The Long View 2003-10-15: Irrealistic Adventures

Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom

Since it is primary season in the US, you can form your own opinions as to whether any of the current candidates are likely to pursue 'irrealistic' adventures in the Middle East.


Irrealistic Adventures

 

Harold Bloom himself has made an appropriately autumnal endorsement of Wesley Clark for president. In an essay entitled Cometh the Hour... that appeared in yesterday's Opinion Journal, he put the presidential election of 2004 in this perspective:

I have been rereading Edmund Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," which I recommend to anyone in search of wisdom relevant at this moment. Gibbon attributes decline and fall to many varied factors, but the characters of specific Roman emperors--good, bad and indifferent--are viewed by him as crucial in the self-destructiveness of Rome. It is not at all clear whether we are already in decline: bread is still available for most and circuses for all. Still, there are troubling omens, economic and diplomatic, and a hint or two from Gibbon may be of considerable use. I trust it is clear that I am not deploring our deposing of Saddam Hussein, though its motivations remain obscure. Our decimation of the Taliban, and continued pursuit of bin Laden, are inevitable responses to Islamic terrorism. But our wars with fundamentalist Islam will continue, and will broaden; others will be attacked. We have no option except imposing a Roman peace. The question I bring forward is: What is the proper training for our imperial presidents?

For my part, I would suggest that Gibbon will not be relevant to our condition for a good 300 years, even assuming that you think this kind of analogy is useful. Be that as it may, there is a fair likelihood that universal peace will not break out anytime soon. Bloom argues that, if the presidents for the foreseeable future are going to be spending most of their time on military issues, then we should at least elect presidents who know something about the subject. As he points out, fairly enough, war is not George W. Bush's area of expertise. Bloom characterizes the current deployments of US forces around the world as "irrealistic adventures." That assessment may be more notable for the use of the word "irrealistic" than for its merits, but it's not an unusual opinion.

The real problem with this argument is the assumption that Clark's brand of diplomatic generalship is just what we need right now. I have recently reviewed Clark's latest campaign book, Winning Modern Wars. Though a slight work, it's not the sort of extended greeting card that most presidential candidates allow to be published under their names. Indeed, it has enough content to raise questions about whether we really want someone with Clark's views running the Pentagon. He seems more interested in institutions than in strategy, or indeed in victory. He's quite right that the international system needs reform. The problem is that the kind of reforms he's ready to endorse would stop it from working at all. If you want details, just click the link to the review.

What Wesley Clark thinks now need not reflect what he would do in office. The same is true of all but the most exotic contenders for the Democratic nomination. This is the kind of era where realistic policy options are likely to be convergent. Whatever Franklin Delano Roosevelt may have planned when he was running for office in 1932, his policies after his election were not so different from those of Herbert Hoover. The difference was that FDR had Congress behind him, whereas Hoover lost control of the situation after 1930. The convergence will go both ways, of course. If President Bush is reelected, he will find himself under irresistible pressure to repeal the prospective elements of his tax cuts, particularly if the economy continues to improve. The Republicans have yet to take on board the fact that it is possible to lose an election for refusing to raise necessary revenues.

The real value of a Clark presidency would be that he could charm the European publics in a way that no American president since John Kennedy has been able to do. There would be more than a little irony here. Some Western Europeans, and Clark himself, look on his candidacy as an opportunity to turn the United States into just another country in the Western fold. In fact, a sufficiently attractive American president would be in a position to appeal over the heads of the sclerotic political institutions of the European Union directly to the people. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done this. Can it be so hard?

* * *

Speaking of Arnold Schwarzenegger, as governor of California his chief problem will be that the bulk of the state's revenues are constitutionally earmarked for specific functions, making it almost impossible to balance the operating budget. Other states, particularly in the south, have similar systems. The people in those states have decided they would rather have no government than to give the legislature the unfettered power to raise and spend taxes.

My favorite example of this kind of system, however, is a bit more exotic: late Ming China. My source for this is Ray Huang's 1587, A Year of No Significance. The book was published in 1981, and it's still one of the best treatments of Chinese history for the general public.

Now the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) came to power on a "Contract with China" platform. They did away with all that fancy paper-money finance of the Sung and Mongol periods. Wherever possible, they arranged for government functions to be financed locally, as near as possible to the places where the functions were performed. Much of the economy was demonetized. Imperial magistrates were forbidden to go outside the cities, so as not to interfere with village government. The dynasty approached the Confucian ideal of ecumenical order and local control.

The Ming were in power longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history, so they must have been doing something right. The problem was that, as the country went to seed, there were no national resources to fix it. Roads went unrepaired and unpoliced, while the local taxes to support these functions just disappeared. China's military was underfunded and almost immobile, so perforce the country's strategic posture was inflexible. Early on, the government closed down the merchant marine, because that was the easiest way to suppress the piracy that had grown up with it. Eventually, of course, the Manchus bribed their way over the Great Wall, and found the country essentially defenseless. The new dynasty had no trouble raising all the taxes it needed.

Didn't Conan do something like this?

* * *

I note with interest that the Supreme Court has decided that it will be less trouble to hear the case about the Pledge of Allegiance than to allow the circuit courts to fall into disagreement about it. As you no doubt know, the case is about whether the words "Under God" in the Pledge constitute an unconstitutional establishment of religion, at least when the Pledge is recited by children in public schools.

The Court could dispose of the matter with a minimum of trouble by deciding the case on a standing issue. The plaintiff is a non-custodial parent, who probably had no right to bring the case at all. If the Court does decide the case on the merits, it will almost certainly hold that the reference in the Pledge to God is a ceremonial trifle, like the words "In God We Trust" on American money. On the other hand, it is just barely possible that the Court will find for the plaintiff.

Should that happen, the decision will be handed down during a presidential election, and the Court will be endangering itself as an institution. Oddly enough, this could be the issue that finally breaks the power of constitutional judicial review, even though such a holding would not obviously be wrong. Unlike Griswald v. Connecticut or Roe v. Wade or Lawrence v. Texas, the case obviously presents a federal constitutional issue, and a holding for the plaintiff could be grounded in the text and history of the Constitution. Understand me: I think that such a decision would be wrong, but it would be legitimately wrong. The lethal peril, which the Court does not see, is that it has trained the nation to be indifferent to the legitimacy of its decisions.

What a joke for the history books: the guilty man hanged for the wrong crime.  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

 

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