State of the Union

Reagan Revisionism

TPMCafe has a discussion going on Will Bunch’s new book Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future. Bunch is no fan of the 40th president, obviously, but one of the myths he attacks is that of Reagan the foreign-policy neocon. Reagan was very far from being a noninterventionist, and his bombing of Libya shows that he wasn’t always determined to avoid civilian casualties. His overall foreign-policy though, heated rhetoric notwithstanding, was fundamentally un-Bushian. (For that matter, Bush’s rhetoric was always lovey-dovey “Everybody just wants to be free” blather, so he was actually unlike Reagan in that regard, too.)

Here’s Bunch’s take:

… when it comes to foreign policy, Reagan’s record is harder to characterize. He clearly wanted to fight communism and expand America’s capitalist influence in this hemisphere and elsewhere, but he also had a strong personal distaste for war and killing — and a lifelong fear that Armageddon was both real and at hand. That led to some muddled policies. He didn’t want to spill U.S. blood in Central America and thus resisted a lot of military schemes like a suggested embargo of Cuba and the planned invasion of Panama that George H.W. Bush did launch just months after Reagan left office. But he instead developed something called the Reagan doctrine which meant instead supporting murderous local death squads in the name of “freedom.” In the Middle East, his personal anguish that Americans had been taken hostage was the spark for what became the Iran-Contra scandal. Despite his massive and often wasteful buildup of the Pentagon, Reagan was sincere is seeking deep cuts in nuclear weapons and was even influenced by the liberal Hollywood movie “The Day After.” Read More…

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Whose Surge?

President Obama’s deployment of an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan has neocons in a bind. On one hand, they’re programmed to applaud madly and scream for more anytime they hear “surge.” (The latest Weekly Standard cover: “The Case for a Domestic Surge.” Not a parody.) On the other hand, they’re worried that Obama will get credit for stealing their plays. So the plan—lest he think he can waltz in like some latecomer Kagan and get a public square named for him in Kabul—is to let it be known that things aren’t really that bad. The Wall Street Journal knows its job: “The Obama team wants to play up Afghanistan’s troubles so it can look good by comparison a year from now.”

Here’s some “playing up.” That White House disinformation shop is really good–

• Today’s Washington Post tells the story of Paula Loyd, a winsome blonde Pentagon contractor doused with gasoline and burned to death in a market in the heart of Pashtun territory. The battlelines are characteristically blurry: “The Afghan who set her on fire might have been a Taliban fighter following orders, but he also might have been merely a conservative villager, influenced by Taliban propaganda that portrays Western soldiers as occupiers and Western women as immoral.”

• The UN is out with a new survey: civilian deaths soared 40 percent in 2008 to the highest level since the Taliban was driven out in 2001.

• From the New York Times, the story of Syed Mohammed. Last September he was awakened by American and Afghan soldiers bursting into his home. They took him to a nearby base for questioning. He was released soon after but returned home to find his son, Nurallah, his pregnant daughter-in-law, and 1- and 2-year-old grandsons dead. A 4-year-old escaped. The next day an official stopped by with an $800 check.

• The Christian Science Monitor reports on the local reaction to troop increases: “’I had a meeting with my constituents,’ says Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament from Wardak Province. ‘They were completely, 100 percent against the arrival of foreign troops.’… ‘We don’t want more fighting here,’ says Najibullah, a taxi driver. ‘When the Americans come, the Taliban attacks us.’ The others in his car nod in agreement.”

Suicide bombings are rising, poppy production has soared, corruption is rampant. President Obama is plowing into a swamp, and his partisans have more reason to be worried than the neocons fretting that he’ll use their strategy to great result. (You can’t have it both ways, boys: if things are just this side of sunny, it’s hard to justify doubling our footprint.)

So the question is this: Has Commander Hope ‘n Change signed on to the Freedom Agenda? Or has he calculated that the only outcome that makes strategic sense—establishing rapprochement with the Taliban—is a political nonstarter? Neither is a happy prospect.

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Back of the Book

In the Arts & Letters section of the latest TAC, we have three first-rate reviews, which should appeal to readers of widely differing tastes.

First, historian Patrick Allitt reviews John Lukacs’s new memoir, Last Rites. Allitt, author of Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985 and a leading authority on Lukacs, delivers an appreciative, though not uncritical, assessment of the book. It’s a masterful review and a must read for anyone interested in American conservative historiography.

Next comes a brilliant review-essay by Richard Gamble examining two books about Wilsonian foreign policy: The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century by G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Tony Smith and What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy by Malcolm D. Magee. Gamble succeeds in tying Wilson’s foreign-policy ambitions to those of Obama, exploring the evangelical instincts of the American liberal internationalist tradition. Hard to do justice to Gamble’s work here, but highly, highly recommended.

Lastly, new-successionist champion Kirkpatrick Sale takes a spirited and entertaining look at militia-woman Carolyn Chute’s latest novel, The School on Heart’s Content Road . I won’t bother with a bland précis. Just look at the picture of Chute below if you want a flavor.

Chute

Non-subscribers should be able to read the Gamble review online shortly. But if you want to read all three now, why not do the honorable thing and get a subscription? Sixteen issues for $19.95 is a bargain if ever there was one. Sign up, or Carolyn Chute will get you.

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Kleptocrats United to Loot the World

In Monday’s Independent Patrick Cockburn reported on the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) report suggesting that as much as $125 billion might have been stolen from both Iraqi and American funds allocated for reconstruction.  The thefts were carried out with the collusion of senior US military personnel.  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/a-fraud-bigger-than-madoff-1622987.html.  Readers of TAC might recall that the story of Iraq corruption was first aired in an article I wrote in October 2005.  At that time the money stolen was in the range of $30 billion, but it was early days and obviously the crooks have since refined their techniques.  $125 billion might be on the low side.  As Cockburn notes, in spite of huge sums contracted for reconstruction no cranes or signs of work can be seen in Baghdad.  If the numbers prove accurate, the theft would be three times larger than the ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff.  As near as I can tell, the Cockburn story has not been replayed in the MSM in the US, though it has been discussed by Juan Cole.

Iraq is only part of the story.  Recently retired intelligence officers have been actively engaged in this wholesale plundering of central Asia in addition to Iraq.  Intelligence officers have the unique ability to exploit multinational contacts to move commodities and money across borders clandestinely, a key element in laundering proceeds.

The real problem is that much of the United States goverment has, over the past eight years, become a kleptocracy in which former senior officials believe themselves entitled to a golden parachute when they leave government service.  The list of Pentagon officials, military officers, and intelligence types who have become very rich is long and becoming longer.  Many are affiliated to consulting groups headed by prominent figures from both Democratic and Republican administrations.  Some of the names would surprise you.

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The End of Right Patriotism?

My Georgetown colleague Michael Kazin wrote recently of the re-ascendancy of Left-wing patriotism and its revival as a “liberal faith.” Long moribund in the aftermath of the Vietnam War – when the New Left especially came to abhor American participation in foreign interventionism, militarism, colonialism and its embrace a crass consumerist free-market ideology – it has taken some four decades for the Left again to embrace the American narrative of liberty, equality and prosperity, helped along by the efforts of aging New-Leftist Todd Gitlin and made finally reputable with the election of Barak Obama. While Michelle Obama backpedaled from her unscripted campaign statement that she was “proud of America for the first time in [her] life,” her admission encapsulates the view of a wide swath of the contemporary Left. Seeing the innumerable flags being waved on the Mall on the morning of Obama’s inauguration, there came the full realization that the Right monopoly on the imagery and language of patriotism had come to an end. Kazin predicts a vibrant set of competing narratives over the meaning of the American narrative, with both Left and Right laying claim to the mantle of patriotism.

Something more significant is taking place on this front, however. A growing chorus of voices on the Right – still marginal to the mainstream of the Republican Party, admittedly (I would have to include myself) – has begun taking up quite a bit of the substance of the criticisms of America made formerly by the New Left, albeit to a different tune and distinct set of goals. Reading Andrew Bacevich’s recent book The Limits of Power, I was struck by – and sympathetic with – not only the often stinging rebukes and criticisms of policies and political actors, but a more sweeping condemnation of the broad sweep of American political history and its basic self-congratulatory narrative.

In a preview of his book published in 2006 in Commonweal (and found in revised form in the first section of his book), Bacevich urged a reconsideration of the basic narrative of American history:

Crediting America with a “great liberating tradition” sanitizes the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale and thereby provides a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.

If the young United States had a mission, it was not to liberate but to expand. “Of course,” declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, as if explaining the self-evident to the obtuse, “our whole national history has been one of expansion.” He spoke truthfully. The founders viewed stasis as tantamount to suicide. From the outset, Americans evinced a compulsion to acquire territory and to extend their commercial reach abroad.

How was expansion achieved? On this point, the historical record leaves no room for debate: by any means necessary. Depending on the circumstances, the United States relied on diplomacy, hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation or naked coercion. We infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and then brazenly proclaimed it our own. We harassed, filibustered, and, when the situation called for it, launched full-scale invasions. We engaged in ethnic cleansing. At times, we insisted that treaties be considered sacrosanct. On other occasions, we blithely jettisoned agreements that had outlived their usefulness.

Unless one knew this was written by a self-declared conservative, this is the sort of jeremiad that one might have expected to read by a hackneyed Leftist author in the Nation or Mother Jones. That it comes from a conservative makes it both jarring and interesting, but also gives rise to a concern whether this counter-argument against the broader narrative of the American tradition can have any purchase with the broader American public. Are such efforts to criticize the dominant (indeed, liberal) American narrative doomed to political irrelevancy, whether from the Left or the Right? Will some version of the “New Right” now come to occupy the space once occupied by the New Left – vilified by the mainstream, seen as vaguely cranky, out of touch and too deeply pessimistic to be allowed into the American conversation? Will it be a fast-track to electoral irrelevancy, or worse, give rise to self-certain declarations a la Trilling that America is solely and exclusively a liberal nation?

On the occasion of Ronald Reagan’s death, David Brooks wrote of what he regarded to be the single greatest accomplishment of Reagan, which had less to do with any policy achievement or appointment to the Court, but rather with a fundamental redefinition of conservatism from the pessimistic strain of the likes of Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers and Richard Weaver to a more optimistic strain. Brooks wrote,

To understand the intellectual content of Reagan’s optimism, start with American conservatism before Reagan. It was largely a movement of disenfranchised thinkers who placed great emphasis on human frailty and sin, the limitations of what we can know, and the tragic nature of history.

Conservatives felt that events were moving in the wrong direction and that the American spiritual catastrophe was growing ever worse…. Conservatives looked back sadly to customs and institutions that were being eroded. What was needed, many argued, was a restoration of stability. ”The recovery of order in the soul and order in society is the first necessity of this century,” Kirk argued.

Reagan agreed with these old conservatives about communism and other things. But he transformed their movement from a past- and loss-oriented movement to a future- and possibility-oriented one, based on a certain idea about America. As early as 1952 during a commencement address at William Woods College in Missouri, Reagan argued, ”I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land.”

Reagan frequently invoked many phrases of none other than Thomas Paine – that opponent of Edmund Burke and sympathizer with the French Revolution – particularly the line, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again,” an invocation that Bacevich rightly subjects again and again to withering scorn. Echoing the analysis of the recently and very regrettably departed John Patrick Diggins in his excellent study, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History – who noted in particular the deeply anti-conservative Emersonian roots of much of Reagan’s optimism – Bacevich instead frequently invokes the words of Reinhold Niebuhr and his constant recollection of the inescapable reality of original sin and the human propensity toward pride and self-aggrandizement.

It may indeed be the case of a rejuvenation of pre-Reagan conservatism, drawing deeply from the works of such authors as Kirk, Weaver, Niebuhr and other “pessimists” (or, I would submit, Realists) may doom any such New/Old/Paleo conservatism to irrelevancy in the American narrative. However, if some of its basic message has remained the same, times have decidedly changed. Faced with a collapsing economic system, the undoing of the American-led Post-World War II global consensus, the growing evidence of environmental and moral depletion all around us, the message of conservative realism may be ripe for a re-hearing and reassessment. Everywhere people are realizing that the message of optimism – don’t worry, be happy, and pay for it tomorrow – was in fact a message of deception, duplicity and fraud. Neither the mainstream Left nor Right appear capable of speaking meaningfully to the import of this moment. Ironically, the very moment that the Left has re-connected to its message of “liberal faith” may be the very moment when that faith is proven to be too much evidence of things unseen. In the meantime, a critique of the American narrative – combined with a reconsideration of “Another America,” a tradition of localism, community, self-government based in limits, a culture of memory and tradition, undergirded by faith and virtue – may have found its moment. For starters, its heroes are more likely to be the likes of the Anti-federalists (see Bill Kauffman’s book on Luther Martin for a start) than the triumphalist narrative of the Founders and their creation of an empire of liberty. Its cultural heroes are more likely to be the Waltons rather than the celebrity flavor of the month (I can’t recommend enough a re-viewing of this series, now more than ever, courtesy of Netflix. We have been watching it with our children for some months, and it is salutary and decent beyond description). I speak here of a revival of patriotism, alright, but a patriotism based in places and folkways, not abstraction and expansion. Thus, perhaps not the sort of patriotism we are used to, but one of noble lineage and one that will need good storytellers to begin to displace an otherwise broken and tinny narrative that now should be discarded.

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The Trouble With David Cameron

Newly up on the front page — TAC literary editor Freddy Gray takes a cold-eyed looked at Conservative Party leader David Cameron, a man touted by some on the American Right as a model for bringing conservatism back into the mainstream. Not so fast, says Freddy…

Also on-line — “Counter Intelligence,” Philip Giraldi’s essay on the travails of a Central Intelligence Agency that has come to serve the interests of contractors and politicians better than those of the nation.

Look for the Feb. 23 TAC, featuring these articles and many more (including John Derbyshire on what talk radio has done to the Right), in stores soon. Or subscribe now and get instant access to the full issue in PDF form.

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Kids for Cash

For a taste of what happens when hyper-privatization of government services meets the hyper-criminalization of our modern American society — a perfect storm of corruption, greed, runaway authority and shattered lives in its wake — look no further than what’s happening in Pennsylvania today:

Two lawsuits have been filed against two Pennsylvania judges accused of taking more than $2 million in kickbacks to send youth offenders to privately run detention centers.

The suits name Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan as well as the individuals who allegedly paid the kickbacks and other defendants. They were filed in federal court late Thursday and Friday on behalf of hundreds of children and their families who were alleged victims of the corruption.

Prosecutors allege Ciavarella and Conahan took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in lockups run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, possibly tainting the convictions of thousands of juvenile offenders.

The judges pleaded guilty to fraud in federal court in Scranton on Thursday. Their plea agreements call for sentences of more than seven years in prison.

For years, youth advocacy groups complained that Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, was overly harsh and trampled on kids’ constitutional rights. Ciavarella sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a statewide rate of one in 10.

“Ciavarella, in the most cynical fashion, assured that there would be ample juveniles adjudicated delinquent and placed in PA Child Care,” one of the suits said. “As juvenile judge, he ignored law, ignored the constitution, and ignored basic human decency. He provided quick ‘justice,’ adjudicated children delinquent and ripped them from their parents in record time and in astonishing numbers.”

Attorney Barry H. Dyller called the alleged scheme  “one of the most repulsive, cynical and selfish conspiracies imaginable,” in one of two class-action lawsuits filed on Friday.

Exactly a year ago, the number of Americans behind bars reached an all-time high — more than one in 100 or 2.3 milllion — costing states $50 billion and the federal government $5 billion a year. The private for-profit prison industry is booming because of it. Elected judges — in return for personal gain — are actually perverting justice to give prison profiteers more business. It didn’t take long.

Perhaps as a society, instead of promoting this:

weekly standard

we should look into why we have incarcerated so many among us — how they got there and what forces are spurring the extraordinary recidividism. It would be a difficult and awkward conversation, challenging ideologically and morally, complicated by so many factors not mentioned here, but I think ultimately, a healthy and necessary first step away from the abyss, else we risk turning this country into something we don’t recognize anymore.

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Metrics of National Decline

“Bush Boom Continues” trilled the headline over the Lawrence Kudlow column, as George W. Bush closed out his seventh year in office.

“You can call it Goldilocks 2.0,” purred Kudlow.

Yes, you could. But what a difference 12 months can make.

Final returns are now in on the eight years of George Bush. Charles McMillion of MBG Information Services has crunched the numbers. And, pace Kudlow, the only relevant comparison is to Herbert Hoover.

From January 2008, right after Kudlow’s column ran, through January 2009, the U.S. economy lost 3.5 million jobs. The private sector loss of 3.65 million jobs was slightly offset by 148,000 jobs created by federal, state, and local governments. Say what you will, the Bush years were boom times for Big Government.

And the private sector? Beginning and ending in recession, the Bush presidency added a net of 407,000 private sector jobs over eight years, less than 51,000 a year, the worst eight-year record since 1927-35, which includes the first six years of the Great Depression. Read More…

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“Thanks, But No Thanks . . .”

Via this guy, proof positive that the neocons are out of power:

A bust of the former prime minister once voted the greatest Briton in history, which was loaned to George W Bush from the Government’s art collection after the September 11 attacks, has now been formally handed back.

The bronze by Sir Jacob Epstein, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds if it were ever sold on the open market, enjoyed pride of place in the Oval Office during President Bush’s tenure.

But when British officials offered to let Mr Obama to hang onto the bust for a further four years, the White House said: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

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Why We Fight

Apparently for no reason at all, or at least no reason that has anything to do with what used to be euphemistically referred to as a national interest.  One of the most astonishing articles to appear recently was featured in The WashPost’s outlook section today, Thomas E. Ricks’ “The War in Iraq isn’t over.  The main events may not even have happened yet.”  Link http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/13/AR2009021301648.html?hpid=opinionsbox1 .  Ricks is a professional cheerleader for Generals Petraeus and Odierno, whom he appears to regard as reincarnations of Napoleon and Hannibal all rolled together with a little Ulysses S. Grant.  He also is the special military correspondent for the WashPost…need I say more?

The article in question tells us that the Generals expect the US to be in Iraq with a substantial force through 2014 or 2015, the election of Obama and his pledge to withdraw in 18 months notwithstanding.  It also ignores the Iraqi demands that we should leave.  When I saw Ricks name on the byline I didn’t even want to read the piece, but forced myself to do so.  I fully expected a bullshit argument about how the US had to stay in Iraq to oppose terrorism or counter Iran, but was somewhat disappointed.  In the course of 3,000 or so words Ricks did not provide a single reason why the United States should remain in Iraq apart from a comment that leaving Iraq would let “the genocidal chips fall where they may.”    So the United States is in Iraq to stop genocide.  If that is so, we should probably send troops to the Sudan, Sri Lanka, and the Congo just for starters.  What we are really seeing is that the generals increasingly have their own agenda and it ain’t bringing the troops home.  They provide good access and notable comments to a lot of enablers in the media like Ricks who like a robust story full of blood and guts and want to make sure the good old global war on terror goes on and on.  It might be simplistic to ask “If Usama bin Laden is the enemy and he is located in Pakistan why have we been fighting wars for seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan?” Sometimes the simple questions are the only ones worth asking.

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