Friday, November 28, 2008

Brief thought on the Mumbai attacks

I have no idea who the Deccan Mujahideen are or whether they have ties to 'elements' in Pakistan. One might do well to remember, however, that a luxury hotel in Islamabad (the Marriott) was the target of an attack not all that long ago. Are luxury hotels becoming the, or a, target of choice for terrorist groups in the region? (I'm aware, of course, that other targets besides the hotels were hit in Mumbai, and that the methods differed -- truck bomb in Islamabad, assault with rifles and grenades in Mumbai.)

Holbrooke on 'Lessons in Disaster'

Earlier I took note of Kissinger's review in Newsweek of Gordon Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Now Richard Holbrooke gives his take on the book in the current NY Times Book Review.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Afghanistan: declare victory and leave?

According to an item apparently moving on the wires -- it got roughly 25 seconds on the PBS NewsHour's summary tonight -- Pres. Karzai has called for the U.S. and NATO to set a withdrawal date from Afghanistan. Otherwise, he will initiate negotiations (with the Taliban, presumably) himself.

Negotiations might be a good idea -- indeed, they are already occurring to some extent -- but I suspect the idea of setting a withdrawal date now is a non-starter. It certainly runs counter to the incoming U.S. administration's announced policy. Perhaps Karzai is trying to signal in a more forceful way his clear unhappiness with aspects of the war, especially the ongoing civilian casualties. Some readers with longish memories (or an interest in the history of U.S. foreign policy) may recall the late Sen. George Aiken's prescription for ending the Vietnam war: "Declare victory and get out." That was rather sage advice as far as Vietnam was concerned; whether it is equally wise advice with respect to the Afghanistan conflict is a much more open question.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

IR blogging is a growth industry

There are more IR blogs than anyone can keep up with, and new ones are doubtless starting up all the time. Occasionally I will add one to the sidebar. Andrew Bishop's What You Must Read, which I just visited for the first time, looks as if it might be interesting. Go over there, check out his bio etc., and decide for yourselves.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Modernity, IR, and the European 16th century (Pt. 1)

N.B.: This post ends abruptly; I intend at some point to write a conclusion of sorts (hence the Part I in the title). Bracketed numbers indicate notes, which are found at the end. This will probably be my last post for this month.

How did the distinctive institutions of the modern world emerge and develop? Historians and sociologists have been chewing on that big question for a long time; the field of International Relations (IR) clearly has no monopoly on it. Still, some of the more interesting work by IR scholars in the past couple of decades has focused on this issue. Much of this work has been Eurocentric, partly because state sovereignty and the world capitalist economy have European roots. The concentration on Europe, and on the West more generally, has been criticized by writers who draw on ‘postcolonial’ scholarship. A passage from a recent article gives the flavor of this criticism:
“That the practices of states produce hierarchies – among peoples, places and states – is obvious. It is less obvious that practices of scholarship are complicit in these processes. Postcolonial scholars show how knowledge practices participate in the production and reproduction of international hierarchy. A common effect of such practices is to marginalize Third World and other subaltern points of view…. Perhaps most generally, IR often takes for granted as background knowledge, and thus truth, distinctions constitutive of sharp divides between spaces problematically referred to as the North and the South, the First and the Third World, or ‘the West and the rest’. These practices make the North Atlantic world central to world history, acknowledging only contingent connections between ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’. The former becomes the space of modernity, agency, knowledge, history, and power. The latter becomes ‘its lack, or other’. The consequences for our misunderstanding of the world are evident, for example, in analyses of the rise of the West to global dominance that overlook the significance of the non-West, of the spread of sovereignty out of Europe and across the planet that ignore the close ties between sovereignty and imperialism, and of a modernity assumed to be Western, obscuring the existence of other modernities as well as the constitutive role of colonialism in ‘Western’ modernity itself.” [1]
There is some merit to this critique. For reasons having mostly to do with the limits of my knowledge, this post focuses on “the West” and therefore opens itself to this kind of criticism. With so many Eurocentric books and articles having already contributed to “the production and reproduction of hierarchy,” however, I doubt that a blog post is going to do much additional damage in this respect.

“Feudal” and “Modern”
The notion of modernity implies, of course, a notion of pre-modernity, which in the European context means the era of medieval Christendom. The textbook picture of Latin Christendom emphasizes, indeed probably overemphasizes, its political complexity. This picture is one of overlapping authorities, often unclear jurisdictions, and “two parallel and connected hierarchies” [2]: one headed by the Pope, the other by the Holy Roman Emperor. The ideological glue that held medieval Europe together was the notion of respublica Christiana, but this idea of the unity of Christendom had to exist alongside the frequent intra-Christian warfare that characterized the Middle Ages. Thus to some extent medieval Europe was marked by “communal discourse and conflictual practices.” [3] The relation of discourse to practice, however, was not one of simple contradiction. Rather, intra-Christian warfare was seen as a regrettable affront to the way things should be, which is one reason papal mediation could at least occasionally terminate conflicts.

At what point does it make sense to begin speaking of “modern” states and “modern” rulers? The answer, not surprisingly, is unclear. The traditional dividing line in IR accounts is 1648, but that marker has been debunked in recent years, although some continue to use it and debates about the Peace of Westphalia doubtless will continue. With respect to an earlier period, Gilmore observes that the clash in the late fifteenth century between Charles the Bold of Burgundy and Louis XI of France “provided historians a specious example of dramatic contrast between the past and the future, between Charles, the representative of a dying chivalric and feudal order, and Louis, the representative of modern politics….” Actually both men, Gilmore argues, “worked within a set of conditions of which feudalism was still the basis. Both pursued a policy of territorial aggrandizement and there is small justification for awarding the title of ‘modern’ to the one who succeeded.” [4] Nonetheless, there were important structural differences between the Burgundian and the French polities, and the title of “modern” has to start being awarded at some point: if not to Louis XI, then perhaps to his sixteenth-century successors Francis I and Henry II. Anyway, a sharp divide between “feudal” and “modern” is misleading. Some “feudal” assumptions and institutions survived into the eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries, and the Holy Roman Empire did not formally go out of existence until 1806. [4a]

The Sixteenth Century
That the sixteenth century was an especially important, indeed crucial, period in the history of the West (and of the world) seems true whether the era is defined conventionally (say, 1500-1618) or as what Braudel and Wallerstein call the “long sixteenth century” (c.1450-c.1640). The following remarks are organized under the headings of politics, economics, and the legitimation of authority. The first two headings cover pretty familiar ground, while the third goes down slightly less well-worn paths, at least for IR types.

Politics: In the sixteenth century a new political form, namely the sovereign territorial state, finally emerged from the womb after a long gestation. As Tilly and Spruyt among others have noted, the flourishing of this form was not inevitable but the result of a complicated mixture and interplay of forces (sociopolitical and economic). [5] Some historians describe the emergent states of the sixteenth century as “composite" states – polities made up of parts having different social, legal, and sometimes religious characteristics, and held together by the person of the ruler. Recognizing that most polities were composites to one degree or another, however, should not obscure the differences between, say, France, which was an embryonic sovereign territorial state, and the Holy Roman Empire, which was not. [Note added 4/09: For more on composite states and a different view from that expressed in the preceding sentence, see Daniel Nexon, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe, Princeton U.P., 2009.]

Religious conflicts were the most obvious cleavages of the period, but not the only ones, and conflicts that seemed religious were sometimes so only on the surface. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the same polity could have different official religions within a short time span. From the 1530s to the 1560s, England went from Protestantism to Catholicism to Protestantism again, with each change bringing persecution. For those who took doctrine seriously, such “shifts in official belief and regulated practice must have been excruciating,” dividing communities and families and, sometimes, an individual psyche. [6] State policy could and did veer from toleration to intolerance and back again, as monarchs sought to harness “the passion unleashed by doctrinal conflict…for their own ends.” [7]

Economics: The period witnessed the development of a Europe-wide economy, a “world-economy” in Wallerstein’s phrase, tied together by a division of labor and patterns of exchange. Trade fueled the growth of a banking and credit system, and in Kennedy’s words, “the very existence of mercantile credit, and then of bills of insurance, pointed to a basic predictability of economic conditions which private traders had hitherto rarely, if ever, enjoyed anywhere in the world.” [8] As major customers of merchants and bankers, the emergent states played important roles in the Europe-wide economy’s functioning. [9] Thus, political fragmentation, sustained by (among other things) the fact that most polities were able to produce or to buy the latest military technologies [10], went hand in hand with economic vitality. Territorial consolidation occurred, but not on such a scale as to threaten to replace multiple units with one big entity. In this sense, the geopolitical storyline of the period is “the failure of empire” [11], which enabled the growth of the Europe-wide economy. (Of course, extraction of bullion, sugar, etc. from colonies in the Americas and elsewhere also made this to some extent an extra-European economy.)

The human cost of economic change, both in Europe and beyond, was considerable. In England for instance, rural dislocation “set thousands of beggars wandering the roads” and pushed other people “into the cities and boroughs where they were newly subject to the calamities of depression and urban unemployment.” [12] Crime increased; the suburbs of London were “no other but dark dens for adulterers, thieves, murderers and every mischief worker,” one observer wrote in 1591. [13] Famines and epidemics were regular occurrences.

Legitimation of authority: As Reus-Smit observes, “Legitimacy…is the necessary prerequisite for stable political authority, and investing European monarchs with supreme political authority was, in essence, a process of legitimation.” [14]

In this connection, consider two of the peaks of sixteenth-century literary achievement: Machiavelli’s The Prince (written 1513, published 1532), and the works of Shakespeare (b.1564-d.1616). Close observers of political power and how it is acquired and wielded, Machiavelli and Shakespeare both treat politics as basically a secular realm, with its own set of rules. One scholar remarks that Shakespeare is “the only dramatist who rises to the level of Machiavelli in elaborating all the consequences of the separation of political praxis from moral evaluation.” [15] Another observes that the plays Henry IV (Pts. 1 and 2) and Henry V “confirm the Machiavellian hypothesis that princely power originates in force and fraud even as they draw their audiences toward an acceptance of that power.” [16]

Both Machiavelli and Shakespeare saw that, in an age when rulers had to embody and attempt to unify diverse, “composite” realms, the tools of display and theatricality were central to the legitimation of authority. Machiavelli advised rulers to “keep the people entertained with feasts and spectacles” at “appropriate times of the year.” [17] More importantly, he wrote: “What will make [a ruler] despised is being considered inconstant, frivolous, effeminate, pusillanimous and irresolute: a ruler must avoid contempt as if it were a reef. He should contrive that his actions should display grandeur, courage, seriousness and strength….” [18] Note that “grandeur,” the quality with the strongest link to theatricality, is listed first.

At age eleven, Shakespeare might have seen and been struck by the pomp and display surrounding Elizabeth I on one of her spectacular royal “progresses” through the realm (specifically her 1575 visit to the castle of her favorite the Earl of Leicester). As Greenblatt writes, Elizabeth was “the supreme mistress of these occasions, at once thrilling and terrifying those who encountered her,” and if the young Shakespeare had caught a glimpse of her on this occasion, “arrayed in one of her famously elaborate dresses, carried in a litter on the shoulders of guards specially picked for their good looks, accompanied by her gorgeously arrayed courtiers, he would in effect have witnessed the greatest theatrical spectacle of the age.” [19] Elizabeth was not the only monarch who traveled all over a realm; for example, the young king of France, Charles IX, accompanied by his mother Catherine de Medici and a huge entourage, began a long “tour of France” in 1564 [20] -- the year, incidentally, of Shakespeare’s birth.

Shakespeare’s grasp of the charismatic, theatrical aspects of authority is memorably expressed, among other places, in Henry IV’s rebuke of Prince Hal (1 Henry IV III.ii), in which the father upbraids his son for keeping bad company and becoming too familiar with his future subjects. The trick, Hal is told, is to keep a certain distance and interact with the crowd mainly on well-scripted ceremonial occasions: “Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,/ My presence, like a robe pontifical,/ Ne’er seen but wond’red at; and so my state [i.e. pomp],/ Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast/ And won by rareness such solemnity.” For both Shakespeare (at least in these lines) and Machiavelli, too much familiarity with one’s subjects diminishes the ruler’s aura of specialness and separateness, and once that goes, the prince becomes easier prey for domestic conspirators. Ceremony and spectacle help preserve distance and inspire awe; theatricality was thus bound up with the creation and maintenance of legitimate authority.

This authority, however, was fragile, and monarchs’ difficulty in getting their decisions implemented was a source of anxiety for them. One response was to micromanage (as we would now put it), which is basically what Philip II of Spain did. Philip faced nearly insuperable problems in trying to deal with a large empire, but his style of rule probably made the problems even more intractable than they otherwise would have been. Rulers who were more willing to delegate generally fared somewhat better.

Dates and places of publication have been omitted.

1. M. Laffey and J. Weldes, “Decolonizing the Cuban Missile Crisis,” International Studies Quarterly 52:3, pp. 555-577 (quotations from pp. 556, 558).

2. R. Jackson and G. Sørensen, Introduction to International Relations, 2/e, p.13.

3. M. Fischer, “Feudal Europe, 800-1300: Communal Discourse and Conflictual Practices,” International Organization 46:2, pp. 427-466.

4. M. Gilmore, The World of Humanism 1453-1517, p. 81.

4a. In The International Political System, F.S. Northedge dealt with the issue of dating the modern state system's origin by splitting the question in two: he placed the emergence of "the secular principle," i.e. reason of state, in the sixteenth century, and "the fragmentation principle," i.e. the waning of allegiance to a united Christendom, "perhaps as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century." (p. 55)

5. C. Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States; H. Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors.

6. S. Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, p. 94.

7. A. Marx, Faith in Nation, p. 27.

8. P. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p.19 (italics omitted).

9. I. Wallerstein, The Modern World-System vol.1, p.133.

10. Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, pp. 21-22.

11. Wallerstein, Modern World-System I, ch. 4.

12. M. Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, p. 201.

13. Ibid.

14. C. Reus-Smit, The Moral Purpose of the State, p. 93.

15. F. Moretti, quoted in S. Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 23.

16. Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 65.

17. N. Machiavelli, The Prince (Q. Skinner and R. Price, eds.), ch. 21.

18. Ibid., ch. 19. A different translator (Mansfield) renders this as “greatness, spiritedness, gravity, and strength,” a third (Ricci) as “grandeur, spirit, gravity, and fortitude.”

19. Greenblatt, Will in the World, pp. 42, 45-46.

20. E. Le Roy Ladurie, The Royal French State 1460-1610, pp. 177-180; J. Boutier et al., Un tour de France royal: Le voyage de Charles IX (1564-1566); J.E. Neale, The Age of Catherine de Medici.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Selective outrage?

A recent post at Elected Swineherd quotes Amitai Etzioni's musings about why Western "public intellectuals" do not display more outrage about atrocities committed by extremist Muslims, e.g., Taliban beheadings or the stoning to death, for "adultery," of a thirteen-year-old Somali girl who had been raped. These occurrences are indeed appalling, and I agree that often they are not denounced forcefully enough by Western voices.

On the other hand, of course, there are Western voices who would use the Muslim extremists to tar all Muslims, or Islam in general. Glance at some of what goes on at a site like Gates of Vienna for an example of this.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Howl time is extended

I find in the mailbox a card from the publishing company Elsevier that informs me I may purchase the second edition of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict for a mere $795.00, a reduction from the list price of $995.00.

Uh-huh. Right.

Hello? Elsevier marketing department? Anyone home? No, I didn't think so.

Howl time!!

I just heard a radio announcer say: "Gas prices in the D.C. area are a dollar cheaper [sic] than they were...."

I wish someone would inform this person that prices are not cheaper. Prices are lower. (Goods or services are cheaper.) Why does this minor mistake annoy me? Mostly, I think, because it represents a small instance of a larger phenomenon: presumably educated, intelligent people making basic English mistakes on the airwaves every day. This is not about informality or slang or colloquialisms, which I have nothing against. It's about locutions that are obviously, patently wrong. I know that languages evolve and all that, and I know no one is perfect, but it's getting to the point where formation of a Committee for the Defense of English would not be an irrational response.

If you don't like this post or think there are errors in it, please howl in the comments.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Gaza (cont.)

A story today says Israel has let in a convoy of aid to Gaza, but a UN spokesman said only eight trucks were let through, carrying only a few days' worth of supplies. The UN spokesman added that $2000 worth of baby milk was damaged or destroyed during inspections by Israeli soldiers. Nice going.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Israel's blockade of Gaza

Israel has effectively blockaded Gaza, preventing the entry of humanitarian aid including food, and aid agencies are predicting a catastrophe if the blockade continues. On Nov. 5, Israeli forces entered Gaza to destroy a tunnel, and Hamas responded with rocket attacks, which have continued intermittently. Israel says its sealing of the borders to humanitarian convoys and other transfers of goods is a response to the attacks; if so, it seems a somewhat disproportionate response.

By the way, remember when the Bush administration was saying it hoped to have the basic framework of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement in place before it left office? This seems pretty much out of the question now, although something might conceivably happen on that front between now and January. Assuming nothing does, the Bush administration will leave office with a list of foreign-policy accomplishments that can be counted on the fingers of one hand: 1) its global initiative on HIV and other epidemic diseases in sub-Saharan Africa, which has had some success; 2) increased development assistance to Africa and Latin America; 3) improved U.S.-Indian relations; and 4) some halting progress on the North Korean nuclear front. And that's just about it. (The other side of the ledger is too obvious to need enumeration.)

Coming next week

The post on the sixteenth century, mentioned earlier, will be up next week.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Collective forgetting

In a comment on this earlier post, 'bro' suggested adding a sentence to McCain's line that Americans make history: "And then we run screaming out of the room, get trashed, go to sleep, and wake up with no memory of what happened."

This was meant humorously, of course, but it points to a non-humorous issue, namely the function of collective forgetting, which is perhaps best understood not as literally blotting out certain painful parts of a national past but as agreeing to "bracket" them. More than a century ago, the historian Ernest Renan, in his lecture "What Is a Nation?," observed that "the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things...." More recently, Anthony Marx has put it this way: "Nations drink at the fountain of Lethe, clearing their memories, before their rebirth in the Hades of modernity." (Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism [2003], pp.29-30)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Congo update

France has failed to persuade the EU to send 1500 soldiers to eastern DR Congo to augment the UN peacekeeping force (MONUC), according to a radio report I heard earlier today. The 17,000 UN peacekeepers must deal with a region with roughly 1.7 million people, as Edmond Mulet, UN Asst. Sec. Gen. for Peacekeeping, pointed out in a letter published in yesterday's Wash. Post. Meanwhile, Gen. Nkunda, whose forces have been fighting Congolese government forces as well as, apparently, some soldiers from the government's ally Angola, threatened in an interview with the BBC to overthrow the government of Joseph Kabila unless it agreed to talks. Congo's ambassador to the UN dismissed the remarks. The UN has accused both sides in the recent fighting of war crimes against civilians.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Storming a (non-existent) heaven

Every Friday, the New York Times Book Review (published in print in the Sunday paper) arrives in my in-box. My usual procedure is to glance at it and, unless there's something I urgently want to read, file it in an e-mail folder labeled (surprise) 'nyt bk review'. I just looked at this folder and was horrified at how I have let them pile up. So I quickly deleted a few, but I paused to read David Gates's review, published back in September, of Philip Roth's novel Indignation.

According to the review, the novel centers on a college student who is also the narrator and who is revealed, a quarter of the way through the book, to be dead. Roth portrays the afterlife as a place where
"your actions are naggingly being judged for all time by yourself.”

Here's the conclusion of Gates's review: "...of all Roth’s recent novels, it ventures farthest into the unknowable. In his unshowy way, with all his quotidian specificity and merciless skepticism, Roth is attempting to storm heaven — an endeavor all the more desperately daring because he seems dead certain it’s not there." Listen to the way "endeavor," "desperately, "daring," and "dead certain" work together. What a terrific sentence. I've never read David Gates -- never heard of him, in fact -- but maybe I will now.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

History and "history"

"We [Americans] don't hide from history. We make history."
-- John McCain

"A man has nothing to fear, he thought to himself, who understands history."
-- last line of Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise (1981)

In these two quotations, "history" is, respectively, a prize and a consolation. In McCain's congratulatory usage, the power to make "history" is what Americans award themselves for being Americans. In Robert Stone's novel, the anthropologist Holliwell, having blundered around in an imaginary Latin American country and helped wreck more than several lives, consoles himself by taking the long view. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, or something like that.

When Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous article "The End of History," later expanded into the book The End of History and the Last Man, he was careful to point out that he was not talking about history but about History in the Hegelian sense, the ostensibly progressive development or unfolding of collective human consciousness, or spirit (Geist). Did McCain's speech writer have Fukuyama somewhere at the back of his mind? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Hegelians and Marxists, among others, believe that History has a veiled or hidden logic, one that their theories grasp. History unlocks its secrets to those in possession of the key: Spirit rising to consciousness of itself, or the inevitability of socialist revolution. Marxism is not about "spreading the wealth," contrary to what certain denizens of the right-wing blogosphere said or implied during the just-concluded U.S. election campaign. Marx himself had nothing but contempt for anyone who concentrated on distribution as opposed to the forces and relations of production. He asserted that redistribution was not possible without a change in the mode of production:
"Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves [Marx wrote in Critique of the Gotha Program].... Vulgar socialism...has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation [between distribution and the mode of production] has long been made clear, why retrogress again?"
When certain conservatives charged that Obama was a Marxist, they proved only that they had not read Marx.

This post seems to have wandered away from the rhetorical uses of "history." Perhaps that's just as well. When we get too serious about these things, we can count on Shaw to puncture the balloon. In Shaw's play The Devil's Disciple, set during the American war of independence, the British general Burgoyne, facing defeat at Saratoga, is asked by a horrified subordinate: "What will history say?" Burgoyne's answer: "History, sir, will tell lies, as usual."

P.S. A link to Critique of the Gotha Program.

Friday, November 7, 2008

China notes

  • James Fallows' article, "Their Own Worst Enemy," in the current Atlantic is interesting and also fairly short (which is always a plus). He argues that the Chinese government does a better job of responding to its people's needs than it has managed to convey to the rest of the world. The government has a penchant for PR missteps, unnecessarily shooting itself in the foot, as happened on a couple of occasions during the Olympics. Fallows suggests that the bureaucracy continues to value loyalty over other qualities but that local officials sometimes go their own way, frustrating directives from the top. Still, there are signs the government is learning from mistakes and beginning to present a more accurate, and therefore favorable, picture of itself to the world.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

One more post on the election

Some readers doubtless already have seen Andrew Gelman's interpretation of the election results, but here's the link for those who haven't. Some key findings: (1) young voters made up about the same proportion of the electorate as in 2004, but they broke Democratic by a much larger margin than in 2004; (2) Obama's gains over Kerry, on a national basis, were most substantial among minority voting groups, but Obama also improved on Kerry's percentage among white voters (Obama got 44 percent, Kerry 41 percent of white voters); (3) the election did not fundamentally re-draw the red-blue map, as Gelman says; Obama outpaced Kerry's showing in the majority of states, but he underperformed Kerry in a few states, such as Louisiana and Arkansas.

Which campaign lines will be remembered?

Despite Barack Obama's eloquence, and despite the fact that I voted for him (in a primary and then in the general election), and despite having downloaded the text of his so-called race speech from the NYT to read at some point (because somehow I missed hearing most of it at the time), I'm afraid that the single line of rhetoric I will remember from this past election may be a John McCain line: "We are Americans. We don't hide from history. We make history." This is not even a good line; it resonates with the kind of American exceptionalism I reject. But because it was the conclusion of McCain's nomination acceptance speech, and because he resurrected it in the closing days of the campaign, and because I made the mistake of watching a pro-McCain YouTube pastiche that prominently featured it, I fear it may prove to be the one line I recall from this election season. (Except for Obama's "yes, we can," but that's less like a line and more like a chant, and also the thing about 'no red states, no blue states,' but that goes back to 2004.)

So, is there some kind of Vulcan-style procedure to eliminate unwanted words from one's memory banks? I'll take it please, pronto. That McCain line is one bit of history I'd just as soon hide from.

The civilian toll continues in Afghanistan

Another wedding party, this one in Kandahar province, has been mistakenly hit by a U.S. air strike, resulting in 40 deaths, the BBC reports. Hamid Karzai is quoted as saying that his "first demand" on the Obama administration after it takes office will be to end civilian casualties.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How Virginia voted, and a few other notes

Many commenters will be putting in their two cents on the election, and I doubt I have much to add of significance. However, in view of this earlier post, I should note that Virginia went for Obama by 51 to 47 percent (based on 99 percent of precincts reporting). Missouri and North Carolina are extremely close and there will probably be recounts in those states, although they cannot affect the overall outcome. Indiana, which I predicted (in comments at DofM) would go for Obama, did, by a slim margin (roughly 23,000 votes out of more than 2.6 million cast). However, I also thought McCain might eke out a win in Ohio, on no evidence other than a hunch, and I was obviously wrong about that. No Democratic candidate has won the presidency without carrying Ohio since JFK in 1960, so I was going out on a limb there, clearly. I haven't checked the latest figures on close Senate races yet, but Elizabeth Dole's defeat in North Carolina is good news, especially given the nasty turn her campaign took at the end.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Kissinger's latest pronouncement on Vietnam

In the current (Nov. 3) issue of Newsweek, Henry Kissinger reviews Gordon M. Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Bundy was Kennedy's and then Johnson's national security advisor from 1961 until April 1966, when he resigned and was replaced by Walt Rostow. Along with Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk, Bundy was a key contributor to the decisions that led to the Americanization of the Vietnam War in 1965. Perhaps not surprisingly, this review tells one as much if not more about Kissinger than about Bundy.

Newsweek's decision to have Kissinger review the book, which was written by Bundy's former research assistant, is a bit peculiar. For one thing, most Americans born before, say, 1960 cannot read the words "Kissinger" and "Vietnam" together without being assailed by a host of largely bad memories. Yet Kissinger makes only glancing references to his own extensive involvement with the Vietnam War and adopts the tone of a dispassionate and compassionate observer: dispassionate in apparently trying to rise above the controversies associated with what he calls "the traumatic event [for America] of the second half of the last century," and compassionate towards Bundy, whom he views as someone who did his best in difficult and somewhat novel circumstances.

Kissinger briefly recounts the history of Vietnam policy-making under Kennedy and Johnson, and toward the end of the piece he distills some general lessons (for lack of a better word). Some of this is unobjectionable; who would quarrel, for instance, with the statement that "when the President is asked to consider going to war, he must be presented, above all, with an analysis of the global strategic situation on which the recommendation is based"? (In fact, of course, Kennedy and Johnson were presented with such analyses: the problem was not lack of analysis of the "global strategic situation" but that such analysis was often based on faulty assumptions.)

While some parts of Kissinger's review are unobjectionable, other parts raise hackles. For instance, he criticizes the commitment of U.S. combat troops in large numbers in 1965 "on behalf of a general notion of credibility...." Yet Kissinger himself, after coming to power with Nixon, refused to quickly terminate all American involvement on the grounds that that would have been "immoral" because it would have damaged American credibility in the world! (Michael J. Smith has a good brief discussion on this point in his Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger, pp.213-214.)

Kissinger observes that Bundy hoped a diplomatic compromise would emerge "once Hanoi's efforts to dominate South Vietnam were thwarted." This approach wrongly sought stalemate rather than victory, Kissinger maintains, and he goes on to say that "the effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of victory -- as the administration in which I served had to learn from bitter experience." This, I suppose, is a veiled way of saying, among other things, that the "Christmas bombing" in 1972 of Hanoi and Haiphong was necessary to bring about the settlement that was reached in January 1973. Without rehashing the depressing saga of Vietnam policy under Kissinger and Nixon, suffice it to note that
"the effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of victory" is a highly tendentious statement, at best.

Finally, consider Kissinger's last paragraph. It is written in Kissingerese -- a blend of the orotund, the unctuous, and the epigrammatic -- and runs as follows:
"Throughout history, every problem [sic!] America had recognized had proved soluble by the application of resources and idealism. Vietnam proved obdurate. Mourning the assassination of a president with whom it had identified, and perplexed by an impasse to which its own theories had contributed, the intellectual establishment ascribed its traumas to a failure of the American experience and the moral inadequacy of its leaders. This turned the national debate from an argument over feasibility into a crusade increasingly settled by confrontations designed to demonstrate a moral indictment. In that sense, Bundy was victim as much as cause of the forces unleashed as America was obliged to adapt its history to a changing world."
Of course, there could not have possibly been any prior "failures" in "the American experience." There could not have been even one deep flaw or failure. Nor, needless to say, can there have been any flaws in the approach pursued by Nixon and his national security advisor/secretary of state. The flaws lay elsewhere -- in a narcissistic intellectual establishment determined to indict "the American experience" rather than rationally conduct an "argument over feasibility." Never mind that this confuses one element of one segment of the anti-war movement's critique with the whole. Never mind that it implicitly whitewashes every less than glorious moment in the American past. In this last paragraph Kissinger reveals his true colors: as a student of history who apparently fails to comprehend that questions of war and peace are not simply about "argument[s] over feasibility," and as a public servant who has never fully come to terms with his own part in prolonging "the traumatic event [for America] of the second half of the last century."

P.s. I recognize that some people believe "war criminal" is a more apt designation for Kissinger than "public servant," but I think the latter is defensible if one considers his whole career rather than particular, admittedly despicable episodes.