave way to Boomers like Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush,  Wolfowitz, and Condi Rice.  They were in power when 9/11 gave the foreign policy establishment a new mission.

I honestly cannot think of a single individual who did more to change the world in his time than Osama Bin Laden.  Operating on his own, he led the world's leading nation onto a disastrous course of action that continues to this day, twenty years later.  Al Queda was not the first international terrorist movement that the western world has faced.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European anarchists killed a Russian Czar, an Italian King, the Empress of Austria, a President of the United States, and many others.  As late as 1920, anarchists perpetrated the Wall Street bombing in New York, killing thirty people and wounding hundreds--but none of these events led to international crusades.  9/11 did, because the US leadership was already looking forward to a dramatic extension of American power.

My current book project has taken me through a tour of the renewed growth of western imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly as it related to the United States. The North Atlantic nations began interfering in what we now call the third world for several reasons, but failures to observe international law and keep order ranked high among them.  Such failures included outrages against foreign life and property, as in China in 1900, and failure to pay foreign debts, which brought the British into Egypt in the 1880s and the US into various Caribbean nations early in the twentieth century.  When William McKinley in 1898 decided to go to war against Spain in Cuba, he cited the need to stop a cruel war, in which the Spaniards had resettled tens of thousands of Cubans into concentration camps.  European nations began trying to intervene in the Ottoman Empire on behalf of its endangered Armenian minority in the 1890s, without much success.  Partly, perhaps, because universities don't spend much time on such history anymore, we haven't seen many analogies between the early 20th and the early 21st modes of imperialism, but they are there to be made.   Because of its own anti-colonial tradition, the United States did take the lead in one respect.  After 1898 it left Cuba independent--albeit while reserving a right to intervene to keep the government in friendly or competent hands--and although it brutally suppressed a Philippine insurrection, it took quite seriously, I have found, the task of preparing the islands for self-government. That in fact became a party issue, which Democrats favoring relatively rapid independence while Republicans found excuses to postpone it, but by the 1930s the US had promised Philippine independence by 1946, and it kept that promise.

During the Cold War, of course, any threat of Communism--or even supposed threat of Communism, as in Iran in 1953--became an excuse for American intervention, political or military, to install and maintain a friendly regime.  That rationale changed governments in Iran, Guatemala, Brazil, British Guyana, and Chile, and tried and failed to do so in Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Syria, and probably other places as well.  "Nation-building," or attempts to make client governments more responsive to their peoples' needs, accompanied military intervention in South Vietnam, without much success, and later played some role in El Salvador in the 1980s, where a friendly government settled a war with Communist guerrillas after the Cold War was over.  The Reagan administration also started and supported costly guerrilla wars against pro-Moscow regimes in Nicaragua, Angola, and Mozambique, with no immediate success.  Bloody internal conflicts, meanwhile, rarely led to calls for foreign intervention, such as those in Nigeria and Indonesia in the mid 1960s.

In the early 1990s, after Communism's fall, pressure arose to intervene to stop mass killings and ethnic cleansing both in the former Yugoslavia, which immediately broke  up after Communism fell, and in Rwanda.  Western governments rarely showed enough commitment and resources actually to try to stop it, only setting the Serbian-Bosnian conflict after the Serbs had achieved many of their objectives and the war had run its course, and ignoring Rwanda.    Meanwhile, the neoconservative sector of the American foreign policy establishment was increasingly opposed to allowing anti-American dictatorship in the Middle East to remain in power.  9/11 provided them with the excuse to try to implement this policy.  American forces easily overthrew the governments of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and tried to turn them into western-style democracies.  In both cases these efforts turned out to be bad jokes.  Iraq descended into religious civil war within a few years, and that war has never been settled.  The new Shi'ite government we helped create allies itself with Iran.  As for Afghanistan, Whitlock in The Afghanistan Papers draws on hundreds of after-action interviews with American military and civilians to show that our ideas for its future never had a chance.  They pretended that we could eliminate competition among warlords and the drug trade, key elements of Afghan politics and the Afghan economy.  Our attempt to spread western ideas about women's equality made many friends in urban areas but alienated much of the countryside--just as a very similar Soviet attempt had twenty  years earlier.  We appropriated billions more than the country could possibly absorb, and the profits went to contractors and well-placed Afghans who immediately moved the money overseas.   Our military tactics killed thousands of civilians, and we tried, and failed, to train the Afghans in the use of modern weapons despite their illiteracy and innumeracy.  I shall return to another even more depressing aspect of the adventure momentarily.

Incredibly, the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan under Bush did not prevent Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton from ramping up the Afghanistan war despite the warnings of the American Ambassador that more troops would do more harm than good, or from extending similar policies to Syria and Egypt after the Arab Spring broke out.  In Syria we could not depose the tyrant whom we had identified as the problem, merely encouraging hopeless resistance against him.  In Egypt, after the Muslim Brotherhood won the first free presidential election the country had ever had, we cooperated with the Egyptian military to restore dictatorship.  In Libya the Obama administration intervened to depose Muhammar Qaddafi, and that country also sank into chaos.  The policy created millions of refugees who are still fleeing to Europe, with serious social and political consequences there. 

The Whitlock book, sadly, suggests that our military and foreign policy bureaucracy will not only undertake any mission civilian leaders give it, but will also refuse seriously to re-evaluate it when it goes badly and will publicly defend the indefensible for as long as higher authority needs them to do so.  Whitlam lays out the continually, absurdly optimistic statements of successive military leaders in Afghanistan in excruciating detail.   Whitlock's book puzzled me in one respect.  Like his fellow Gen Xer Barack Obama--whose leadership in Afghanistan comes across as disastrous--Whitlock apparently doesn't want to compare Afghanistan with Vietnam, but the parallels are endless.  We did not understand the politics of either nation; we thought they could adopt western-style institutions; we didn't understand the depth of corruption in either one; and we used tactics that inevitably alienated the people were were supposed to be trying to help.  In neither case could we create a client regime that would fight on without us.  This time, however, the American people remained surprisingly detached from what was going on in this new theater of war, and Congress and the press did not fundamentally challenge the administration's rosy requests.  Indeed, it is astonishing how much the American press and the Congress deferred to both the Bush II and Obama administrations--opening up, as it turned out, the opportunity for Donald Trump to win the White House in 2016 and embark upon the destruction of American democracy.

From 100 to 140 years ago, imperialist nations did frequently restore order to parts of the third world.  I do not think that they can do so any longer, even in a good cause.  The biggest single reason is probably population.  Iraq had about 1.5 million people when the British took over in the early 1920s; both Iraq and Afghanistan have tens of millions now.  Western armed forces have shrunk.  And western institutions and ideas do not enjoy the prestige they did around 1900 in most of the world, because they haven't been working especially well.  The foreign policy establishment seems to be shifting its attention to Russia and China, but there, too, it is drawing on earlier traditions from the Cold War that may not help us move into a new world at all.  We are long past the point where we could live off the achievements of the middle of the twentieth century.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

What General Milley did

 During the more than twenty years that I taught strategy and policy at the Naval War College, I had many occasions to think about the military plot that attempted to assassinate and overthrow Adolf Hitler in July 1944.  That plot actually went back at least until 1938, when some high-ranking officers discussed overthrowing Hitler to prevent a disastrous war with Britain and France. The plot revived again after that war broke out in the fall of 1939, but it collapsed completely after Germany defeated France.  It revived in 1943-4 when the war against the USSR began to go badly and the British and Americans had landed, first in Italy and then in France.  While the most senior officers involved had already lost their commands, many others were still active.  They paid for their complicity with their lives.  The question I wondered about from time to time--but never, I think, raised in class--was, if the American presidency had fallen into comparably evil hands, would senior American officers be willing to do something similar?  I was not confident that they would, because of the respect for civilian authority that is so much a part of their outlook.

Things never got anywhere near that far under Donald Trump, partly because he is clearly a coward who would shy away from actual military action or even a declaration of martial law.  He did however exercise disastrous leadership on a variety of fronts.  It now turns out that at the turn of the year 2020-2021, after Trump had lost the election, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, worried that Trump might begin war with China to try to save his presidency.  Bob Woodward has now reported--and Milley has not denied--that Milley made two calls to a senior Chinese general to try to avoid a Chinese reaction to a possible US attack. In the first call, he assured the general that no attack would take place.  In the second he assured him that if an attack was imminent, he, Milley, would let the Chinese general know in advance.  We shall see that Milley was not simply worried that the Chinese might falsely believe that war might be imminent, and that he took the possibility of American military action seriousy.  I do not agree with Republicans who suggested that these calls were treasonous.  The Constitution defines treason as giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States, and I interpret enemies to mean nations with whom the US is at war. We were not at war with China.  I am very curious to know exactly why Milley was worried about what Trump might do, and I hope that Senators will ask him that in detail when he testifies before them later this month. I do not think, though, that he found the appropriate means to  try to head off a possible war waged for political purposes.

A little less than two years ago, I discussed the issue of how senior military officers should have responded to the Trump presidency here, describing a public exchange I had at the JFK School of Government at Harvard with General James Mattis (retired), who at that time had just stepped down as Secretary of Defense.  I argued that I had been taught both during my own military service in the 1970s and again at the War College that if a soldier is serving under a commanding officer who is behaving in an illegal or disastrous manner, that soldier has not only a right but a duty to let higher authority know about what is happening. I had confirmed that belief with some of my old colleagues who were still serving officers.  If the commanding officer were the president of the United States, the higher authority would be either the Congress--which retains the power to remove him--or, in an election year, the American people.   Mattis made clear that he did not agree with me, but this is still what I think.  Donald Trump was trying to stage a coup in late December and early January, and Milley feared that he might use war to help make it happen.  He owed it to his countrymen to let us know. Had he done so, it might even have persuaded Mitch McConnell to vote for conviction in the subsequent impeachment trial, thus relieving the nation of the nightmare of Trump's threatened return to office.  But he didn't.

It seems that Milley genuinely worried that Trump might initiate war, including nuclear war.   According to an AP story, "Milley, according to the book, called the admiral overseeing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the military unit responsible for Asia and the Pacific region, and recommended postponing upcoming military exercises. He also asked senior officers to swear an “oath” that Milley had to be involved if Trump gave an order to launch nuclear weapons, according to the book."  That was important because Milley himself had no authority to stop anything that Trump ordered.  None of the press accounts of this incident that I have seen have mentioned this, but under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, while designated the president's senior military adviser, is not in the chain of command.  The chain of command runs directly from the President to the Secretary of Defense, and then to the local theater commander--in this case, the commander of what is now the Indo-Pacific Command (formerly CINCPAC), headquartered in Honolulu.  That was Admiral Philip S. Davidson, who should also appear before the Senate to give his perspective. 

Milley did apparently discuss Trump's deteriorating mental state with Speaker Pelosi, although it's not clear that he mentioned his fear of war.  The AP story also suggests that one US military exercise in the Far East was canceled.  But like General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, or one-time White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly, or National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, he did not share his concerns about Trump's leadership with the American people, and preferred to try to avert disaster behind the scenes, both within the miltiary chain of command and in conversations with a foreign general.  In so doing, I think, he contributed to the catastrophic decline of American democracy, which still threatens us with authoritarian rule in another few years.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The anniversary

Lexington and Concord, the firing on Fort Sumter, and Pearl Harbor  were the catalytic violent events in the first three great crises in American national life.  September 11, 2001 played the same role in the fourth.  It's impact has been the opposite of the first three.  Lexington and Concord led to the Declaration of Independence, the victory over the British, and the writing of the Constitution.  Fort Sumter led to the northern victory four years later and the end of slavery.  Pearl Harbor led to the victory in the Second World War and the establishment of the United States as the leading power in the world.  9/11 led to the collapse of American politics, because our leadership responded to it in disastrous ways.  

We have forgotten the overwhelming national response to 9/11.  Overnight George W. Bush, previously a minority president of dubious legitimacy, turned into the symbol of national resolve.  Congress almost unanimously passed an open-ended resolution to fight a "war on terror," and, a year later, voted 296-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate (29-21 among the Democrats) to authorize the war in Iraq.  The mainstream media supported the two wars as well.  The chorus included a lot of people who should have known better.  One of my colleagues at the time in the Strategy and Policy Department of the Naval War College remembers a department meeting in which only three of us--including himself and myself--expressed reservations about the Iraq war, even though we had all been teaching for years about the Athenian expedition to Sicily and our parents' generation's adventure in Vietnam.  Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Douglas Feith, George Tenet and the rest of them had lived through Vietnam but had evidently convinced themselves that our defeat there was unnecessary, and that they could do better. They couldn't.  They embarked upon two bigger ventures--defined by the size and population of the territories we aimed to control--with far fewer men.  Failure was inevitable.  Yet the counterterror effort and the attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East by force persisted through the Obama administration in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, with more disastrous results.  It took Donald Trump to reverse it, and we shall have to wait and see whether Joe Biden finds it necessary, as Barack Obama did, to act boldly somewhere else to make up for the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

These new wars, as various opinion pieces have made clear in recent days, had an extraordinary impact on the US government and American society.  Military spending had fallen to a post-1949 low in 2001 in the wake of the end of the Cold War, but it doubled in absolute terms during the next ten years, reaching 4.6% of GDP and 19.6% of total federal outlays by 2011.  Previous military buildups after 1940, 1950, and 1965 had fueled our industrial economy, but this one did not.  The bulk of the new money went to private contractors focusing on intelligence, as the US government searched frantically for new terrorists all over the globe. In the same decade payments to private contractors doubled from $181 billion to $375 billion, creating a new military-intelligence complex centered in Northern Virginia.  It is not clear that this complex contributed anything significant to US security.  That was not all.  The FBI went with the flow as well and turned domestic counterterrorism into its top priority, eclipsing white collar crime and other priorities.  A recent New York Times Magazine article on an FBI agent who leaked documents on the antiterrorism campaign to the press and served severael years in prison for it details at length how useless most of this effort was--a matter of blackmailing immigrants into becoming informants, even though they had almost no real intelligence to provide.  Several sting operations in which bureau informants created fraudulent terror networks out of nothing, leading to lengthy prison terms for men who would never have done anything on their own, have been the subject of television documentaries. 

The Bush II administration, meanwhile, took advantage of the national mood to push through two rounds of tax cuts, re-creating the permanent federal deficit that the Clinton administration had eliminated.  It also embarked behind the scenes on a program of energy independence that has transformed the United States.  It did nothing about the housing bubble, leading to the crash of 2008.  And by that time, our new financial sector was strong enough to define the Bush and Obama administrations' responses to the crisis, leaving them even more powerful than ever now.

None of this, sadly, bothered our political establishments--Republican and Democratic alike--until 2016.  In that year they both discovered that these disastrous policies had broken their bonds with the American people.  Neither party establishment could field a candidate who could defeat Donald Trump.  Trump lost his re-election bid convincingly, but in four years he created a new politics of personal loyalty without precedent in American history.  The 2024 Republican  nomination appears to be his for the asking, and it is certainly not impossible that the normal rhythm of American politics might return him to office, especially since Biden is most unlikely to begin a new campaign at the age of 81.  And if Trump does not run, the nomination seems very likely to go to the most convincing claimant of his legacy.   

In 1775, in 1860, and in 1932, the authority of the federal government had fallen to a low point.  Success in war did a great deal to restore it.  Failure in war, this time, has helped discredit it.  The Republican Party has been working towards that same goal for decades.  President Biden is trying to re-establish the government's prestige with new infrastructure, more egalitarian economic policies, and an attack on climate change--but even his attempts to mount a serious response to the pandemic are provoking bitter resistance.  As in 1776, 1861, and 1932, our democratic experiment is threatened.  The foreign policy failure of the last twenty years contributed mightily to its critical illness.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Political Life Then and Now

 Many of us have books on our shelves that we have been intending to read for decades.  I got two French novels of that list during and after my recent trip to Paris, and that inspired me to take a very different one down: Albert Beveridge and the Progressive Era, written in the 1920s by the historian Claude Bowers, who also wrote a three-volume set on the life and times of Jefferson.  This book was called to my attention, oddly enough, by Richard Nixon, who in an interview with Gary Wills in 1968 had described it as one of the most interesting books he had ever read.  I apparently bought it at a library sale in the 1980s.  Later, I read Charles A. Beard's argument for isolationism, The Open Door at Home, in which he quoted a Beveridge speech to illustrate his idea of "industrialist statecraft," a form of American imperialism.  The book was neither quite as interesting or inspiring as I had hoped, but it held my interest for more than 500 pages and I learned a lot, in particular, about struggles over progressivism within the Republican Party in the first 15 years or so of the twentieth century.  Beveridge in any case represents a fascinating kind of politician, one which it is fair to say we no longer have in this country, and his career inevitably raises questions about how the nation has changed.

Beveridge was born in 1862 to an Ohio farmer and his wife.  His father lost his farm in the agricultural depression that followed the Civil War, and never regained any substantial means. He continued trying many enterprises, and his son ran a logging camp for him when he was only in his mid-teens. Like so many in 19th century America, he got, or gave himself, an education in high school which no one gets today. "It was during his high-school days," Bowers wrote, "that he read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," and the novels of Scott, Dickens, George Eliot and William Black." (I don't recognize William Black either.)  So it was before radio, television, smart phones and the internet.  The post-civil war atmosphere--like the post-Second World War atmosphere for me, I suppose--gave him a consuming interest in politics, and he attended every political meeting he could--something that now seems to be impossible even on line.  Desperate to go to college, but without funds, he tried and failed to get an appointment to West Point.  Then he wrote a number of colleges asking how he might attend without money, and received a letter from DePauw University--later the alma mater of Dan Quayle--stating that he would need $50 to do so.  That would amount to between $500 and $1000 in 2021 dollars, I believe, and a lumberman whom Beveridge had worked for staked him the money.  No one can go to college that way today, because its cost has gotten so much higher.  In that way the nation wqas more democratic in the late 19th century than it is now, and it so remained until the last third of the twentieth century.

Once in college, he worked his way through it in large part by entering and winning oratorical contests.  Lectures, political speeches and debates were a prime form of entertainment in late nineteenth century America, and the agnostic Robert Ingersoll became a national celebrity by trumpeting his controversial views around the country.  I suppose the internet might provide the same kind of opportunity for an ambitious twenty-something today but I am not yet aware of any who have turned a podcast into a political career.  Then he apprenticed himself to a prominent lawyer to prepare for the bar--another vanished opportunity for an ambitious youth seeking to become a professional.  By the late 1880s he was practicing law and participating very actively in Indiana politics, and by his 30th birthday he was much in demand all over the state.    He retained very wide intellectual interests, and he once gave a talk to a local literary society arguing in quite compelling fashion (Bowers quotes it in full) that Sir Walter Raleigh was the real author of Shakespeare's plays.  His fame spread and he gave well-attended lectures in New York and elsewhere, often arguing for a strong, centralized federal government such as the new century was destined to create. In 1898 came the Spanish-American War, and Beveridge began making his name as an advocate for a new imperialistic America that would spread its rule to new domains--starting with Puerto Rico and the Philippines--to provide markets for his abundant agriculture and growing industry.  Later in that year the Indiana legislature elected him to the Senate.  

Before taking his seat in December 1897, however, Beveridge took passage to the Far East to see the Philippines and the American attempt to bring them under control first hand. During the same trip he visited Japan and had a remarkable interview with the Prime Minister, Ito, who advised the United States to keep the Philippines in the same way that Japan was keeping Formosa.  This was the first of several ambitious foreign trips that he took.  The next one took him to the Russian Far East, and he wrote a book predicting the imminent war between Russia and Japan.  After the First World War broke out he went to Europe on a newspaper contract and interviewed every leading man he could in Germany, France, and Great Britain.  He had a long interview with the Emperor William II, who made a terrific personal impression on him, but he unfortunately kept a promise never to reveal the substance of their discussion until his own death.  

Beveridge emerged as a leading domestic progressive during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, whose own progressivism, as I have discovered myself, was more rhetorical than real.  Beveridge pushed without success of stricter meat inspection laws, including a label on all canned meats indicating when they had been canned.  He also pushed for a national ban on child labor, arguing that the power to regulate interstate commerce included the power to specify how articles produced for such commerce might be made.  He was not hostile to trusts as such--neither was TR--but he favored stronger regulation.  Beveridge lost his bid for a third Senate term in 1910, but became a leader in Roosevelt's Progressive Party two years later, after Taft had defeated TR for the Republican nomination.  He dreamed of turning that party into a major party, and suffered perhaps the biggest disappointment of his life as it became clear during the next two years that Roosevelt himself had no such plans and was ready to come back into the Republican fold with his tail between his legs if the party would take him.  That they absolutely refused to do in 1916, and TR's death in 1919 from a disease he caught on the Amazon ended any chance of a 1920 run.  

Beveridge meanwhile emerged as a serious historian.  He wrote a four-volume biography of Chief Justice John Marshall during the First World War, and he wrote two volumes on the early life of Abraham Lincoln during the 1920s.  Alas, he died, apparently of heart disease, in 1927 when he was only 64, perhaps a victim, like so many, of the nicotine and high-fat diet of the era.  

While there were some issues I would have agreed with Beveridge on, such as economic regulation, and others where I would not have, such as imperialism, I regret that our society and our educational sytem no longer produces politicians of this type.   They were largely self-educated and rose through society with the help of a nearly free educational system, as my own father did in the 1930s.   They read widely all their lives. They traveled to see the key developments of a rapidly changing world first hand.  And their job was to make sense of both the American present and the American past, relating their own time to those that had gone before and those that would come in the future. Today's politicians, exhorted by their party leadership to raise money four hours ever day, have ceded that function to academics and journalists.  We live now in a world of memes, video clips, sound bites and twitter posts, but we can still retreat into another one at our leisure.