I got an excellent email from a friend of mine out in LA, which touches on issues of interest to our readers, which he has permitted me to share with you.
Over the weekend, I went to the LA Times Book Festival-a huge event with authors shilling books in lectures, panels, and readings. It’s not as good as the Chicago Humanities Festival, but not bad. I avoided some panels on current events and attended others, with mixed results. On one panel I heard Andrew Bacevich, Stephen Cohen, and Ross Terrill. These were well-informed and thoughtful people, and as a result they spoke in reasoned and measured ways, yet with clear ideas. Bacevich was particularly impressive. His view is that America is over reliant on military power as the central element in its foreign policy. There are several reasons why this came about: it is widely believed that the Soviet Union collapsed because of US military advances and pressures; and in the immediate wake of that collapse, the Gulf War led Americans to believe that we had such overwhelming military power that we could now meet any threat. Our dominance in the world, he argues, is no accident thrust upon us by the collapse of rivals and the emergence of external dangers; it is a deliberate process to protect our way of life. The core of that way of life is freedom, but each individual is left to define freedom for himself. In practice, this means that our common ground is material abundance, and we elect our leaders to assure a dominance in the world that will preserve and increase our material abundance. In pursuit of this policy, however, we have come to be excessively reliant on military power. Bacevich is a former military man, and his analysis is not intended as a liberal diatribe but as a sober conservative estimate.
Ross Terrill had excellent and nuanced things to say about China, including that it is not a real threat. The Chinese are an empire in a fairly traditional mold patterned on their history. This includes the subjugation of western regions of China that are not Chinese. In the world, they are pursuing a mainly defensive strategy, making sure that nothing happens that is inimical to their interests. Their huge trade surplus with the United States is not a real worry, because it is in their interests to continue it, not to use it as an instrument of a more or less pointless confrontation. He actually foresees a lengthy period in which the United States and China are likely to have rather cooperative relations. Cohen paints a hair-raising picture of instability in the former Soviet Union and argues forcefully that American policy has made all the wrong moves, increasing instability and dangers in that area. It is a mistake to think the Russians have no options; they have many opportunities to cause mischief and are increasingly in a situation that encourages them to do so. In this brief compass, I can’t do justice to the speakers, but they certainly made compelling points.
A later panel was the usual left / right setup on the question, “Is the World Safer for Democracy?” The audience is overwhelmingly extremely liberal, not to say outright leftist. Hence, the man you know who is the editor of the Claremont Review didn’t get much of a hearing, though he made some good points. David Rieff argued that we’re too willing to use war as a solution to problems. He conceded that as a reporter in Sarajevo, he had supported the use of force and he still insists that both neo-conservatives and human rights activists are in a strange alliance to use force for lofty motives. But he’s increasingly skeptical about it. Otherwise, we got some clichéd positions.
The highlight, however, was a question from a Marine sergeant who asked the most left member of the panel what her qualifications were for saying the Iraq venture was a failure. She prudently responded by asking him what his experience was, and in concise and articulate terms he said that most of the people-and he had been in the Falloujah fight-appreciated what the US forces were doing. She then asked him how he responded to the numbers of troops who were objecting to the war. If she thought she had him, she was quite mistaken. He commented that most of them were not combat or front-line troops. As a result, they suffered all the problems of a tour of duty-separation from family, home, jobs, etc.-but didn’t get close enough to the situation to receive the thanks and appreciation of the people they were helping. His comments posed a serious dilemma for the crowd. They wanted to applaud him to show that they really supported the troops and it was that monster Bush who was putting them in harm’s way (“Support our troops-bring them home” line) but he was a distressingly articulate and directly informed advocate of the current policy. The crowd contented themselves with shouting down the conservative from Claremont.
In all this it struck me that there are some flaws in the argument that democracy can’t be imposed externally and that we should just set an example and let it grow indigenously, though that will take a long time. I asked Michael Novak his thoughts about that argument when I met him recently. He made the good point that people learn very quickly when they have to and want to. Just because it took a very long time for humankind (and particular nations) to create democracy and its supportive institutions, it doesn’t follow that it will always take that long to develop them. People can adapt and adopt ideas very quickly, once the ideas have been invented and exhibited. Likewise, it would be wrong to think of democracy as a settled template that is just laid over a society. Our own country is continuing to discover and adapt democracy. In fact, it has to be constantly learned and re-invented. Others aren’t different from us in that respect. Moreover, one has to start somewhere. Elections by themselves may not be democracy, but they are a start on democracy. One might start where one can and build from there rather than insist on the creation of some illusory ideal foundation before moving to national-level democratic processes and institutions. The notion that democracy can’t be imposed but has to grow indigenously easily becomes an excuse for doing nothing and hoping for the best. It was interesting to me that both left and right readily find arguments why one democracy is impossible in many other countries. This seems to me unduly negative. Oddly, it was Russell Jacoby, an old leftie if there ever was one, who objected that this could turn into a left version of isolationism. The reply was that there are more options than doing nothing or hegemony. But no one who said so seemed to have clear ideas about how the US could engage other countries in a way that would foster the growth of democracy within a reasonable time-frame.
Meanwhile, I’m quite impressed that the Syrians have withdrawn from Lebanon. The Nation, of all publications, carried an article that suggested that the days of the Baathist dictatorship in Syria might be numbered, even toying with the thought that a democratic resistance and “people power” might win out. They scrupulously avoided any thought that if this is so, some credit might be due to the Bush Administration’s actions in the Middle East. But in any case, it’s far too soon to make guesses about what will happen either in Syria or Lebanon-the Lebanese could collapse back into civil war, with Hezbollah the best-armed party.
Meanwhile, I remain very unhappy that the structure of civil society in Iraq is so weak-I mean electricity, water, sewage, safe roads, oil, reconstruction of buildings and housing damaged in war, etc. etc. etc. I’ve never wanted to equate freedom with material comfort, but at least some level of material comfort needs to be attained or freedom is in jeopardy. The mainstream media are no good source, but I hear little about this basic level of daily existence.
I responded as follows:
Thanks for this very substantial message. I am familiar with Bacevich. He has in recent years moved to a position opposed to the use of US military power under most circumstances. Not an indefensible position, but not one I am likely to share. As to over-reliance on military power, I think the world is a dangerous place and if someone has to have predominant power, better that it be us with our relatively transparent and law-abiding form of government. Plus our commercial approach to things means that we have a desire to push and help other people to be prosperous and orderly out of sheer self-interest. I agree absolutely that our worldwide military power is the foundation of our material wellbeing. We are in phase three of the worldwide Anglo-Saxon capitalist commercial hegemony. Phase one ended with American revolution. Phase two was basically the free trade era of the 19th C down to 1914. The Brits were top dogs in both episodes. Phase three is post-1945, with us driving. Jefferson said “all men” and we have been a revolutionary power on a world scale ever since, and material well-being was always meant to be a big part of that. Fukuyama is right about that.
Bravo to that Marine for going there and standing up and speaking out.
I disagree absolutely about China. Read Jenner’s book the Tyranny of History. China is evolving into a fascistic nationalistic state. It is even developing a specifically racist ideology to support it’s authority. See the article in the current New Left Review, by Jenner. China is ruled by an illegitimate communist oligarchy which wants to develop the country commercially while maintaining political control. Probably not possible. They need to get over a chasm, from this bastard regime to a lawful, liberal order. A regime like this will maintain legitimacy by focusing on foreign threats to unify the country. The big question with China is whether the revolution will come before or after the current oligarchy starts a war. I’ll attach some of recent blog posts on the topic, one which I brood about. (this and this and this and this).
As to “imposing democracy by force”, there is some problem with the formulation of the issue. Of course an occupying power can impose anything it wants. Whether it will last long is another question. I think it is better to think in terms of installing as many liberal institutions as possible, democratic elections being a big but not entirely dispositive one. To me the question is more — if you must go into some place, what do you do there and what do you want it to look like when you leave? If you think about it that way, then it is in our interest to do as much as we can to “spread democracy” at least in places we intervene. Not surprised the Old Lefty was unwilling to go isolationist. Old lefties used to want to spread peace and democracy around the world. Vietnam brought our old isolationist lefties to the fore — the same Yankee-derived progressives who opposed every war we ever fought except the Civil War (against slavery) and WWII (against fascism).
As to Syria, bravo, so far. But the 800 pound gorilla is Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not going to disarm. Why would it? There could be a nasty civil war with Hezbollah taking over. Or Turkey could intervene, or we could, or Syria could, or Israel could, or all of us could, and/or other people. That is fireworks display ready to go off there. Pray it goes smoothly. All those photogenic western-looking Maronite Christian protesters are a minority in Lebanon, and might all end up as refugees.
As to how bad off Iraq is, we were starting at a deep deficit. We did as much as we did. You can always theoretically do better. The Iraqis are going to have to do a lot of rebuilding themselves.
I hope we will have further word from my pal on the West Coast.