Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 December 2009


Some pundits seemed nonplussed (1 & 2) by our President’s war speech. It had no “rah-rah.” It spilled few words on “winning” or “victory.” It gave no call to great and glorious deeds. It was a managerial speech, plotting a careful path among snares and pitfalls to a putatively favorable ending: an AfPak region without Al Qaeda or other international terrorists. While delivering it, the President did not smile once.

What a contrast from six and a half years ago! A very different president had hid from his own generation’s great war in the Texas Air National Guard. Decades later, quite safe, he exploited his residual piloting skills to land a fighter on an aircraft carrier. With a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him and troops all at ease in front, he crowed over national victory—all smiles and swagger.

As it turned out, the swagger and chest-beating were a bit premature. Dubya’s antics on the USS Abraham Lincoln became an affront to the carrier’s very name. They would have ill befitted a fraternity president, let alone our chief executive. They recalled the victorious ape’s chest beating in the opening scene of 2001, A Space Odyssey.

We like to think we are men and women, not apes. We don’t beat our chests and crow. We think and foresee. We can hold sad contradictions in our head. We can cry the terrible cost of war even as we know we must fight it. We can even empathize with the vanquished.

Lincoln did. In his Gettysburg Address he foresaw the North’s victory. But he also foresaw the terrible, tortuous path of Reconstruction, which only just may have ended—a century and a half later—with our President’s election. Slavery died hard.

FDR, George Marshall, and Harry Truman also knew. That’s why they set up the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and (a bit later) the international monetary and economic system that rebuilt Europe and Japan. That’s why the major powers, though often at odds, have been at peace for over half a century, and why the Bomb has never been used again.

My favorite war story came from a Japanese academic over forty years after the end of World War II. As a young man in war-devastated Japan, he had read an account by an American sailor in the Pacific. Trapped in a hunted American submarine, with Japanese destroyers above him and depth charges exploding all around, the American had made himself a solemn vow. If he survived that day, he promised, he would devote the rest of his life to preventing and avoiding war.

On reading this account as a young man, my Japanese colleague made the same vow. He retold this story as he invited us to visit his Japanese university, with Japanese government support, to help build international understanding as a bulwark against war.

As David Brooks himself has written, there was no “rah-rah” after World War II. Our greatest war ended not with a bang or a whimper, but with a gigantic sense of humility and relief. There followed a quiet determination to rebuild nations and build new institutions to make sure the like never happened again. Everyone was on the same page because everyone—from the grunts in the trenches to Rosie the Riveter and her grandparents tending their “Victory Gardens” for fresh vegetables—had partaken of universal sacrifice and suffering.

The gravest danger of our current lopsided effort, in which one percent of us bear all the hardship, is not losing. We still have enormous resources. We could always bring the other 99% to bear. The gravest danger is that an unthinking majority, unaware of the cost of war, could fail to draw the bitter lessons and wisdom that we and our leaders have always drawn from armed conflict.

Sometimes war may be a necessary step in human social evolution. But if so, it is the most terribly painful, difficult and dangerous step. To take that awful step without reaping the social advances that understanding and wisdom foster would be a tragic loss that the human race can ill afford. But how can we promote the wisdom that comes from shared sacrifice when sacrifice is not shared?

We fought what is still our bloodiest war to rid ourselves of slavery. We fought our greatest war to stamp out mechanized military despotism. If what we are fighting now is indeed a war at all, we are fighting to save a marvelous international system for creating wealth, peace and prosperity from a few fanatics who would use its own complexity and vulnerability to damage or destroy it.

All these were and are worthy goals. But cool, intelligent leadership is essential. Reconstruction foundered after Lincoln’s assassination because the man who believed in “malice toward none, . . . charity for all” was gone. Reconstruction succeeded after World War II, although FDR had died, because men like Eisenhower, Kennan, Marshall and Truman shared his wisdom and vision and his goals. Today we should thank our lucky stars that we have wise leaders like Obama, Gates, Petraeus and McChrystal. They are cool in the best sense of that word.

Like Dubya on his carrier, Francis Fukuyama was a bit premature in declaring victory over history after the Cold War’s end. At the turn of our new century, two great global challenges remained. This first was integrating China into the global community and economy. The second was doing the same for Muslims, who at 1.3 billion comprise nearly one-fourth of the human race and have this unfortunate tradition of jihad when aroused.

At the moment China’s integration appears to be going well, no small thanks to its wiser, smarter cadre of leaders, who appear to be slowly shouldering their fair share of global responsibilities. The Muslim question is still in doubt.

Wave a magic wand to jail bin Laden and banish Al Qaeda and international terrorism, and we would still have to face a tragic and terrible fact. Outside of localized pathologies like North Korea and Zimbabwe, the Muslim world is more deeply steeped in tyranny and despotism that any other religious, social or ethnic group. And the despotism and consequent lack of hope are worst among a single ethnic group: young Arabs.

Furthermore, the motive force preserving the despotism is a mighty one: the world’s dependence on a single, scarce fossil fuel. The scarcer and more expensive oil gets, the more resources tyrants have to oppress their people, and the less the rest of us dare upset the energy apple cart to help set them free.

This is one of the two logical knots we must yet untie to see the real end of history and bring on a global golden age. (The other is climate change.) Convince the Pakistanis to wipe Al Qaeda from their border provinces, with our help, and this great dilemma will still remain. Until the oppressed Islamic masses are freed, the threat of terrorism also will remain.

Our President is a wise and thoughtful man. He understands these things. He therefore knows that mopping up terrorists in the AfPak region is only the beginning of a long and painful struggle for global and entirely necessary social change. He also knows that demonizing the Taliban, most of whom seek only peace, stability and ethnic liberation for their Pashtun tribes, is not the best path to a solution.

If all his understanding and wisdom dampen our “animal spirits,” so be it. Our species will survive, if at all, because we are Homo sapiens. We can safely leave animal spirits to entertainers like Dubya, Giuliani, Limbaugh, Palin, and Boehner. We need policy born of wisdom, not more entertainment. We tend to get into trouble when we confuse the two.


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