The Long View 2003-03-08: Terminal Notes

In his 1997 review of William Strauss and Neil Howe's The Fourth Turning, John predicted that a crisis would erupt in the early twenty-first century. In the cyclical historical model of The Fourth Turning, a crisis successfully averted produces a generation of heroes, for example the Greatest Generation who defeated Germany and Japan in World War 2. A failed resolution to a crisis breeds cynicism and a causes a decay of public order, like the decades after the Civil War that brought us Jim Crow, forgettable presidents, and economic inequality.

At this point, it looks very much like the crisis came as predicted, and also that we haven't really successfully resolved it. As John noted, this does not bode well for the next couple of decades. Those who were in power at the beginning of the crisis will likely not be remembered well by history:

We should note that these changes in the cultural weather are not necessarily good news for GWB or the Republicans. To be in power at the beginning of a crisis, like the Civil War or the Depression-World War II era, is to risk historical opprobrium.

Hopefully it won't turn out as bad as it sounds now.

Terminal Notes
The president's ultimatum address last night was perfectly adequate, though it was not one of his great speeches. I was puzzled why it was not delivered from the Oval Office. According to the New York Times today, the reason is that the president looks too isolated when he speaks from behind that big desk. He was already isolated enough diplomatically, the Times implied; why emphasize the point visually? I suppose it would be too much to suggest that the president did not want to be seen talking in front of the Oval Office's familiar French Windows.
When the president does speak from the Oval Office, no doubt he will have good news, for which he wants to take sole credit.
* * *
What shall we say of the assessment by Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic Minority Leader in the Senate, that the diplomacy of the Administration had failed miserably? To begin with, the attitude of the Senator and his party essentially recapitulates domestically what the French have been doing internationally. All these parties have been trying to milk opposition to the war for short-term advantage, all the while positioning themselves to profit more substantially should the war miscarry. So, the short answer to the Senator's question is that the diplomatic prelude to the war developed as it did because the Administration was dealing with people like him.
The long answer is more interesting. The truth is that the US has rarely exercised its diplomatic resources more skillfully and persistently. The best possible outcome would have been a unanimous Security Council resolution last November, with an ultimatum date for February. With that kind of pressure, it's quite likely the Iraqi regime would have cracked. The failure of such an outcome to materialize was not due to any failure of skill or patience on the part of the US Administration. The problem is that the international system in which they had to work is a perpetual-motion machine.
The collective security system that was devised at the end of World War II never really functioned while the Cold War was on. In a way, it was like the constitutions the Soviet Union had. They were wonderfully democratic, pluralistic, and humane. They were also dead letters as long as the Communist Party ran the country. When the Party relaxed its grip, however, the most recent constitution started to function, and everyone discovered it did not work. We now see that the same decision, to relax the rule of Communism and end the Cold War, also allowed the "global constitution" to function for the first time. After a dozen years, we have found out it doesn't work either.
* * *
After the address, I watched the analysis on PBS given by four historians, who were moderated by Jim Lehrer. They acknowledged the novelty of the situation, but they did not seem much inclined to second guess the Administration. They were, on the whole, hopeful that the US would gain credit internationally in the long run.
The exception was Howard Zinn. I was reminded of the joke about the old dog who still chased bitches but had forgotten why. There he was, still spouting the Soviet line after all these years. Again, back when people like him thought that the Fatherland of Socialism was the vanguard of history, it made a certain amount of sense to try to frustrate US policy and diminish US influence. Now he is reduced to defending the manufacture of poison gas. His one consolation is that the preparations to liberate Iraq have made the US internationally unpopular. May he have joy of it.
* * *
Maybe this goes without saying, so I will say it anyway: Strauss & Howe's generational model of American history has been borne out remarkably well by these late, unnerving events. They predicted that the US in the 1990s would try to deal with international and domestic disputes one by one, in isolation. The culture then was centrifugal; there seemed to be a thousand problems. They also predicted that a crisis would begin in this decade, when the nation would abandon half-measures. Those thousand problems would become One Big Problem.
George W. Bush is the very image of the implacable babyboomer Strauss & Howe foresaw; so are his principal opponents. All this is happening a bit earlier than they predicted, which is actually a bad sign: the last time a "crisis" arrived a little early was the Civil War. In any case, the model runs true to form. Stories that would have dominated the news during the Clinton years are now just sidebars: compare the relative public indifference to the recent gender-scandal at the Air Force Academy to the witchhunt occasioned by the Tailhook incident. Even if the media wanted to, it could not return to the Clinton-era definition of "military issue."
We should note that these changes in the cultural weather are not necessarily good news for GWB or the Republicans. To be in power at the beginning of a crisis, like the Civil War or the Depression-World War II era, is to risk historical opprobrium. Consider what happened to President Herbert Hoover: a capable, even a brilliant man, who did not realize the rules had changed. This does not seem to be the problem of Bush & Company, but it is very early days.
* * *
A final point: has anyone noticed that the surname of the US commander in the Persian Gulf, Tommy Franks, is the generic Near Eastern term for "Westerner"? The pronunciation is usually something like "firengi," but the etymology is well-known. (Fans of the later Star Trek spin-off series will no doubt recognize the term.) Far be it from me to be sensitive, but maybe someone should have considered that the phrase "General Franks' headquarters in Baghdad" will grate on some ears like "Sultan Mohammed's palace in Rome."
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site