Monday, August 30, 2010

Some musings

Here is a copy of a response I wrote to a student who had sent me an article from the National Review on moderate Muslims and radical Muslims as well as an article on Governor Christie from New Jersey, which latter article appeared in the New York Times, I think. Just some musings....

"Now, wait a minute: Are you really surprised that some Muslims are anti-American? This seems to be the underlying but unspoken theme of McCarthy's article. For this to be plausible, it requires ignoring some aspects of American foreign policy in the past and in the present. In other words, this article is another example of the mindset that Bacevich [and others] have noticed, that Americans view themselves as victims despite the fact that we pursue an interventionist, even imperialist, foreign policy by which we Americans think we have the right and even the duty to remake the world in our own image because, of course, our values are "universal." So,by this view, 9/11, like Pearl Harbor, missiles in Cuba, and even attacks against our troops in Vietnam, are all seen as "shots out of the blue," having no connection to the past and our actions as "the world's last remaining superpower." All of this is hidden in McCarthy's article, that is to say, left unsaid but without which his argument makes little sense. Is it really your opinion that our interventionist foreign policy, a foreign policy that now includes the Bush proclaimed "right" to make "preemptive war" is a policy we have pursued without creating understandable grievances among those who do not wish to be "Americanized?" If this is your opinion, then I would say that you are living in a world that resembles the world that Alice discovered when she went through the looking glass.

"And speaking of mirrors, while it is difficult to look in the mirror, when a large number of people dislike and even hate you, it is time to look in the mirror and ask: "What is it that leads to these responses?" Of course, you and this nation are under no obligation to do this and we have the perfect right to go on thinking that these anti-Americans are just irrational and spiteful and "evil." But if this is what we choose to do, then I would say that we ought not be surprised if these feelings increase in intensity. I am sure the invasion of Iraq has helped placate feelings among Muslims that we are an imperialist nation bent on imposing our will on the world militarily, particularly given that we found those WMDs that led to and justified our invasion and occupation. And I am just as sure that our military activities in Afghanistan are also placating those who think of us as imperialists because, obviously, our war in Afghanistan has been undertaken in order to "help" those people. We Americans are so good that way.......

I read the piece about Christie and must say, I wasn't surprised. I would have been surprised had Christie turned out to be anything other than a conservative version of Obama or any other ordinary politician. It is impossible for me to take our politics and our political system seriously. It is properly the target of comedy and satire....."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More from Bacevich

Here is some more from A. Bacevich's newest book, "Washington Rules."

"Even as the [Kennedy] administration sought to widen its edge over the soviet union in nuclear striking power and worked feverishly to subvert the Cuban revolution, the men of the Kennedy inner circle remained certain of their good intentions. They abhorred war and yearned for permanent peace. If peace somehow remained elusive, the fault must necessarily lie with others - with the recklessness [or the malevolence] of Fidel Castro or Nikita Khrushchev in the early 1960s, and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and Al Qaeda's bin Laden at a later date, all of whom maliciously misconstrued America's motives or stubbornly refused to endorse America's benign vision for world order.

"When some event disrupts the American pursuit of peace - the missile crisis of 1962, the o0verthrow of the 1979,...Hussein's assault on Kuwait in 1990, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11 - those exercising power in Washington invariably depict the problem as appearing out of the blue, utterly devoid of historical context. The United States is either the victim or an innocent bystander, Washington's own past actions possessing no relevance to the matter at hand. Critics of the reigning national security consensus - skeptical scholars or political radicals - might suggest otherwise, but in the corridors of power such dissenters have no standing." [pp. 85-86]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

3 Quick Items

I am on vacation so just three quick items:

(1) Excellent new book by Andrew Bacevich, "Washington Rules." Cuts through all the bullshit that passes for American foreign policy.
(2) "Radical" thought: What if our fears of what some call Islamofacism is really just projection?
(3) Another "radical" thought: What if we have the whole "how to live thing" wrong? As I sat sipping my Gentleman Jack after a round of golf, I thought that maybe we have it - living - wrong. Ambition is really a temptress, a seducer who misleads us into spending our lives "working" or trying to "save" the world. Oh, if how we live is wrong, we are really fucked!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Another new book

Now, here is a book that seems worthwhile to read.

The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy.
By William Pfaff.
Walker, $25.

Modern history’s most destructive ­upheavals, from the French Revolution to Stalinism, Pfaff says, were incited by a “secular utopianism” that the Enlightenment substituted for religious beliefs. He argues that a variant of this malignant fantasy has now overtaken the American foreign policy establishment. Pfaff, a former columnist for The International Herald Tribune, writes that America has increasingly committed itself to a ­hyper-Wilsonian view, embodied in its assertions, without evidence, that a steady development of international “cooperative institutions” under American leadership is improving “the moral (and political) nature of ­humans.” To Pfaff, only this national myth can fully explain the war on terror, which he calls a “parody of the cold war,” fought against “a few thousand Muslim mujahedeen.” A threat that “good police work” could have contained, he suggests, was instead built up to justify a militarized intensification of the “universal democracy” project. Pfaff’s call for a “noninterventionist alternative” should not be dismissed lightly. But by treating his opponents’ views as fundamentally deluded, he fails to do them justice. There are reasons other than imperial hubris to question Pfaff’s suggestion of an equivalence between aggressive democracy promotion and Nazi and Soviet aggrandizement.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Icarus Syndrome Continued

In his book, 'the Icarus Syndrome,' Peter Beinart has a very interesting take on Ronald Reagan, viz., that he buried, gave last rites to what Beinart calls the "hubris of toughness" that defined the Administrations of JFK, LBJ, and RMN. Here is a passage from his chapter entitled "If There Is a Bear?":

"In 'Reagan: the Movie,' America, after a long string of indignities and defeats, finally remembers how to win. It returns to Vietnam, slays its demons, and recaptures the confidence of a bygone age. It was as if the country had turned back the clock to 1964, relegating the entire post-toughness era to the status of a bad dream. (The other big movie of 1985 was actually titled 'Back to the Future.') In 1982, Hasbro Toys resumed producing the G.I. Joe action figure, which it had discontinued the year after Saigon fell. By 1985, it was America's bestselling toy. That same year in New York, Vietnam vets got the ticker-tape parade they had been long denied. "This country has really needed to flex its muscles," declared the man who played Rambo, Sylvester Stallone. "The other little nations were pulling at us, saying, 'You're bullying. Don't tread on us.' So we pulled back....And what happened, as usual, is people took kindness for weakness, and America lost its esteem. Right now, it's just flexing. You might say America has gone back to the gym."

"'Reagan the Movie' delighted audiences. But it was a fantasy. When it came to foreign policy, the real Reagan didn't turn back the clock to 1964. He never seriously considered enforcing global containment with U.S. troops. Instead of refighting Vietnam, he created Potemkin Vietnams where America won because it could not possibly lose. He served up victories on the cheap, triumphs without risk. Reagan's critics often accused him of reviving the chest-thumping spirit that led to Vietnam. But they missed the point. For Reagan, chest-thumping was in large measure a substitute for Vietnam, a way of accommodating to the new restraints on U.S. power while still helping Americans feel strong and proud. Reagan didn't revive the hubris of toughness. He did what Carter had tried but failed to do: He performed the last rites." [p. 219]

And again:
"Had Reagan wanted to refight Vietnam, El Salvador would have been a logical place. Its smaller size and greater proximity to the United States would have made logistics easier. The American military had a better grasp of its language, culture, and terrain. Its leftist rebels were less unified and battle-hardened than the Vietcong. And if you saw those rebels as agents of Moscow, as Reagan did, the Monroe Doctrine offered a rationale for intervention that dated back to the nineteenth century.

"But Reagan never considered it. At a meeting in early 1981, his first secretary of state, Haig, - the senior official most interested in picking a fight south of the border - told his colleagues that if Cuba didn't stop arming El Salvador's communist rebels, 'I'll make the island a fucking parking lot.'......[Reagan] certainly wanted to keep Central America from falling to communism, and his efforts in that regard helped get a vast number of Nicaraguans and Salvadorians killed. (As a percentage of its populaton, Nicaragua lost more people ...than the United States did in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined.) But Reagan knew he could not get any of his own citizens killed. So when the hawks proposed sending U.S. troops to Central America, he pointed out that Latins did not like 'the colossus of the north sending in the Marines.'....Reagan did not dwell on his failure to overthrow a Soviet ally less than a thousand miles from the Rio Grande. He saw the bright side: He had prevented another Vietnam. Whereas he had once vowed to stare down Moscow and Havana, he now congratulated himself for staring down his own right-wing base. 'Those sons of bitches won't be happy until we have 25,000 troops in Managua,' he told his chief of staff triumphantly in 1988, 'and I'm not going to do it.''' [PP. 223-224 and 225-226]

The Icarus Syndrome

I have found a new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, by Peter Beinart which treats the US tendency to be hubristic or overly, delusionally ambitious in the realm of foreign affairs. Beinart treats three examples of this, the hubris of reason [Woodrow Wilson], the hubris of toughness [LBJ and Vietnam] and the hubris of dominance [George W. Bush and the war on terror]. It is, for the most part, a very good book which illuminates the character of American foreign policy in a way that I find accurate and useful. His concluding chapter is a bit too conventional for my tastes but, overall, this is an excellent book. Here is one, lengthy quote from the book the section on George W. Bush and the Iraq adventure:

"Soon Americans and Iraqis were engaged in a darkly comic, savagely violent, dialogue of the deaf. In the center of Baghdad, behind seventeen-foot-high concrete walls topped with razor wire, the CPA created the Green Zone, an Epcot America where the televisions played Fox, the radios blared classic rock, the recreation officers taught yoga and salsa dancing, and the stores sold Cheetos, Dr. Pepper, booze, protein powder, and T-shirts reading 'Who's Your Baghdaddy?' At the cafeteria in Saddam's former Republican Palance, well-mannered South Asian workers served cheeseburgers, hot dogs, grits, fried chicken, and freedom fries. The menu, which had a distinctly southern flavor, included large quantities of pork, which Iraqi Muslim might have found offensive to prepare. But that wasn't an issue, since Iraqis weren't permitted to work in the dining hall for fear that they would poison the food.

"When the Americans ventured into 'the red zone' - otherwise known as Iraq - they passed through the looking glass, into a parched, dust-brown riddle of a country where American logic often seemed turned upside down. When the Americans set about building an army to replace the one they had disbanded, they dubbed it the New Iraqi Corps, on NIC, only to later learn that in Iraqi Arabic 'nic' resembles the word for 'fuck.' When a visiting administration official toured Iraq's streets, he was pleased to see kids flash him the thumbs-up sign, only to be told that in Iraq a raised thumb was the equivalent of a raised middle finger. U.S. officials talked incessantly about freedom. (At one CPA briefing, an Iraqi journalist asked an American general why U.S. helicopters flew so low to the ground, scaring local children. 'What we would tell the children of Iraq,' the general said, 'is that the noise they hear is the sound of freedom.') But Arabic-speakers noticed that when the Iraqis spoke back, they talked less about 'freedom' ('hurriya') - which according to George Bush all people desired like food and water - than 'justice' ('adil'), which had a more confrontational ring. 'Marines are from Mars, Iraqis are from Venus,' wrote one major in an email to friends. 'I started to realize,' noted the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent, Anthony Shadid, 'how little any of us - journalists, policy makers, citizens - really understood about Iraq."

Ah, but when you are convinced that your "values" are universal, that all you need do is to bring other people into contact with these values and they will become infected with them, then knowledge of the local culture, the local language, the local way of being in the world, is irrelevant. All will change, almost overnight, once these values are released into the air. And, when this doesn't happen, then application of force is required because you/we are dealing with reprobates who must and should be forced into the "promised land."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

“The praise that has been lavished on the New Deal had always rested, essentially, on a single specious argument – that whatever its faults and limitations, it was better than nothing at all; that driving small farmers into urban slums was better than no farm legislation; that a regressive Social Security tax was better than no Social Security Act; that Roosevelt’s ‘activism’ was better than Coolidge’s ‘laissez-faire.’ But these were never the alternatives that Roosevelt faced; they were the alternatives the two party oligarchies offered the citizenry, but that is another matter. Roosevelt was neither bestowing reform on a reluctant conservative people nor dragging it from a balky conservative Congress. He had done the very opposite. He had held back genuine reform from a clamorous democratic people who in 1936 had responded with overwhelming favor to his republican campaign talk. He had suppressed an unruly, reform-minded Congress by saddling it with Bourbon overlords. Every piece of New Deal legislation bears the imprint of that purpose; every political move Roosevelt made was subservient to that purpose, was deliberately calculated to achieve it.

“The history of Roosevelt’s New Deal constitutes, therefore, the largest and most detailed confirmation of the proposition I have already set forth: first, that party organizations constantly endeavor to block reform and blast untoward hope in order to maintain themselves and their power; second, that they are powerful enough to choose for high office those who are willing to serve their interests. From 1933 to 1938 the fate of the party oligarchs rested entirely in Roosevelt’s hands. Without his determination to protect party power and his extraordinary skill in doing so, it would have disintegrated rapidly – it was disintegrating rapidly. With one push from Roosevelt, the party oligarchs would have toppled to the ground. That Roosevelt chose to save them should not be surprising. The Democratic bosses knew very well to whom they had entrusted their power when they nominated Roosevelt in 1932. Had Roosevelt betrayed their trust instead of betraying the people’s, the evidence of that betrayal would have been swiftly forthcoming. The 1936 Democratic convention would have been a bloodbath; instead it was a celebration.

“That Roosevelt employed extraordinary means – notably the court-packing scheme- to protect party power should not be surprising either. In the larger context of the world’s political history, his court-packing maneuver is merely a humdrum example of duplicity. The annals of politics are crammed with acts of the bloodiest villainy taken to gain and hold power. As Gibbon famously remarked, political history is a register of little else. It is not the business of free citizens, however, to judge their public men by any standard other than those of this Republic. By that standard, Roosevelt’s duplicity was a heinous act of bad faith and betrayal. There is no doubt that Roosevelt saved the prevailing system of oligarchic power at some sacrifice to himself. It is no small for any President to accept a humiliating public rebuff as Roosevelt did in 1937. Such a rebuff is the stuff of heroes, however, though Roosevelt was not a hero to the Republic, its citizens and its liberties. He was the champion of the party system, a very different matter. In any event the party bosses repaid him well for his sacrifice by letting him seek an unprecedented third term and play a very satisfying role, that of a ‘wartime leader.

“Perhaps the most revealing remark every publicly made about Franklin Roosevelt was made by Lyndon Johnson in 1964. It was a remark which looked back to Roosevelt’s 1937 duplicity and forward to Johnson’s own, providing a dramatic link between them. The occasion, as Tom Wicker recounts in JFK and LBJ, was a luncheon for reporters at the White House to discuss Johnson’s landslide election victory over Barry Goldwater. Johnson quickly dimmed the reporters’ spirits. He reminded them that landslide victories are tricky affairs, as indeed they are to the party oligarchs. ‘Roosevelt,’ he told the reporters, ‘was never President after 1937 until the war came along.’ Knowing his task, like Roosevelt’s, would be to block reform in 1965, Johnson was virtually telling the reporters that hewas not going to thwart it by suffering rebuffs until ‘a war came along.’ He would kill reform by starting a war – and that is precisely what he did.”

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Thinking about Politics

This is in response to one of my friends and colleagues with whom I am engaged in a discussion, suspended now, the purpose of which is to clarify my refusal to discuss on his terms or in his language.

You, quite reasonably it would appear, want 'answers' in the form of 'policies' that will address or 'solve' 'problems' of which you see a lot, even a 'myriad.' I now dismiss 'policies' as, by and large, (a) relatively useless and (b) as tools for control. I try not to think of phenomena as 'problems' because if I do than I have to look for 'solutions'. For me, this is delusional and, ultimately, leads 'nowhere' [it is a 'utopian' mindset literally].

Some simple examples: (1) Say crime is a 'problem.' OK. Solution? More police. Soon, we will have a 'police problem.' Or consider an alternative 'solution,' viz., prisons. Soon, we will have a 'prison problem.' (2) Say that poverty is a 'problem.' Solution? Welfare. Well, soon, we will have a 'welfare problem.' What to do now? OK, let's 'reform welfare.' Soon, we will have a 'poverty problem,' again.

Does this mean we do nothing about crime or poverty? Not at all. It means though that in approaching these phenomena we approach them as road engineers think about pot holes: Fill them in but don't expect that you will ever reach a point where you don't have to fill in pot holes. Or, to put it in a way that struck me as interesting, suppose there is a certain amount of good and evil in the world and that there is no way increase the amount of good or reduce the amount of evil. Sure, we humans can move them around, reduce the amount of evil in, say, the economy but that evil just moves somewhere else. The police and those who study crime have noticed something like this happens with crime: "Fight crime" in one neighborhood and, yes, the amount of crime there goes down. But that crime resurfaces in another neighborhood. Or we know that young drivers have more accidents than older drivers so some recommend raising the driving age, say, from 16 to 18. Guess what? Now, as has been shown statistically, the 18 year olds have more accidents than they did previously.

One result of the policy mindset is that when policies don't "Work", policy makers tend to up the ante, that is, endorse increasingly severe or radical alternatives in order to "solve" a "problem." "Hey, we are bombing them and they are not surrendering. Well, let's bomb them some more with bigger bombs or even with nuclear weapons." That will "work" of course, but then we will have a bomb problem, as we have discovered and are reminded all the time [e.g., now with Iran].

So, if you want to talk about policies, that is fine with me but I don't have a lot interest in doing that. If making policy is seen as being "practical" rather than "theoretical," then I have to say that theory seems to have more value than practice, at least as far as I can see. Or perhaps I should say that we need to find a different way of "being" in the world than the way we are now, because the way we are now does not, and maybe even cannot, work.