As I said to a colleague the other day, this is a great time to teach the constitution. Unfortunately, by definition that makes it a difficult time for the nation.
A majority of Congress, including a few Republicans, has declared that it has no confidence in President Bush’s conduct of the war. Furthermore, both the results of the 2006 election and current polls, have led them to believe that this is also the will of the people.
Unlike parliamentary systems, our constitution provides no mechanism for unseating a president on “no-confidence” grounds. The constitution does not require President Bush to accept their verdict, and he has not done so. Because the opposition to Bush does not have a 2/3 majority, it cannot stop his actions in the short run. For the same reason, impeachment—or at least conviction and removal from office—is outside the power of the majority.
Thus the congressional majority is left with one weapon, the power of the purse. It may not be able to withdraw the US from the war (because of Bush’s veto power) but it can put limits on future military funds.
Conditional release of funds is a blunt and unwieldy weapon. Most obviously, it reduces President Bush’s ability to maneuver diplomatically or militarily. One does not have to agree with Rudy Giuliani’s “waive the white flag” rhetoric to realize that Bush supporters have a point about that.
But that brings us back to the lack of confidence. If the majority of the populace and of the Congress no longer has faith in Bush’s competence and/or integrity, what should that congressional majority do? They have no ability to administer foreign policy. They cannot perform the diplomatic and political maneuvers, secret negotiations, and other slights-of-hand that a competent president would use in extricating us from the situation.
All they can do for now is either represent that lack of faith and not order new funding or set conditions on that funding, despite the problem of telegraphing our intensions. Or they can fail to represent that lack of faith, set voluntary benchmarks, and cross their collective fingers that the president will demonstrate a competence that he has so far lacked.
But maybe it won’t be an issue in 2008 because of the high ratings earned by television’s “24,” paradoxically Rush Limbaugh’s favorite action series. (I say paradoxically because Limbaugh continues to air his odious anti-Obama “Magic Negro” song.)
From its inception, the only honest and admirable presidents in “24” have been two African Americans, the Palmer brothers. It is true, of course, that they occasionally and grudgingly give their official approval to Jack Bauer’s use of torture in the name of national security. But for more than five years, a large national audience has grown accustomed to rooting for the those two African American pillars of integrity in the Oval Office. Will that exposure make it easier for some skeptical voters to pull the lever for Obama in 2008?
Did we lose the Vietnam War? Conservatives often seem to argue that we didn't lose so much as give up just as victory was about to materialize. If only the Democratic Congress had given South Vietnam $500 million more!
The same argument is being made now with regard to Iraq. We're in danger of losing just as we are about to win.
I suppose there's intellectual consistency in this. But do conservatives really want to make this argument? I don't want to tell them how to make their case, but this approach seems bone-headed.
One, it brings to mind Vietnam. Two, it's intellectually incoherent. If victory is just around the corner then why can't we start planning for our withdrawal? Victory can't be both around the corner and so fragile that the mere discussion of withdrawal is dangerous, as both Cheney and Bush claim.
Another point I can't help noticing is that the same conservatives who always insist we could have won in Vietnam describe Afghanistan as the Soviet Union's Vietnam. How can that be if Vietnam was such a near-win? When conservatives draw the analogy between Afghanistan and Vietnam aren't they in fact admitting that Vietnam was a #%!#!@!!!ed-up mess?
I think that's what they actually believe--just as liberals believe it. Vietnam was a mess.
So is Iraq.
It's time to admit it.
Victory isn't around the corner.
Victory is nowhere in sight.
McCain wants more surges.
Hillary wants to end the war quickly. Somehow.
What's missing from the national debate is imagination.
Can't we get a little creative? We're sick of the war. So are Iraqis. We could all use some fresh ideas.
Here are a few.
1. Call for an election in 60 days in Iraq to decide whether America should stay or go. If they say "stay" we stay but only if the Iraqi government agrees immediately to form a unity government based on genuine shared power and above all an oil deal to split revenues proportionate to population. If they refuse we use the referendum to back a strongman to force change on Iraq.
If they say "go" we go in 6 months. We will then have to watch as Iraq either crumbles or someone emerges to provide a strong central unified command. We hold out the possibility that a strongman gets a billion dollars if he can manage to stop the violence without becoming another Saddam. The model might be Fujimori.
2. We renounce all interest in permanent bases.
3. We agree to fund a vast New Deal make-work program to get money in the hands of ordinary Iraqis. To qualify a person simply has to renounce terrorism. Like Lincoln, we require this pledge in exchange for amnesty (excepting the worst of the worst).
Three ideas. Radical? #1 certainly is. But these are the times that cry out for radical creative solutions.
More of the same won't work.
I'd bet that a little creativity would go a long way toward changing the dynamic of public opinion both here in the states, over in Europe and in Iraq and the region.
It's certainly worth a try.
UPDATE: NYT reports today that in Iraq 80% of Shiites want the US to leave and 97% of Sunnis.
The last US president to try was George H.W. Bush. He cut off loans to Israel in an intense effort to push the Israelis to abandon its aggressive settlement policy.
The political cost for Bush was high. And the Israelis went right ahead anyway doing what they wanted to do.
I have often thought the US could do even more, but now I am not so sure.
Why should we think that we can force a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians when we can't even get the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq to compromise? The US will shortly have 173,000 troops in the country. And we are pouring billions of dollars into the place. And yet not even with all that leverage have we been able in FOUR years to force the Shiites to give the Sunnis enough power to enlist their support in the new government.
There is an obvious lesson here about the limits of American power.
Are we willing to learn it?
Vien, we'll call him, is a 30 something Vietnamese American. His mother was Vietnamese, his father a white American soldier. From his looks you might think he's a more handsome Barack Obama and with a similarly multi-ethnic background similarly blessed with a very modern perspective.
I have talked with Vien at other times and knew he is actually tortured by his past. At a young age he was taken in by foster parents who regularly beat him. He escaped to America where he has no family.
By dint of hard work he has managed to build a middle class life for himself. He even owns a house in the suburbs. But the scars of the past left heavy welts on his emotional well-being.
This became evident the other day when he began talking about his upcoming vacation to Corsica. Why had he decided to go to Corsica, I wondered. It's not the usual tourist's destination.
Vien said that he had always been fascinated by Napoleon. Then, in a kind of dictator synapse, he somehow segged from Napoleon to Hitler. Then came the part that stunned me.
Speaking in a tone of voice he might use when ordering French fries at McDonalds, that is, very matter of factly, he said that he had always admired Hitler because Hitler's an underdog.
I asked him to repeat the statement. His English is not always perfect and I wanted to make sure I heard him.
I tried to reason with him telling him who Hitler was and what he had done. I noted that in a world where Hitler ruled he would not have much of a life. 1. He's not white. 2. He's gay. 3. He's an immigrant.
But no matter. He still liked Hitler.
He just happens to find Hitler appealing.
From his perspective, the perspective of an underdog in a dog-eat-dog world, Hitler is another underdog.
How can this possibly be?
When I mentioned all the people Hitler killed Vien retorted that Americans had killed millions in Vietnam. When I pointed out the all too obvious differences he insisted that I was just seeing things from the American point of view.
But how was Hitler the underdog?
Vien's reasoning--and I am only guessing here--is that 1. America is the world's superpower. 2. Hitler is always being castigated by Americans. Hence 3. Hitler is the underdog.
Next time I hear that skin heads have gone on a rampage or roughed up some Jews I will think of Vien and wonder: What combination of individual emotional wounds and history lay behind their deeds.
We are mystified these days about the kinds of societies that produce terrorists. All too often we succumb to easy generalizations as an explanation. Vien's case shows how difficult it is to generalize. He's not poor. He's not under the spell of fanatical leaders. He's not religious.
He just happens to like Hitler. (Thankfully, he does not seem to want to implement Hitler's program of murder.)
Is it possible we are fighting in Iraq for a myth?
A clue is President Bush's insistence that we remain in Iraq as long as it takes to achieve victory. The subtext is that we can't abide failure. Failure would stain the country's reputation. It is thought that what he really means is that it will stain his reputation and I have argued as much in earlier posts. But it's also possible that he is sincere about his insistence that victory is vital to America. If he is, why does he insist we must win?
Losing of course is unpalatable. No one likes to lose. But there are any number of circumstances in which losing might be preferable to winning. Losing a short war, for instance, might be better than winning a long one which cost many more lives and much more national treasure.
Why then can't we openly discuss the possibility of losing? It is because of that old American myth that we are winners. This same myth kept us in Vietnam for years and years despite evidence that our goal of victory was elusive and it may now be what is keeping us in Iraq.
The victory myth took a beating in Vietnam, of course. Policymakers in the Johnson adminstration could truthfully convince themselves that we had never lost a war when they were contemplating action in Vietnam. At that point we had not. But now? We lost Vietnam. And yet we remain (seemingly) as wedded to the myth of victory as we have ever been.
I am not sure what defeat might look like. But we should be talking about it, which we haven't. We have an idea of defeat in Iraq that is no more specific and realistic than our concept of the boogeymonster that haunts us in our dreams as children.
Shouldn't we, if we are rational, consider specifically what defeat might entail? It might just be helpful.
I am afraid however that we shall never engage in such a rational debate despite our commitment to freedom and reason. Our myths won't let us.
Nixon's is the most famous case. He refused to turn over documents (in this case the Watergate tapes) until a unanimous supreme court made him. But he didn't have to resist. In the next major imbroglio the president chose to defer to congress. Gerald Ford marched up to capitol hill and testified in person about his pardon of Nixon. Invoking executive privilege apparently never occurred to him, which was fortunate. After Nixon the last thing the public wanted to hear was that another president was refusing to come clean.
The next big scandal was of course Iran-Contra. Once again Congress wanted to know what the president knew and when he knew it. Reagan decided to give them everything they wanted.
Clinton was the next president to face a major scandal. He chose to fight congressional demands for documents and testimony.
In each case there's one simple theme. Self-interest.
If President Bush wants to assert executive privilege, let him go ahead. But we shouldn't be under the impression he has to for the sake of his office. The Decider can decide the issue without worrying that he is under any obligation to assert a privilege on behalf of his successors.
Beschloss: When John Kennedy ran in 1960 he was in a nominating process that took about seven months . . . The process next year will probably take about four weeks - it will be very front-loaded. Do you think the new process is better to choose a president?
Clinton: I would like to see the old one. . . . I know you can say this is my bias because I'm from a small state. I've watched Senator Kennedy here in Massachusetts, and this is not a small state. He does a lot of what I'd call retail politics. He knows the names of most of the people in this room . . . One of the things that bothers me about the whole presidential nominating process is that more you front-load it and put it into big primaries, the more you consign these candidates to spend all their time raising money . . . But the presidential campaigning is supposed to be for the candidate as well as for the voters. It was good for John Kennedy to have to go to West Virginia to see all those white poor people - all those Protestants living in the hills and hallows. Good for him to have to go in to the inner city. Good to have the time and obligation to go and listen to the stories of people who were different from you. That's the thing I loved about New Hampshire. For its quirkiness, it's a beautiful place, because they had a sense that they owed the country something. They owed the country a good decision and they were determined to give everybody a listen.
Anyone who wondered if a Democratically-controlled Congress would make a difference for historians, archivists, and journalists need look no further than what transpired in the House of Representatives on March 14, 2007. On that day three bills mandating increased public disclosure by the federal government all passed the House by substantial margins.
Republicans treated historians well in other areas, I would add, increasing funding for history projects (though the Bush administration zeroed out funding for the NHPRC).
Still: we're better off with the Democrats. They get the issue of open records; Republicans don't seem to.
What led to the misimpression was my contention that virtually all second-term presidents run into serious trouble. To the viewer this understandably made Bush's current difficulties seem less a reflection on his own inadequacies than some more general symptom of institutional weakness. If the presidency is prone to second-term blues then Bush's low poll numbers are hardly a measure of his adminstration's record. Hence, concluded the viewer, I had been shilling for Bush.
Is there a way to tell the story of second-term presidencies without appearing to excuse Bush's many mistakes? Sure. You can come right out and say that he's mainly having difficulties because the chickens are coming home to roost. All the bad mistakes he made in the first term are now facing him in his second.
But there's a risk in being so straight forward. Supporters of Bush will conclude you are shilling for the Bush hating crowd.
I see no way to solve this problem. Somebody is always going to be peeved at the way one employs history to shed light on current events. But it's important to remember when we go on TV and write op eds that we will always face charges of bias. It's inescapable.
The NYT reports today that the Democratic Party has lost its bid to control the primary schedule for '08. Some 23 states are now considering holding elections on February 5. The Party would prefer them to wait until later in the season.
The Party issued threats, saying it might refuse to seat the delegations of any states that held unauthorized early contests. The states have ignored the Party.
Whether the Party is right or wrong in thinking that an early virtual national primary is good or not (the arguments on both sides are compelling), the weakness of the Party is distressing.
Parties are supposed to mediate between the government and the voter. If they're weak they can't. The upshot is that the voters are increasingly on their own, unguided by their political leaders.
Political parties were an American invention. We are watching their inexorable decline.
I know that voters like to think that it's more democratic for them to exercise more power. And they're right. It is more democratic. But is that necessarily a good thing?
We should be debating that question. We aren't. That's a bad thing.
Twice in the course of a week LBJ in the summer of '64 is heard complaining about leaks. Now this isn't surprising. All presidents have complained about leaks, starting with George Washington. But the two leaks LBJ is concerned about tugged me in two directions. I wish one leak had been ignored by the media and that the other had made frontpage news. History might have turned out differently.
Both leaks involved Vietnam. Both occurred during the week of the Tonkin Gulf incident.
The first leak came from the National Security Council. Somebody--we still don't know who--leaked word that there had been a second attack in the Tonkin Gulf. This forced LBJ's hand. Once it was leaked he felt compelled given the realities of American politics--this was an election year after all--that he had to respond with force. Prudently, he had ignored the first attack on the assumption it simply may have been the result of the action of a local North Vietnamese commander rather than the aggressive act of enemy leaders. But a second attack couldn't be ignored once it hit the papers. The Republicans would charge him with weakness if he didn't respond. Douglas Dillon, a Republican holdover from the Kennedy cabinet, told LBJ that a military response was essential. It's possible, Beschloss speculates, that LBJ also worried that Bobby Kennedy would charge him with weakness. (Kennedy and Dillon were close friends.)
We now know there probably hadn't been a second attack. And at the time LBJ was unsure himself whether there was one or not. He confided to friends he thought those navy boys were probably shooting at flying fish. But once news of that second attack appeared it was impossible for LBJ to interject a note of caution. What might have been nothing more than flying fish now became a casus belli. LBJ thereupon ordered the Pentagon to launch an all-out attack on North Vietnamese ports and facilities.
The second leak occurred the same week. After word of the second"attack" appeared in the news Hubert Humphrey in a morning television interview was asked why the North Vietnamese were taking action against the United States. Humphrey candidly and accurately responded that the United States had been conducting covert operations in the Tonkin Gulf aimed at the North Vietnamese. Until then this had been largely secret.
When LBJ heard about Humphrey's interview he was furious. Humphrey was revealing this information as if he had got it on his own rather than through a confidential briefing. LBJ told one of Humphrey's friends that if the senator couldn't keep his mouth shut his chance of being named vice president was nil.
Unfortunately, too little was made of the Humphrey leak and too much was made of the other one. Americans concluded that we had been attacked for no reason and therefore had to counterattack. Thus was the scene set for the infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
We are still living with the consequences.
I don't mean to imply that war might have been averted. South Vietnam was collapsing. LBJ didn't want to be accused of losing Vietnam the way we had supposedly lost China. So he would proibably have taken us into war anyway, somehow, someway. All the same it's important to remember these two leaks. One was a turning point in Vietnam. The other wasn't but could have been. The mind reels at the might-have-beens. Suppose Humphrey's leak had become more generally known. Perhaps it would have given Americans a more balanced view of what was actually taking place in Vietnam. Perhaps .... ah well, a fellow can dream, can't he?
My first encounter with Arthur Schlesinger’s work came when as a sixteen-year old college freshman I read an excerpt from his forthcoming The Age of Roosevelt: The Crisis of the Old Order in Esquire magazine. It was on the young Franklin Delano Roosevelt battling the Tammany machine as a freshman state senator in Albany. The prose was vivid and eloquent. I was hooked and aspired for a time to be one of his graduate students.
My personal encounters were, as it turned out, few, but always pleasant. While working on A Thousand Days, he was kind enough to give some time to a graduate student writing a dissertation on post-World War II American liberalism. Later on, he agreed to be on an AHA panel that I organized. On one or two occasions, he wrote letters in my behalf.
Twice, he spoke at Ohio University. One of those times, I drove him down to Athens from the airport in Columbus, dropped him off at the Ohio University Inn, then went to collect my wife for a dinner with the university president and other guests. Would cocktails be served, he asked, or should he go ahead and have a quick martini? We were running late. I knew that the president of Ohio University was a man of resolute moderation, but I crossed my fingers and told him I was sure drinks would be served.
Presently, the three of us arrived at the president’s house and were ushered into a parlor for a brief conversation before dinner. A waiter appeared with a tray of glasses filled with warm tomato juice. Arthur looked just a bit ill, but took one. (As I recall, we were able to make up the missed opportunity at the end of the evening.) At dinner, one of the guests—the wife of a prominent local attorney and university trustee—made it clear that she had read and loved the Roosevelt books and other works. A well-educated and literate woman, she gave me a sense of just how wide his audience was.
Arthur Schlesinger, more than any other postwar figure, extended the life of the Beardian progressive school by modernizing it in at least three ways, all of which stand out in The Age of Jackson and The Age of Roosevelt. He repudiated Beard’s continental isolationism, and was a leading voice in the scholarly rejection of Beard’s attacks on Franklin Roosevelt’s pre-Pearl Harbor foreign policy. While emphasizing class and economic divisions in American society, Schlesinger gave equivalent space to ideas and ideology; he recognized that after World War II politics had to be explained in terms of fundamental values, not just economics. Most forcefully, he renounced the optimistic and rationalistic views of human nature implicit in Beard’s social-democratic outlook. More than any other vehicle, his The Vital Center brought the neo-orthodoxy of Reinhold Niebuhr into the worldview of a secular American liberalism in the two decades after World War II. It equally persuaded many that the totalitarianism of the left in the Soviet Union possessed no more merit that the totalitarianism of the right.
What remains of value in Schlesinger’s work as a historian? My personal take is that The Age of Jackson is one of those books that may be wrong on many things but still needs to be read by anyone with a serious scholarly interest in the period. The Age of Roosevelt volumes stand up very well. A Thousand Days (about a page a day) was written too soon to be definitive; at most, it is a useful primary source. Robert F. Kennedy on the other hand seems to me a splendid biography, which also incorporates a somewhat more thoughtful interpretation of the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The Disuniting of America should be read by anyone who wants to know what it means to be an American.
Schlesinger made no pretense at Olympian objectivity in these or his other books, and at times displayed a weakness for the cheap shot. Nonetheless, the scholarship and literary merit was of the highest order.
Finally, if you have not done so, read his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century. It is an enthralling piece of work.
I have long regretted that he never finished the Roosevelt work. I have a sneaking suspicion that emotionally he preferred to stop with his hero’s greatest triumph, the 1936 election, and would have found an account of the decline of the New Deal in the later 1930s hard to do. I also regret that he became so enmeshed with the Kennedys, if only because the entanglement diverted him from his historical vocation and left him open to attack as a court historian. All that understood, it is to the everlasting disgrace of American Historical Association activists that he was never the AHA’s president.
In his later years, Arthur Schlesinger’s partisanship hardened in ways that did not always strike me as attractive, but I never lost my admiration for him as one of the finest historians of our time.
He died while at dinner with his family. I hope he had time to savor that last martini.
It's a stunning experience.
Listening to LBJ agonize on the phone with Robert Kennedy and Dick Russell about Vietnam in the spring of 1964 one realizes just how difficult a position he was in. Couldn't get out but also couldn't say why we were in. You hear LBJ saying as we do now that we don't want another Vietnam, that he didn't want "another Korea." And why should he send American boys to fight in Vietnam ? He couldn't come up with a reason.
He tells an aide that Ambassador Lodge needs to understand that we can't turn Vietnam into America overnight. Hey, isn't that what historians have said LBJ didn't understand?
You also hear RFK telling LBJ that we can't win Vietnam militarily. We need to win it politically. LBJ agrees.
All the stereotypes about Johnson come crashing down as you listen to these tapes. He was a liberal's liberal? Yet we hear him on the tapes saying that he wanted welfare reduced because poor women were getting pregnant and having baby after baby on the government's dime. Sounded pure Reagan.
It's history as it happened, not neat and tied up in a ribbon the way it's usually remembered. There's the conversation with J. Edgar Hoover about the threat of assassination. Hoover tells him he was astonished to learn that the bubble top was not bullet proof. Hoover recommends that LBJ take one of the FBI's two bullet-proof cars for his own use. He says he ought to use the car even when he's down at the ranch where anybody could take a shot at him if they wanted. LBJ is incredulous. You mean I can't even ride around the ranch in my convertible. That's what I'm saying, Mr. President, Hoover tells him.
Yet a short time later, after LBJ has gotten grief for having a bloated staff, we hear him tell the head of the secret service that he wants to reduce the size of his retinue of agents when he goes out in public. Having 6 or 8 agents around him was too many. In his typical LBJ style he says that if they can't arrange for him to be accompanied by fewer agents then he'll just stay in the White House and never even go outside to take a piss.
It's pure LBJ.
And it's absolutely entrancing.
The Bush administration seems to hint that if Iran is providing weapons we should attack the country. But on what grounds? Have we not supplied weapons to our allies in war after war? Have our enemies not done likewise?
To take an example. The Soviets provided billions in weapons to North Vietnam during the war there. But no one ever seriously suggested that we should therefore have attacked the Soviet Union.
To take another example. The US provided millions of dollars in weapons to the Contras. Did that give Nicaragua's Sandinistas grounds to bomb New York?
And in both cases, I might add, the countries continued to talk to one another. We maintained diplomatic ties to the USSR throughout the Vietnam War and we maintained an embassy in Nicaragua during the Contra war.
So what's going on here? Somebody--care to name names?-- is framing this issue in a way that could possibly lead to war if we don't watch out. By focusing on Iran as a source of weaponry we are being led slowly but surely down a path to war.
Of course, it is important to know if Iran is supplying weapons. We should try to cut off the supply if possible through diplomacy, economic pressure and military patrols along the borders. But go to war over this?
I can use the time anyway to rework some other parts of the book.
PS: If you don't know who Tom Vilsack is, don't worry about it.
Recently he tackled signing statements.
It's a good piece.
He comes down hard on the theory advanced first by Meese and Alito and more recently by Bush that because the president plays a role in legislation his views about legislation should be made part of the record and be held in regard by courts trying to establish the intent of the authors of the legislation.
Click here (NYT subscribers only).