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Thursday, June 08, 2006

beinart

It had been a phobia of his for years that someday he would fall into the hands of madmen—in particular, madmen who seemed sane up until the last moment. – Philip Dick

LI knows exactly what Dick is talking about. Or perhaps I should say – America in general knows exactly what Dick is talking about. Except – do we? Do we, Walt-Whitman-Alan-Ginsburg-Muddy-Waters' America? Case in point is Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight. We ignored the excerpt in the NYT magazine, but we knew it wasn’t going to go away.

Beinart has taken a page and a phrase from the Weekly Standard, and issued a call for a liberal foreign policy of ‘American greatness.’ To make his case, he unfolds a narrative of stalwart cold war liberalism – Truman, Kennedy and (not mentioned in the TPM post, but surely a presence) Henry Jackson. Beinart proposes to be our modern Kennan. Kennan’s memo about Russia gave an intellectual blessing to Truman’s anti-communist/security state program. Out of that fountainhead issued the CIA, the expanded and never contracted Pentagon, SAC, the interventions starting in Greece and ending in Angola, etc., etc. Beinart correctly sees that this liberalism had a double face, with the domestic side using foreign policy as an excuse (or, I suppose Beinart would say, as a platform) for expanding the role of government in the economy, gradually forcing the governing class to expand civil rights, and construct a welfare society. Beinart does like to lard his punditry with the kind of prophetic vistas that real estate salesmen selling houses near paper mills put in their pitches.

“In the liberal vision, it is precisely our recognition that we are not angels that makes us exceptional. Because we recognize that we can be corrupted by unlimited power, we accept the restraints that empires refuse. That is why the Truman administration self-consciously shared power with America’s democratic allies, although we comprised one half of the world’s GDP and they were on their knees.
Moral humility breeds international restraint. That restraint ensures that weaker countries welcome our preeminence, and thus, that our preeminence endures. It makes us a great nation, not a predatory one. At home, because America realizes that it does not embody goodness, it does not grow complacent. Rather than viewing American democracy as a settled accomplishment to which others aspire, we see ourselves as engaged in our own democratic struggle, which parallels the one we support abroad. It was not the celebration of American democracy that inspired the world in the 1950s and 1960s, but America’s wrenching efforts—against McCarthyism and segregation—to give our democracy new meaning. Then, as now, the threat to national greatness stems not from self- doubt, but from self- satisfaction.”

Beinart realizes that this vision isn’t shared by all liberals – in fact, it is increasingly scoffed at – and responds to that scoffing much like Mildred Pierce finally owning up to the moral flaws of her daughter:

“This vision has sometimes divided liberals themselves. Recognizing American fallibility means recognizing that the United States cannot wield power while remaining pure. From Henry Wallace in the late 1940s to Michael Moore after September 11, some liberals have preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world.”

America shedding its moral innocence is a phrase that Mencken would certainly have loved – it concentrates, in one butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth phrase, a flabbiness of vision so comprehensive that one could run a think tank on it for a year.

For good and ill, America has never been morally innocent. The unjustified transfer of the qualities of a human being to a nation can insensibly lead to the idea that nations are also, at one time, babies. But nations are at no time babies. Nations are conceived in fire and blood, and they would not survive for a day if they were not so designed that they served the interests of the most powerful class within them. Rather than innocence, America suffers most from moral ignorance –from an inability to deduce, from the chain of actions that constitute its history with other nations, the co-extensive tendencies and structures that have been built up inside this country. If I continually find myself with a hangover on waking up in the morning, I should, as a rational person, deduce that I have a tendency to drink too much – and not that I think so much about virtue and God that my brain hurts.

Unfortunately, in the twentieth century, the culture and political economy of war has become so strong in America that the country has a hard time shedding it even when, as now, it has become counter-productive. Beinart’s problem actually is in seeing that war has a price – even wars that are won have a price that they exact from the victor nation. That is what makes the phrase ‘good war’ so satanic – it attaches people to war under false pretenses. While it might be good to win a war, it is never good to wage one – it is, at best, necessary. But when you have promoted the habit of war, both by grossly inflating the war related economy within your country and by childishly refusing to examine your country’s interests in the context of military conflict –substituting rhetoric about national greatness for the reality of the compromises between justice and economic and political interests that must determine any nation’s foreign policy – you have ceased to analyze at all. You have started to maunder.

In his response to Beinart, Max Sawiky takes out a sawed off shotgun and puts a load of double ought in the quivering jello of the national greatness thing. Myself, I wish only to indicate that Beinart's argument is part of a larger argument that is not being joined. The larger argument is that the Cold War is not a model, but a deleterious compulsion to which the elite go back because they have lost their sense for alternatives. In fact, the thing America needs to do least, at the moment, is hold fast in the long war against ‘jihadist totalitarianism’ – Beinart’s comic phrase for the barely controlled anarchy that has, so far, infested only one state that we know of, Afghanistan during the 90s. Unless he is subtly suggesting we should sneak attack Saudi Arabia. That we should orient our whole foreign policy to preventing other Afghanistans is perhaps the dumbest thing he suggests – it competes with the inability, at least in the excerpts, to recognize that the Cold War mentality actually vitiated America’s war against Osama bin Laden, since that war was fought, as it were, absent-mindedly – while the troops were closing in on Tora Bora, the commander, in Tampa, and the Secretary of War, in D.C., were dreaming of Iraq. And so the best of all possible worlds was formed, by accident and intention – Osama escapes, terrorism is on tap, and the ‘jihadist threat’ can be pulled out of a hat anytime to justify more military malarkey. It really is a minor threat, but, frustratingly, the last people who will treat it as a threat are the same people who continually tell us it is a major threat. They treat Al Qaeda the way the producers of Friday the 13th treated Freddie Krueger – as a dependable monster generating an infinite amount of sequels.

Beinart’s history – his idea that we should revive cold war liberalism now, rolling out the references to Truman, to Kennedy, to the Missile Crisis, etc., – reminds me of what Gibbon said about Constantine’s arch. Constantine, to celebrate himself and his new capital city, demanded a triumphant monument. But there was a small problem in building one from scratch:

“To revive the genius of Phidias and Lysippus, surpassed indeed the power of a Roman emperor; but the immortal productions which they had bequeathed to posterity were exposed without defence to the rapacious vanity of a despot. By his commands the cities of Greece and Asia were despoiled of their most valuable ornaments.The trophies of memorable wars, the objects of religious veneration, the most finished statues of the gods and heroes, of the sages and poets, of ancient times, contributed to the splendid triumph of Constantinople; and gave occasion to the remark of the historian Cedrenus, who observes, with some enthusiasm, that nothing seemed wanting except the souls of the illustrious men whom these admirable monuments were intended to represent. But it is not in the city of Constantine, nor in the declining period of an empire, when the human mind was depressed by civil and religious slavery, that we should seek for the souls of Homer and of Demosthenes.”

Depressed by the civil and religious slavery of the Bush era, I don’t think we should seek for the souls of FDR and John Kennedy in the bodies of Hilary Clinton and Joe Liberman.

11 comments:

new york pervert said...

The U.S. is not 'like babies' but it may be like teenagers with a lot of money to go clubbing--and thinking it logical to, in fact, use all of the money for that.

I don't agree that the 'jihadist threat' is not serious, it's definitely serious. What the Bush administration contributes in terms of interminable lying and cheap exploitation of its War on Terror doesn't change that, conspiracy theorists notwithstanding.

You probably know much of what Elizabeth Drew says in her current NYReview of Books piece, but I think it's excellent and has some specific data I wouldn't have known about otherwise regarding the inexorable appropriation of all power into the executive. Much of it actually supports some of what chabert has recently been arguing on Lenin's Tomb, although her intelligent opponent, one 'johng' is at least as convincing. Chabert stops being credible at a certain point, of course, because of her alliance with warszawa, famed for turning all posts of any kind into a forum for the theory of 9/11 as insider job. It's a form of dyspepsia that probably even provides a safe haven for its loud-mouthed proponents, because it is not true that most people agree with the truthout.org people--whose New York groups meet in little groups similar to AA, and they are considered a laughingstock, especially when you add in the superb logic of blasting the Pentagon, which has hardly as mean-spirited a little attitude as those lib-rul New Yawk-ahs. However, Drew's piece does make visible some of the specific ties that explain the Democrats' behaviour.

And while it is probably true that Zarqawi was quite available in 2003 and purposely left to vegetate in boiling oils of his own choosing, it's unlikely that his killing will do much more than produce a little ripple in a stagnant pool--much like throwing the dog-public a bone. But it seems more like an act of desperation to me than a well-chosen way to get out of the Republican opacity they've got, replete with well-farted bunkers--places where 'profit-only' may lead only to senility, dementia, Alzheimer's and worse, because not only do you not spend the gorgeous profit even for yourself when in bunkers, you cannot spend it there except perhaps in intra-net gambling and virtual prostitution rings.

roger said...

Mr. NYP - serious is, I guess, one of those subjective terms in discourse -- it has to be relative to some situation. So, for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, jihadism - or Islamicism, or whatever you want to call it - is serious.

For the U.S., the threat of jihadism is posed by an eminently friable group (hey, does that sound Johnsonian or what? Lately I've been taking my cues from the Rambler). Taking it seriously meant taking it seriously as a minor threat, to be utterly routed. This, of course, wasn't done. The opposite was done. I'm as sure that Mohammed Atta and his posse did the 9/11 deed as I am that the world is round, but in terms of conspiracy, I'd say accident compounded by intention in the post 9/11 world left Osama's group as the terrorists on tap so that we could be alert leveled into submission.

All of which is by way of saying - jihadism is not a serious threat unless the U.S. gov. makes it one. And that is possible. Turning Iraq into anarchy might magnify terrorism, especially if it is in synch with Osama linked groups who eventually take power in Pakistan.

Still, there simply is no comparison with the threat of 12,000 nuclear warheads pouring into U.S. airspace and killing off 2/3rds of the population.

Making arguments about the seriousness or non-seriousness of a threat, however, means sorta analyzing reality as an outsider to mainstream analysis, which is divided between the Beinarts and the Krystals in the rarified world of the Republican/Democrat leadership. I believe the governing class that is responsible for our security is un-serious from the ground up. Look, for instance, at how the U.S. simply botched the opportunity to secure weapons in the Soviet area during the nineties. We spend untold trillions during the cold war, then, as soon as it stops, we refuse to spend an extra three or four billion to secure nuclear, chemical and germ weapons. And If some 'jihadist' group did get ahold of a WMD of the germ, chemical or nuclear kind, chances are that its provenance would be from the old sunken S.U. empire -- the kind of weaponry we refused to buy.

What explains this behavior?
The holes and inconsistencies in 'defense' policy might well be due to that senility-Altzheimer-Texas rancher complex up there in D.C. Or it could be due to an entrenched mindset that has gradually become incapable of receiving new information -- that has become inadaptive.

new york pervert said...

roger--I agree with all that, and would just add a few more thoughts and hunches. Obviously that's true about the negligence operations of Bush and Condi. My supposition is that they simply 'didn't have time' to concern themselves with something that wasn't of immediate use to their consolidations of power project, but that it is unlikely that they were sitting there waiting for the glorious blow-up to occur so that they could release their long-cherished desire to catch the nation unawares and do the Iraq Project. They got to do this Project, but I think their definition of 'urgent matter' never has anything to do with any but their own elite--that's the one thing everyone is pretty much in agreement on except those Republicans who are out of the closet on that they love Bush because he does good political PR for their jobs, and they have nothing to lose by saying it. Other than that, it's mostly disagreement on the definition of what the protected elite comprises.

I am pretty convinced that there is a sense of danger about repairing anything in the generally held usage of the terms--it may even be possible that a panic was set off by the negligence of the intelligence that made it impossible to do something really direct about it--not that 'they had a right to feel panicked,' after all, they're supposed to be professional (and aren't). I even think that is part of it, the fear of being professional and truly powerful about it. In this way, there was enormous harm done by going this roundabout route, not even including the fact that it didn't work; but I think this ruling elite does not feel that sort of pain. They would feel pain upon having to be professional, there would be an immediate onset of pain from professionally and in a businesslike way taking out the specific groups and working unceasingly toward this. Much too cold for this, frankly, quite sentimental group (no, they could not possibly fake the sentimentalisms that well and often; anyway, sentimentality and violence have always been in bed together.) 'Businesslike' to this group just means acquiring one form of private power or another, but directly targeting Al Qaeda and concentrating on it would have frightened them, and this may even explain why they didn't talk about a 'turning point' this time, not the reasons they said. Although Al Qaeda wouldn't have been in Iraq without the Iraq Project, it is still real Al-Qaeda they cooked the goose of, and a big name one at that, so it doesn't really fit the pattern that they had had the most affection for. I can't quite fully believe they are happy they had to take Zarqawi out after all. So, to sum up, of course they've made the 'jihadist threat' much bigger than it would have been had they been willing to concentrate on it, but that would have been too frightening, I don't think they like that kind of power, as it smacks of logic and maybe even atheism. Governments who do that sort of straightforward thing don't pray before they take action.

Amerigo Sciurofascista said...

Dealing appropriately on any level with terrorism would require some degree of recognition that "mistakes were made". Doing that gives opportunists an opening to say "so and so is soft on asserting our international rights". The press would report it as opinions differ on the utility of craven appeasement.

new york pervert said...

Scruggs--yes, and since there was no recognition that mistakes were made, the Bushie response was to quickly reinterpret the actual attack as 'an opportunity' within a day or two, so that the actual NY/DC catastrophe was made into a policy adjunct in which the actual event was made not to have actually existed in itself. Very little of the vast military campaign of the last five years has gone directly toward anything related to 9/11--what, perhaps 1%, including Afghanistan? They were extremely quick even then, because it took the public--very uncharacteristically sympathetic to New York for a few months and then absolutely no more than that--a while to catch on to the charm that the US govt. had detached itself from the citizens. They then did find this charming, even though it was less butch than the clone style of 70's urban gays, because it was so 'total football,' and Americans eat up football. It still may be possible that not calling this a 'turning point' accompanied by nervous speeches means that it really is a 'turning point' (but in the wrong direction for them, I think it's unquestionable that they would have been happy for a new turning point within 2 days of any last one if it was just bullshit publicity), given first that it is always the opposite of what they say when they think it's going their way (so why would the habit be broken when something happened that didn't really help them? it may be that the habit of lying may be the unchanging pattern that is the hardest to break, I don't know); and secondly, that taking out an Al-Qaeda leader does not help anybody's perception except those citizens who had always preferred working on Al-Qaeda, not Iraq. And in their successful detachment from American citizens, they somehow have done something that doesn't benefit government businesses directly, except very minimally, because the fact that Zarqawi is a 'naturalized Al-Qaeda in Iraq' much like a tulip that naturalizes into the wild will be a subtlety by now no more noticed than the original false alliance between the two--Iraq and Al Qaeda--first used to justify the war along with non-existent WMD. It's hard to see that the cultivation of Al Qaeda in Iraq was meant only to result in treating them as weeds to be sprayed instead of roses to be candied and sold. Even within the 'grand digression,' they've ended up with the horror of having to be straightforward--perhaps planned, but a plan they would surely have preferred not to implement. When has 'the turning point' term been abandoned before when it was only 'good news' for politics? Never. I don't see how killing Zarqawi can actually be read as 'good news' for Republican politics--and this is probably what explains to some degree the day-long secrecy. And when finally publicized, the peculiar attempts to revitalize Rumsfeld, et alia, had needed a lot more than 24 hours to have any oomph, because there wasn't any. Their 'quickness' this time was a lot sharper (because more defensive) than it was after 9/11, and much may have seemed different if it had been reported immediately.[I should have said in previous comment that governments who think before taking action would be different from those who pray before taking action--a world of difference, and it's irrelevant that the prayers aren't 'sincere,' because they are sincere even in delusion, insofar as they are superstitiously held onto and used to develop policy to a greater or lesser degree.]

new york pervert said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
new york pervert said...

[if possible, delete the duplicate, I had thought it didn't go through, thanks...]

roger said...

Well, deleting your comment, I seem to have also deleted my reply to you. Huh.
Anyway, Mr. NYP, I think you outdid yourself -- I haven't ever read such a very Jamesian pondering of the silences, proclamations, bluffs and bravados of the Bushies, and I disagree only with the part played, in your analysis, by the American people -- who despite being surrounded by an entertainment empire that implies some kind of fatal stasis on Maslow's ladder still have some vestigial instinct for knowing the difference between shit and shinola. However, translating that instinctive rejection of the administration's lies into the exhausting process of trying to beat back the liars is another thing entirely. Founded in a coup, the Bush regime has done one thing exceedingly well -- promoted that post coup passivity among the population at large that the court society in D.C. takes for assent.

But such assent can catch fire quickly. The thing is, the notion that politics is simply a matter of party, which has been a constant and disgusting trend since 1980, has succeeded in baffling the popular rage, such as it is. Eventually, though, I think people will discover that politics is still a do it yourself kind of proposition.
And so I nurse my own illusions, perhaps.

new york pervert said...

'However, translating that instinctive rejection of the administration's lies into the exhausting process of trying to beat back the liars is another thing entirely.'

Yes, that's what chabert keeps pointing out--low poll numbers, any number of scandals, all the catalog of administration ghoulishnesses--have not changed the war policy (that it's purely a matter of profit is not convincing: That isn't really sophisticated enough, since it's Mom's and Pop's writ gigantismically; it's just not enough to explain everything and is very much an ideologue sort of thing). If something happens in the future to truly sway things, and it might, that's still the future--there's this ironclad machine that's been sculpted out of Diebold, it looks like (at least in very recent history). You can hope to get to politics not being party (which implies voting), but if you can't even vote properly, you've got one-party elections to vote in Soviet-American style in the interim. It's probably an intuition that decides whether one thinks it's better to have voting machine fraud to produce powerful alternatives to either of two corrupt parties, just as it may be intuition to think that it would at least be better to be able to vote in Ohio knowing you had done something besides wait on line.

Amerigo Sciurofascista said...

Money is important, but is it any mystery that it's mainly about power, and not the power to make more money? Above a certain level of wealth, enough to ensure an income of a few hundred thousand a year, the pursuit of power is what it's all about. Money is only a tool. Owning people and making them do things is what counts. Having power relative to others counts. Where money helps that, then it's pursued. But mainly it's about putting people in the zombie pens to see the looks on their faces.

roger said...

Mr. Scruggs, Money and power are my motives too. I say that because it is easy, when guessing the motivations of people one intensely dislikes, to choose the lowest motives -- but I think I am not all that different from George Bush.

I need to do a post on this but I'll throw in my two cents: I would imagine that a goodly percentage of the motivation in the Bush white house is sheer inertia. I imagine this because I don't think those people are really that different from me or anybody I know, and I know that is definitely true of me, and them. Maybe we recognize this on some level -- look how the culture celebrates converts. Across ideologies. There is something extra authentic about converts, and I think it might be that they have actually confronted their inertia. Although that might be full of shit -- I admit, I am not impressed by the conversion process.

I think motives are two-fold things -- they come from the person and they come from the system in which the person plays a part. If I were to characterize fascism in one sentence, I would say it was a power system in which the leader personalizes all outputs. Hitler wills not only the victory over France, but Stalingrad, and the collapse of the East Front, etc. The personalizing of the system's outputs is enormously attractive, making everything into a question of glory or defeat, but it is also short lived -- reality is not compounded out of purely intentional acts, but is full of contingency and unexpected results. That is why, I think, fascist systems tend inevitably and quickly to stasis, and stasis is their death knell.

The thing about Bush that gives off the whiff of fascism is that he really does personalize Iraq. Not only in contrast to Clinton and Bosnia, but in contrast to, say, Reagan. Reagan was your average conservative politician -- or shall I just say politician -- who dealt with the failure of his projects by changing the subject and discretely leaving. When 300 soldiers get blown up in Beirut, it is time to invade Grenada and quietly get American soldiers out of Beirut.

Hitler had the advantage, as a fascist, over Bush in that he was apparently really a charismatic figure. Bush is not -- and I do think he lost his head somewhere in 2003, thinking he was really a charismatic figure. At some point, he became convinced that he was the hero of 9/11, rather than the goose. I might be wrong, but I can't imagine that he thinks he isn't wildly popular now. He simply doesn't appear anywhere where he isn't wildly popular. Maybe those beady eyes have noticed that the spectrum of venues have shrunk, but that is where the old cheerleader instinct kicks in -- you make up in enthusiasm for the perhaps regrettably poor performance of the team, and so satisfy the fans.