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No End of a lesson- Unlearned

William R. Polk

HNN June 15, 2014

America appears once again to be on the brink of a war. This time the war is likely to be in Syria and/or in Iraq. If we jump into one or both of these wars, they will join, by my count since our independence, about 200 significant military operations (not all of which were legally “wars”) as well as countless “proactive” interventions, regime-change undertakings, covert action schemes and search-and-destroy missions. In addition the United States has provided weapons, training and funding for a variety of non-American military and quasi-military forces throughout the world. Within recent months we have added five new African countries. History and contemporary events show that we Americans are a warring people.

So we should ask: what have we learned about ourselves, our adversaries and the process in which we have engaged?

The short answer appears to be “very little.”

As both a historian and a former policy planner for the American government, I will very briefly here (as I have mentioned in a previous essay, I am in the final stages of a book to be called A Warring People, on these issues), illustrate what I mean by “very little.”

I begin with us, the American people. There is overwhelming historical evidence that war is popular with us. Politicians from our earliest days as a republic, indeed even before when we were British colonies, could nearly always count on gaining popularity by demonstrating our valor. Few successful politicians were pacifists.

Even supposed pacifists found reasons to engage in the use of force. Take the man most often cited as a peacemaker or at least a peaceseeker, Woodrow Wilson. He promised to “keep us out of war,” by which he meant keeping us out of big, expensive European war. Before becoming president, however, he approved the American conquest of Cuba and the Philippines and described himself as an imperialist; then, as president, he occupied Haiti, sent the Marines into the Dominican Republic and ordered the Cavalry into Mexico. In 1918, he also put American troops into Russia. Not only sending soldiers: his administration carried out naval blockades, economic sanctions, covert operations — one of which, allegedly, involved an assassination attempt on a foreign leader — and furnished large-scale arms supplies to insurgents in on-going wars.

The purpose, and explanation, of our wars varied. I think most of us would agree that our Revolution, the First World War and the Second World War were completely justified. Probably Korea was also. The United States had no choice on the Civil war or, perhaps, on the War of 1812. Many, particularly those against the Native Americans would today be classified as war crimes. It is the middle range that seem to me to be the most important to understand. I see them like this.

Some military ventures were really misadventures in the sense that they were based on misunderstandings or deliberate misinformation. I think that most students of history would put the Spanish-American, Vietnamese, Iraqi and a few other conflicts in this category. Our government lied to us — the Spaniards did not blow up the Maine; the Gulf of Tonkin was not a dastardly attack on our innocent ships and Iraq was not about to attack us with a nuclear weapon, which it did not have.

But we citizens listened uncritically. We did not demand the facts. It is hard to avoid the charge that we were either complicit, lazy or ignorant. We did not hold our government to account.

Several war and other forms of intervention were for supposed local or regional requirements of the Cold War. We knowingly told one another that the “domino theory” was reality: so a hint of Communist subversion or even criticism of us sent us racing off to protect almost any form of political association that pretended to be on our side. And we believed or feared that even countries that had little or no connections with one another would topple at the touch — or even before their neighbors appeared to be in trouble. Therefore, regardless of their domestic political style, monarchy, dictatorship. democracy., it mattered not, they had to be protected. Our protection often included threats of invasion, actual intervention, paramilitary operations, subversion and/or bribery, justified by our proclaimed intent to keep them free. Or at least free from Soviet control. Included among them were Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam and various African countries.

Some interventions were for acquisition of their resources or protection of our economic assets. Guatemala, Chile, Iraq, Iran and Indonesia come to mind.

Few, if any, were to establish the basis of peace or even to bring about ceasefires. Those tasks we usually left to the United Nations or regional associations.

The costs have been high. Just counting recent interventions, they have cost us well over a hundred thousand casualties and some multiple of that in wounded; they have cost “the others” — both our enemies and our friends — large multiples of those numbers. The monetary cost is perhaps beyond counting both to them and to us. Figures range upward from $10 trillion.

The rate of success of these aspects of our foreign policy, even in the Nineteenth century, was low. Failure to accomplish the desired or professed outcome is shown by the fact that within a few years of the American intervention, the condition that had led to the intervention recurred. The rate of failure has dramatically increased in recent years. This is because we are operating in a world that is increasingly politically sensitive. Today even poor, weak, uneducated and corrupt nations become focused by the actions of foreigners. Whereas before, a few members of the native elite made the decisions, today we face “fronts.” parties, tribes and independent opinion leaders. So the “window of opportunity” for foreign intervention, once at least occasionally partly open, is now often shut.

Delta Force of Task Force 20 alongside troops of 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, at Uday Hussain and Qusay Hussein’s hideout (Wikipedia)

I will briefly focus on five aspects of this transformation:

First, nationalism has been and remains the predominant way of political thought of most of the world’s people. Its power has long been strong (even when we called it by other names) but it began to be amplified and focused by Communism in the late Nineteenth century. Today, nationalism in Africa, much of Asia and parts of Europe is increasingly magnified by the rebirth of Islam in the salafiyah movement.

Attempts to crush these nationalist-ideological-religious-cultural movements militarily have generally failed. Even when, or indeed especially when, foreigners arrive on the scene, natives put aside their mutual hostilities to unite against them. We saw this particularly vividly and painfully in Somalia. The Russians saw it in Çeçnaya and the Chinese, among the Uyghur peoples of Xinjiang (former Chinese Turkistan).

Second, outside intervention has usually weakened moderate or conservative forces or tendencies within each movement. Those espousing the most extreme positions are less likely to be suborned or defeated than the moderates. Thus particularly in a protracted hostilities, are more likely to take charge than their rivals. We have seen this tendency in each of the guerrilla wars in which we got involved; for the situation today, look at the insurgent movements in Syria and Iraq. (For my analysis of the philosophy and strategy of the Muslim extremists, see my essay “Sayyid Qutub’s Fundamentalism and Abu Bakr Naji’s Jihadism” on my website.)

What is true of the movements is even more evident in the effects on civic institutions and practices within an embattled society. In times of acute national danger, the “center” does not hold. Centrists get caught between the insurgents and the regimes. Insurgents have to destroy their relationship to society and government if they are to “win.” Thus, in Vietnam for example, doctors and teachers, who interfaced between government and the general population were prime targets for the Vietminh in the 1950s.

And, as the leaders of governments against whom the insurgents are fighting become more desperate, they suppress those of their perceived rivals or critics they can reach. By default, these people are civilians who are active in the political parties, the media and the judiciary . And, as their hold on power erodes and “victory” becomes less likely, regimes also seek to create for themselves safe havens by stealing money and sending it abroad. Thus, the institutions of government are weakened and the range of enemies widens. We have witnessed these two aspects of “corruption” — both political and economic — in a number of countries. Recent examples are Vietnam and Afghanistan.

In Vietnam at least by 1962 the senior members of the regime had essentially given up the fight. Even then they were preparing to bolt the country. And the army commanders were focused on earning money that they sold the bullets and guns we gave them to the Vietminh. In Afghanistan, the regime’s involvement in the drug trade, its draining of the national treasury into foreign private bank accounts (as even Mr. Karzai admitted) and in “pickpocketing” hundreds of millions of dollars from aid projects is well documented.  (See the monthly reports of the American Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.)

Third, our institutional memory of programs, events and trends is shallow. I suggest that it usually is no longer than a decade. Thus, we repeat policies even when the record clearly shows that they did not work when previously tried. And we address each challenge as though it is unprecedented. We forget the American folk saying that when you find yourself in a hole, the best course of action is to stop digging. it isn’t only that our government (and the thousands of “experts,” tacticians and strategists it hires) do not “remember” but also that they have at hand only one convenient tool — the shovel. What did we learn from Vietnam? Get a bigger, sharper shovel.

Fourth, despite or perhaps in part because of our immigrant origins, we are a profoundly insular people. Few of us have much appreciation of non-American cultures and even less fellow feeling for them. Within a generation or so, few immigrants can even speak the language of their grand parents. Many of us are ashamed of our ethnic origins.

Thus, for example, at the end of the Second World War, despite many of us being of German or Italian or Japanese cultural background, we were markedly deficient in people who could help implement our policies in those countries. We literally threw away the language and culture of grandparents. A few years later, when I began to study Arabic, there were said to be only five Americans not of Arab origin who knew the language. Beyond language, grasp of the broader range of culture petered off to near zero. Today, after the expenditure of significant government subsidies to universities (in the National Defense Education Act) to teach “strategic” languages, the situation should be better. But, while we now know much more, I doubt that we understand other peoples much better.

If this is true of language, it is more true of more complex aspects of cultural heritage. Take Somalia as an example. Somalia was not, as the media put it, a “failed state”; it was and is a “non-state.” That is, the Somalis do not base their effective identify as members of a nation state. Like almost everyone in the world did before recent centuries, they thought of themselves as members of clans, tribes, ethnic or religious assemblies or territories. It is we, not they, who have redefined political identity. We forget that the nation-state is a concept that was born in Europe only a few centuries ago and became accepted only late in the Nineteenth century in Germany and Italy. For the Somalis, it is still an alien construct. So, not surprisingly, our attempt to force them or entice them to shape up and act within our definition of statehood has not worked. And Somalia is not alone. And not only in Africa. Former Yugoslavia is a prime example: to be ‘balkanized’ has entered our language. And, if we peek under the flags of Indonesia, Burma, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, Mali, the Sudan and other nation-states we find powerful forces of separate ethnic nationalisms.

The effects of relations among many of the peoples of Asia and Africa and some of the Latin Americans have created new political and social configurations and imbalances within and among them. With European and American help the governments with which we deal have acquired more effective tools of repression. They can usually defeat the challenges of traditional groups. But, not always. Where they do not acquire legitimacy in the eyes of significant groups — “nations” — states risk debilitating, long-term struggles. These struggles are, in part, the result of the long years of imperial rule and colonial settlement. Since Roman times, foreign rulers have sought to cut expenses by governing through local proxies. Thus, the British turned over to the Copts the unpopular task of colleting Egyptian taxes and to the Assyrians the assignment of controlling the Iraqi Sunnis. The echo of these years is what we observe in much of the “Third World” today. Ethnic, religious and economic jealousies abound and the wounds of imperialism and colonialism have rarely completely healed. We may not be sensitive to them, but to natives they may remain painful. Americans may be the “new boys on the block,” but these memories have often been transferred to us.

Finally, fifth, as the preeminent nation-state America has a vast reach. There is practically no area of the world in which we do not have one sort of interest or another. We have over a thousand military bases in more than a hundred countries; we trade, buy and sell, manufacture or give away goods and money all over Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. We train, equip and subsidize dozens of armies and even more paramilitary or “Special” forces. This diversity is, obviously, a source of strength and richness, but, less obviously, it generates conflicts between what we wish to accomplish in one country and what we think we need to accomplish in another. At the very least, handling or balancing our diverse aims within acceptable means and at a reasonable cost is a challenge.

It is a challenge that we seem less and less able to meet.

Take Iraq as an example. As a corollary of our hostility to Saddam Husain, we essentially turned Iraq over to his enemies, the Iraqi Shia Muslim. (I deal with this in my Understanding Iraq, New York: HarperCollins, 2005, 171 ff.) There was some justification for this policy. The Shia community has long been Iraq’s majority and because they were Saddam’s enemies, some “experts” naively thought they would become our friends. But immediately two negative aspects of our policy became evident: non-specialists: first, the Shiis took vengeance on the Sunni Muslim community and so threw the country into a vicious civil war. What we called pacification amounted to ethnic cleansing. And, second, the Shia Iraqi leaders (the marjiaah) made common cause with coreligionist Iranians with whom we were nearly at war all during the second Bush administration. Had war with Iran eventuated, our troops in Iraq would have been more hostages than occupiers. At several points, we had the opportunity to form a more coherent, moral and safer policy. I don’t see evidence that our government or our occupation civil and military authorities even grasped the problem; certainly they did not find ways to work toward a solution. Whatever else may be said about it, our policy was dysfunctional.

I deserve to be challenged on this statement: I am measuring (with perhaps now somewhat weakened hindsight) recent failures against what we tried to do in the Policy Planning Council in the early 1960s. If our objective is, as we identify it, to make the world at least safe, even if not safe for democracy, we are much worse off today than we were then. We policy planners surely then made many significant mistakes (and were often not heeded), but I would argue that we worked within a more coherent framework than our government does today. Increasingly, it seems to me that we are in a mode of leaping from one crisis to the next without having understood the first or anticipating the second. I see no strategic concept; only tactical jumps and jabs.

So what to do?

At the time of the writing of the American Constitution, one of our Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris, remarked that part of the task he and others of the authors put it, was “to save the people from their most dangerous enemy, themselves.” Translated to our times, this is to guard against our being “gun slingers.” All the delegates were frightened by militarism and sought to do the absolute minimum required to protect the country from attack. They refused the government permission to engage in armed actions against foreigners except in defense. I believe they would have been horrified, if they could have conceived it, by the national security state we have become. They certainly did not look to the military to solve problems of policy. They would have agreed, I feel sure, that very few of the problem we face in the world today could be solved by military means So, even when we decide to employ military means, we need to consider not only the immediate but the long-term effects of our actions. We have, at least, the experience and the intellectual tools to do so. So why have we not?

We have been frequently misled by the success of our postwar policies toward both Germany and Japan. We successfully helped those two countries to embark upon a new era. And, during the employment of the Truman Doctrine in Greece, the civil war there ended. There were special reasons for all three being exceptions. Perhaps consequent to those successes, when we decided to destroy the regimes of Saddam Husain and Muammar Qaddafi, we gave little thought of what would follow. We more or less just assumed that things would get better. They did not. The societies imploded. Had we similarly gone into Iran, the results would have been a moral, legal and economic disaster. Now we know — or should know — that unless the risk is justified, as our Constitution demands it be by an imminent armed attack on the United States, we should not make proactive war on foreign nations. We have sworn not to do so in the treaty by which we joined the United Nations. In short, we need to be law abiding, and we should look before we leap.

Our ability to do any of these things will depend on several decisions.

The first is to be realistic: there is no switch we can flip to change our capacities. To look for quick and easy solutions is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The second is a matter of will and the costs and penalties that attach to it. We would be more careful in foreign adventures if we had to pay for them in both blood and treasure as they occurred. That is, “in real time.” We now avoid this by borrowing money abroad and by inducing or bribing vulnerable members of our society and foreigners to fight for us.. All our young men and women should know that they will be obliged to serve if we get into war, and we should not be able to defer to future generations the costs of our ventures. We should agree to pay for them through immediate taxes rather than foreign loans.

The third is to demand accountability. Our government should be legally obligated to tell us the truth. If it does not, the responsible officials should be prosecuted in our courts and, if they violate our treaties or international law, they should have to come before the World Court of Justice. We now let them off scot-free. The only “culprits” are those who carry out their orders.

Fourth, in the longer term, the only answer to the desire for better policy is better public education. For a democracy to function, its citizens must be engaged. They cannot be usefully engaged if they are not informed. Yet few Americans know even our own laws on our role in world affairs. Probably even fewer know the history of our actions abroad — that is, what we have done in the past with what results and at what cost.

And as a people we are woefully ignorant about other peoples and countries. Polls indicate that few Americans even know the locations of other nations. The saying that God created war to teach Americans geography is sacrilegious. If this was God’s purpose, He failed. And beyond geography, concerning other people’s politics, cultures and traditions, there is a nearly blank page. Isn’t it time we picked up the attempt made by such men as Sumner Wells (with his An Intelligent American’s Guide to the Peace and his American Foreign Policy Library), Robert Hutchins, James Conant and others (with the General Education programs in colleges and universities) and various other failed efforts to make us a part of humanity?

On the surface, at least, resurrecting these programs is just a matter of (a small amount of) money. But results won’t come overnight. Our education system is stogy, our teachers are poorly trained and poorly paid, and we, the consumers, are distracted by quicker, easier gratifications than learning about world affairs. I had hoped that we would learn from the “real schools” of Vietnam and other failures, but we did not. The snippets of information which pass over our heads each day do not and cannot make a coherent pattern. Absent a matrix into which to place “news,” it is meaningless. I have suggested in a previous essay that we are in a situation like a computer without a program. We get the noise, but without a means to “read” it, it is just gibberish.

Our biggest challenge therefore comes down to us: unless or until we find a better system of teaching, of becoming aware that we need to learn and a desire to acquire the tools of citizenship, we cannot hope to move toward a safer, more enriching future.

This is a long-term task.

We had better get started.

William R. Polk was a professor of history at the University of Chicago. During the Kennedy and part of the Johnson administrations, he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Among his books are “Understanding Iraq, Violent Politics and Understanding Iran.” He is vice chairman of the W.P. Carey Foundation

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Part 2: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Segregation, Housing Discrimination and “The Case for Reparations”

Democracy Now May 30, 2014

We air part two of our interview with famed essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates about his cover article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” in which he exposes how slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and federally backed housing policy have systematically robbed African Americans of their possessions and prevented them from accruing inter-generational wealth. “It puts a lie to the myth that African Americans who act right, who are respectable, are somehow therefore immune to the plunder that is symptomatic of white supremacy in this country,” Coates says. “It does not matter. There’s no bettering yourself that will get you out of this.”

Watch Part 1 of this interview.

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(Image: Library of Congress)

Obama: Ike Redivivus?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online March 11, 2014
In critique of the George W. Bush administration, and in praise of the perceived foreign-policy restraint of Obama’s first five years in the White House, a persistent myth has arisen that Obama is reminiscent of Eisenhower — in the sense of being a president who kept America out of other nations’ affairs and did not waste blood and treasure chasing imaginary enemies.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Andrew Bacevich, Fareed Zakaria (“Why Barack Is like Ike”), and a host of others have made such romantic, but quite misleading, arguments about the good old days under the man they consider the last good Republican president.

Ike was no doubt a superb president. Yet while he could be sober and judicious in deploying American forces abroad, he was hardly the non-interventionist of our present fantasies, who is so frequently used and abused to score partisan political points.

There is a strange disconnect about Eisenhower’s supposed policy of restraint, especially in reference to the Middle East, and his liberal use of the CIA in covert operations. While romanticizing Ike, we often deplore the 1953 coup in Iran and the role of the CIA, but seem to forget that it was Ike who ordered the CIA intervention that helped to lead to the ouster of Mossadegh and to bring the Shah to absolute power. Ike thought that he saw threats to Western oil supplies, believed that Mossadegh was both unstable and a closet Communist, sensed the covert hand of the Soviet Union at work, was won over by the arguments of British oil politics, and therefore simply decided Mossadegh should go — and he did.

Ike likewise ordered the CIA-orchestrated removal of the leaders of Guatemala and the Congo. He bequeathed to JFK the plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion, which had been born on the former’s watch. His bare-faced lie that a U-2 spy plane had not been shot down in Russia did terrible damage to U.S. credibility at the time.

The Eisenhower administration formulated the domino theory, and Ike was quite logically the first U.S. president to insert American advisers into Southeast Asia, a move followed by a formal SEATO defense treaty to protect most of Southeast Asia from Communist aggression — one of the most interventionist commitments of the entire Cold War, which ended with over 58,000 Americans dead in Vietnam and helicopters fleeing from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

Eisenhower’s “New Look” foreign policy of placing greater reliance on threats to use nuclear weapons, unleashing the CIA, and crafting new entangling alliances may have fulfilled its short-term aims of curbing the politically unpopular and costly use of conventional American troops overseas. Its long-term ramifications, however, became all too clear in the 1960s and 1970s. Mostly, Ike turned to reliance on nuke-rattling because of campaign promises to curb spending and balance the budget by cutting conventional defense forces — which earned him the furor of Generals Omar Bradley, Douglas MacArthur, and Matthew Ridgway.

In many ways, Eisenhower’s Mideast policy lapsed into incoherency, notably in the loud condemnation of the 1956 British-French operations in Suez (after Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal), which otherwise might have weakened or toppled Nasser. This stance of Eisenhower’s (who was up for reelection) may have also contradicted prior tacit assurances to the British that the U.S. would in fact look the other way.

The unexpected American opposition eroded transatlantic relations for years as well as helped to topple the Eden government in Britain. Somehow all at once the U.S. found itself humiliating its two closest allies, empowering Nasser, and throwing its lot in with the Soviet Union and the oil blackmailers of Saudi Arabia — with ramifications for the ensuing decades.

Yet just two years later, Ike ordered 15,000 troops into Lebanon to prevent a coup and the establishment of an anti-Western government — precisely those anti-American forces that had been emboldened by the recent Suez victory of the pan-Arabist Nasser. We forget that Ike was nominated not just in opposition to the non-interventionist policies of Robert Taft, but also as an antidote to the purportedly milk-toast Truman administration, which had supposedly failed to confront global Communism and thereby “lost” much of Asia.

Eisenhower gave wonderful speeches about the need to curtail costly conventional forces and to avoid overseas commitments, but much of his defense strategy was predicated on a certain inflexible and dangerous reliance on nuclear brinksmanship. In 1952 he ran to the right of the departing Harry Truman on the Korean War, and unleashed Nixon to make the argument of Democratic neo-appeasement in failing to get China out of Korea. Yet when he assumed office, Eisenhower soon learned that hinting at the use of nuclear weapons did not change the deadlock near the 38th Parallel. Over 3,400 casualties (including perhaps over 800 dead) were incurred during the Eisenhower administration’s first six months. Yet the July 1953 ceasefire ended the war with roughly the same battlefield positions as when Ike entered office. Pork Chop Hill — long before John Kerry’s baleful notion about the last man to die in Vietnam — became emblematic of a futile battle on the eve of a negotiated stalemate.

Ike’s occasional opportunism certainly turned off more gifted field generals like Matthew Ridgway, who found it ironic that candidate Ike had cited a lack of American resolve to finish the Korean War with an American victory, only to institutionalize Ridgway’s much-criticized but understandable restraint after his near-miraculous restoration of South Korea. In addition, Ridgway deplored the dangerous false economy of believing that postwar conventional forces could be pruned while the U.S. could rely instead on threatening the use of nuclear weapons. He almost alone foresaw rightly that an emerging concept of mutually assured destruction would make the conventional Army and Marines as essential as ever.

As a footnote, Eisenhower helped to marginalize the career of Ridgway, the most gifted U.S. battlefield commander of his era. Ike bore grudges and was petty enough to write, quite untruthfully, that General James Van Fleet, not Ridgway, had recaptured Seoul — even though the former had not even yet arrived in the Korean theater. That unnecessary snub was reminiscent of another to his former patron George Marshall during the campaign of 1952. Ridgway, remember, would later talk Eisenhower out of putting more advisers into Vietnam.

The problem with the Obama administration is not that it does or does not intervene, given the differing contours of each crisis, but rather that it persists in giving loud sermons that bear no relationship to the actions that do or do not follow: red lines in Syria followed by Hamlet-like deliberations and acceptance of Putin’s bogus WMD removal plan; flip-flop-flip in Egypt; in Libya, lead from behind followed by Benghazi and chaos; deadlines and sanctions to no deadlines and no sanctions with Iran; reset reset with Russia; constant public scapegoating of his predecessors, especially Bush; missile defense and then no missile defense in Eastern Europe; Guantanamo, renditions, drones, and preventive detentions all bad in 2008 and apparently essential in 2009; civilian trials for terrorists and then not; and Orwellian new terms like overseas contingency operations, workplace violence, man-caused disasters, a secular Muslim Brotherhood, jihad as a personal journey, and a chief NASA mission being outreach to Muslims. We forget that the non-interventionist policies of Jimmy Carter abruptly ended with his bellicose “Carter Doctrine” — birthed after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, American hostages were taken in Tehran and Khomeinists had taken power, China went into Vietnam, and Communist insurgencies swept Central America.

As for Dwight Eisenhower, of course he was an admirable and successful president who squared the circle of trying to contain expansionary Soviet and Chinese Communism at a time when the postwar American public was rightly tired of war, while balancing three budgets, building infrastructure, attempting to deal with civil rights, and promoting economic growth. Yet the Republican Ike continued for six months the identical Korean War policies of his unpopular Democratic predecessor Harry Truman, and helped to lay the foundation for the Vietnam interventions of his successors, Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. That the initial blow-ups in Korea and Vietnam bookended his own administration may have been a matter of luck, given his own similar interventionist Cold War policies.

Bush was probably no Ike (few are), and certainly Obama is not either. But to score contemporary political points against one and for the other by reinventing Eisenhower into a model non-interventionist is a complete distortion of history. So should we laugh or cry at the fantasies offered by Andrew Bacevich? He writes: “Remember the disorder that followed the Korean War? It was called the Eisenhower era, when budgets balanced, jobs were plentiful and no American soldiers died in needless wars.”

In fact, the post–Korean War “Eisenhower era” was characterized by only three balanced budgets (in at least one case with some budget gimmickry) out of the remaining seven Eisenhower years. In 1958 the unemployment rate spiked at over 7 percent for a steady six months. Bacevich’s simplistic notion that “jobs were plentiful” best applies to the first six months of 1953, when Ike entered office and, for the only time during his entire tenure, the jobless rate was below 3 percent — coinciding roughly with the last six months of fighting the Korean War. This was an age, remember, when we had not yet seen the West German, South Korean, and Japanese democratic and economic miracles (all eventually due to U.S. interventions and occupations), China and Russia were in ruins, Western Europe was still recovering from the war, Britain had gone on a nationalizing binge, and for a brief time the U.S. was largely resupplying the world, and mostly alone — almost entirely with its own oil, gas, and coal. Eisenhower’s term was characterized by intervention in Lebanon, fighting for stalemate in Korea, CIA-led coups and assassinations, the insertion of military advisers into Vietnam, new anti-Communist treaty entanglements to protect Southeast Asian countries, a complete falling out with our European allies, abject lies about spy flights over the Soviet Union, serial nuclear saber-rattling, and Curtis LeMay’s nuclear-armed overflights of the Soviet Union — in other words, the not-so-abnormal stuff of a Cold War presidency.

And the idea that, to quote from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Eisenhower “could then take enormous pride in the fact that not a single soldier had died in combat during his time” is, well, unhinged.

National Review Online contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals

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HNN  December 2, 2013
Image via Wiki Commons.

“The Majesty of the People had disappeared,” Washington, D.C., gossip Margaret Bayard Smith wrote disapprovingly, replaced by “a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros, women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping.” Smith was not describing a riot in the nation’s capital but the inaugural festivities of President Andrew Jackson in March 1829. What else would one expect of the common man’s president, an uneducated western frontiersman who only escaped his supporters’ enthusiasm on Inaugural Day by crawling out of a window?

That image of Jackson, which continues to resonate in American culture, needs refining. By the time he became president, Jackson was hardly the country bumpkin that his critics believed him to be. Instead, he was a wealthy southern planter who owned nearly 100 slaves who lived on a large estate called the Hermitage just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, where Jackson also housed a stable of racehorses. In today’s terms, he would have been a multimillionaire candidate entering the White House.

The traditional narrative of Jackson’s life — a commoner who worked hard to lift himself into the presidency — is hardly a new one. Ever since his victory in 1828, presidential campaigns have employed this trope as a signal that their candidate understands the average American. One need only look at a few examples to see that this tactic has been used by the presidents whom Americans consider their greatest (the rail-splitting, self-taught lawyer Abraham Lincoln), as well as those in recent decades (the simple Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter and Texas everyman George W. Bush). Even Barack Obama can rightly claim to have overcome the challenges faced as the child in a single-parent household. Americans want to believe that their presidents comprehend the struggles that they face, that their backgrounds assure their understanding of a democratic society in which every voice matters.

The reality, of course, is that each of the above-named men possessed advantages that enabled them to win the presidency. Lincoln was a successful lawyer working railroad contracts when he ran in 1860. According to his biographer, David H. Donald, Lincoln hated physical labor. Carter’s background as peanut farmer called up images of him walking onto the campaign trail having just finished working in a straw hat in the hot Georgia sun; in actuality, Carter had turned his father’s farm into a profitable corporation. Both Bush and Obama were products of Ivy League institutions, with Bush having the added advantage of a grandfather who served in the U.S. Senate and a father who served as U.S. president. All of these men also had business, political, and social networks that allowed them the opportunity to vie for the presidency. In other words, none of them were self-made men.

The same was true of Andrew Jackson, whose ascension to elite status began long before he reached the presidency. During the years prior to his move to Tennessee, he was exposed to various examples of southern gentlemen. Jackson grew up in an area along the North Carolina-South Carolina border called the Waxhaws. While his immediate family was not well-off, members of Jackson’s extended family living in the area owned significant land acreage and several slaves. Both gave them social status in the community. When Jackson moved to Charleston as a teenager, he witnessed the lives of southern gentlemen in an urban setting. As a port city, Charleston served as a center of news, commerce, and trade; during his time there, Jackson could not help but see the importance of social networking and slavery in creating a gentry lifestyle. His decision to read law indicated his realization that the legal profession carried with it a mark of success. During his time as a law student in North Carolina, Jackson also became more aware of the centrality of kinship networks to social advancement. His peers were young men connected, by blood or friendship, to some of the wealthiest and most important state leaders. Indeed, it was a member of Jackson’s own network who gave him the appointment that brought him to Middle Tennessee.

Jackson was already regarded as an elite gentleman before he stepped foot in the Nashville settlement, however. His elevated status is clear for two reasons. First, he purchased his first slave, a woman by the name of Nancy, during a months-long stay in the East Tennessee town of Jonesboro. Jackson’s lack of a permanent residence suggests that Nancy’s purchase was not for utilitarian purposes but to indicate a lifestyle of prosperity. Second, Jackson engaged in a duel with an older, prominent attorney, Waightstill Avery. Their dispute centered on a court case, which led Jackson to challenge his courtroom opponent to a deadlier contest. The duel did not result in injury for either party, but it still proved important for the messages that it sent about Jackson. In southern culture, only elite white men could participate in duels. That Jackson felt secure enough in his social position to issue the challenge, and that Avery answered his challenge, indicated Jackson’s own sense of standing and the community’s recognition of his rank.

Jackson’s entrée into elite southern society is often traced to his marriage into the Donelson family, whose patriarch had been one of Nashville’s co-founders. In reality, Jackson was already part of the gentry class, but his decision to marry Rachel Donelson Robards furthered his advancement. The Donelson kinship network gave Jackson access to businessmen and politicians who helped him become a land speculator, a U.S. congressman, judge, and militia general. He used the financial advantages that accrued to him to begin establishing the agricultural enterprise that culminated in his Hermitage plantation.

Jackson’s military career only solidified and enhanced his social status. His generalship helped push Native American tribes off of millions of acres of land in the South and defeat the mighty British army at New Orleans. But as important as those exploits were to his political career, the war brought other benefits. His kinship network expanded to include members of the military who served with him, soldiers such as John Eaton and William B. Lewis. These men were well-connected in their own right and provided their military superior with access to money and influence that would have escaped him otherwise. The land that Jackson and his men seized from Indians, both during and after the war, also proved a source of profitability. Jackson speculated in Alabama and Florida lands, buying cheap and, in the case of Alabama, establishing farms to supplement the revenue generate at his main landholdings in Middle Tennessee.

The Jackson that Margaret Bayard Smith and other Washingtonians decried in 1829 existed merely as a symbol. Old Hickory was not as refined as the Adamses who served as chief executive, nor as aristocratic as the Virginia presidents. But neither was he the vulgar leader of “raving Democracy” that inaugurated the “reign of KING MOB,” as contemporaries observed. Andrew Jackson was a man who had taken advantage of hard work, networking, and a little bit of luck to become a successful member of elite southern society. While he embraced his symbolism as the champion of the common man, Jackson also lived the life of a southern gentleman until his death in June 1845. Ignoring that southern identity misses the complexity of the president with whom the flourishing of American democracy has been most closely associated.

Mark R. Cheathem is Associate Professor of History at Cumberland University. He is the author of Andrew Jackson, Southerner and blogs at http://jacksonianamerica.com/blog/.

- See more at: http://hnn.us/article/154093#sthash.cX9c4Vsf.dpuf

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Foto

Martin Luther King durante su histórico discurso I have a dream, el 28 de agosto de 1963 Foto AP

La feroz urgencia del ahora

David Brooks

La Jornada, 2 de setiembre de 2013

Cuentan que el 28 de agosto de 1963 fue un día de verano soleado y caluroso, y que aun antes de iniciar la Marcha sobre Washington por Empleos y Libertad asustó no sólo a Washington, sino a gran parte de Estados Unidos. El sueño que estaba por proclamarse era subversivo y quien ofrecería ese mensaje era considerado el hombre desarmado más peligroso de Estados Unidos.

El gobierno de John F. Kennedy intentó persuadir a los organizadores de suspender su acto y ese día colocó 4 mil elementos antimotines en los suburbios y 15 mil en alerta; los hospitales se prepararon para recibir víctimas de la violencia potencial, y los tribunales para procesar a miles de detenidos, cuenta el historiador Taylor Branch. Colocaron agentes con instrucciones de apagar el sistema de sonido si los discursos incitaban a la sublevación. La idea de que la capital sería sitiada por oleadas masivas de afroestadunidenses provocó alarma entre la cúpula política y los medios tradicionales.

El orador principal, el reverendo Martin Luther King, era considerado un radical peligroso y estaba bajo vigilancia de la FBI de J. Edgar Hoover. El jefe de inteligencia doméstica de la FBI calificó al reverendo que encabezaba esa marcha de el negro más peligroso para el futuro de esta nación desde la perspectiva del comunismo, el negro y la seguridad nacional. Todos esperaban desorden masivo. Pero ese día cientos de miles –un tercio de ellos blancos, algo nunca visto– llegaron pacíficamente a participar en un momento que muchos dicen cambió a Estados Unidos.

“King no era peligroso para el país, sino para el statu quo… King era peligroso porque no aceptaba en silencio –ni permitía que un pueblo cansado aceptara silenciosamente ya– las cosas como estaban. Insistió en que todos nos imagináramos –soñáramos– lo que podría y debería ser”, escribió Charles Blow, columnista del New York Times.

Es allí, dicen muchos, donde se inauguró lo que se recuerda como los 60, uno de los auges democráticos (en su sentido real) más importantes de la historia estadunidense.

Hace unos días la cúpula política, la intelectualidad acomodada y los principales medios festejaron el 50 aniversario del acto con la versión oficial pulida y patriótica de la marcha que King ofreció uno de los discursos más famosos de la historia de este país, Yo tengo un sueño.

Al festejar el aniversario, se ha debatido sobre el significado de esa marcha y el discurso de King, tanto en su momento como hoy día. Algunos concluyen que el sueño de King está expresado en el hecho de que el primer presidente afroestadunidense, Barack Obama, ofreció un discurso para celebrar el aniversario en el Monumento a Lincoln, el mismo lugar donde King ofreció históricas palabras hace cinco décadas. Ahí habló de los cambios que King promovió, también reconoció que esa lucha no ha concluido.

Aunque nadie disputa los cambios dramáticos y los logros en cuanto a la lucha frontal contra la segregación institucional, tampoco se puede disputar que mucho de lo que dijo King en 1963 tendría que repetirlo 50 años después.

Hoy día hay más hombres negros encarcelados que esclavos en 1850 (según el trabajo de la extraordinaria académica Michelle Alexander); varios estados han promovido nuevas medidas para obstaculizar el acceso de las minorías a las urnas; el desempleo entre afroestadunidenses es casi el doble que entre blancos, casi igual que en 1963; el número de afroestadunidenses menores de edad que viven en la pobreza es casi el triple que el de los blancos en la misma condición; uno de cada tres niños afroestadunidenses nacidos en 2001 enfrentan el riesgo de acabar en la cárcel.

A la vez, la desigualdad económica entre pobres y ricos ha llegado a su nivel más alto desde la gran depresión. Mientras las empresas reportan ganancias récord, los ingresos de los trabajadores continúan a la baja. Más aún, una de las demandas de la marcha de 1963 fue un incremento al salario mínimo federal, que hoy se ubica en 7.25 dólares la hora, lo que es, en términos reales, inferior al que prevalecía hace 50 años, según el Instituto de Política Económica. Ejemplo de ello fue la protesta de trabajadores de restaurantes de comida rápida en más de 50 ciudades que exigieron el doble de dicho salario, la semana pasada.

Al conmemorar el aniversario, Obama destacó la brecha económica entre pobres y ricos, pero no asumió la responsabilidad de que durante su presidencia se sigue ampliando, y evitó mencionar otras políticas que ha promovido o tolerado con consecuencias terribles para comunidades minoritarias y/o pobres como las deportaciones sin precedente de inmigrantes latinoamericanos, y el sistema penal más grande y tal vez más racista del mundo.

Muchos opinan que no es justo comparar a King con Obama, ya que uno era profeta y el otro es sólo un político.

Pero la omisión más notable durante los elogios al profeta por los políticos en estos días –justo cuando la cúpula política estadunidense contempla abiertamente otro ataque militar contra otro país (Siria)– fue cualquier referencia a las guerras.

King vinculó cada vez más la lucha de los derechos civiles con la injusticia económica y, peor, con las políticas bélicas de su país. Advirtió en 1967 que la democracia estadunidense estaba amenazada por el terno gigantesco del racismo, el materialismo extremo y el militarismo. Y declaró que no podría seguir llamando a sus seguidores a emplear la no violencia si no condenaba las políticas de guerra de Washington: Sabía que nunca más podría elevar la voz contra la violencia por los oprimidos en los guetos sin primero hablar claramente ante el más grande proveedor de violencia en el mundo hoy día, mi propio gobierno.

King, en su discurso del sueño en 1963, insistió en que las injusticias se tenían que abordar en lo que llamó la feroz urgencia del ahora. Cincuenta años después, ese ahora es más urgente que nunca.

Fuente: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2013/09/02/opinion/026o1mun

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AHuellas2caba de salir el cuarto número de la revista on-line Huellas de los Estados Unidos. Estudios, perspectivas y debates desde América Latina. Este número está dedicado al análisis de las recientes elecciones presidenciales norteamericanas con  trabajos de Tom Engelhardt (creador de la famosa y valiosa TomDispatch.com), del puertorriqueño Raúl L. Cotto Serrano, de Valeria L. Carbone y de Fabio Nigra, entre otros.

Completan este número un grupo de ensayos dedicados a temas tan variados como esclavitud, raza e ideología,  guerra fría y criminalidad en Puerto Rico, así como también un análisis de la película  El Álamo (1960).

Nuestras felicitaciones a lo editores de Huellas de los Estados Unidos por otra aportación valiosa al estudio  de los Estados Unidos en América Latina.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez, PhD

Lima, Perú, 18 de marzo de 2013

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Comparto con todos ustedes mi participación el pasado 8 de noviembre en el programa HablaPUCP, donde fui entrevistado por el Dr. Eduardo Dargent sobre el resultado de las elecciones estadounidenses.

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