Topic: Making Use of History
Edgy Times (kind of like the seventies)
Are there periods of relative calm in public life, and other times that are just edgy - when things seems to be spinning out of control? Or are all times edgy, and looking back from a safe distance of a few years takes the edge, or edges, or edginess, off some seemingly crucial events, while the actually crucial events only become obvious by contrast? Driving up the mountains above Asheville in western North Carolina and hearing the news, back in Watergate days, late October 1973, that Nixon had told the Justice Department to fire Archibald Cox and no one would do that, and Elliot Richardson resigned as he just wouldn't do it, then his second in command did the same, and finally Robert Bork did the deed - the Saturday Night Massacre as they called it - well, that seemed a big deal even as it happened, a sure sign things were spinning out of control. The world seemed odd at that time - Nixon had been to China the previous year and surprised everyone, and a two years earlier those students had been gunned down at Kent State. We lived in the world of big events, and 1973 was a pip - OPEC doubled the price of oil and we waited in line for hours to fill the tank, an October war in Israel (Egypt and Syria attacked Israel and got creamed), Allende assassinated in Chile, the Roe v Wade decision, Spiro Agnew resigning. Interesting times. The American Indian Movement (AIM) seized Wounded Knee in South Dakota. And the Sidney opera house opened, and they finished the Sears Tower in Chicago. Quite a year.
Then there was Ford, then Carter, then Reagan, the first Bush, then Clinton - and those years had their big events of course, the first Gulf War, but somehow those years seem, in retrospect, not quite as dramatic somehow. Carter fighting off the killer rabbit, Reagan claiming he ended the cold war all by himself, and his wacky Star Wars plan, and then the Bill and Monica scandal just don't cut it.
But we finally got someone to shake things up in the old Nixon style. We got someone in the White House, who, once again, seems to get a kick out of shaking things up - kicking things down, breaking all the rules or simply ignoring them, shaking up the world order just to see what will happen, maybe something good. You never know. We've waged our first elective war, justifying it with evidence no one in the world much believed and which turned out to be false, we occupy a foreign country the we cannot seem to reassemble to our liking, the economy is now run on loans from foreign countries and we care barely service the interest on the bonds, the rich get tax breaks and the poor and unlucky get reductions in aid, we lose a major city to a hurricane and nothing much is being rebuilt, and the president's legal team says he really don't have to follow the law - the courts now have no jurisdiction there and whatever laws the congress passes or checks it tries are, well, just plain unconstitutional. It's like old times.
Or maybe year or two from now this will all seem minor stuff, as the Brits say, small beer. But maybe not.
What probably started this "let's kick open the hornets' nest and see what happens" way of running the government was a "big concept" thing, when the president, after the events of September 2001 in New York and Washington, laid it all out. There was an "axis of evil" - and we were the center of good - godly, wronged, and angry. You were either with us or against us. And we, representing "the good" (it wasn't anyone else, except maybe the Brits - or maybe just Tony Blair - and most certainly not France), were here on earth to fight "evil" - and we'd do that by making selected counties into democracies with free-market unregulated economies, even if it took war to do that, and even if they ended up resisting us after we arrived. Things would change. The world would be transformed.
Most of the world was at best befuddled by all this, and many appalled, and those asked to declare whether they were evil or good, one or the other, right now, resentful if not angry. But we had a mission.
Watching the speech where this was laid out before us as our new national purpose was a 1973 moment. Something had shifted, big time. Bush will not go down in history as a caretaker president. He gets points for changing everything - if you get points for any big change, whether or not it's brilliant or boneheaded, as long as it's a change. Future historians can do that assessment.
But how is this all going? All we have are "spots in time" - not any long view.
The spot to consider is Wednesday, March 8, 2006.
We Fight the Axis Powers
As mentioned in these pages last week (here) the conservative commentator George Will finally, like William F. Buckley and Francis Fukuyama the same week, said the three countries in the president's axis of evil were cleary "more dangerous than they were when that phrase was coined in 2002." The backers of the "big concept" were abandoning the concept. It was a stupid idea, really. Oops.
And on the "spot in time" considered here the evidence is becoming clearer. Iran warned that it will cause the United States "harm and pain" if we succeed in winning sanctions against the country for its nuclear program. (Details here.) But what alternative do we have? Our whole military is a bit busy. Diplomacy is it. Of course Vice President Cheney is saying we really could blow up all their nuclear facilities, and just might, and might get rid of their government if they tick us off any more than they already have (details here) - but who believes him? Bluster. If we had the resources and the will to do that, which we don't, the diplomatic blowback would be messy and a regional war likely, and the majority of the folks stateside think the war
The same day North Korea test fired two short-range missiles - a test of its own nuclear program. We see here White House press secretary Scott McClellan saying these tests confirm that North Korea's missile program is "a concern that poses a threat to the region and the larger international community." So those six-country talks to stop the country's nuclear program that stalled out a long time ago need to start up again. We still won't talk to them one-on-one. That would reward bad behavior and all that. What else can we do? Right.
As for Iraq, Associated Press here has the summary for this spot in time. Our ambassador there says we've open a "Pandora's box" - we removed the repressive monster who held the place together through fear and murder, and now the Sunnis are fighting the Shiites openly, private armies are at each other and you've got your al Qaeda operatives blowing things up to make things even worse. And here William Odom, director of the National Security Agency under Reagan, says Iraq may end up looking like Vietnam. But then, really, it's actually worse this time around - "Vietnam did not have the devastating effects on US power that Iraq is already having."
Ah, that's all general stuff. What about specifics of the day?
There's this in the Washington Post -
Commonplace? Could this be so? It depends on who you believe.
In the Post elsewhere the same day there's this -
It's not all that bad, you see.
And late in the day AP ran this -
Just another day, or special "spot in time?" Who knows?
As for this new national purpose, our mission, the day too brought unwelcome ambiguity as, late in the evening, there was this - US To Hand Over Detainees Despite Torture Concerns (Reuters) -
There are more details at the link, but you get the idea. We know these countries torture prisoners, but we'll send folks there, because they say, this time, they won't. What's the problem? Don't you trust them? Don't you trust us?
The trust thing has become more of a problem. They don't get it.
Diversions or Big Deals?
This new national purpose, our mission, may not be the big news. The congress has is busy on other things - blocking any hearings into the administration secretly spying on citizens here at home without warrants (here), and deciding if the folks from Dubai are harmless or not (here). Those may be big stories. They may be secondary. Looking back on the day several decades from now will make it possible to determine which it is. Hard to tell.
The president? Well, after the AP got hold of those videotapes where he was told New Orleans was going under when he later said no one told him, it was time to ignore the Axis of Evil and how all that was going and do a visit. So he did. AFP runs this - Bush Urges Congress To Act On New Orleans Aid. The headline is fine. He said that. Fox, CNN and MSNBC carried the New Orleans speech live. AFP doesn't capture the tone. He was saying none of this was his fault. Congress is letting everyone down, not him. Yep, nothing much is fixed and not much panned. But it's not his fault. He cares. You just can't trust the congress to care about the American people like he cares. He was really flogging that. It's a hard sell these days.
But he has a plan. He just issued an Executive Order, a shiny and glittering new one, directing the Department of Homeland Security to establish program to get Faith-Based church folks to do the planning and coordinating of disaster relief. It's pretty much saying that if no one trusts him or FEMA or Homeland Security when terrible things happen, and if, as he says, congress is useless, well then fine - the churches really should do what used to be expected of the government. You know countries run by clerics are more responsible and effective, and more caring, than those run by elected officials.
Supply your own sarcastic comment here, and mention Iran and the mullahs. Or read The Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster Will Save You From Terrorist Attack.
Ah well, they are managing to keep the economy sputtering along, and some folks are doing well. It's sort of under control, except for this - "The Treasury Department has started drawing from the civil service pension fund to avoid hitting the $8.2 trillion national debt limit. The move to tap the pension fund follows last month's decision to suspend investments in a retirement savings plan held by government employees."
The future will take care of itself? Use the funds today? Maybe these folks won't live long enough to draw pensions or retirement. Think positive. The invisible hand will fix everything.
Actually, looking back on this one day from decades in the future, that may be the big story, as they then try to figure out how it came to breadlines and people starving in the streets and America as a third-world nation.
Or late in the day will this be the big story historians note as a turning point? Defying Bush, House Panel Votes to Block Port Deal - "The House Appropriations Committee defied President Bush this evening, voting overwhelmingly to scuttle a deal giving a Dubai company control of some major seaport operations without awaiting the outcome of a 45-day review of potential security risks."
The vote was sixty something to two. This is the day he lost his ability to govern? Could be. But it's too soon to tell. He may pull some rabbit out of his hat to make this work. On the other hand, Harriet Miers. He had to have her bow out.
Oh heck. It's just a blip. And second one, but he'll be fine. Historians will ignore it.
The day also gave us what could be a big story - the publication of the Vanity Fair piece on Jack Abramoff here (PDF format) a series of interviews with David Margolick. Abramoff says just who was on the take, accepting bribes for voting as instructed. And all those Republican who said the never met him, or hardly knew him? He covers that.
And so on and so forth - "You're really no one in this town unless you haven't met me."
Opera and the Bible? Curious.
Well, it's not the Pentagon Papers. It's not the damning Nixon tapes that forced Nixon from office. This decade's equivalent? We shall see.
But somehow it's like old times.