Friday, December 19, 2008

The Bush Legacy, America as an Empire in Decline, and a Country Less Safe Rather Than More Safe

I imagine that President Bush is hoping that the hindsight of history and providence will judge him a great man. Perhaps, Bush wonders, if he has simply been misunderstood. I shudder to think of how he imagines his own legacy as Bush has always seemed incapable of critical self-reflection. It is this utter lack of consideration, an adherence to a binary world view of "evil doers" and "good guys," and a remarkable distance from the reality of events (see Hurricane Katrina) that for me, will forever typify his administration.

In these days of financial crisis and declining influence, I must join the chorus and ask myself, "are we Rome?" Did Bush/they/us fiddle while Rome burned? And to borrow a phrase, "I wonder if the emperor Honorius watching the Visigoths coming over the seventh hill truly realized that the Roman empire was about to fall. This is just another page of history, isn't it?"

On these questions, from the Wall Street Journal, a wonderful piece on America as an empire in decline--and the dirty handed culpability of the Left and the Right. In its entirety:

Bush Has Made Us Vulnerable
Two incompetently prosecuted wars have undermined our deterrent power.

by Mark Helprin

In his great Civil War history, "Decision in the West," Albert Castel describes the last Confederate hope of victory. If in 1864 the Confederate armies continue to exact a steep cost from the North, "the majority of Northerners will decide that going on with the war is not worth the financial and human cost and so will replace Lincoln and the Republicans with a Democratic president and Congress committed to stopping hostilities and instituting peace negotiations." He cites the resolution of the Confederate Congress that: "Brave and learned men in the North have spoken out against the usurpations and cruelties daily practiced. The success of these men over the radical and despotic faction which now rules the North may open the way to . . . a cessation of this bloody and unnecessary war." Plus ça change . . . .

The administrations of George W. Bush have virtually assured such a displacement by catastrophically throwing the country off balance, both politically and financially, while breaking the nation's sword in an inconclusive seven-year struggle against a ragtag enemy in two small bankrupt states. Their one great accomplishment -- no subsequent attacks on American soil thus far -- has been offset by the stunningly incompetent prosecution of the war. It could be no other way, with war aims that inexplicably danced up and down the scale, from "ending tyranny in the world," to reforging in a matter of months (with 130,000 troops) the political culture of the Arabs, to establishing a democracy in Iraq, to only reducing violence, to merely holding on in our cantonments until we withdraw.

This confusion has come at the price of transforming the military into a light and hollow semi-gendarmerie focused on irregular warfare and ill-equipped to deter the development and resurgence of the conventional and strategic forces of China and Russia, while begging challenges from rivals or enemies no longer constrained by our former reserves of strength. For seven years we failed to devise effective policy or make intelligent arguments for policies that were worth pursuing. Thus we capriciously forfeited the domestic and international political equilibrium without which alliances break apart and wars are seldom won.

The pity is that the war could have been successful and this equilibrium sustained had we struck immediately, preserving the link with September 11th; had we disciplined our objective to forcing upon regimes that nurture terrorism the choice of routing it out with their ruthless secret services or suffering the destruction of the means to power for which they live; had we husbanded our forces in the highly developed military areas of northern Saudi Arabia after deposing Saddam Hussein, where as a fleet in being they would suffer no casualties and remain at the ready to reach Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh in three days; and had we taken strong and effective measures for our domestic protection while striving to stay within constitutional limits and eloquently explaining the necessity -- as has always been the case in war -- for sometimes exceeding them. Today's progressives apologize to the world for America's treatment of terrorists (not a single one of whom has been executed). Franklin Roosevelt, when faced with German saboteurs (who had caused not a single casualty), had them electrocuted and buried in numbered graves next to a sewage plant.

The counterpart to Republican incompetence has been a Democratic opposition warped by sentiment. The deaths of thousands of Americans in attacks upon our embassies, warships, military barracks, civil aviation, capital, and largest city were not a criminal matter but an act of war made possible by governments and legions of enablers in the Arab world. Nothing short of war -- although not the war we have waged -- could have been sufficient in response. The opposition is embarrassed by patriotism and American self-interest, but above all it is blind to the gravity of the matter. Though scattered terrorists allied with militarily insignificant states are not, as some conservatives assert, closely analogous to Nazi Germany, the accessibility of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons makes the destructive capacity of these antagonists unfortunately similar -- a fact, especially in regard to Iran, that is persistently whistled away by the Left.

An existential threat of such magnitude cannot be averted by imagining that it is the work of one man and will disappear with his death; by mousefully pleasing the rest of the world; by hopefully excluding the tools of war; or by diplomacy without the potential of force, which is like a policeman without a gun, something that doesn't work anymore even in Britain. The Right should have labored to exhaustion to forge a coalition, and the Left should have been willing to proceed without one. The Right should have been more respectful of constitutional protections, and the Left should have joined in making temporary and clearly defined exceptions. In short, the Right should have had the wit to fight, and the Left should have had the will to fight.

Both failed. The country is exhausted, divided, and improperly protected, and will remain so if the new president and administration are merely another face of the same sterile duality. To avoid the costs of a stalled financial system, the two parties -- after an entire day of reflection -- committed to the expenditure of what with its trailing ends will probably be $1.5 trillion in this fiscal year alone.

But the costs of not reacting to China's military expansion, which could lead to its hegemony in the Pacific; or of ignoring a Russian resurgence, which could result in a new Cold War and Russian domination of Europe; or of suffering a nuclear detonation in New York, Washington, or any other major American city, would be so great as to be, apparently, unimaginable to us now. Which is why, perhaps, we have not even begun to think about marshaling the resources, concentration, deliberation, risk, sacrifice, and compromise necessary to avert them. This is the great decision to which the West is completely blind, and for neglect of which it will in the future grieve exceedingly.


Damning and precise.

Per tradition, some questions:

1. Is Helprin overstating his case? Is this just so much hysteria?
2. Empire's ebb and flow, is this simply a momentary glitch in an Imperial dynasty, one with many years ahead of it?
3. On America as an empire, is it? Or did we conquer the world with Hollywood, MTV and McDonalds as opposed to soldiers and guns? Does this distinction matter? Are we in fact Rome?
4. What has been the payoff for the poor, the working class, and the underclass for American Empire? Will they ironically do better as America reorients its priorities abroad and at home?
5. Betting pool: who does the U.S. fight next, China or Russia, and does she win?
6. Most damning observation: this once wonderful military capable of handling any conventional threat has been hollowed out and reduced to being a police force oriented towards fighting guerrillas and terrorists. Evolution? or Tragic Miscalculation?
7. What sort of mess is Obama inheriting? Does one in fact have to burn a village in order to liberate it? And how long until Obama is blamed for creating the chaos that he has been tasked with correcting?


Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Chauncey, I'm shocked no one has left you a comment so far on this piece. Your input on Helprin's article together are one of the most thought-provoking and intellectual essays I've read in awhile.

Maybe it's the holidays, or maybe it's because the issues are laid out so clearly that one has to chew on it and the questions you presented. It's like a revelation of the elephant in the living room, followed up with a now what?

I'll be thinking about this for a long time...

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

folks have been a bit quiet lately. could be the holidays, could be post obamaitis...who knows? but at least you are checking in!

have a good holiday and keep up your good work too.