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NONFICTION CHRONICLE: Highlights from The DC Issue

Highlights from The DC Issue


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The following piece appears in Issue 37: The DC Issue. For more on this issue, click here


By Alexander Provan

It was a particularly bounteous election season for binding and distributing our discontents. As the November election drew to a close, the catalogue of complaints issued by publishers grew to Brobdingnagian proportions. There were the requisite memoirs by disgruntled administration officials looking to restore their reputations by tarnishing those of the would-be war criminals stranded in office; the liberal jeremiads bemoaning the diminution of America’s global standing and the creeping sense that things will get worse before they get better (if they get better); and the supercilious cover letters by wanna-be advisers offering a prognosis and a remedy for the coming president — how to restore true conservatism; how to adapt true liberalism.

The general impression seemed to be that whoever claimed victory on November 4th would two months later find himself the steward of a rotting vessel, a skeleton crew flying a tattered standard more likely to invite scorn and ridicule than awe, and the replacement of whatever treasure once existed with a $10 trillion debt. By February, he might be inclined to steer toward the nearest port, drop anchor, and drink himself into a stupor. But if John McCain emerges the winner, he might be content to merrily go about the hollowing out of government. So suggests Thomas Frank in The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (Metropolitan Books), a polemical account of the successful mission Karl Rove, Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, Lee Atwater and Co. embarked on as leaders of the College Republicans in the Eighties: dismantle government and hand over its charges to private enterprise. If government is not only viewed as inefficient, but is actually made incapable of acting on behalf of the public, they reasoned, Democrats would be deprived of the main justification for their rule (and with each Democratic congressional seat lost, the pockets of Republicans would grow fatter). In bullying Washington, DC, a wholly unsympathetic agonist, conservatives popularized the notion that “the market is an organic institution,” while “the state is an artificial construct, a kind of weapon used by the various elements of society to steal from one another.”

As a slogan meant to propel the Republicans to power and prosperity, this worked wondrously. As a philosophy of government, it has failed completely. The most salient evidence being the botched recovery efforts that followed Hurricane Katrina, the calamitous attempt to reconstruct Iraq (not to mention the war itself), the deterioration of our country’s infrastructure, the collapse of its financial system, a looming environmental catastrophe and a nascent oil crisis. But as much as the market is a natural force, in an oil economy it is largely captive to the greater and older natural forces at work beneath the earth’s crust, and what they have wrought: namely, peaking oil production, a situation exacerbated by the fact that the world’s largest reserves are located squarely in Saudi Arabia’s backyard (and front yard, and under the landing strip of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s customized $300 million Airbus A380).

For all their sanctimonious bluster, even the GOP elites who comprise Frank’s wrecking crew are still servants to the House of Saud, which can be expected to resist the allure of the free market so long as it’s reaping windfall profits. In The King’s Messenger (Walker & Company), David Ottaway, a longtime Washington Post correspondent, deconstructs the “special relationship” that has existed between the US (as played by the Bush family and its cronies) and Saudi Arabia since the end of WW II. Ottaway’s focus is Prince Bandar bin Sultan (also called “the Arab Gatsby” and “Bandar Bush”), who, over the course of a quarter century as ambassador, was keeper of the US pledge to protect the Saudi royal family from its enemies as long as Saudi Arabia kept oil prices low. Ottaway’s meticulous account describes how this mutually beneficial relationship has unraveled under the current President Bush. On one side, Saudi Arabia has become increasingly unable (and at times unwilling) to control oil prices; on the other, the war in Iraq has created a Shiite sphere of influence encircling the kingdom and bolstering its nemesis, Iran, a situation aggravated by “Bush’s basic instinct to do nothing” about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Toward the end of the book, a dejected Prince Bandar flees DC without warning, failing even to return for his farewell party.

The Bush administration’s Manichean approach to pretty much everything is best understood as a failure to adapt the strategic framework of the Cold War to a radically altered political landscape, argues Jonathan Stevenson, a professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College, in Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable: Harnessing Doom from the Cold War to the Age of Terror (Viking). In the Fifties and Sixties, sundry civilian think tanks set themselves to the task of analyzing every facet of national security, with the aim of preventing nuclear conflict — and it worked. “However esoteric all of those meditations on first and second strike, on counterforce and countervalue, seem now,” Stevenson writes, “they engendered a way of thinking that is worth preserving.” Of course, under Bush such thinking — any real thinking — has been absent. Bush has faced the challenges of a post-9/11 world with “abrasive and parochial idealism and puerile faith in military technology.” We are in a sort of strategic limbo: The Cold War model no longer makes sense, and we are still awaiting a new generation of scholars to weigh the cultural and anthropological aspects of radical Islam with the precision and rigor that Herman Kahn employed in his 1962 evaluation of nuclear deterrence, Thinking About the Unthinkable — and a president who might heed their counsel.

Should it be Barack Obama who assumes that besmirched mantle, he might find a copy of James Traub’s The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) waiting on his desk. While Stevenson advocates the development of a cadre of intellectuals to stew over the Bush gang’s failings, Traub is already putting forth a program. After scrupulously cataloguing the administration’s misadventures in exporting a one-size-fits-all democracy, he attempts to recuperate the notion that liberty at home depends on liberty abroad; at the very least, each is fortified by the other. To those tempted to propose non-interventionism in reaction to Bush’s “National-Lampoon’s-Middle-Eastern-Vacation”-style foreign policy, Traub raises the specter of unfettered autocracies buoyed by Chinese largesse. The very name of democracy has been sullied, he admits, so why not “spread the free market, the rule of law, human rights” instead? His vision of a “post-post-9/11” foreign policy, it turns out, has already been perfectly formulated by Obama, who pointed out in a campaign speech last year that our ability to promote our own values abroad depends on how children in Third World countries feel when they see American helicopters hovering above them. We have an ethical and political responsibility to promote democracy, Traub argues, but it must be accompanied by aid packages that convince those children that (per Obama) “their well-being matter[s] to us.”

Might America begin to practice a soft imperialism rather than none at all? Philosopher, journalist and activist Bernard-Henri Levy suggests so from his Parisian pulpit in Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism (Random House). In the face of serious challenges to the political and cultural dominance of the Western democracies, Levy suggests their guardians close ranks around a common set of ethics and a rejection of inherited religious truths. America and Europe must challenge “fascislamism” as it must challenge the Chinese model, which has allowed the slaughter in Darfur to continue; the children cowering beneath the American helicopters must be saved. As for those children who eventually find their way to the source of that beneficence? “Drop all the customs you no longer need, but drop the radicalism as well,” he commands. “Drop those deadly ideologies that partly belong to us as well and that are the worst of our legacy, and take the Enlightenment instead! Take freedom of conscience! Take Voltaire!”

If there is any better formulation of a bankrupt creed than Bush’s Freedom Agenda, it is certainly “Take Voltaire!”



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