Sunday, October 05, 2008


One Claude Marx, whose own professional interest is reportedly in the area of ‘media and politics’, reviews “Freedom’s Battles: The Origin of Humanitarian Intervention”, a book by Gary J. Bass. (

Mr. Bass is a “Princeton University political scientist”. I myself take this to mean that I will have to pay extra careful attention, since you never know any more.

Marx notes that there are “many foreign interventions that turned out to be debacles”. The point apparently has not been lost on Professor Mr. Bass, who draws from that ominous cluster of rocky facts the conclusion that “these morally motivated actions” simply need more better execution. Doing so, and conducting more of these shooting interventions (which on the ground can wind up passing rather convincingly for ‘war’) would be the very thing “to restore the country’s [the U.S.] moral leadership in the world”.


Where to begin? Where the frak indeed?

“Liberal” took its original meaning from the context of its opposition to “Conservative”, which stood for monarchy and for maintaining control of society and national resources by the aristocracy. Thus “Liberals” wanted to extend the ‘say’ and the share that plain citizens had in the doings and in the fruits of their society. Politically, then, “Liberals” were for extending the vote, placing more and more of the control of society and national resources under the control of those who were elected (and dis-elected) by the now-enfranchised citizenry. This was not a ‘cultural’ thing; it was a brass-hard, realistic, brass-tacks vision that sought to do so in order to increase the productivity and distribution of a society’s creative capacities and its fruits.

Our own Founders sought to create a nation from scratch as it were based on that insight. Although, prudent gentlepersons that they were, all the while keeping a wary eye on the fact that they had to navigate between the Scylla of tyrannical monarchy and its aristocratic spawn and the Charybdis of ‘pure’ democracy where anybody – or a whole lot of anybodies - could put on the big hat and have a go at giving orders.

‘Government’ (and 'society') to them was much like a large, three-masted, ocean-going ship: not just anybody should be hopping up there onto the quarterdeck and giving orders to helm and sails (and cannon). Oceans – including the great ocean of Life and History itself – were dangerous things, and while in their best moments could provide marvelous backdrops to sunrise and sunset, in their worst moments (far more numerous) could crush ships like matchsticks. The advent of iron and steel piles driven along by great mechanical engines and advised by wireless did little to change that essential reality.

Even before 9-11 it was still frowned upon for the average passenger to simply walk into the cockpit and demand a stint at the controls, ‘just because’; there were certain ways in which ‘democracy’ was not directly applicable to reality. This was clearly demonstrated less than a decade ago when a (now former) naval officer, commanding a state-of-the-art submarine, allowed one witless but wealthy (thus politically-connected) civilian to man the master controls of the vessel, and it proceeded to surface rapidly, ripping the bottom out of a small ship full of merchant-marine students, many of whom were claimed by the ocean along with their destroyed vessel. Although in that instance, the Ocean itself could not actually be blamed. Political connections were now proving themselves to be as lethal as the ancient Ocean itself. Such are our modern times.

But the then-captain and the politically-connected donor were well-enough intentioned; just a little harmless excitement for an over-wealthy unripe who couldn’t imagine that ‘danger’ and ‘consequences’ had any application to him; the sitting President, after all, was sitting in part because of this clown’s fund-raising efforts. No doubt, upon reaching shore still very much alive, the chauffeur had a good stiff Texas-size drink iced and ready to go in the limo. We seem to have created a Titanic where first-class doesn’t sink with the rest of the ship. Marvelous creativity. Americans are noted for it. But then, in the case of the actual ‘Titanic’, first-class seemed to come through in pretty good shape, even though their champagne went down. Their pomps and works also survived.

I still can’t completely get my mind around “liberals” who have for decades now eschewed ‘morality’ at home – as a category of judging reality – and yet want Us very much to call out the troops and ‘exercise’ moral leadership abroad. Feminists – surely those of the Second Wave – rage against their demands being judged as to their moral dimension at home, yet want the troops to enforce those same demands and practices and policies on foreign peoples. Nor do I quite get how multiculturalists over here insist that this or that cannot be judged in Our common life, yet don’t seem to mind the troops going abroad to wield the sword of judgment and ‘social reform’ upon the homelands of others.

You cannot read the history of Our initial ‘well-intentioned’ rescues abroad without wondering about how easily governments can cloak themselves and their darker intentions in the mantle of ‘goodness’ and ‘duty’. In his book “The Politics of War”, Walter Karp relates a history far too long suppressed. McKinley, with a deft shrewdness that should humble modern-day ‘humanitarians’ and ‘realists’ alike, trumped up a war over the oppressed Cubans, even as the doddering Spanish empire had yielded to his every huge demand. And yet, while braying piously about the plight of the Cubans, he quietly ordered Admiral Dewey to depart Chinese waters to destroy the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, on the other side of the world from Cuba.

The Spanish having yielded in Cuba, McKinley put 10,000 troops onto ships and sent them to occupy the Philippines – the first US troops ever to be sent ‘abroad’ to occupy territory. The Philippines would be the fruits of a war that was already over before they got there.

Admiral Dewey almost wrecked the whole plan. Having - to nobody’s surprise – defeated the Spanish fleet, whose decrepit and often wooden vessels were no match for the new American fleet of iron and steam, Dewey, assuming that the whole thing was on the level, ferried Aguinaldo’s Filipino rebels over to liberate their own land from the Spanish army ashore. This put McKinley very much out of sorts, and he cabled the commander of the US troops en route, the aging General Wesley Merritt (a boy-wonder of the Civil War)to remind him that his mission was to go and occupy the Philippines as US territory, as spoils of war. And so it was done, although Aguinaldo, enraged at what he rather rightly sized-up as a betrayal and an armed robbery, took to the hills, engaging American forces in a hard and brutal jungle-war, for years – and all this more than half-a-century before Vietnam.

Unable to defeat him in the field, the Americans finally killed him when he came in, at US invitation, under a flag of truce to discuss matters. They had come to bring Christianity to a benighted people; the fact that many of those peole had been Roman Catholic since the Spanish brought their religion with them centuries before, did not hinder the religious mission: then, as now, Catholicism was not considered a really valid expression of Christianity, in the world-view of American Protestantism. No doubt then, as now, the troops were fortified by the exhortations of Protestant chaplains and the Book of Revelation.

It’s enough to make you wonder: did the devious and shrewd McKinley actually pick on the Cuban situation and steadfastly inflate it into a cause for war against Spain, simply to get his hands on the Philippines, a Spanish possession on the other side of the world? Why? Because at the time the tottering Chinese ‘empire’ was being raided by all the Great Powers as the world’s great reservoir of materials and a potential market. How would American business and finance get in on that game if they had to sit at a table pretty much on the other side of the casino’s great room?

We have, I think, misunderestimated Bush, Cheney, and the neocons. While no little attention was paid to their invariable stentorian comparisons of their Iraq adventure to Churchill’s waging of World War Two, I think the Beltway banditti were actually working McKinley’s game-plan from 1898: claim you’re doing it in a good cause (in the process inflating and demonizing your target into the most horrible and outrageous of governments ever to blight the earth), send in the troops, and grab either a piece of the pie or –more strategically – an enduring base from which you can bake and then take pies for yourself for as long as you wish.

And for domestic consumption, not only traditional dewy-eyed encomia to Freedom and ‘liberation’ and the Protestant penchant for wielding God’s sword against ‘foreign’ religions were again dusted off and deployed. This time around, from the ‘left’, there were also the “humanitarians”, whose burning concern for this or that aspect of the ‘outrageous’ practices perpetrated by ‘them’ ‘over there’ brought the erstwhile ‘secular’ forces of post-modern America into the field alongside the traditionally American lovers of liberty and the traditionally Protestant cheer-leaders for righteous war against the infidel (the ‘anti-Christ’ was tastefully omitted in polite circles so as not to offend the many Reagan Democrats who were Catholic ). The veterans’ organizations – or their eager-to-please leaderships, anyway – took their traditional reserved front-row seats as well.

But then – as I think now – freedom and liberty and religious righteousness and cultural pomo according to the stylings of Identity Politics weren’t really the movers of the great and bloody events set in motion. Iraq and the whole incursion into South-West Asia is a replay of the great game of 1898, the only thing changed being that the table has been shifted from China to the oil heartlands of southwest Eurasia.

Well, and the difference that the fields of Eurasia don’t have much ocean-frontage, so the Navy isn’t going to have so easy a job of it. And the Army can’t drive over.

Well, and the difference that the Russians are very much interested in what goes on in their own back yard, and not inclined to allow too many other nations’ shenanigans.

Well, and the difference that the Chinese are now in possession of a huge amount of our chits, We being a debtor nation, the largest on the planet.

Well, and the difference that all of the other world’s major nations have a memory that We have not considered it necessary to retain, and having played the game themselves, can recognize the McKinley gambit for what it is.

Well, and the difference that all of the world’s smaller nations and peoples, having had the great game played on them, retain memories and fears of colonial invasions in the name of Great and Good Things, and that they are no longer overawed ‘natives’ but somewhat feisty nationalist fighters, however shaky their formal military establishments might be.

Well, and the difference that We haven’t quickly won the ‘grab’, despite the death of Saddam and the President’s rather clear and distinct idea that We had won, telegenically proclaimed on a May day just outside the entrance to San Diego harbor that turned out to be ‘premature’. Our ‘fait accompli’ has turned out to be merely a ‘fate’, which is insufficient to the plan, and is not lost on the other players at the table, and all the ‘little people’ standing around the table.

Why did We go over there at all, now ensnared like Laocoon and his sons?

This goes back – I will continue to submit – to the two monster failures of the 1960s.

First, We did not take mature action in response to the oh-so-crucial change in the economic developments of that decade, whereby the post-1945 manufacturing economies of the world were coming back strong; while Our own economy was not only losing its relative predominance, but was devoting far too much of its wealth to military development, neglecting industrial upgrading and infrastructure maintenance. And as decades went by with the government – Executive and Legislative – unable or unwilling to require Us to face and solve this intensifying problem, We wound up financially weakened, increasingly so, and began to resort – like a madman – to illusions and tricks in order to prevent having to look at what was really happening. And so We had finally to try to grab by brute military force a seat at a table that was now moving away from Us. And We failed – because everybody else is onto the scam now, and We no longer have the cash or the muscle to make them acquiesce.

Second, We as a Republic failed the great ‘Moment’ offered by 1968: the chance for a more ‘democratic’ assertion of The People against the intensifying concentration of power in the unholy alliance of government and Big Money that had used World War 2 and the alarums – exaggerated as much as real – of the Cold War to recover ground lost in the great achievements enabled during FDR’s early administrations by the shock of the Great Depression. Instead – though surely not clearly and intentionally – We became sidetracked by the rise of Identity Politics, what I call the Revolutions of the Identities, and the ‘culture wars’ (though the actual name was not tacked onto them until later).

And so instead of the American people, The People, reasserting some measure of political participation in the much-engorged and concentrated national affairs, instead of that marvelous chance to re-assert a true democratic balance, instead of that … ‘women’ went after ‘men’, ‘blacks’ went after ‘honkies’, gays went after straights … the entire public square filled with citizens attacking other citizens in kaleidoscopic combinations, while the political bosses and the rich looked down from the balconies of the Palace of Government, smiling at a show that would have looked like an overhead shot of a Busby Berkeley musical – Busby Berkeley in a banana republic that was starting to run out of bananas.

And it’s anybody’s guess at this point just how much We can recover of Our former greatness, as The People as well as a nation among the world of nations.

There seems no justification for doubting that the Iraq war was chosen to solve ‘all’ the accumulated problems of the previous forty years (since economic decline began around ’65) at one stroke: get control of a base to use as a ‘seat’ at the new Great Power world game of this era; get control of enough oil and natural gas to replenish Our economy; erase the massive losses in industrial capacity; cover the huge losses sustained in financial shenanigans since the S&Ls of the mid-80s; erase the national debt that had been growing (through military expenditure and foreign consumption) since Reagan’s day; and establish a good precedent for old-fashioned, ‘good’ old American land-grabbing, chaplained not by boy-grabbing Kathliks but by rock-solid, brass-hard, fiery-souled, Revelations-addled Fundamentalists. (And weren’t the Katlhliks quickly gotten out of the way?)

Thus infused, the rich could get richer and the citizenry could flounder even more energetically in the swampy miasms of Identity Politics, like Python’s peasants fighting each other to pick up cow-plop in muddy fields.

And to ensure ‘order’, an increasing police state – cloaked in the 1990s by Identity-friendly ‘crimes’ so ‘outrageous’ that constitutional safeguards did not apply, would be a treason to America to apply; and then cloaked after 9-11 in the bright opacities of national outrage and grief and emergency … but all leading to the same end-game: the suppression of any possibility of the exercise of civil liberties by which dissent and the assertion of the rights of The People could be mobilized against the concentration of political power and wealth in the Palace of Government.

And here We are.

It is time to be The People. And to do what the Founders always needed Us to do. And always feared that We would someday fail to do.

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