The Long View 2007-07-23: Failures of Imagination and the Beauty of Loyalty

Siege of La Rochelle 1881 Henri MotteBy Henri-Paul Motte - Musée d'Orbigny Bernon, Public Domain,

Siege of La Rochelle 1881 Henri Motte

By Henri-Paul Motte - Musée d'Orbigny Bernon, Public Domain,

John J. Reilly points to an old, old article by the very wrong David P. Goldman, who in all seriousness suggested the United States would foment conflict in the Middle East as some kind of Richelieu-inspired Grand Strategy.

We did foment war, but I honestly think we blundered into it. Because there is no Inner Party. I don’t think anyone in or around the US government could pull something like that off on purpose.

John also brings up this:

If you want to match our current period with the Depression-World War II era, by the way, we should remember that Churchill was just a drunk and windbag until the last five years of it.

Churchill is a polarizing figure in exactly the same way Lincoln is. Generically educated Americans usually revere them both, while there is a dedicated band of history enthusiasts who will gladly take any opportunity to besmirch either man.

Failures of Imagination and the Beauty of Loyalty

What we have here is a case of political criticism running on automatic pilot. Don Surber notes the surprising fact that:

The first job approval numbers for July are in and the Reuters/Zogby Poll shows Bush at 34 percent, Congress at 14 percent....

Pollster John Zogby broke down the numbers.

"The Democratic Congress gets poor marks across the ideological spectrum -- just 21 percent of liberals and 10 percent of the very liberal give it positive marks, while 14 percent of conservatives and 14 percent of the very conservative give it positive ratings," Zogby wrote.

Okay, but what is the cause of this light esteem?

The problem is that neither party shows leaders in Washington who are in touch with the realities that their constituents face. Congressmen and senators have too much money, too much power and too much tenure.

Too much tenure? That was the Republican talking point before the Republicans gained control of Congress in the 1990s. Two changes in majority over 12 years do not suggest an excess of stability. Except for the safest districts, members of Congress do not feel invulnerable. They fear that going off-message in public will lose them their seats.

* * *

Spengler's latest article at Asia Times is really a set of alternatives for the Muslim world. Here's Plan A:

One kind word should to be said for the foundering US president: George W Bush seems to be the last person in public life to think that genocide is an unacceptable outcome (except, of course, for Pope Benedict XVI, who sadly has no divisions).

However, Plan A looks less likely to Spengler, because of the odd consensus that the prevention of genocide is not an adequate reason for intervention. The point has yet to be raised in connection with Darfur, but that's another question. So, that brings us to Plan B:

Against its will, and in violation of all its altruistic instincts, the United States will emulate Cardinal Richelieu, stoking the conflict in the Muslim world until it burns itself out - and that could last a century and produce casualties on a scale never seen before. So-called Kissingerian realism, modeled on the balance of power after the Napoleonic Wars, is a child's game of tin soldiers compared with the machinations of Richelieu. Nonetheless, the US is going to get a crash course in realpolitik on a scale that few now in power can visualize.

But then there is Plan C:

Is genocide therefore inevitable? Of course it is not. Before September 11, a word-association exercise would have elicited the word "Africa" as a response to the word "genocide", as surely as a 25-cent piece will produce a gumball from a vending machine. Yet African genocide - except for the genocide perpetrated by Arabs in Sudan - has abated almost miraculously during the past half-dozen years. Part of this, of course, is due to the determination of Western powers to stop the civil wars that horrified the world a decade ago. But a great deal of the credit, I firmly believe, goes to Christian evangelists who have won tens of millions of Africans to a "religion of peace", if that expression still has currency, as opposed to tribal loyalties.


[I]t seems very unlikely that the African solution, namely Christian evangelization, will have much effect in the Middle East.

So don't get your hopes up.

Plan B is based on an analogy with 16th-century Europe. The analogy has its merits, but the analogy breaks down on the fact that Europe was able to launch and provision its own civil wars, whereas the Middle East depends on foreign money and weapons. HG Wells thought you could ensure universal piece by controlling the nodes of transport, and he may have been right for the long run.

* * *

I read the Washington Times with a grain of salt, but I am sure that Mona Charen is right to criticize this remark from Rep. John P. Murtha about the consequences of a legislatively mandated withdrawal from Iraq:

I am convinced, based on everything I have read, it won't be a hell of a lot worse than it is now. Jack (redeploy to Okinawa) Murtha of Pennsylvania was speaking of Iraq after an American pullout. He's not worried, nor are most Democrats now urging America to flee Iraq. There really ought to be a name for the "it can't get worse" fallacy. For the moment, let's just call it Democratomyopia. It has a long pedigree.

One thinks of March 1975. Liberal New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis scoffed at warnings of a coming bloodbath in Southeast Asia. "Some will find the whole bloodbath debate unreal. What future possibility could be more terrible than the reality of what is happening to Cambodia now?" Most Democrats agreed with Mr. Lewis...

Never say "it can't get worse." That reveals a terrible poverty of imagination.

Actually, the pedigree is older than that. I'm reading John Lukacs' Five Days in London: May 1940, which deals principally with the debate on Churchill's War Cabinet about whether to seek terms in light of the imminent collapse of France or to continue with the war no matter what happened. The book is also interesting because of the nuggets of quotations the reports from the Mass Observation project, in some ways the British equivalent of the Gallup organization. In the summary "Morale Today" for May 24, we find this account of a conversation among middle-aged trade unionists:

"Do you know, our women went round canvassing for the Housewives Union and some of them, especially some of the younger housewives they talked to -- have got to the stage where they would more or less welcome Hitler here. They said it couldn't be worse, and they'd at least have their husbands back."

Maybe here we do see a real failure of imagination, but can we attribute a similar failing to Congress? The politicians who say that the loss of the war is the low-risk option also tend to be the people who warn urgently about impending climate catastrophe. The latter takes far more imagination.

If you want to match our current period with the Depression-World War II era, by the way, we should remember that Churchill was just a drunk and windbag until the last five years of it.

* * *

Regarding Harry Potter, I have never had any strong feelings about the series. I rather liked the one or two books I have read. However, my confidence in human nature is restored by Erica Greider's favorable review in today's New York Sun:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows may be uneven in its first 500 pages, but fans of the boy wizard will be pleased with how it works out, and why.

Just wait until you get past the first 500 pages. Fan loyalty can be a beautiful thing.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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