Thursday, April 27, 2006

One Moral for the story of the Bush-Kerry election?

Here is an analysis --maybe more a meditation--on the 2004 Presidential Election, written a couple of months after it took place, and circulated then among some friends. Regrettably, I think that the issues it raises of the readiness of the American public and electorate to exercise world leadership remain very real.

January 1, 2005

Notes on the Presidential election

This is written from the point of view of an American social democrat who wants the U.S. to lead toward peace and sustainable economic growth worldwide, while prospering at home and moving substantially toward more equal and social income distribution. It is a common, rationalist orientation, generally expressed by the NYTimes, for example. Centrist in Europe or Canada, it is center-left in the U.S.

1. The November election--the vindication of George Bush and his policies and the defeat of John Kerry-- was a big setback, a very large and major negative development for the country as a whole, and for the world. We should hope that major bad consequences can be escaped, but damages on many scales of time and magnitude, are made much more likely by Bush’s victory, and its nationalist, emotional, and even militarist underpinnings. We shouldn’t try to explain away or sugarcoat the reality many of us feel in the pit of our stomachs that this is a very bad outcome.

2. Two questions obviously arise, “why did it happen?” and “what is to be done now?” Although instant pundits have leaped on both of them, usually with bromides, neither is an easy question.

3. But before getting to them, what, exactly, happened? We had a well-announced public contest between the two poles in a politically polarized situation, an extensive and ritualized process. The prize was a national thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict on the record of the Bush administration of the past four years, and the award of the coming four years of the Presidency, an extraordinarily symbolic and potent office according to both our constitution and our modern mass culture. The contest itself received full national media focus and attention over many months as it was taking place, and certainly at its climax. This event was in no way on the margin; it was central. That still leaves many questions about what the outcome meant.

4. There are many ways of describing the two poles—Red vs Blue, retro vs metro, traditional vs modern, right vs left, religious vs. secular, Republican vs. Democrat, central vs. coastal, rural/suburban vs urban, Lincoln Town Car/hunting vs Volvo/yoga, hawk vs. dove, conservative vs moderate, and so forth.

5. One of the factors which constructed the event, is our system of “first-past-the-gate” electoral contests. With British origins, and like another British-rooted institution, adversarial judicial proceedings, the system of choosing a single winner from a field or a pair of candidates is so deeply embedded in our political system and political culture as to become invisible. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the best system for national decision-making at a national single-constituency level, that is to say, the Presidential level. It also may be particularly weak at giving true and usable results in what amount to tied elections, and more broadly, it may not be the best system for intensely polarized situations. The common technical alternative to it is some form of proportional representation, which of course has many forms, each with drawbacks of its own. A practical amelioration is for a narrowly elected political leader to “govern from the center,” rather than carry out the political program of his pole, but President Bush clearly did not follow this in his first term.

6. Louis Menand, a professor and New Yorker staff member (who recently published the great book, The Metaphysical Club on nineteeth century America) wrote a good think piece in the issue of December 6th, based on an analytical conference held at Stanford on November 9th. The burden of Menand’s article was that the early touted factors such as “moral values,” did not bring anything really new or decisive to this election. Rather, like the “conservatism of the country,” they are permanent and rather static parts of the situation. Menand then concentrates on the analysis offered at Stanford by Gary Langer, the director of polling at ABC News. (I looked back over the proceedings of the Stanford conference, which are available, including video, at Langer was indeed the star of the show.) Here is the pith of the Menand piece:

“Why did President Bush win this election?” Gary Langer, the director of polling at ABC News, said at the Stanford Conference? “I would suggest that the answer can be expressed in a single phrase: 9/11.” No one there disagreed. “Fifty four percent of voters on Election Day said that the country was safer now than it was before September 11, 2001,” Langer pointed out. “And perhaps, I would suggest more important, forty nine percent of voters said that they trusted only President Bush to handle terrorism, eighteen percent more than said they trusted only John Kerry.” He went on, “Among those who trust only Bush to handle terrorism, ninety seven percent, quite logically, voted for him. Now right there, if forty nine percent of Americans trust only Bush to handle terrorism, and ninety seven percent of them voted for him, those are forty eight of his total fifty one percentage points in this election. Throw in a few more votes on ancillary issues….” and that’s all there is to it. “Langer thinks that a key statistic is the change in the votes of married women. Gore won the women’s vote by eleven percent; Kerry won by only three percent, and he lost most of those votes among married women. Bush got forty-nine percent of the votes of married women in 2000; he got fifty-five percent this year. And when you ask married women whom they trust to keep the country safe from terrorists, fifty-three percent say “only Bush.”

Menand a little later concludes that the country did not move to the right. Rather, “the issue that seems to have permitted an incumbent with an unimpressive approval rating to survive reelection was not an ideological one. The country did not change radically in the past four years. Circumstances did.”

8. But I think that an ideological movement did take place, and it was to the right, in a conservative, traditionalist direction. It was not spontaneous or autonomous on the part of the population, but was a response to the circumstances that Menand and Langer stress, the very sharp and particular event of being attacked on 9/11 within the national territory in a serious way (3,000 dead, 3 billion tons of printers’ ink and television pixels). 9/11 was indeed frightening and threatening, and under that stress, people did indeed retreat to older verities. These were two—go for ancient virtues of perseverence and steadiness, rather than for intelligence or originality, and revert to the ancient rule, certainly if you are powerful, that if you are hit, it is justified, and even necessary to hit back harder. These are not necessarily effective responses in the sense that they manage the real objective problem of jihadist terrorism, but they are the ancient visceral responses, precisely atavistic, and in that sense, deeply conservative. So there is an ideological movement to the right involved here, at a deep level. Objective and perceptive analysis as a problem solving method is new and modern; war, and all the dense and deep mat of emotions associated with it, is old. Ideas of conscious peace-seeking and purposeful creation of cooperation, besides being frustratingly slow and cumbersome, are modern and fuzzy-cheeked historical newcomers—not responses you trust in a pinch, when you feel threatened.

9. There are two points here. The first is that Bush and Rove played to this response, and even in some sense fostered it if they did not create it. They constantly pushed the importance of 9/11, and the naturalness, even the imperative of a forceful, military response to it. The bigger the better. With regard to the domestic public, the problem with the campaign in Afganistan was that it wasn’t big enough, so that Iraq could be added to make clear the point that there was no shortage of U.S. vitality and strength, and this was done. After being hit, if pugnacity doesn’t work at first, just do more of it, or do it longer.

10. Only after the election could we see this as what it may well have been from the beginning within the Administration, or the mind of Karl Rove—going to war as essentially a policy aimed at a domestic audience, a policy of a dramatic, histrionic character, in the tradition of the circus part of “bread and circuses.” To really go to the horse’s mouth for election analysis, Bush himself, as reported by the AP in connection with winning TIME Magazine Man of the Year cover, attributed his victory to foreign policy and the wars he began in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The election was about the use of American influence,” he said. This strategy in reponding to a threat, of pursuing domestic dramatic effect and eventually cashing it in at the polls, is a very different one from seeking an objectively effective and effficient response to the external problem of Islamic jihadism, or even terrorism. Of course, the Bush-Rove response puts virtually no value at all on avoiding or restraining damage to others.

11. For the election this proved an effective strategy, although that itself may only lead us more deeply into Sam Huntington’s Clash of Cultures trap and the waste of our own and others’ blood and treasure in the real situation of Iraq and the Middle East. But the second point is that the domestic American public, which freshly demonstrated that it rules the country under our democratic system, swallowed this logic and set of goals and values--may even have demanded them--and rejected the more rational, measured, and modern response that Kerry and the Democrats would have liked to have made. (The response that Kerry actually made in the heat of the election, was in fact heavily drawn onto the terrain created by the Republicans.) A public whose majority did in fact make this ancient, emotional response cannot be impugned on its home soil--it’s the first rule of post-electoral discourse and sportsmanship that the loser cannot blame the electorate. But it can be questioned whether a country with a predominance of such atavistic, visceral currents in its emotions and actions, and at least one set of political leaders entirely willing to play to these feelings and stimulate them under a political system that incentivizes and rewards that strategy, is qualified to hold the world leadership that we now have. European dismay at what they look at as American primitivism may not be entirely wide of the mark.

12. It is true that we have to feel more than a pang of doubt when these matters are put alongside the question, is this country ready for world leadership? In a way, such leadership has been thrust upon us, and in other ways, our own leaders have aspired to it, have reached out and would like to seize and strengthen it, but internally, our final arbiter is the electorate, and is it (particularly the central geographic sections least exposed to external, world realities) qualified by education, experience, and equilibrium to exercise such leadership? Some cold self-knowledge might suggest that we should back off from notions of power, permanent paramountcy, “New World Order,” pre-emptive military action, and ambitions to democratize others, and retreat somewhat to more modest, conciliar, UN and alliance-based approaches, even pull back to the “impresario” conception of our world centrality practiced by Bill Clinton.

13. But to go back to the election of November 2004. An election like this is a three way conversation or dialogue among the two candidates and the electorate. The latter huge collective participant is understood throughout the proceedings to have the responsibility, like a jury in court, to choose between the candidates and their arguments at the end. In a curious way, all three participants have to uphold the quality (the realism, the relevance, the honesty, the unvenality) of the dialogue. Nowadays, polling is a very honed set of techniques which are used continuously for months ahead of the actual vote. The two candidates calibrate their arguments almost day-by-day to the preliminary responses elicited from the electorate by the polling operations. This may increase the ‘followership’ of the candidates, and give more of a leadership role to the mass electorate, which is obviously very heterogeneous. With that goes an increased responsibility upon the voters to act with attention, information, breadth, respect for the business before them, and a sense of consequence of their actions, aspiring even to serious perceptiveness and wisdom. Many voters do feel these responsibilities, and act conscientiously to fulfil them, but many, perhaps particularly the final independents and undecideds, probably do not, and they proverbially hold the balance. The willingness of many to vote on the personability of candidates, or on narrow interests and affiliations when they know that much broader issues are also simultaneously at stake, and the willingness of many to let their vote be controlled by the amounts of money spent on campaigns, are not encouraging, again when one measures the capacity of our electorate against the seriousness of world leadership and issues of war and peace. Democracy can be failed, with important erosive effects, not only by politicians, but by the third partner in the dialogue, the electorate itself.

14. Against such a background of what I would call an insufficiently informed, reflective and demanding voting public, indeed in large part because of facilitating weaknesses of the electorate, the 2004 election in a deep way became an exercise in pandering. This was certainly led by the Bush/Rove side, but Kerry was forced to play this game, and accepted to do so, more than would have been ideal. If the Iraq war was a “circus,” offered by Bush and the Republicans in response to the public’s agitation and sense of being attacked and challenged by 9/11, then the tax cuts were the “bread” offered almost as a form of bribe to the public. And the American public, or at least a very large portion of it, when empowered in this way by the competition of politicians to court the voters, demanded its full quota of flattery, short term gratification and long term unwisdom. Is this democracy, or is it in some way, subtle but common, a miscarriage of democracy?

14 We certainly have a complex society now, and it may be that we need some new hard scrutiny of where we are going in the very ramified domain of elite and mass relations. In the present situation, after decades of economic and technical advance, very large numbers of people function as members of elites with regard to particular specialized functions, but are members of the mass with regard to general social and governmental matters.

15. This leaves undealt with the second question of para 3, What is to be done now? That will have to be left for later—maybe a similar New Year’s infliction of 2006. The answer has to be somewhere in the world of education—perhaps under the old civic notion of democratic politics as a form of public education.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

February 2003 informal paper on dealing with Iraq

February 2003 thinking on Iraq, at moment when US invasion was imminent.

I just pulled this out of the files (and in the process obliterated its correct date--drat). It remains the foundation of my thinking on this incredibly lethal and wrongheaded enterprise of the Bush Administration. On seeing it now, I was a little surprised at the degree that I accepted the danger of WMD at that point, but was not surprised at how much it was infused with indignation against Saddam's initiation and prosecution of the 1980's war on Iran. Saddam's massive crime of aggressive war against Iran remains an important and generally ignored element, certainly in the United States.

I still think, as can be foreseen in the paper, that the key moment of decision-making was manifest in the confrontation between Powell and de Villepin in the UN, when de Villepin said "wait, let the inspectors continue their work," but the administation, with the British in tow, pushed ahead with the long planned, and basically already decided, invasion. Therefore a lot of issues, such for example as the number of troops, our readiness for the vandalism, guerrilla warfare, disorder and even latent civil war that have emerged, and DOD's shunting aside of State Department planning, etc, are downstream of that turning point decision, and of lesser interest. Peace to Monty Stearns and Stanley Hoffman, who along with a million other people have attacked not THAT we invaded, but the innumerable HOWs of how it was done. In a certain sense the latter were blunders at a lower level, and flowed quasi-inevitably from the higher one. It is apalling and humiliating for an American to think of the number of people, mainly Iraqi and some American, who have been killed and maimed or rendered destitute as a result of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld arrogance, truculence and pugnacity--and that the country endorsed this by voting Bush back into power in 2004.

Text from early February 2002:

Trying in this message to get my alleged thinking straight on the clearly important piece of international politics that is going on right now on Iraq. One of the dominating stakes of the issue is what patterns our (U.S.) actions will set for us, ourselves. What we do in Iraq (and its results) will greatly influence the role in which we cast ourselves in for an indefinite stretch of the future--certainly the rest of the Bush II presidency, which could be two or six years. There is clearly a big tendency on our part to slip toward an imperial role, as outlined in the long term defense policy declarations of the Administration that came out in September. Among other things, this posits a force-based international politics (rather than economics-based, for example), which is a big backward move in history. An "imperial" American presence in the world is THE wrong turning; this is what REALLY has to be avoided. It can lead nowhere good, and particularly it will set up the problem of absorbing China and India into the world order, which is the capital foreign politics/policy problem of the coming several decades, in a mortally adverse way. This subject, a very important one that is not getting enough attention, has been covered well by Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker, in, I think the spring, as well as by David Armstrong in the October 2002 Harpers, and yesterday (1/28), briefly, in the NYT by Michael Gordon.

A couple of weeks ago, I sent the following as a letter to the Times. From their automated reply, I learned that letters are required to be keyed to one of their articles, and also that the limit is 150 words. So, apart from the general long odds, I wasn't surprised when this hyper-truncated jewel (c. 170 wds) didn't make it into the paper. (A floating factoid out here is that the city of Berkeley has a higher per capita subcription rate to the NYT than anywhere else in the country, including NYCity itself; that could be true, but Berkeley assuredly has the highest per capita letterwriters to the NYT in the universe.)

"Until recently Saddam Hussein was a genuine threat to regional and world security. He had shattered essential modern restraints on the use of chemical weapons, and waged aggressive war against both Iran and Kuwait. The Bush Administration deserves great credit for raising the alarm, confronting his regime, and getting Security Council action underway against Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. should persevere in keeping up pressure, perhaps for years, on Saddam's regime through frank speaking, threats and force readiness. But it is clear that with Security Council Resolution 1441, and with inspectors working in Iraq, the danger from Saddam is greatly reduced and can be kept that way. Our goals were valid ones, and have been largely achieved. There is no need for war on Iraq.

The widespread belief that an American military attack on Iraq is inevitable is very troubling. Now we must remain in real communication with the other Security Council members that supported us in restraining Saddam. We must stay in control of our own policy and actions, rather than be overwhelmed by accumulated forward momentum and the echoes of our own words. A great achievement will be ruined through excess."

Since then, I've had a look at Bill Keller's piece on the Iraq face-off in the paper of Saturday (1/25), and most of his article on the Bush Administration in the Sunday Magazine, and the the lead editorial of the same day (1/26), and in addition to the daily stream of NYT coverage (not read in complete detail), some Lehrer News Hour coverage, and an article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in the current issue of Foreign Policy. So, sources are far from exhaustive, even when combined with ancient memories from NEA/NGA of fifteen-plus years ago (!). The night before last the President made his case forcefullly and effectively in the State of the Union, and what Secretary Powell will say in New York on February 5th will be important.

I have a huge mistrust of the Bush administration's politics and their general pugnacity (NYT: Paul Krugman all the time; Bob Herbert 1/30/03), but I it has to be said that Bush and his team are right to focus their attention on the danger of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. In retrospect, the Clinton Administration has to come under scrutiny for their temporizing and ineffectualness on enforcing Iraq's 1991 commitments over the eight years of their mandate. (Similarly, grantedly in hindsight, Clinton's people mis-estimated bin Laden and never mobilized seriously against Al Qaeda, and now, it appears, let the North Koreans cheat on their deal with them egregiously.) WMD in the hands of a leader with a clear history of both aggression and the use of banned war materials, are a genuine major danger to Iraq's regional neighbors, and to future world order. All the issues of proliferation of lethal technology are present. What is acutely relevant for the United States is that if there were an expansion of the conflict in Israel/Palestine, the Israeli ability to act, and our ability to support them would be severely compromised if Iraq were able to intervene on the Palestinian side with WMD. That is not to say that our intense support for Israel under Sharon is the right position; on the contrary, it is gravely skewed in favor of Israel and retention of the occupied territories, which is itself a huge part of the problem. But taking our present Middle Eastern position as a given, an Iraq led by Saddam Hussein and with WMD capacities, would be a very important danger for Israel and us. Intervening to control that danger, even preemptively, may or may not be correct, but it is not crazy or gratuitously aggressive.

Secondly, dove that I am and surrounded as I am by doves here in Northern California, it is easy to wish that ways could be found to deal with this issue non-militarily or even peacefully. But in this case, Saddam Hussein is unmistakably a leader who respects little other than force. It is he who has put the issue in directly military terms, and there is no escaping meeting him on those grounds. Economic sanctions, a policy instrument which is harsh but not military, have been employed without effect for several years.

But on the other side, there are several reasons the United States should not to go to war.

First and very important, is the relationship of this case, which has important elements of merit, to the principles of militarized world leadership which the Administration is simultaneously putting forward, principles which are far from meritorious, but rather seriously retrograde and which represent an active danger, not only to the rest of the world. but to us as well if we commit ourselves to them.
Secondly, attacking Iraq will be putting a boot in the face of the Arab and Islamic world, which is the last thing we should want to do at this time. We really would be allowing ourselves to slip toward--a long way toward--Sam Huntington's wars of world cultural basins, when we should be doing precisely the opposite.
Thirdly, are the costs and losses of war per se--the lives and physical integrity of combattants and civilians and also loss of public and private property. The incidence of these will of course be skewed in this modern case, falling far more heavily on Arabs than on high-tech Americans, which is all the more reason to weigh heavily the traditional pacifist consideration of the "horrors of war" at this adrenaline and testosterone-laden stage of the advance toward military conflict.
All these objections to going to war apply if the war is swift and clean. But a downside possibility that should be weighed against our attacking is the possibility that we would get pinned down in an extended struggle, a Somalia amplified. Matters, political as well as military, could go from bad to much much worse in a rapid and uncontrollable way.
I assign lesser weight than many people to the problems of politics and administration that could come us after we pushed over the Baath government. These could be major (large collective assertions by the Shiites (a big opportunity for Iran?) and Kurds (a big problem for the Turks)), but most likely would not take worst case forms if we stayed reasonably cool, and don't overpush the role of victor and paternalistic reformer.
I don't know what weight to assign to the relatively small possibility that Saddam could launch some surprising and effective blow, WMD or other, against our forces, or against our territory via terrorists. But this possibility, hard to evaluate though it is, is clearly a reason to try to solve this confrontation without an open military clash.

There are a couple of currently operative reasons to go to war which should NOT have standing: one is impatience, requiring that things be done at certain paces, or by certain deadlines, to satisfy us. This is to put time in charge of us, rather than us remaining in control of the time element. Language of this sort, "time is running out, we don't have forever...." is increasingly common from Washington right now, but letting the pacing/timing element crystallize and become a rigid constraint, and letting it force our actions rather than flexibly using various pacings for our purposes, is a tactical and even a strategic lapse, not a strength. Secondly, it will be said that we have to commit our forces to action because we can't let them just sit out in the Middle East for months on end. We perfectly well CAN let them sit out there for extended periods, not necessarily all of them, but significant numbers, and with some rotation of personnel. This notion of "irreversible mobilization," was supposed to go out with WW One, not be permanently enshrined by it. The idea that our incredibly technically advanced troops don't have an "off" or a "hold" button, that is, the technology, training, and the control capacity to hold a high state of alert and preparedness (for example, through the coming hot season into the following cooler weather) without willy-nilly having to fight seems preposterous, but it is being passed around as a sacred and true piece of military lore at present. We should roll back a few hundred years before WW One, and redevelop a skill that was once a hallmark of a capable force, that is to say siege-laying.
We have advanced an unspecified but significant amount toward controlling and even eliminating the threat from Saddam Hussein by bringing about the re-admission of the inspectors to Iraq and having them set about their work under Blix and El-Baradei. This was the product of a major diplomatic and political effort for which we provided the main impetus, and it is a major and positive result.
What should we do? We should keep up the very tough talk--this is after all a game of chicken with Saddam Hussein, but internally we should be resolved not to attack him, but to grind him down. We should keep the inspectors' feet to the fire, making high demands on them, in order to match and overwhelm the counter-pressures and resistance they are getting from the Iraqi side. We should continue to demand from Iraq the probably mythical goal of "full and pro-active cooperation" in their disarmament. Under sustained pressure from us, the inspectors should be getting progressively tougher, more demanding and more interventionist at the local level, deferring less and less to Iraqi sovereignty. For example, there is no reason that they should accept Iraqi claims that they cannot have US or other intelligence operatives among them, or have close two-way cooperation with intelligence agencies. In the Sunday paper, (NYT, 1/26) there was a front page photograph of a young, probably crazy Iraqi, who jumped into a UN vehicle claiming some form of asylum. Under pressure from the Iraqi police, the inspectors handed him over to them; Blix's men should have kept him, and if necessary shipped him out on one of their planes, and dismissed Iraqi protests very curtly. We should encourage further development of pressures against Saddam (or pressures for him to leave) from the Arab countries and Turkey. As Tom Friedman developed well in his column yesterday (1/29) we should make it clear that we will not attack if SH complies with his disarmament or leaves or is thrown out.
We should continue the campaign, as it is reported today (1/30) we are doing, to get Euros, Russians, etc on board for sustained pressures for real WMD disarmament. If it is a game of "chicken" vis-a-vis Saddam Hussein, it is a game of "who will bell the cat" vis-a-vis the Euros and other industrialized countries, and the Euro record for shrinking from hard tasks is not good--they should have intervened far earlier and more firmly against Milosevic in both Bosnia and Kosovo.
I think that under loud and continuing pressure, including threats of invasion, from the U.S, reasonably well supported by the Security Council, and with active and aggressive work by the inspectors, Saddam Hussein will crack. If he doesn't crack, we and the Security Council should push forward a little more against his sovereignty and do it for another month. Sooner rather than later the inspectors will become an alternative power center in Iraq to the government, and people, including informants, will be able to move toward them, with growing confidence and less fear of Saddamist retaliation. (On fissures in the regime, see marvelous NYT reporting of John Burns.)
WMD in the hands of Saddam Hussein's Iraq are indeed a real problem, and a problem that will require a solution based on force--though that can be the threat of force, and not necessarily its actual exercise. We now have substantial forces in place, and so let's use them to gradually take control and his WMD's away from Hussein--but with perseverance and persistence our main weapons, rather than an open, full attack. We have already achieved a lot, and we can achieve our objective of a harmless Iraq without going to war, without rushing into actual war.
Much of this applies whether we are acting alone, or with significant real international support. However, obviously there is international support available for sustained pressure on Saddam that is not available for a military attack on his regime conducted by the US essentially solo. The international environment will be a great deal better (specifically for us, and the "legitimacy" of our presence and leadership, which is vastly important) after an extended intimidation campaign that slowly pulverizes the Hussein regime without an attack, than it will be after an essentially unilateralist military campaign by the United States that will have justifiably alarmed many countries.