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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas 2007 musings on politics and history

Journalist Matt Bai is a clever fellow and a good writer. His coverage of the Left has not infrequently been "critical" both in the sense of offering a critique and of offering an unflattering portrayal, and that's true too of his lengthy essay in today's NYT Sunday Magazine entitled The Clinton Referrendum. But sometimes, for those of us well-educated grown-ups not deeply embedded in the Left — and I use the word "embedded" in exactly the same sense it's used to describe modern war correspondents in Iraq who live, sleep, and eat with the troops of a particular military unit — Bai's most telling observations are the ones to which he himself is entirely oblivious.

To test how many of you have the same reaction I do, I won't use italics or bold-face to set it off, but here's one, which I include among quite a bit of before-and-after contextual material that gives a sense of the intended subjects and scope of Bai's essay:

... [Bill Clinton] almost single-handedly pulled the Democratic Party back from its slide into irrelevance. Liberals swallowed hard and endured Clinton’s pragmatic brand of politics because they assumed that Clinton’s success would beget more success and, ultimately, a more progressive government.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. First came the election of 2000, which Democrats believed was swiped from their grasp with little protest from the party’s Washington leaders. Next came compromises with George W. Bush on tax cuts and education reform. Then came the back-breaker: in the vote on the Iraq war resolution in 2002, many Democrats in Washington — including, most conspicuously, Hillary Clinton, then an unannounced presidential candidate — sided with President Bush in a move that antiwar liberals could only interpret as a Clintonian calculation to look tough on terror. If so, a lot of good it did; Congressional Democrats were demolished at the polls a few weeks later.

After that defeat, many longtime liberals, often coming together in the new online political space, began to voice a different thought: What if they had gone along with Clintonism for nothing? What if the path to victory lay not in compromising with Republicans but in having the fortitude to fight ruthlessly and to defend your own convictions, no matter how unpopular they might be? This was the moment in which Howard Dean’s explosive presidential campaign — and the grass-roots progressive movement it spawned — began to flourish. It was grounded in the idea that Clintonism, far from representing the postindustrial evolution of Democratic thought, had corrupted the party of the New Deal and the Great Society — and, taken to its logical end, had led Democrats and the country into a catastrophic war.

Even before they knew for sure that she was running for the presidency, Hillary Clinton’s top aides had to figure out how best to handle the growing tumult inside their own party. As a senator, Clinton had been, if anything, more centrist than her husband; she worked across the aisle with the likes of Bill Frist and Lindsey Graham, and her voting record on foreign policy placed her among the most conservative Democrats, only a few paces to the left of Joe Lieberman. There is no reason to think such stances on the issues didn’t accurately reflect Hillary’s convictions, but they had the added bonus of positioning her as eminently moderate and “electable” — both in New York State, where she won 67 percent of the vote in her 2006 re-election, and in the rest of the country.

The party, however, seemed to be moving in a different direction....

If one plugs the phrase "catastrophic war" into Google, its mysterious search engine algorithms will indeed rank references (mostly from politicians and pundits) to the Iraq War very prominently among the top few dozen returns.  But the inhabitants of Carthage during the Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.) would certainly have sooner been able to grasp the technology behind internet search engines than they could the mind-set of those who could label, from an American point of view, the Iraq War as "catastrophic." There are no more Carthagenians, because after their besieged city of between a quarter and a  half million people was finally captured by the Romans, the 50-odd thousand Carthaginians remaining alive were all sold into slavery and the city was methodically leveled back to pastureland. That was a "catastrophic war."

From the perspectives of Germany, the Soviet Union, or the European countries in between or around the two, World War II was certainly a catastrophic war. There wasn't just "regime change, although there was certainly lots of that. Nation-states were erased from the map; others were partitioned and/or occupied by foreign armies for decades thereafter. And tens of millions of soldiers and civilians were slaughtered. Even the United States, which unquestionably emerged victorious and, relatively, unscathed by World War II, suffered thousands of soldiers killed in battle in a single day, sometimes for obscure specks of coral so lost within the vastness of the Pacific Ocean that Americans both then and now couldn't accurately locate them on the globe within a distance of 10,000 miles.

Any rational student of history would conclude that America has had at most only one truly "catastrophic war" — that being its own Civil War, in which something on the order of 620,000 Americans were killed. Yet most Americans, and most serious students of history around the world, think that the "catastrophe" of that war would have been if the Union had been permanently sundered, instead of only temporarily split. Even the grim KIA figures from the American Civil War are dwarfed by the death toll from the Battle of Stalingrad alone from World War II. And there were dozens of individual battles in either World War II or the American Civil War in which more American soldiers were killed in one single day than have been killed in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan in all the days put together since 9/11/01.

If it's your husband or son or sister who's killed or wounded, then of course any war may be "catastrophic" for you and your family. For some (blessedly small) number of Americans, the rescue that Ronald Reagan effected on the island of Grenada in 1983 was a "catastrophic war."

But from a national point of view, "catastrophic war" — to have any meaning at all — seems to me to be a term that ought to be limited to those wars in which, at a minimum, the country has incurred comparatively large numbers of killed and wounded, using other actual wars as a basis for comparison. And it probably ought also be limited to those wars that a country has actually lost.

Such is the breath-taking historical ignorance of the Democrats, however, that their candidates, their partisans, and the members of the press who cover them can all presume — without giving the matter a second thought — that the Iraq War is a "catastrophic war," and that all further interesting debate and analysis, and all primary elections and party nominations, must proceed from that premise of fact and judgment.

So the question I'm left to ponder — as I prepare for a quick holiday trip back to my hometown, where I'll give thanks this Christmas for God's boundless blessings upon me, my family, and my nation — is this: I think America can, if need be, survive the occasional presidency like Jimmy Carter's or Bill Clinton's. But is the historical ignorance of the Democrats becoming so pronounced that it's beginning to run the risk of becoming "catastrophic ignorance"?

Posted by Beldar at 10:34 AM in 2008 Election, Global War on Terror, Politics (2007) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Christmas 2007 musings on politics and history and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) stan made the following comment | Dec 23, 2007 10:11:25 PM | Permalink

They don't think Iraq is a "catastrophic war" just like they didn't really think it was the "worst economy in 50 years". It's just another lie in a very long list.

Perhaps we should separate those who make up "they". There are certainly Democrats who believe the lies that the MSM and the Democratic Party leadership tell them. But no one with the slightest bit of intelligence actually believes.

They believe that Republicans are evil. Everything else is just tactics.

(2) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Dec 24, 2007 1:21:23 AM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: Nope. Consider the Neutrality Acts, passed in the mid-1930s. They'll keep us out of war, the isolationist Republicans and many Democrats said righteously. Meanwhile, Hitler chortled.

Remember the War Powers Act of 1973? That'll keep us out of executive wars, the Democrats said righteously. Meanwhile Saddam Hussein chortled.

So it goes. It is worth noting that the United States is not at war now, nor has been these past seven years. Show me the declaration of war the Constitution calls for. To be sure, many lawyers will patronizingly say that the Authorization to Use Military Force is just as good. This merely shows that being smart is no protection from acting foolishly. "America is not at war. America is at the mall. The Marines are at war." So goes one of the more heartbreaking bits of graffiti that you can find with a simple search at Google Images. Let the lawyers patronize: their intelligence was no better than the CIA's, and look where we are now: stuck, though with the possibility of real traction looking much better.

Democrats are not the only ones suffering from this blindness. If you have time, take a look at this column by Caroline Glick, of the Jerusalem POST:


Titled "The Triumph of Legal Defeatism," the article shows that the Israelis, who do not have the luxury of the Atlantic and Pacific, can be just as foolish as the Democrats. So it has been throughout history.

Glad to have you back. Thought your post invoking TR, as opposed to FDR was a bit off. Viz:

a) Which Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize?
b) Which Roosevelt ran 95% of the biggest war this planet has ever seen, only stopping because he died?

TR is my political hero, for many of the reasons you gave, but my head tells me FDR is the better Prez, by far.

I liked your endorsement of Fred T. Since Fred is my #2 choice after Mitt R., your logic went down easily. I think the principal difference between us is I rate the quality of Mitt's experience higher than Fred's. Fred's experience is principally legislative; Mitt's principally executive. I think the odds are better for "executive" candidates (governors, cabinet members, even military folks) than for "legislative" candidates. To be sure, someone will now throw Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover, and William Howard Taft at me, hoping to mock me. More, they may throw Abraham Lincoln versus Jefferson Davis at me to finish the job. Still, following the example of the Roosevelts, Washington, Jackson, and Reagan, I stick with Mitt. If Fred comes out instead, I'll have no trouble voting for him.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(3) Leif made the following comment | Dec 24, 2007 12:02:28 PM | Permalink

Mr. Koster,

You make the common mistake of assuming that war can exist only if declared. Customary international law has recognized for centuries that war exists either de jure (through a formal declaration by one state that it is at war with another) or de facto (by combat forces actually being employed against enemy forces or deployed into the territory of another state).

(4) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Dec 24, 2007 1:15:11 PM | Permalink

Dear Leif: In my view, the point of a declaration of war by the United States is to make the citizenry aware that they are involved up to their necks---and beyond. A declaration makes clear that their will be "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" in Churchill's phrase. You do not say what you mean by "international law." A treaty (which one?) The UN Charter (what section?) George Bush has tried the "international law" way of war waging for years with less than satisfactory results. The United States wins wars when everything is thrown into the conflict (World Wars I & II, the Civil War). When America stays at the mall and lets the Marines do it, the results are less impressive, though the test graders, splitting hairs and counting angels on pinheads, overflow with satisfaction.

"The power to wage war is the power to wage war successfully" ---Charles Evans Hughes, a lawyer who knew enough to put law in the back seat for the duration.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(5) michael made the following comment | Dec 24, 2007 5:46:01 PM | Permalink

It's a 'catastrophe' like having 'nothing to wear' to a party. It's a 'catastrophe' that we couldn't settle it like the bonbon apes of Africa, just all have sex and forget about it. What if we are 'disliked around the world' (and nobody wants to f-- us), catastrophe, no?

(6) craig mclaughlin made the following comment | Dec 24, 2007 6:05:58 PM | Permalink

Beldar, I agree with you about what war is, unfortunately I think the definition may be sliding away from us oldtimers. It used to annoy me that post Vietnam era journalists would say that Vietnam 'destroyed a generation' or some such nonsense. No, it didn't. 58,00 killed over 8 or 9 years is not excessive in a nation of 180,000,000 or so and where only a small percentage was even subject to military service. To hear even more hyperbolic language used now about a conflict in which every member is a volunteer--and a professional-- is disconcerting, but understandable.

Understandable because every thing is over-hyped. Every thing is a crisis, right this minute. There is no context given because that wouldn't support the hysterical tone they love.

Mr Koster: The Authorization to Use Miltary Force was a declaration of war in all pertinant particulars. Same, same. If you think that some symbolic value would have been served if we'd called it a Declaration of War, that somehow that would have united a nation behind the effort, that the entire country would have turned to..., well, I think you're misguided. I think the Marine's are at war and the nation's at the mall because that's the way it should be given the threat we face.

We've got the best, most professional military we've ever had in our nation's history, they don't need our help aginast this rabble, Mr.Koster.

Craig McLaughlin
former LT USN

Merry Christmas

(7) James B. Shearer made the following comment | Dec 26, 2007 12:39:31 PM | Permalink

I think this is a silly post. This sort of hyperbole is common English usage. For example some guy named Beldar once described a computer hardware bug as "rare but catastrophic" when in fact, so far as I know, the bug did no actual harm.

And is this really the best defense of the Iraq War you can come up with?

(8) Leif made the following comment | Dec 26, 2007 1:21:02 PM | Permalink

Mr. Koster,

I am speaking of the international law that developed as a matter of custom over the course of several centuries and was perhaps most effectively summarized by Hugo Grotius, should you care to pick him up from your local library. Note, too, that announcing the existence of a state of war to the public isn't the same thing as a state of war existing. Compare President Washington and the Neutrality Acts -- there is still controversy to this day that he exceeded his powers by announcing that the U.S. was neutral between France and Britain in their series of ongoing spats, when, in truth, he was merely stating the legal conditions that currently obtained.

(9) Jack P made the following comment | Dec 26, 2007 2:09:09 PM | Permalink

Good to hear that as catastrophic wars go, Iraq doesn't rank with the Third Punic War. although the families of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have died may not be so persuaded.

(10) vnjagvet made the following comment | Dec 26, 2007 5:26:22 PM | Permalink

Jack P:

What percentage of those Iraqui casualties were killed in cold blood by Shiite, Sunni and Al Queda in their respective quests for power?

(11) Milhouse made the following comment | Dec 26, 2007 9:41:46 PM | Permalink

And what percentage of those dead Iraqis were Baathists, Jihadists, and assorted terrorists, who needed killing? I mean, the point of war is to kill the enemy. Preferably while killing as few non-enemies as possible. The more enemies who are killed, the better.

As for declarations of war:

1. There's no magic formula that must be included in a declaration of war. The AUMF was a declaration of war - it contained everything one would expect in such a declaration, so on what basis can anyone claim it wasn't one? The USA's first foreign war was the Quasi-war with France in 1798; Congress did not declare war, it merely authorised the Navy to attack French ships, but the courts recognised that there was a state of war.

2. The constitution says only Congress can make a declaration of war, but it doesn't say one is required in the first place. The Prize cases in 1865 established that the Civil War began the moment the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter, not when Congress got around to declaring war.

(12) ech made the following comment | Dec 28, 2007 9:48:14 AM | Permalink

Which Roosevelt ran 95% of the biggest war this planet has ever seen, only stopping because he died?

Well, he may have run 95% of the Western Front and the Pacific Front, but Stalin ran 95% of the Eastern Front. And the Eastern Front was the decisive one, where the price in blood was by far the highest. The casualties there dwarfed the other areas - the Soviets alone had nearly 1/3 of the total deaths of WW II.

(13) Elliot made the following comment | Dec 31, 2007 10:42:11 PM | Permalink

Catastrophe is probably relative to the writer's experience. I have no doubt that for many Iraq is a relative catastrophe. Lacking a knowledge of history, and having a sheltered and comfortable lifestyle, it's expected that this attitude would prevail. I can't predict how Iraq will resolve, but I do predict that one of the benefits for our society will be the injection of a large number of young people who have actually faced real danger and hardship. Their life experience will probably be far removed from the sensitivity-trained writers who wring their hands over various catastrophes.

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