Understanding America - In Defense of the Incomprehensible and Puerile
America must look strange to those elsewhere, although in the last six years it has become our default position that we really don't care what anyone else in the world thinks of us. We do what's right, as we see it, and we do it for the good of everyone in the world, and someday they'll understand that and thank us. Or maybe they won't. It hardly matters. We really don't care what they think. We think we're noble. That sustains us though all the distain. After all, we single-handedly saved the world in two world wars, and now they think we're foolish, or worse. Or they remember history differently, as if they had something to do with winning those wars. That's our problem with the French, of course. As for all the others, they just don't see the good we unselfishly do for them. It's so petty of them. And it's kind of sad, actually.
This is hardly worth documenting with references. Listen to what the president, vice president, and secretary of defense have said in the first six years of the administration, and remember what Donald Rumsfeld said about "old Europe" - those fusty and now calcified nations that just don't "get it." The message is that these fools understand nothing. Recently the world offshore didn't even understand that prolonging the massive civilian bombing in the Israel-Hezbollah thirty-day war was a very good thing - the birth pangs of a new Middle East, as Condoleezza Rice famously put it. The hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who lost everything just didn't "get it" either. They foolishly cling to the idea that stability is good, when our president carefully and repeated explained that it is not - the old status quo produced grumpy people who turned into terrorists, and we needed a new and better world to be born, and of course that birth is bound be a bit messy, but everyone should want this new and better world. Still they bitched about all the dead people.
So, from the outside, it seems America is hard to understand - or it's easy to understand and the rest of the world is just amazingly dense and unjustifiably resentful. Or so the thinking goes.
The rest of the world finds us puzzling? Maybe so.
The view from offshore of the House page scandal, the Mark Foley business, might provide an example. Monday, October 16, Gary Younge wrote about it here in The Guardian (UK), and we have a contemporary Brit invoking a long-dead French fellow -
"All the domestic controversies of the Americans at first appear to a stranger to be incomprehensible or puerile," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic 19th-century treatise, Democracy in America. "And he is at a loss whether to pity a people who take such arrant trifles in good earnest or to envy that happiness which enables a community to discuss them."
And so it is that, as the extent of the carnage in Iraq becomes evident and North Korea goes nuclear, America's political class obsesses over a single Congressman's predilection for teenage boys.
But that is what we do, as odd as it seems. And Younge seems to think this is unbalanced, as it is what had galvanized the Democrats -
They know how to make electoral capital out of a gay man propositioning American teenagers (as of yet there is no suggestion that he actually molested any of them). But when it came to American soldiers forcing Iraqi prisoners to masturbate for the camera, their ability to focus minds on inappropriate sexual behavior and abuse of power somehow eluded them.
Now, with three weeks to go before the mid-term elections, the Democrats are flipping the traditional script. "Anybody who had a personal vulnerability before this is totally [at risk] with the spotlight on scandal," a Democratic aide told the Washington Post. "Frankly, it is a tough environment out there if you have a problem with the bottle or the zipper."
Whatever works - and the bottle and zipper do.
And as puerile as it seems, he does note that last week in New Jersey, the Democrat candidate Linda Stender accused her Republican opponent, Mike Ferguson, of preying on young women in a DC nightclub. And in Pennsylvania, Chris Carney has accused his Republican opponent of "repeatedly choking" and "attempting to strangle" his young mistress. Younge doesn't mention that the Republican in the latter case is running ads where he says, yes, he was unfaithful to his frumpy wife for years, and he is so very ashamed of that, but he never, ever beat his nubile young mistress senseless, nor did he ever try to choke her to death - so you really should vote for him, as he's telling it like it is, revealing himself, warts and all, this making himself one of the few truly honest men in politics. You speak to your constituents' concerns, you see. And he may win reelection.
The rest of the stuff is just too dry, like this -
Federal agents raided the home of the daughter of U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.) and his longtime friend Charlie Sexton this morning. The agents departed Karen Weldon's three-story brick home on Queen Street in Philadelphia with arms loaded with boxes. A government car pulled into the alley to the back door of the house and loaded boxes into it. Three agents standing in an alley declined to identify themselves.
"I can confirm that we conducted a number of searches regarding an ongoing investigation," said FBI agent Jerri Williams, a spokeswoman in Philadelphia. "Details regarding those investigation cannot be provided because the accompanying affidavit is sealed."
But the story is becoming clear. His daughter had no experience in anything, and she set up a lobbying firm, and her father got her two or three million dollars in contracts. Some shady Russians, and Slobodan Milosevic, signed up for her to wield her influence, and daddy did what he could for them in the House. It was sweet, and illegal - but it's dry stuff.
All such corruption stories are dry, like this -
Lester Crawford, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner who resigned suddenly in September 2005, was indicted in U.S. court for making false statements related to his investments and conflict of interest. U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor announced the indictment in a court filing today in Washington.
First of all, no one follows who the FDA commissioners are, and although he just up and quit after two months on the job, that was hardly headline news. No one noticed. He will plead guilty for issuing rulings highly favorable to two companies where he held very large blocks of stock options - PepsiCo and Sysco. We're talking, in the one case, a purveyor of junk food and high-fructose soft drinks, and in the other. of the biggest supplier of food and cocktail napkins to American restaurants. Where's the sex? No one will ask the president about that appointment. Appointing Michael Brown to FEMA meant many thousands died and a major American city was ruined forever. Appointing Lester Crawford meant more kids got fat, and he got rich. It's a minor thing.
Still, Younge points out, there's trouble in the air -
"This is without question the worst political situation for the GOP since the Watergate disaster in 1974," wrote the veteran analyst Charles Cook in his political report on Friday. "I think a 30-seat gain today for Democrats is more likely to occur than a 15-seat gain, the minimum that would tip the majority. The chances of that number going higher are also strong, unless something occurs that fundamentally changes the dynamic of this election. This is what Republican strategists' nightmares look like."
The question is how the opposition Democrats will play their hand.
Younge suggests they will stupidly play to what really doesn't matter, and about which folks really don't care much -
For if America's political class are pushing de Tocqueville's "puerile trifles", the electorate is clearly far more interested in substance. With wages stagnant, health costs rising and the military death toll in Iraq this month hovering close to a two-year high, voters want serious answers to serious questions. The Pew survey showed that the six issues of most concern to the electorate were Iraq, terrorism, the economy, healthcare, immigration and energy policy.
Last week, the Democrat minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, addressed some of these concerns. She pledged that in the first 100 hours of a Democrat majority she will increase the minimum wage, reduce interest rates on student loans, expand federal funding for stem-cell research, and require the government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of prescription drugs for Medicare.
This is great as far as it goes. It provides an answer to those who claim there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. But it also confirms the accusation that, given the challenges facing American society, this difference is inadequate. For one of the reasons the Democrats are so eager to talk about the Foley scandal is because they have little substantive to say on the matters on the American public's mind.
Pelosi might have added to her to-do list closing down Guantánamo Bay, setting a date for troop withdrawal from Iraq, raising taxes on the top earners to help curb the deficit, and putting a stop to warrantless wiretapping. But the truth is that Democrats have no consistent or coherent position on Iraq, terrorism or anything else much. The last few months have told the tale of Republican demise, not a Democrat revival. So while November 7 promises the possibility of electoral change, the prospect of real political change seems remote. The Democrats are standing for office, but little else.
Yeah, but the big stuff is hard. Maybe it's too hard.
And the biggest issue, the war after the Iraq War, has no easy answer. The Democrats have no plan of their own for victory. How could they? It's not even possible - "A commission formed to assess the Iraq war and recommend a new course has ruled out the prospect of victory for America, according to draft policy options shared with The New York Sun by commission officials."
So the honest Republicans are running on a curiously unbeatable platform - Yeah, we screwed up, and maybe it is the biggest screw up in American history, so bad there's no good fix of any kind, so unless the Democrats come up with one, and there is no way they can, people should vote for us again, because the Democrats can't do anything about what's happened after all, as they've always been useless.
And the issues with Iraq are really complex, unlike who was covering up the gay congressman preying in sixteen-year-old male pages and why, and whether that congressman really beat his mistress or not.
Tom Engelhardt explains here.
The president describes the enemy this way - "The violence is being caused by a combination of terrorists, elements of former regime criminals, and sectarian militias." But the emphasis keeps changing. Early on it with the middle group, the "bitter-enders" - they missed Saddam Hussein. Then it was the terrorists. Now it's the religious sects. One can get confused, and now he says it's all three. You need a scorecard.
Add to that there may be a coup in the works - that's mentioned here (Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) and a week earlier here (Robert Dreyfuss). Insiders are talking about the possibility of a new five-man "ruling commission," a "government of national salvation" that would "suspend parliament, declare martial law and call back some officers of the old Iraqi army."
So reboot the system, as it were.
And Engelhardt reviews the recent talk of a political accommodation with the insurgents. We stop fighting them?
And there's this -
Of course, all of this has brought to the surface a lot of hopeful "withdrawal" talk in the media (and the online world), in part because the Baker group seems to have been floating "phased withdrawal" rumors. Before you think about genuine withdrawal possibilities though, note the announcement by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker last week that he was now planning for the possibility of maintaining present force levels in Iraq (140,000+ troops) through 2010; that Casey at that press briefing left the door wide open to ask the President for even more troops after the election; and that the build-up on the ground of permanent bases (not called that) and our vast, nearly billion-dollar embassy in the heart of Baghdad is ongoing.
So who knows what we're doing? Sex is easier.
And there are the inherent paradoxes in the kind of war we walked into.
Engelhardt points to Michael Schwartz analyzing this, an article by four military experts published in the quasi-official Military Review, entitled "The Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency."
What would they be?
Paradox 1: The More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You Are
Paradox 2: The More Force You Use, the Less Effective You Are
Paradox 3: The More Successful Counterinsurgency Is, the Less Force That Can Be Used and the More Risk That Must Be Accepted
Paradox 4: Sometimes Doing Nothing Is the Best Reaction
Paradox 5: The Best Weapons for Counterinsurgency Do Not Shoot
Paradox 6: The Host Nation Doing Something Tolerably Is Sometimes Better Than Our Doing It Well
Paradox 7: If a Tactic Works This Week, It Will Not Work Next Week; If It Works in This Province, It Will Not Work in the Next
Paradox 8: Tactical Success Guarantees Nothing
Paradox 9: Most of the Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals
Michael Schwartz is Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, and his books include Radical Protest and Social Structure, and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo) - so his discussion of each paradox is detailed, and quotes extensively from the source document (PDF format). Read it carefully and you'll see it makes sense.
The only problem is, of course, for all the common sense here, the analysis of these paradoxes of fighting an insurgency doesn't meet the Alexis de Tocqueville "incomprehensible and puerile" test. Not only are the concepts not exactly simple, they're certainly not sexy and titillating. They're only self-evident, and you realize that when you carefully think them through. It may be too much work.
No "Neanderthal" voter will think them through, having long ago bought into the president's "we will accept nothing less than total victory" line, as that's easy enough to work with. As they say on the infomercial about the countertop thing that will roast a chicken for you - "Set it… and forget it!" The enemy may be ambiguous, but we can kill them all and let God sort them out, as General Sherman once said. This is too tricky. The nasty congressman who likes young boys, and who knew he did and when, is easier to get all upset about. This is not lost on the Democrats. To get elected you use they tools provided you.
A secondary problem about all this - what is circulating as the new thinking in the military - is that the president, and more importantly the vastly more influential vice president and the secretary of defense, don't see these paradoxes at all. On the policy and strategy levels they are committed to the exact opposite of what the military knows it has to do, on the tactical level. And that goes a long way to explaining "the revolt of the retired generals." It's a matter of who "gets it."
And it's way too hard for a population busy with other matters to deal with the idea that even the military is saying the top guys have the basic concept all wrong. And too, the media will give the population busy with other matters… other matters. They do need to sell advertising time, and keep the ratings up. Sexy and puerile will do nicely, thank you.
Alexis de Tocqueville said he was "at a loss whether to pity a people who take such arrant trifles in good earnest or to envy that happiness which enables a community to discuss them." He was onto something there.
No one from the outside really understands America.