Thursday, August 28, 2008

Gaddis Looks at the Bush "Doctrine"

Ralph Luker called attention to Ending Tyranny: The Past and Future of an Idea by John Lewis Gaddis, and (after dissing Victor Davis Hansen) offered that this "may be the first attempt at a positive reappraisal of the Bush administration's legacy in foreign policy." And Ralph followed that up with, "Can you say the Stanford/Yale [Hansen/Gaddis] axis of hackery?"

Anyway, while I know I'm not a bona fide academic historian, I read the piece and I don't see the "hackery."

Gaddis' central goal is to analyze whether there really is a "Bush Doctrine" and whether or not, if it does exist, it will be a flash in the pan or long-lasting; perhaps picked-up by succeeding generations (if not immediately). He surveys the successes and failures of other presidential "doctrines" in an attempt to place Bush's in context. Here's an (extended) example of the sort of analysis Gaddis is trying to provide:
The end of the Cold War left the United States in a position of dominance unrivaled since the days of the Roman Empire. Maintaining humility under such circumstances would have demanded the self-discipline of a saint—and the Americans, like the Romans, have never been particularly saintly. So all at once their efforts to encourage democracy, which had come across during the Cold War as constraining the power of dictators, now looked like an effort to concentrate power in their own hands.


And after... September 11, 2001, a wounded nation that was still the most powerful nation began insisting that its future security required the expansion of democracy everywhere. No wonder this frightened people elsewhere, even those also frightened by terrorism.

President Bush reflected this “one size fits all” mentality when he called for “the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” That sounded like knowing what was best for the world. But then he added: “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” That sounded like liberating people so that they could decide what was best for them; it was language of which the Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Isaiah Berlin might have approved. So the President managed to compress, into a single sentence, the concepts of both positive and negative liberty.

This may have been a triumph for succinct speech writing, but it was not one for philosophical coherence. Promoting democracy, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, offers no guarantee of ending tyranny, just as ending tyranny offers no guarantee that the newly liberated will choose democracy. Telling people simultaneously that we know best and that they know best is likely to confuse them as well as us. But what if we were to read the President’s sentence as a political rather than a philosophical statement, as a way of respecting the recent past while shifting priorities for the future? A presidential speech, after all, cannot simply dismiss what has gone before, even as it suggests where we should now be going.

If the Bush Doctrine was meant in that sense—if ending tyranny is now to be the objective of the United States in world affairs—then this would amount to a course correction away from the 20th-century idea of promoting democracy as a solution for all the world’s problems, and back toward an older concept of seeking to liberate people so they can solve their own problems. It could be a navigational beacon for the future that reflects more accurately where we started and who we’ve been.

He continues on and asks many questions. He concludes by leaving options open:
President Bush may have proclaimed a doctrine for the 21st century comparable to the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and to the Truman Doctrine during the Cold War. Only historians not yet born will be able to say for sure. Even that possibility, however, should earn Bush’s memorable sentence greater scrutiny than it has so far received. For it raises an issue that future administrations—whether those of Obama, McCain or their successors—are going to have to resolve: If the goal of the United States is to be “ending tyranny in our world”, then is encouraging “the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture” the best way to go about it?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Poor Wilentz

Sean Wilentz's head must be spinning. It must be tough to have been firmly ensconced within the fraternity of Democratic Party House Historians one day, and then marked as a pariah the next. Wilentz has an essay in Newsweek that has been savaged by historian/blogger/Obamaniacs (here, here and here, for example--h/t) everywhere. I'm not saying that the criticisms of Wilentz are or aren't legit, just that it must be weird to find yourself on the outs so quickly.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

It's All Medieval

Jeff Sypeck at Quid Plura explains that the people in the center of the Russia/Georgia conflict consider themselves to be contemporary Alans.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, with North Ossetia as part of Russia and South Ossetia lumped in with Georgia, the Ossetians looked to historians, philologists, and archaeologists to tell them who they were. Was “Ossetia,” a Georgian term filtered through Russian, the name they should use? Shouldn’t they call themselves “Alans”? As Victor Shnirelman explains, speakers of the two Ossetian dialects, Digor and Iron, argued over whose speech was more pure; North Ossetia became North Ossetia-Alania; and the Alan name was slapped on everything from soccer teams to supermarkets. Never mind that “Alans” may have been a term used only by outsiders; or that the name “Ossetia” probably comes from *ās, which the Alans used to refer to themselves; or that the original Alans were famously inclined to assimilate and be assimilated. The Alanian nationalism of the 1990s soon took on moral and racial overtones, especially as neighboring enemies tried on the name for size. The Ossetes should have looked westward for precedent and warning: Once you buttress your national identity with medievalism, expect politicized folklore to beguile the public —and to take on a life of its own.
Patrick Geary's thesis seems to still hold up, eh?

China's Modern Imperialism

Peter Navarro, author of The Coming China Wars (reviewed here), is critical of ABC's Bob Woodruff's recent "China Inside Out" documentary, calling it "So near to the truth, yet so far." To take just one example, Navarro writes:
The Angolan segment highlighted China’s economic development model in Africa. The myth perpetrated in this segment is that the development has actually provided a net benefit to the people of Africa.

In fact, the real truth China is practicing a very sophisticated 21st century version of imperialism in which China loans African countries billions of dollars in exchange for encumbering natural resources. These resources range from oil and natural gas to copper, cobalt, and titanium. As part of its debt encumbrance strategy, China gets to reduce its unemployment rate by using a large Chinese construction workforce to actually do the work – rather than relying so much on the native population.

In this segment, Woodruff makes repeated references to corruption. However, in a glaring omission, he fails to make explicit just how much of the billions in Chinese aid is actually siphoned off into offshore bank accounts held by the African elites. Nor does Woodruff highlight the intense poverty in the countries China is supposed to be “benefiting” -- other than offering a few images of slums.
Navarro also taked Woodruff to task for basically ignoring China's enabling role in the Darfur crisis.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Review: Your Government Failed You

Richard Clarke, Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters
Your government failed you.
So said Richard Clarke to the American people during the 9/11 Commission hearings a few years back. Clarke's resume of over 30 years in the foreign policy arena speaks for itself and adds weight to his point of view. At times, his tales of frustration infuriate because they show just how much government did fail leading up to 9/11.

But, as reaction to his first book Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror made evident, he can also be frustrating to those who are familiar with events he describes. And this familiarity with acute events can lead, ultimately, to a wholesale--albeit unwarranted--distrust of Clarke.

If I know that he's not being completely forthcoming on Event "A" for which I know a lot about, then how can I be sure he's not doing the same for Events "B, C and D" for which I'm not as familiar? And to the degree that his diagnoses and prescriptions rely upon his experience and expertise, as supported by his explanation of various events, then how seriously am I to take his ideas? In other words, are Clarke's ideas well-informed and worthwhile or just part of an exercise in legacy-protection? The answer, unsurprisingly, is all of the above.

When reading and analyzing a first-hand account of events, a reader should always be on the look out for bias; on the part of both the source and the reader. Ultimately, each of us have to rely on our sense of what seems like good, sound reasoning and argumentation. So, despite these reservations, there are still some things that even those most predisposed to distrust him can learn from Clarke.

Throughout Your Government Failed You, Clarke clearly names names and assesses blame. His reasoning seems sound and his grasp of the nuances of foreign affairs and diplomacy is worth noting as is his recognition of the role that contingency can play in outcomes. And while he doesn't let himself off the hook for some of the errors made, his phraseology can be passive/aggressive. For instance, the phrasing of his "apology" that gave title to this book leaves the impression that he's apologizing more for others than himself. In his opening to Chapter 5, Clarke explains that on the morning of 9/11
I knew that I had failed. In the days and years leading up to that awful moment I had failed to persuade two administrations to do enough to prevent the attacks that were now happening around me.
You see, the decision makers in government didn't listen to Clarke, which is why they failed. And he only failed because they didn't listen. That's a fairly obtuse way of taking blame. The question is then: should we listen to him? Based on my reading and analysis of the events that Clarke describes, I certainly am wary of accepting Clarke's version of events prima facia.

For instance, he notes "the refusal of the Bush administration to ratify the [Kyoto] protocol...(p.277)" and makes no mention of the Clinton administrations similar "refusal." Elsewhere, he explains how he thinks partisanship is bad for national security, something for which many would agree. But the examples of partisanship he provides are markedly one-sided.
I think the record is fairly indisputable that national security issues have been used for partisan electoral advantage in recent years: terrorism threats have been overhyped near elections, predictions have been made about terrorist attacks occurring if the other party wins, people's patriotism has been questioned. (p.340-41)
Common charges levied against the Republicans, all. No mention of the political rhetoric flying from the Democratic side--immediate withdrawal, illegal war, the Bush fascist state, etc.--which helped them sweep to Congressional power in 2006. I suppose if you believe one set of arguments, then they aren't partisan?

Much of the first part of the book is devoted to Clarke's restatement of many of the same charges he made in Against All Enemies. He still thinks Iraq is a distraction away from Afghanistan, which is an arguable point, especially with Osama bin Laden still loose. He also puts much blame for Iraq at the feet of the generals charged with preparing our forces for the invasion:
1) "Neither the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [General Richard Myers] nor the regional commander at CENTCOM [General Tommy Franks] dissented from the initial war plan..."
2) The generals didn't implement proper counter-insurgency activities though they were aware of analysis from the CIA and State department that predicted insurgent activity in post-invasion Iraq.
3) Related to #2, once it became clear that the President intended to invade Iraq, the Generals did not advise the President and Congress that they did not have enough troops to deal with an insurgency.
4) "Inadequate training" for American troops in Iraq.
5) Generals tacitly condoned torture, such as at Abu Grahib.
6) Generals didn't ensure that wounded troops were treated adequately (Walter Reed).
All of these points are worth debating. But elsewhere, Clarke essentially accuses General David Petraeus, architect of the proving-successful surge implemented in 2007, of moving the goalposts himself when his own counter-insurgency efforts were initially exhibiting slow returns. "It began to seem as if the reason for the surge, in Petraeus's mind, was to prove that his new counterinsurgency strategy could work."

The recent success in Iraq is making Clarke a victim of the time line. For he claims that Petraeus
[b]y defending a policy that in the larger sense was injurious to the United States and the Army, by arguing for staying on when he admitted that his own condition for the U.S. presence (real progress toward Iraqi unity) was not being met...raised new questions about what makes a general political.
When Clarke wrote these words, the effectiveness of the surge was still in doubt. But no matter the expertise that lay on the side of the predictor, reality has a way of ruining predictions.

Clarke has much else to say about a plethora of items related to national security and, not as impressively, global warming. As to the last, he essentially toes the Al Gore line. Nothing earth shattering (or warming?).

Further, it becomes clear that Clarke is a supporter of the Powell doctrine, though redefined for the times, which is entirely defensible. On the other hand, he also channels Thomas Franks (the academic, not the general) by basically asking "what's the matter with the military," because he can't understand why they have become so overwhelmingly Republican (though he notes that Democrats are gaining support).

All in all, this is a "thick" book. There is a lot to digest and a lot to think about. Clarke's writing isn't florid or light. Instead, he hits you time and again with anecdotes and antidotes that spring from the mind of the man who apologized to the American people on behalf of the U.S. Government. In the end, his is a voice that warrants a listen. Perhaps the best way to get a balanced view of some of the events is to read Clarke's book in combination with Douglas Feith's War and Decision. To quote Ronald Reagan, "Trust, but verify."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Going to School on the Barbary Wars

I've done a few substantive posts about the Barbary Wars in the past. Michael Medved is the latest (here's another) to use them to buttress his particular position in contemporary arguments about the War in Iraq and the GWOT. Here are his 7 points.
1. The U.S. often goes to war when it is not directly attacked. One of the dumbest lines about the Iraq War claims that “this was the first time we ever attacked a nation that hadn’t attacked us.” Obviously, Barbary raids against private shipping hardly constituted a direct invasion of the American homeland, but founding fathers Jefferson and Madison nonetheless felt the need to strike back. Of more than 140 conflicts in which American troops have fought on foreign soil, only one (World War II, obviously) represented a response to an unambiguous attack on America itself. Iraq and Afghanistan are part of a long-standing tradition of fighting for U.S. interests, and not just to defend the homeland.

2. Most conflicts unfold without a Declaration of War. Jefferson informed Congress of his determination to hit back against the North African sponsors of terrorism (piracy), but during four years of fighting never sought a declaration of war. In fact, only five times in American history did Congress actually declare war – the War of 1812, the Mexican War, The Spanish American War, World War I and World War II. None of the 135 other struggles in which U.S. troops fought in the far corners of the earth saw Congress formally declare war—and these undeclared conflicts (including Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, and many more) involved a total of millions of troops and more than a hundred thousand total battlefield deaths.

3. Islamic enmity toward the US is rooted in the Muslim religion, not recent American policy. In 1786, America’s Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, joined our Ambassador in London, John Adams, to negotiate with the Ambassador from Tripoli, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. The Americans asked their counterpart why the North African nations made war against the United States, a power “who had done them no injury", and according the report filed by Jefferson and Adams the Tripolitan diplomat replied: “It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.”

4. Cruel Treatment of enemies by Muslim extremists is a long-standing tradition. In 1793, Algerian pirates captured the merchant brig Polly and paraded the enslaved crewmen through jeering crowds in the streets of Algiers. Dey Hassan Pasha, the local ruler, bellowed triumphantly: “Now I have got you, you Christian dogs, you shall eat stones.” American slaves indeed spent their years of captivity breaking rocks. According to Max Boot in his fine book The Savage Wars of Peace: “A slave who spoke disrespectfully to a Muslim could be roasted alive, crucified, or impaled (a stake was driven through the arms until it came out at the back of the neck). A special agony was reserved for a slave who killed a Muslim – he would be cast over the city walls and left to dangle on giant iron hooks for days before expiring of his wounds.”

5. There’s nothing new in far-flung American wars to defend U.S. economic interests. Every war in American history involved an economic motivation – at least in part, and nearly all of our great leaders saw nothing disgraceful in going to battle to defend the commercial vitality of the country. Jefferson and Madison felt no shame in mobilizing – and sacrificing – ships and ground forces to protect the integrity of commercial shipping interests in the distant Mediterranean.

Fortunately for them, they never had to contend with demonstrators who shouted “No blood for shipping!”

6. Even leaders who have worried about the growth of the U.S. military establishment came to see the necessity of robust and formidable armed forces. Jefferson and Madison both wanted to shrink and restrain the standing army and initially opposed the determination by President Adams to build an expensive new American Navy. When Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, however, he quickly and gratefully used the ships his predecessor built. The Barbary Wars taught the nation that there is no real substitute for military power, and professional forces that stand ready for anything.

7. America has always played “the cop of the world.” In part, Jefferson and Madison justified the sacrifices of the Barbary Wars as a defense of civilization, not just the protection of U.S. interests – and the European powers granted new respect to the upstart nation that finally tamed the North African pirates. Jefferson and Madison may not have fought for a New World Order but they most certainly sought a more orderly world. Many American conflicts over the last 200 years have involved an effort to enfort to enforce international rules and norms as much as to advance national interests. Wide-ranging and occasionally bloody expeditions throughout Central America, China, the Philippines, Africa and even Russia after the Revolution used American forces to prevent internal and international chaos.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Plimouth Plantation Vandalized

This is just too bad.
Plymouth police say vandals broke into Plimoth Plantation, damaged eight houses, smashed fence sections and stole furs and other items from the replica Pilgrim village.

Police say the living history museum's property manager discovered the damage when she arrived early Saturday morning. A security guard was on duty overnight, but did not report any disturbances.

Police say one or more vandals broke the locks on the houses, smashed crockery and left hatchet marks on the inside walls. They uprooted plants, stole reproduction armor, several beaver and otter furs, and other household items.

Plantation officials gave no damage estimate and are conducting visitor tours as usual. Police say staff cleaning up after the vandalism may have destroyed evidence.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Review: The Road to Monticello

Kevin J. Hayes, The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson.

This book could easily have been titled, "Jefferson the Bibliophile," but the author's inspiration for the actual title was to pay homage to John Livingston Lowe's study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Road to Xanadu. Hayes' literary and intellectual biography uses the books Jefferson loved--as well as those read or possessed by the people taught, met or impacted Jefferson--to chart the intellectual provenance of the Sage of Monticello.

Unsurprisingly, the list of books cataloged by Hayes is immense and impressive. But the insight that Hayes derives from his study of the Sage's reading list (as well as those Jefferson compiled for others), particularly the marginalia found in the books themselves, are the key that unlocks the door to the Jeffersonian mind.

Hayes consistently points out that "Jefferson preferred the life of the mind" and one would have to agree: how else could on man read and write so copiously if he didn't prize intellectual pursuits over most else? The importance of Bacon, Locke and Newton to Jefferson are unsurprising. But Jefferson was also particularly keen for Aesop's fables
...especially those that were useful as political allegories, like the one about the miller, his son, and their ass. By trying to please everyone, the miller ends up pleasing no one and loses his ass in the bargain.
It wasn't always the serious, or at least the factual, book that piqued the Jeffersonian mind
Fiction, Jefferson observed, could fulfill the purpose of teaching moral virtue better than fact. History was too uneven--few episodes in history could excite the "sympathetic emotion of virtue" at its highest level. Fiction, alternatively, could evoke a reader's sympathy because imaginary characters can be fashioned in a way real personages cannot. Fictional characters can illustrate and exemplify "every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the ry volumes of ethics and divinity that ever were written."
Thus did emotion, or a good yarn, help the mind see its way to logic.

For the intellectual historian, the meat-and-potato portions of the book are those in which Hayes traces the literary and philosophical influences of acute Jeffersonian works. Name a piece of writing produced by Jefferson and Hayes will trace its intellectual and literary genealogy. But he does so within the context of the times in which Jefferson was writing and illustrates how Jefferson did more than simply collate and regurgitate information. Jefferson's writing is filled with wisdom gained from reading, but also from his ability to observe and reason.

Jefferson was more than just a man of books, he was also, indelibly, a man--perhaps the man--of his time. Hayes puts Jefferson within historical and intellectual context and illustrates how this impressive thinker was able to build upon past literary works to help create a new and hopefully better nation. There is much here for the scholar and the layperson to digest. Road to Monticello is an important addition to anyone's, even Jefferson's, library.