Archive for February, 2013

Invisible Armies

I have been devouring a provocative and highly readable new book - Invisible Armies – by military historian and Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Max Boot. The hefty tome presents a sweeping history of “irregular warfare” from the time of the Romans to al Qaeda, with brilliant profiles of some of history’s great guerrilla fighters like Che Guevara, the man whose swaggering presence once graced a thousand college dorm room walls.

Think of the one name men of recent history who have defined so much of modern geo-politics and insurgency: Che, Mao, Ho, Tito, Fidel, Osama. This is the modern history of war.

The real benefit of Boot’s heavily researched book is to provide that great sweep and to argue forcefully that small wars fought by unconventional means have been a feature of military history, well, forever and have been particularly important to the United States since the last half of the 20th Century. We’re reminded, since our own founding myths often get in the way, that our own revolution was won less on the battlefield than in the halls of the British Parliament.

As Justin Green wrote recently at The Daily Beast as he analyzed Invisible Armies our revolution proved the “limitations of liberal nation states to suppress popular insurgencies. After all, Cornwallis’ surrender only deprived Britain of 8,000 of its 42,000 troops in North America. You’d think that this would be a mere minor set back prior to finishing off the colonists.

“What brought about peace and independence for the United States was the shift in public opinion in Britain,” Green wrote. “Prime Minister Lord North even lost his job over the war, resigning in 1782 after Parliament voted to end offensive operations in the colonies. (Remind anyone of a certain President opting not to run for re-election in 1968?)”

This history of irregular warfare fought by often invisible armies has never been more relevant. As thousands of American troops begin to wind down the country’s longest war in Afghanistan, a place we’ll leave having done about as much to create stability as the British did in the 1800’s and the Russians did in the 1980’s, the U.S. military seems certain to confront the next and the next small war. As much as some political leaders bluster about Iran’s or North Korea’s nuclear program the American military is better equipped to deal with such conventional challenges than it is to defeat the kind of brazen guerrilla force that recently stormed oil and natural gas facilities in Algeria or assaulted the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Max Boot makes the case that we – as well as the Brits, the French and the Russians – have had to learn the lessons of war against an insurgent or a terrorist enemy over and over again. The French disaster in Indochina in the 1940’s and 1950’s is a telling example of doing almost everything wrong. Here’s a paragraph from Invisible Armies:

“Rape, beating, burning, torturing, of entirely harmless peasants and villages were of common occurrence,” wrote an English Foreign Legionnaire. His fellow soldiers, many of them Germans too young to have fought in World War II, often boasted “of the number of murders or rapes they had committed or the means of torture they had applied or the cash jewels, or possessions they had stolen.” Locally recruited auxiliaries, often thugs or Vietminh deserters who had “stiff prices on their heads,” were even worse, they were “feared and hated by the local population on account of their thieving, blackmailing, racketeering propensities.”

Which brings us to the on-going debate in the United States Senate over the president’s nomination of former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense. While the odds still favor Hagel’s confirmation next week, 15 of the GOP’s most conservative senators, including Jim Risch of Idaho, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Mike Lee of Utah, have written to President Obama demanding that he withdraw the Hagel nomination. The White House immediately said that won’t happen.

Hagel’s real offense, once you set aside the silly made up stuff about him being a favorite of Hamas, is that he’ll be the point man in what I suspect will be Obama’s second term agenda to re-think the size, mission and capabilities of the U.S. military. Hagel had the audacity to go against the grain of Republican orthodoxy and question the Bush Administration’s policy in Iraq even after he voted to authorize the invasion. Hagel’s distinguished and honored service in Vietnam should equip him perfectly to know a few things about the current and future threats the U.S. will face from irregular armies. Rather than embrace a guy who has fought and bled as a grunt in Vietnam, a Vietnam-era chicken hawk like Dick Cheney, who has yet to receive his historical due for the mistakes and misjudgments that lead to Iraq and was deferred out of Vietnam service, calls Hagel – and new Secretary of State John Kerry, another decorated Vietnam vet – “second rate” appointees. Cheney will eventually find his place in history as one of the most powerful and most consistently wrong vice presidents. And it’s worth noting that most of the Senators who sit  in judgment of former Army combat Sergeant Chuck Hagel did not themselves serve.

Everyone in Washington, even the 15 Senators who wrote to the president about Hagel, would privately tell you that the U.S. military budget, considering the vast deployments of personnel and equipment around the world, not to mention the generations of health care spending that will be required to care for the physically and mentally wounded of our last two wars, must be brought under control. The Washington budget debate begins and ends with taxes and entitlements, but must ultimately include sober judgments about spending on the military. We can’t afford what we have and too much of what we have isn’t designed to fight the enemies we face.

Fifty some years ago, the great Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield, in his own way as much of a maverick as Hagel, proposed a series of amendments - the Mansfield Amendments – to reduce the American military presence in Europe. Mansfield, the history professor, argued “with changes and improvements in the techniques of modern warfare and because of the vast increase in capacity of the United States to wage war and to move military forces and equipment by air, a substantial reduction of the United States forces permanently stationed in Europe can be made without adversely affecting either our resolve or ability to meet our commitment under the North Atlantic Treaty.”

Mansfield, who incidentally served in the Army, Navy and the Marine Corps, was a visionary. Republicans and Democrats ought to embrace his kind of thinking again, provide a laser-like focus on the still evolving mission of our military, and work with a Secretary Hagel and the Obama Administration to re-size and re-purpose a splendid military that needs fresh thinking. Max Boot’s Invisible Armies is a good place to start the re-thinking and his book will soon be required reading in military schools and the Pentagon. It ought to be required reading in the Senate Arms Service Committee, as well.

 

Presidential Reads

The Presidential Bookshelf is full to overflowing with books about the “great” presidents – Lincoln, FDR, Washington and Jackson, among others. In a subsequent post I’ll suggest some of the best books on the greatest presidents, but today what about books – good books – on some of the 40 other men who labored as Commander-in-Chief.

In no particular order here are my suggestions for compelling reading on presidents most of us have forgotten or never knew.

I would argue that one-term Democrat James K. Polk deserves recognition as a “near great” president. As the last powerful president before the Civil War, the continental United States came to be during Polk’s presidency, which was also marred by the Mexican War. Nonetheless, we have the former Senator and Governor of Tennessee to thank (or not) for adding Texas, California and the Oregon Territory to the United States. One of the best – maybe the best – Polk biography is Walter R. Borneman’s book Polk – The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. Polk deserves his moment in the presidential spotlight.

Another who does is James A. Garfield, a man who had the makings of greatest, but was cut down by an assassin’s bullet (and his own doctor’s bungling) after just a few months in the White House. The last of the “log cabin” presidents, Garfield was an accomplished legislator and a distinguished solider. In a era of widespread political corruption, Garfield was also honest and principled. Candice Mallard’s book Destiny of the Republic tells the tragic story of Garfield’s murder, but also provides a highly engaging overview of his life and politics. The book is also a great read on the subject of just how primitive medicine was as late as 1881 the year Garfield died.

The 31st President of the United States is still a liberal punchline and, while much criticism of Herbert Hoover, particularly his handling of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depressions, remains justified the Quaker president from Iowa is due for some reappraisal. Richard Norton Smith’s biography An Uncommon Man is a good place to begin to understand Hoover. I have also recently discovered the self-described “magnum opus” that Hoover devoted most of his life after the White House to researching and writing. Freedom Betrayed, published 50 years after Hoover’s death, is the former president’s revisionist history of World War II and the Cold War. You don’t have to agree with all Hoover has to say about Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to appreciate that the mining engineer and international relief administration who became president was an extraordinary man.

How about a biography of another really reviled American president? Say Andrew Johnson. Find a copy of Annette Gordon-Reed’s superb, concise Johnson biography that is part of The American Presidents series. Professor Gordon-Reed, a distinguished African-American scholar at Harvard, offers a critical, but nuanced assessment of Johnson’s presidency as one of the nation’s great “missed opportunities.” Johnson was indeed a political creature of his time who, unlike the man he followed into White House Abraham Lincoln, could not bring himself to seize his moment of leadership to attempt to transform his nation in the aftermath of its greatest national trial.

Finally, it is sometimes valuable to study the history of “what might have been” to better understand what really did happen. Published in 1943, Irving Stone’s book They Also Ran offers truly engaging chapter length essays on the men who sought the presidency and didn’t make it. You may come away thinking that on a number of occasions in our history the wrong person did win. Would Henry Clay, a three-time loser, have been a better president than Jackson, William Henry Harrison or Polk?  Would Samuel Tilden who, like Al Gore won the popular vote and lost the White House anyway, have done a better job ending Reconstruction that Rutherford B. Hayes? We’ll never know the answers, but the speculation sure is fun.

There you have it, at your next cocktail party you can drop the name James K. Polk or James Garfield as a president who deserves to be better remembered. You’ll be the life of the party – trust me.

 

The Presidents

Every president, well almost every president, eventually gets his reappraisal. It seems to be the season for Calvin Coolidge to get his revisionist treatment. The 30th president, well known for his clipped Yankee voice and a penchant for never using two words when one would do, does deserve some chops for agreeing to be photographed – the only president to do so, I believe – wearing a Sioux headdress.

Ol’ Silent Cal came to the Black Hills of South Dakota to vacation in the summer of 1927 and the magnanimous native people who considered the Hills sacred ground made the Great White Father an honorary Chief. The president fished in what later became Grace Coolidge Creek in South Dakota’s Custer State Park – the Sioux were not as gracious to the park’s namesake – and a fire lookout is still in use at the top of 6,000 foot Mt. Coolidge in the park. The Coolidge summer White House issued the president’s famous “I do not chose to run in 1928″ statement to the assembled press corps a few miles up the road from the state park in Rapid City.

But all that is just presidential trivia as now comes conservative writer and historian Amity Shlaes to attempt to rehabilitate the diminished reputation of Silent Cal. Shaels’ earlier work The Forgotten Man is a conservative favorite for its re-telling of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; policies that in Shlaes’ revisionist hands helped prolong the Depression and made villains of the captains of Wall Street who, she contends, deserved better treatment at the bar of history.

Shlaes’ new book, predictably perhaps, is winning praise from The Wall Street Journal - “The Coolidge years represent the country’s most distilled experiment in supply-side economics—and the doctrine’s most conspicuous success” – and near scorn from others like Jacob Heilbrunn who writes in the New York Times - “Conservatives may be intent on excavating a hero, but Coolidge is no model for the present. He is a bleak omen from the past.”

As long as we debate fiscal and economic policy we’ll have Coolidge to praise or kick around. The best, most even handed assessment of Coolidge is contained in the slim volume by David Greenberg in the great American Presidents Series. Greenberg assesses Coolidge as a president caught in the transition from the Victorian Age to the modern. “Coolidge deployed twentieth-century methods to promote nineteenth-century values – and used nineteenth-century values to sooth the apprehension caused by twentieth-century dislocations. Straddling the two eras, he spoke for a nation in flux.”

Two facts are important to putting Coolidge in context: he took office (following the death of the popular Warren Harding in 1923) in the wake of the American experience in World War I, which left many citizens deeply distrustful of government as well as the country’s role in the world.  Coolidge left office on the eve of the Great Depression. A nation in flux, indeed.

To celebrate President’s Day we also have new books, of course, on Lincoln, as well as the weirdly fascinating political and personal relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. There is also a fascinating new book on the relationship among former presidents – The Presidents Club. David Frum writing at The Daily Beast wades in today with a piece on three presidents who make have been great had they had more time – Zachery Taylor, James Garfield and Gerald Ford. Three good choices in my view.

Even William Howard Taft generally remembered for only two things – being the chubbiest president and being the only former president to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme court is getting his new day in the sun. The sun will be along the base paths at the Washington National’s park where the new Will Taft mascot will join Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt for between inning races. Talk about revisionism. At 300 pounds Taft never ran for anything but an office.

One enduring truth is that every president is shaped by his times. (One day, I hope, we can say “their” times.) And over time we assess and reassess the response to the times. Reappraisal is good and necessary. A robust discussion of whether Calvin Coolidge’s economic policies were a triumph of capitalism or a disaster that helped usher in the Great Depression is not only valuable as a history lesson, but essential to understanding our own times and the members of what truly is the most exclusive club in the world – The American Presidency.

By the way, The Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University will convene a major conference on “The State of the Presidency” on February 28, 2013 in Boise. The day-long event is open to the public, but you must register and can do so online. Hope to see you there.

 

The Church Endures

For those of us who seek to understand the enduring Catholic Church and all its modern challenges, it is best to take the long view and to remember that the church, a religious entity, is also fundamentally a political – small “p” political – institution. 

Any institution that has survived and thrived for two thousand years is, by the very nature of its longevity, conservative, traditional and resistant to change. The truly surprisingly news that Pope Benedict XVI is planning to resign next month is just the kind of nearly unprecedented event that happens so rarely in the long history of the Catholic Church.

The last pope to resign – Gregory XII – did so amid a “crisis” in the church that makes many of the problems and challenges that face Benedict’s modern church seem almost quaint. As the New York Times noted with regard to Gregory’s long ago resignation, “Three rival popes had been selected by separate factions of the church, and a group of bishops called the Council of Constance was trying to heal the schism. In an interview with Vatican Radio, Donald S. Prudlo, a papal historian at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala., said Gregory XII had offered to resign so that the council could choose a new pope whom all factions would recognize. It took two years after Gregory XII’s departure to elect his successor, Martin V.” 

So say that the Catholic Church is in “crisis” is almost an oxymoron. The Church endures despite the crisis.

The world-wide media coverage of Benedict’s announcement has spawned a vast amount of speculation about a successor, stories about where the ex-Pope will live and, of course, competing takes on whether the resignation is proof the Church’s fundamental strength or proof of its enormous challenges. Truth be told the Church’s challenges – and there are plenty of challenges from the clergy sex abuse outrages to the role of women in the Church – nearly always take a back seat to its traditions. A transformative Pope comes along rarely. John XXIII was such a leader. The “reforms” ushered in by his combination of pastoral humbleness and the historic Second Vatican Council he convened have defined much about the modern Church and those reforms, as becomes the Church, are still both praised and lamented.

By contrast, given his substantial communication skills and while celebrating his substantial moral role in helping force the end of Communist influence in his native Poland, the much beloved John Paul II was more a consolidator of the Church’s traditional theology and skepticism of the modern world than any agent of change. Pope John Paul II made it certain that there would be a Pope Benedict. The princes of the Church who will now select the next Pope are fundamentally disciples of the two men who appointed all of them to their positions of leadership. Remember after all, nearly 100 years separated the Vatican Council in the 1860’s that put in place the doctrine of papal infallibility from John XXIII’s Council in the 1960’s that largely ended the Latin Mass. That Benedict, in the age of Twitter, surprised the world and the faithful by announcing his resignation in Latin proves how bound by history and tradition the modern church remains.

While many American Catholics yearn to see a modernizer in charge at the Vatican, a man who might lead a renewal that deals realistically with the abuse scandals, does more to bring women into Church leadership and more effectively employs the Catholic notions of works of mercy and charity to address the modern world’s challenges, the Church’s 2,000 year history holds little hope for anything like a quick transformation. The new Pope will be both a spiritual and a political leader and, in all faiths, spiritual leaders are constrained by tradition. Political leaders, most at least, are constrained by fear – change is risky and change is hard.

Popes come and popes go – more than 250 men have ruled the Catholic Church in its two millennia – but the Church as an institution endures and change comes to the institution about as frequently as a resignation of the Bishop of Rome.

 

Debasing the Language

Writing in 1946 George Orwell of Animal Farm and 1984 fame, said, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”

Orwell’s world, distant as it seems today, was filled with worry about Stalinist Russia, the dying British Empire and the dawn of the nuclear age. Talking or writing politically about such things required, Orwell lamented, a studied ability to say something deceptive that only hinted at the real issues. Facts were incidental. Emotion and deception were then, and sadly still are, the currency of political language.

” Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness,” Orwell wrote. “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.”

Orwell’s concerns about the misuse of language were obviously relevant to the post-World War II period, but were he still with us he would notice the debasing of political language everywhere in the 21st Century. A few, but only a few, examples:

An Idaho State Senator, with shocking historical ignorance, but with maximum rhetorical impact, compares the Holocaust to the response of insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare. This kind of historically inaccurate comparison is in keeping with a growing trend of his opponents comparing the American president to the Austrian corporal. (And if you don’t get that reference, you really shouldn’t even try historical analogies.)

The apparently business savvy CEO of gourmet grocer Whole Foods compares the Obama’s Administration’s traditionally liberal approach to health care (which until 2009 was supported by many Republicans) as some how being like “fascism.” 

A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Benghazi consulate tragedy brought analogies to the 9-11 attacks and some conservative commentators have actually said that Benghazi was a more serious example of government corruption than Watergate, a lawless series of events that forced the only resignation of a president in American history. The mouthpieces of the National Rifle Association simplify and distort the debate about mandatory background checks and bans on assault rifles by declaring that Obama is “coming for your guns.”

These random examples of political overstatement, untruths and, as Orwell might say, “question-begging” help explain why American politics has too often become a fact free zone. Outrageous argument (and incendiary words) have replaced facts as the currency of political discourse. We have come to treat Orwellian political language as a club to bash an opponent who usually merely differs with us on policy. At the same time we increasingly embrace the kind of faulty history that equates the Holocaust, the unspeakable crime of the 20th Century that targeted for murder every European Jew, with a domestic policy dispute – health care – that in fact has been a widely debated feature of American politics for at least one hundred years. Facts and real argument disappear in the fog of outlandish rhetoric.

When the Benghazi attack that tragically took the lives of four brave Americans, and the subsequent response to that attack, are equated to Watergate, it’s important to remember, as Paul Waldman wrote recently in the American Prospect, that the Nixon Administration engaged in a massive cover-up of the Watergate break-in that ultimately sent a number of very senior officials to jail.

“(J. Gordon) Liddy [for example] was convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and illegal wiretapping; today he is a popular conservative radio host,” Waldman writes. “Among those who ended up going to prison for their crimes in the Watergate scandal were the attorney general, the White House chief of staff, and the president’s chief domestic policy adviser. The scandal was so damning that facing impeachment and almost certain conviction, the president of the United States resigned.”

Reckless invocation of the Holocaust and the greatest political scandal in modern American history in order to highlight political or policy differences doesn’t just point out the historical ignorance of those who make such connections, but it also cheapens legitimate debate about important issues. George Orwell said it well: “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Words to remember almost any time you hear a politician make an historical connection when they should be trying to argue the merits of their position.