Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Historically Moving

After more than four years doing this blog, I'm starting a new venture. History New Network recently invited me to blog on their site, and with this post, "Historical Humility," I begin.

I'll still be posting my pieces here; probably a day after they make their debut on HNN. And I will continue to use this space for the occasional less historical and more personal piece.

I'd like to thank you readers who have been following this blog--some since it began early in 2010. In retrospect, it seems that every time I began to wonder if it was worth the time and effort, someone would, out-of-the-blue, send me a nice compliment, or ask me when the next piece was coming. So thanks to everyone who did that.

I just wish my Dad was still here to see the new blog. He was probably the biggest fan of "The Past Isn't Past." Nothing gave me more satisfaction than when he would drop a casual "I liked your blog post" into our weekly Sunday afternoon phone call. After he passed, I went on his computer to send a message to his contacts to let them know, and noticed that "The Past Isn't Past" was the first bookmark on his web browser.

So, for that Great Web Browser in the Sky--and the rest of you, too--here's the bookmark for my new web home, Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards.

Friday, July 4, 2014

I love the Fourth of July

(Re-posted from July 1, 2010)

I love the Fourth of July.

Not just because of fireworks (though who doesn't love a good fireworks display?). And not just because of cookouts (and, since you can throw a veggie burger on the grill too, who doesn't love a good cookout?). And not just because it gives me a reason to play two of my favorite songs, Bruce Springsteen's "Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" and Dave Alvin's "Fourth of July" (though, seriously, this would be reason enough).

I love the Fourth because of the Declaration of Independence.

It began sometime in my childhood. At some point, on some vacation, at some historical site, my parents bought me a facsimile of the Declaration. It probably tells you all you need to know about me that I thought this was a great souvenir. It was hard, brittle, yellowed paper that crackled when you handled it. For some time I thought all official documents were thus. So when, in the fifth grade, my classmates called upon me to write a peace treaty ending the Great Spitball War between Group 2 and Group 3 (a foreshadowing that I would one day study diplomatic history?), I insisted on taking the piece of paper, coloring it with a yellow crayon, and then crumpling it up in a ball and flattening it out so that, at least to my eye, it looked like my copy of the Declaration. Then it was official.

Later, I eventually stopped wondering why there were so many "f"s where there should clearly be "s"s, and thought more about its content. Just about every American is familiar with the most famous passage about the self-evident truths. But there is a lot more to the Declaration. Much of it, the bulk of it really, is essentially an indictment of George III justifying the break. Reading it with an historian’s rather than
a patriot’s eye, many of the points don’t really hold up. But my favorite part of the Declaration isn’t one of the well-known lines, or something obscure from the list of charges. It comes at the end, just a simple, short phrase, and it encapsulates for me what is best about the Fourth of July.

When you think about it, July 4 isn’t really the most natural date for the nation’s birth. There are other turning points we could have chosen, for example, the outbreak of hostilities. Using that criterion, April 19, 1775, the date of the battles of Lexington and Concord, would be a better choice. Perhaps February 6, 1778, the date a great power, France, recognized American independence and entered an alliance with the U.S. that would help win the war, would be fitting. Legally one could argue that April 9, 1784, the date Britain recognized independence with its acceptance of the Treaty of Paris, was the true independence day.

But we didn’t chose the date of a battle, or the recognition of a great power, or the acceptance of the mother country. We chose the date of a declaration. What does July 4, 1776 mark, after all? A decision. An intention. Not a change in fact, but a change of mind. Looked at coldly, purely as a matter of fact, the Declaration is an absurdity. The colonies declared that they were independent, but they clearly were not. The colonies were still ruled by royal governors appointed by the King, and were occupied by tens of thousands of British soldiers. But the declaration nonetheless boldly states, in the words of a resolution first proposed by Richard Henry Lee nearly a month earlier, that “these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”

And it’s that phrase that I love: “and of Right ought to be.” The Declaration is not one of fact. It is one of what “of Right ought to be.” This country was founded with its eyes on the Right. Those men who signed the declaration were not always right. About some things, many of them, in many ways, were tragically wrong. But they knew the importance of what ought to be. And they knew that the most important date was not the one when men took up arms, but when they decided to do what was right. When it has been at its worst, this country has settled passively for what is, or what cynics said has always been and thus must always be. When it has been at its best, it has remembered to keep its eyes on what "of Right ought to be."

Have a wonderful Fourth of July, and sometime between the cookout and the fireworks, think a little about what of Right ought to be. And then work to make it a reality. That’s what the Fourth, and being an American, means to me.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Maliki is the New Diem

Some people are talking coup d'etat in Iraq.

David Ignatius writes that "President Obama sensibly appears to be leaning toward an alternative policy that would replace Maliki with a less sectarian and polarizing prime minister."

The impulse to replace Maliki is understandable. Most observers of Iraq argue that he has played a large role in the growing sectarian divide between the majority Shi'ites and the minority Sunnis, and thus bears responsibility for the growth of ISIS in the north.

The unstated assumption, of course, is that another popularly elected, plausible leader could have governed differently and guided Iraq into a functioning democracy, and that now, the fact that elections produced Maliki should not stop the United States from maneuvering behind the scenes to get a more able (read "pliable") leader in his place. Then the United States can go about fixing Iraq.

President George W. Bush shakes hands with Iraqi Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki, July 25, 2006. Photo by
Kimberlee Hewitt, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps. More likely is that the internal conditions in Iraq produced the kind of leader Maliki became. If that's the case, then a coup to oust Maliki will do no good at all. Instead, it is likely to make things worse.

There is certainly precedent for that. In the mid-1950s in South Vietnam, the Eisenhower administration sought a non-communist popular leader who would not be tarnished by associations with the departing French colonizers. It settled on Ngo Dinh Diem.

For about six years, Diem seemed the answer to American prayers. He created a separate South Vietnamese government as a counter to Ho Chi Minh's communist North. He led a fairly stable regime that served American interests in the region.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower shakes hands with South
Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, May 8 , 1957
U.S. National Archives and Records Administation
But then in 1960, the National Liberation Front began its offensive against Diem's government. As pressure grew, Diem grew more oppressive, in particularly cracking down on the majority Buddhists. By the fall of 1963, the American embassy and elements of the Kennedy administration decided that Diem was the problem and needed to go. American officials sent signals to South Vietnamese generals who then ousted and murdered Diem and his brother.

Ignatius effectively proposes that the United States do the same thing in Iraq today:
The people who will pull the plug on Maliki are Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and other Iraqi kingmakers. The United States should push them to signal unmistakably that Maliki is finished…. Saudi Arabia wants Obama to announce that he opposes Maliki. It would be better just to move him out, rather than hold a news conference.
One can only hope that Obama resists such pressure. Things with Diem didn't work out well.

In a February 1, 1966 conversation with Sen. Eugene McCarthy, LBJ put it bluntly. Kennedy was told, he said, that Diem
was corrupt and he ought to be killed. So we killed him. We all got together and got a goddamn bunch of thugs and we went in and assassinated him. Now, we've really had no political stability since then.
The political instability that followed the Diem coup was a major contributing factor in LBJ's disastrous decision to Americanize the war in Vietnam.

The desire to replace Maliki is another example of the imperial attitude toward Iraq: America gets to decide when it is time for the leader to go. I have little doubt that if the United States determined to do so, it could mount a coup against Maliki.  But as always, the question is: what then?

As with the initial invasion, it is relatively easy to destroy. It is much harder to build. The United States can probably destroy Maliki if it so chooses. But can it build anything to replace him?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

David Brooks and Pottery Barn Imperialism

One of the reasons I continue to read David Brooks is that he is often unintentionally revealing. Since he is, I think, quite sincere, he does not indulge in clever subterfuge in making his arguments. Thus he sometimes lays bare what otherwise remains hidden behind what Andrew Sullivan last week (ironically) called "noble lies."

In his June 13 column, Brooks tries to lay the blame for Iraq's current travails at the foot of Barack Obama. Before American troops left in 2011, he writes:
American diplomats rode herd on Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to restrain his sectarian impulses. American generals would threaten to physically block Iraq troop movements if Maliki ordered any action that seemed likely to polarize the nation.
After U.S. troops left, he writes:
Almost immediately things began to deteriorate. There were no advisers left to restrain Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. The American efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army came undone.
Brooks never acknowledges the obvious (though unstated) assumption behind all of this: that Iraq could not be expected to function without the United States. It seems that Nuri al-Maliki (hand-picked by George W. Bush in 2007, by the way) bears no responsibility for indulging his "sectarian impulses" (and note that Maliki is ruled by "impulse," not thought or calculation), and the Iraqi army bears no responsibility for not being professional. It is all due to the absence of Americans, who of course, know best.

Brooks says, quite without irony, that "Iraq is in danger of becoming a non-nation." It never occurs to him that a state that--according to him--cannot function without American diplomats riding herd and American generals threatening its leader might already be a "non-nation."

Without knowing it, Brooks embraces an imperial role for the United States. It was America's job to control the Iraqi government, make it do the right thing. The United States should have stayed in Iraq for as long as it took. Leaving Iraq was "American underreach."

Brooks also embraces the reflexive American-centric mindset far too common on both the left and the right in the United States: the idea that whatever happens abroad happens because of something the United States either did or did not do. An incorrect American policy of withdrawal led to this state of affairs. It necessarily follows that whatever is going on in Iraq now can be fixed by the correct American policy.

Neither of those things is true. It is an illusion that Americans cherish because they think it gives them control over a chaotic world.

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 broke Iraq. Iraqis thus far have not been able to put it back together. Maybe they never will. The lesson to be learned from that, however, is not what Brooks would have us believe: "The dangers of American underreach have been lavishly and horrifically displayed."

In the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003, Colin Powell allegedly talked about the so-called "Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it." The true lesson of Iraq is this: that American military intervention can easily break a country. It does not follow that American military intervention can just as easily make a country. Having disastrously bungled in breaking Iraq, Brooks would now have the United States once again bungle in trying to make it.

What the United States must "own" is not the state of Iraq, but the responsibility for breaking that state. Those are not the same thing. Responsibility begins with not making the situation worse by repeating the original mistake.

David Brooks, it seems, never learned that lesson. One hopes Barack Obama has.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Somebody Told Us There'd Be Days Like These

With chaos returning to Iraq due to the growing power of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in the north, the partisan divide over the American war there has resurfaced as well. Supporters of the war charge President Obama with losing Iraq because he withdrew American forces, while critics of the war fume at the gall of the architects of that disastrous war now posing as experts on the region.

Because the debate has been largely partisan, with Republicans and Democrats lining up rather predictably, there is a sense that this is merely a partisan dispute. It is not. Unfortunately, the partisan nature of the current debate makes it seem so.

Rather than go back to the 2003 debate, I decided to look back a little further--to the first war with Iraq in 1991, and the criticism of the George H. W. Bush administration for its refusal to go "on to Baghdad." Those Republican foreign policy leaders defended their decision by predicting undesirable outcomes--ones which we are now seeing come to fruition.

Re-reading the memoirs of Colin Powell (then Chair of the Joint Chiefs) and James Baker (then Secretary of State), it becomes immediately apparent that they foresaw today's events as the nearly inevitable outcome of a U.S. invasion to topple Saddam.

President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, National
Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, Gen. Colin Powell, Jan. 15, 1991
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Writing in 1995, Gen. Powell quoted U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles Freeman, who wrote in a 1991 cable: "For a range of reasons, we cannot pursue Iraq's unconditional surrender and occupation by us. It is not in our interest to destroy Iraq or weaken it to the point that Iran and/or Syria are not constrained by it."

Baker also observed in 1995 that "as much as Saddam's neighbors wanted to see him gone, they feared that Iraq might fragment in unpredictable ways that would play into the hands of the mullahs in Iran, who could export their brands of Islamic fundamentalism with the help of Iraq's Shi'ites and quickly transform themselves into the dominant regional power."

Supporters of the war who now bemoan the growth of Iran's influence in Iraq have no one but themselves to blame. We were told it would be like this.

The current situation--a stable Kurdistan, ISIS in control of much of the Sunni-dominated areas, Shi'ites rallying to the defense of their holy sites--portends the possible partition of Iraq, either formally or de facto. That, too, was foreseen in 1991.

Powell: "It would not contribute to the stability we want in the Middle East to have Iraq fragmented into separate Sunni, Shia, and Kurd political entities. The only way to have avoided this outcome was to have undertaken a largely U.S. conquest and occupation of a remote nation of twenty million people."

The United States spent eight long years doing just that, occupying Iraq to keep it together. But that was never a sustainable long-term prospect. It went on too long as it was. Nevertheless, there are some neocons today suggesting that the United States never should have left Iraq.

Baker, who was known for his domestic political skills before he went to the State Department, knew that scenario was untenable: "Even if Saddam were captured and his regime toppled, American forces would still be confronted with the specter of a military occupation of indefinite duration to pacify the country and sustain a new government in power. The ensuing urban warfare would surely result in more casualties to American GIs than the war itself, thus creating a political firestorm at home."

Twenty years ago, these Republican statesmen predicted the situation we now see in Iraq. They warned anyone who would listen that an American intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussein would have undesirable consequences contrary to American interests, regardless of any specific actions the United States did or did not take in pursuit of that larger goal.

Keep in mind that they said these things would happen with their president in charge, with themselves making policy. They understood that there are forces that such an act would set loose which the United States could not control, no matter who was in office. They said all this long before anyone had ever even heard of Barack Obama. The idea that any specific act by the president is primarily responsible for the current state of affairs in Iraq is absurd on the face of it.

That won't stop people from saying so. But it should keep the rest of us from believing it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Leadership and Interventionism Are Not the Same Thing

Robert Kagan has written a piece in the New Republic entitled "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire." In it, he bemoans what he perceives as America's retreat from its responsibility to preserve a liberal world order. Kagan argues: "Many Americans and their political leaders in both parties, including President Obama, have either forgotten or rejected the assumptions that undergirded American foreign policy for the past seven decades."

Kagan is correct that public attitudes towards America's role in the world have shifted recently, but he dramatically overstates the case when he posits a break with a 70-year tradition. He seems to equate "leadership" with military interventionism. Americans have rejected the latter, not the former.

What Kagan does not recognize is that the public's current aversion to military interventionism abroad is not only consistent with America's pre-World War II foreign policy, but with the golden age of leadership he praises.

Kagan's fundamental mistake is to think that the American people embraced military interventionism during and after World War II. They did not.

Americans have always been averse to military actions leading to large numbers of American casualties and extended occupations of hostile territory. In the two years before Pearl Harbor, Americans (even the so-called "interventionists") desperately clung to the idea that they could protect American interests merely by supplying the British (and later the Soviets) with the weapons to do the fighting.

While conventional wisdom suggests that Pearl Harbor changed all that, the reality is different. Even after the United States entered the war, it was reluctant to launch military operations that posed the threat of huge casualties. As David M. Kennedy has stated, this American predilection to avoid combat with Germany's forces in France led Stalin to conclude: "it looks like the Americans have decided to fight this war with American money and American machines and Russian men."

Even the major architect of the postwar order, Franklin Roosevelt, did not envision an America that would permanently station large numbers of U.S. soldiers abroad, much less deploy them on a regular basis. Yes, he did see the United States as the leading power in the new United Nations. But the point of having the so-called "Four Policemen" was to insure that the other three would be the ones to send soldiers to keep order in their respective spheres of interest. He imagined that the American role would be primarily in the form of naval and air power. "The United States will have to lead," FDR said of the UN, but its role would be to use "its good offices always to conciliate to help solve the differences which will arise between the others."

FDR, Churchill, and Stalin at Teheran
By Horton (Capt), War Office official photographer
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As the historian Warren Kimball has written, at the 1943 Teheran conference, when Stalin pressed him on how the United States would comport itself as one of the policemen, "FDR resorted to his prewar notion of sending only planes and ships from the United States to keep the peace in Europe." In FDR's mind, the United States would be primarily responsible for order in the western hemisphere, a role it had played for decades.

Even the so-called American declaration of cold war, the Truman Doctrine speech of March 1947, avoided the implication that American military forces would be deployed to uphold the doctrine. The speech simultaneously signaled to the world that the United States was both assuming some of Britain's responsibilities and had given up on the idea of cooperation with the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Truman explicitly stated that the aid he was requesting would not be military: "I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes." Truman presented aid to Greece and Turkey as mere money to make good on the far larger investment of lives and treasure during World War II: "The assistance that I am recommending for Greece and Turkey amounts to little more than 1 tenth of 1 per cent of this investment. It is only common sense that we should safeguard this investment and make sure that it was not in vain."

The Korean War changed that by requiring quick American military intervention to prevent the collapse of South Korea in the summer of 1950, but when it bogged down into a stalemate after the Chinese intervention in November, the public quickly soured on the war. In January 1951, "49% thought the decision was a mistake, while 38% said it was not, and 13% had no opinion," according to Gallup. While those numbers fluctuated over the next two years, and more Americans thought the war was not a mistake whenever an end to the war was in sight, the American public in general did not support military actions that led to substantial American casualties and prolonged combat. The public's disillusionment with the war was one of the reasons that an increasingly unpopular President Truman decided not to run for reelection in 1952.

The next president, Dwight Eisenhower, moved quickly to end that war, and, more importantly, instituted a foreign policy that had at its core the principle of avoidance of any Korea-style wars in the future. Rather than engage in limited wars in every world hot spot, Eisenhower determined that such a course would bankrupt the country. He preferred "massive retaliation": the idea that a threat to essential American interests would be met with a nuclear threat, not a conventional response in kind. Even when the French faced defeat in Vietnam, Eisenhower refused to intervene, and never seriously considered deploying American troops to Vietnam.

While John Kennedy came into office criticizing that approach, pledging to "pay any price, bear any burden," the sobering experience of the Cuban missile crisis made him rethink that mindset. The cold war, he said in June 1963, imposed "burdens and dangers to so many countries," and specifically noted that the US and Soviet Union "bear the heaviest burdens." He spoke of the American aversion to war: "The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough -- more than enough -- of war and hate and oppression."

While one may argue that Kennedy's policies led to the next American war in Vietnam under his successor Lyndon Johnson, it is also the case that Johnson sought to avoid a land war. Significantly, he looked first to use air power. Operation Rolling Thunder, the American air campaign against North Vietnam, was meant to forestall the need for American ground troops in large numbers. It was only after the clear failure of bombing to achieve American aims that Johnson escalated the war with more ground troops.

When that effort too proved futile, Richard Nixon again returned to air power as America's main instrument to maintain order abroad. His Vietnamizaion policy tried to balance the withdrawal of American troops with the deployment of increased air power. The "Nixon Doctrine," announced that henceforth "we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense." In other words, America's friends should not expect American troops to do their fighting for them.

I'd argue that from Nixon up until George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, that was American policy. Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all avoided open-ended military commitments of American troops (Clinton's air-only campaign against Serbia in 1999 is the best example).

Only the first war against Iraq in 1991 challenged that trend, and even that war involved a longer preliminary air campaign than a ground one: five weeks of bombing preceded the ground campaign, which lasted only 100 hours. According to Colin Powell, Bush had the Vietnam War in mind when he resisted the calls of "on to Baghdad." Bush "had promised the American people that Desert Storm would not become a Persian Gulf Vietnam," Powell writes in his memoir, "and he kept his promise." Within two weeks of the ceasefire, the 540,000 U.S. troops began their withdrawal from the Persian Gulf.

Even the American war in Afghanistan in 2001 was planned to keep the American "footprint" light, relying on American air power and the Afghan Northern Alliance to do much of the fighting. It was the invasion and prolonged occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003 that predictably soured Americans once again on the prospect of extended military engagements.

In sum, what Americans are experiencing now is not exceptional, but rather normal. In the aftermath of extended, costly military interventions leading to the loss of American lives, the American people revert to their historical aversion to solving problems by fighting in and occupying foreign states. That does not mean the United States ceases to be relevant, or ceases to lead. It simply means that Americans have been reminded once again that not every problem can be solved by an invasion, and that leadership is more than a reflexive application of American military might.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Won't You Let Me Take You On a Sea Cruise?

Frank Bruni wrote a piece in the New York Times the other day, urging politicians to seek more solitude:
Take more time away. Spend more time alone. Trade the speechifying for solitude, which no longer gets anything close to the veneration it’s due, not just in politics but across many walks of life.
It’s in solitude that much of the sharpest thinking is done and many of the best ideas are hatched.
Coincidentally, I was reading about how FDR came up with the Lend-Lease program to aid Britain before the United States entered World War II, which makes Bruni's point perfectly.

Film title from an earlier FDR cruise,
from an FDR Library archival film
After winning his unprecedented third term the previous month, on December 2, 1940, FDR set off aboard the cruiser USS Tuscaloosa for a two-week cruise in the Caribbean.

Now, try to imagine the indignation today if Barack Obama slipped away from Washington (without any notice, no less!) for a two-week sea cruise.

FDR's cruise was not hidden, but rather
filmed for use in Navy recruiting
Not only did FDR not hesitate to take a vacation, he also did pretend it was a "working" vacation. He took a few close friends and advisors, and according to David Kaiser in his fine new book, No End Save Victory, they "spent the two weeks fishing, playing poker, sunning themselves and watching movies in the evening." Though the White House tried to portray it as a base-inspection tour, FDR "boasted proudly after his return that he did not read any of the working papers he had brought with him."

FDR fishing during a February 1940 southern cruise
That did not mean, however, that this was unproductive time.

FDR did read at least one item of business, what Winston Churchill called one of the most important letters he ever wrote--an appeal for the United States to drop its "cash and carry" requirement on aid to Britain because Britain no longer had the cash to pay.

Churchill later wrote:
Harry Hopkins [one of FDR's companions on the trip] told me later that Mr Roosevelt read and re-read this letter as he sat alone on his deck chair, and that for two days he did not seem to have reached any clear conclusion. He was plunged in intense thought, and brooded silently.
Hopkins said:
I didn't know for quite awhile what he was thinking about, but then--I began to get the idea that he was refueling, the way he so often does when he seems to be resting and care-free. So I didn't ask him any questions. Then, one evening, he suddenly came out with it--the whole program.
Two things are key here--FDR's own understanding that he needed to occasionally "refuel" in order to do his job well, and the understanding of his close friend and advisor Hopkins that FDR needed to be left alone to think. He allowed his boss the time to brood silently.

Could there be a better riposte to today's obsession with being busy for the sake of being busy, meeting for the sake of meeting? None of us bear the tremendous burdens that FDR had at the time--a world war to navigate the nation through--yet we are so prone to exaggerate our own importance and pose as too busy to "waste" time.

FDR was wiser. There was nothing wasteful about his sea cruise vacation. It was an investment, and one that paid off for the entire world.