More on “Regime Thinking”
June 16, 2015
This is a continuation of my last post dedicated to Aristotle’s idea of “regimes” and the implications for thinking about politics.
A “regime perspective” makes it necessary to consider “issues” or “problems” not as isolated or unique phenomena but as embedded in an environment characterized by uncertainly or instability. Politicians, and especially “leading politicians,” cannot afford to deal with issues or solve problems in isolation from the broader considerations forced upon them by the necessity of preserving the established order, the regime.
To illustrate, consider the events of 9/11, the attack on the U.S. by Islamist fundamentalists. Certainly, an attack of this significance had the potential to make the existing regime suspect. The attack itself obviously revealed flaws in that regime, flaws both of perceptions and of intelligence gathering of the bureaucratic kind. What was it about the regime that blinded its most powerful members to such an attack, in the sense of failing to take seriously warnings as well as failing to “connect the dots” of intelligence actually gathered?
As a response to this possibility, the response to 9/11 must be concerned at least as much with protecting the regime as with getting those responsible, the attackers. In fact, the former concern is primary, while the latter concern is secondary. This is just “the way it is.”
Action is, therefore, essential, whether the actions undertaken are neatly calculated to get the attackers or not. It is also essential that attention be diverted away from the regime and its failures and pointed toward the attackers. So making the attackers appear dangerously shrewd, malicious, even hateful, as well as quite impressively competent, is useful. And, given that the attackers are so dangerous, a war-like response, not “a” but “the war on terror,” serves much better than what I will call a “law and order” response. These guys are not criminals but are masterminds that can only be taken out with the application of maximum force.
By way of further illustration, consider the war in Vietnam, especially as it was conducted by LBJ and RMN. It is all-too-common to think and to say that the issue, the problem was getting the U.S. out of that war, to get “peace with honor,” as RMN liked to put it. But that war took place in the 60s, at least for these two presidents, and that was a time of considerable instability in the U.S. After all, a president and a presidential candidate, brothers in fact, had been assassinated, another presidential candidate had been shot and crippled, and two prominent African American leaders, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, had been assassinated. And this says nothing about the killings of college students at Kent State and Jackson State. If ever a regime was under attack, in the 60s the existing regime was under attack. So, the question was: How to deal with Vietnam in a way that preserved the existing regime?
“The peace movement” was, of course, about more than peace in Vietnam. It reflected a different way of thinking about, talking about, and doing politics than the ways of LBJ and RMN. And the longer the war went on, the clearer the flaws of the existing regime became and the more appealing the alternative appeared to be. So, what to do?
One possibility would be to make the peace movement look violently uncivil and/or unpatriotic. From this point of view, the riots surrounding the Democratic national convention in Chicago worked quite well. And, interestingly, these riots were described by one investigation as “police riots.” Or fabricate or exaggerate stories of how the “peaceniks” degraded, verbally abused, or spat upon ordinary soldiers. Contrasted with Nixon’s “silent majority,” these “peaceniks” were undesirables. And so of course would be their politics.
Another possibility would be for the incumbent, but allegedly beleaguered president, one apparently confined to the White House against his will because of civil unrest, to voluntarily forego the possibility of re-election so he could devote his energies to achieving peace. By doing this, the beleaguered president displaced the other peace movement, while demonstrating his selfless patriotism by foregoing the most powerful office in the world. The same beleaguered president could also work to ensure – or at least not get in the way of – that the candidate who practiced a “politics of realism,” who understood the need to use power and even to use it brutally, and who would not be beholden to any “doves” or “peaceniks” in his own party, would become the next president.
And yet another possibility would be for a president who was seen as willing to maximize the use American power to save an ally and prevent the expansion of Communism to secretly betray that ally while promising the Communists he would do nothing to stop their victory if they waited for a “decent interval” before doing so. In that way, he could disguise his capitulation as “peace with honor,” while securing the release of American prisoners of war after years of tortured captivity. In these ways, this president could re-establish the bona fides of the existing regime, the regime in which he was embedded and which made him “the leader” he was. And except for his ally and those soldiers and Vietnamese who died while this ruse was being acted out, it was a “win-win.” The war was ended and the regime preserved.