Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
They Said It:
I dwell this time only on the question of style – What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole – the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms – expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner, 1888.
DECADENCE AND THE RULING CLASS.
We will admit that we have been particularly pessimistic about the state of the world these last few months. And why shouldn’t we be? Everywhere, one hears echoes of Yeats’ lament from the dark days of 1919: “The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
There is revolution in Ukraine, which will all but certainly lead to greater drama and greater tension between the fiscal basket cases of the West and the multifaceted basket case of Russia. There is also revolution in Venezuela, where Cuban soldiers have been sent to prop up the remnants of the only other Marxist dictatorship in the hemisphere. The Far East appears on the brink of war – or several wars, as the case may be – with the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans all eagerly jockeying to achieve some position of power, at least in the region. And then there is the greater Middle East, which is engaged in a regional war in all but name. The Sunnis are battling the Shiites; al Qaeda is battling Iran and its proxies; and everyone hates the Great Satan, perhaps more than they ever have.
“The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.”
At the same time, we think it is worth remembering that the state of the world has been at least this dreadful, if not worse, many times before, only to see everything work out well in the end. In Yeats’ 1919, for example, the world was attempting to recover from the horrors of World War I, which had been witness to the first use of poison gas, the first mass bombings of civilian targets, the first modern-day instance of genocide, and the first use of machine guns and other such weaponry to inflict mass casualties. Some nine million combatants had lost their lives in the war. The bodies of half of those killed had never be identified or recovered from the battlefields. And then, of course, there was the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic which had infected one fifth of the world’s population and killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide.
More recently and closer to home, in the 1970s, the United States, the last best hope of earth, was the second of the great superpowers, at least in the estimation of most of those who were paid to pay attention to such things. The Soviets were ascendant. Americans were scurrying home with their proverbial tail tucked between their legs. The oil shocks of the early part of the decade had unnerved the Western elites, as had the decade-long debacle in Vietnam. A lethargy of sorts had enveloped the “free world.” The Russians were expanding their reach and their nuclear advantage. The Middle East – then, as now, as always – was in flames. The newly radicalized Iranians held more than four dozen American diplomats hostage and, in so doing, held the United States itself hostage. Worst of all, of course, nuclear war seemed inevitable. In short, the world was a gray and depressing place.
Indeed, at the end of the decade, the President of United States himself had all but thrown in the towel, declaring in a speech to the entire nation that “the symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years . . . . What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action . . .”
Why, then, does the world seem so perilous today, even by comparison to the bad old days? After all, the “malaise” of the late ‘70s was followed by two decades of extraordinary growth, by unanticipated peace and prosperity. Given this, why does our pessimism stretch beyond the near-term horizon, beyond the current crises, indefinitely into the future? Why do we worry that the global unraveling will, at some point, come to affect us directly and profoundly?
The answers to these questions are, obviously, quite complicated. Part of the answer has to do with the fact that in the three-plus decades since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the world’s turmoil has spilled directly over onto American soil more than once, causing heretofore unknown and uncontemplated suffering and pain. The bigger part of it, though, has less to do with what is actually going on in the world than with the sad state of the American ruling class.
Bear with us briefly, if you will, as we take a stroll down memory lane to explain why we are thusly concerned that the problems of the current epoch likely constitute a far greater threat to the free world than any of its predecessors, despite their seeming lesser consequence.
Ronald Reagan is, for the most part, dismissed by historians as a simple man, a man who saw events and adversaries only in black and white. He is scorned by these visionaries as an “amiable dunce,” to borrow a phrase from the liberal savant Clark Clifford. And his greatest foreign policy achievement – the destruction of the Soviet “evil empire” – is written off as dumb luck, with the emphasis on “dumb.” He just happened, goes the liberal trope, to be in the right place at the right time and, managed somehow, not to screw up the historical inevitability of the Communist collapse.
In 1977, two years after the GOP narrowly avoided nominating him the first time, Governor Reagan openly and unapologetically declared, “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.” Such pronouncements from a would-be president were considered shocking, at best, and more accurately world-endangeringly treacherous. This “B-Movie” actor appeared bound and determined to upset the balance of power and, in so doing, push the world to the brink of destruction. He was reckless and unsafe. Or so we were told.
The truth of the matter is that Reagan was a “B-Teamer” in more than just the cinematic sense. He was also a supporter of, an advocate for, and an adherent to the policy conclusions reached by the famous “Team B.”
Team B, for those of you who may not be old enough to recall, was a CIA operation undertaken the 1976 at the request of then-Director of Central Intelligence George H.W. Bush. Bush agreed to allow the Agency to engage in what was known as “competitive analysis” in advance of the 1977 National Intelligence Estimate on Soviet Strategic Objectives (the NIE, for short). The CIA’s “Team A,” comprised of in-agency analysts was to put together its usual analysis, but this time, an additional analysis would be produced by “Team B,” which consisted of three groups of outside experts chosen for their knowledge, their distinction in their fields of study, and their general wariness of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine that dominated American estimates of Soviet intentions.
Team B was headed by Richard Pipes, the eminent Russian historian and the father of our old friend, Daniel Pipes, the eminent Middle East historian. In 1986, when the findings of Team B were still highly classified, the elder Pipes took to the pages of Commentary to explain what happened, why it happened, and why it all mattered. Among other things, he wrote the following:
Team B’s report remains highly classified. Its classification is so restrictive as to grant access to it only to a very small number of persons among the many who have a professional interest in it. I cannot help feeling that such extreme restrictiveness has less to do with the sensitivity of its material than with the political embarrassment that it has caused the CIA. It should certainly be possible to remove from it references to the classified data and to release publicly a sanitized version.
Be that as it may, it is not possible at this time to reveal the contents of Team B’s report, and one can refer to it only in the most general terms. The report charged that in estimating Soviet strategic objectives the CIA had consistently engaged in “mirror-imaging,” including insertions of un-proven assumptions about Soviet behavior, as well as surreptitious “net assessments.” The products of such faulty methodology had served to buttress the apparent belief of the Agency’s analysts that the Soviet Union, like the United States, accepted the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine and built its strategic arsenal for strictly defensive (retaliatory) purposes. Without actually proving the point with reference to U.S. capabilities (which they were enjoined from doing), CIA analysts had conveyed the impression that the Soviet strategic build-up presented no threat to U.S. security.
The political implications of such an assessment happened to favor détente and to place the main burden for its success on the United States, to the extent that Soviet deviations from MAD were ascribed to Russian paranoia that America alone could assuage. Although the Agency’s analysts had a great deal of both “hard” (technical) and “soft” (verbal) evidence to demonstrate if not necessarily the validity then at least the feasibility of another interpretation, they chose to ignore it. Their approach indicated neither knowledge of Russia and Communism nor concern with these subjects: they treated the Soviet threat as if it derived from inanimate objects, not from the people who stood behind them.
We, on our part, concluded that the evidence indicated beyond reasonable doubt that the Soviet leadership did not subscribe to MAD but regarded nuclear weapons as tools of war whose proper employment, in offensive as well as defensive modes, promised victory. Soviet nuclear strategy had to be seen in the context of “grand strategy.” We also suggested procedures for the preparation of NIE’s that would ensure that such faults as we had identified would not recur: they essentially boiled down to the proposition that Soviet nuclear programs be interpreted in Soviet, not American, terms.
Pipes continued in this same vein for several pages, noting that the work he and the others did with Team B had a profound impact on some thinkers in the foreign policy community, even as they had precisely the opposite effect on the Democrats who controlled the Congressional foreign affairs apparatus. Among those whose thinking Team B affected was the man who put the team together, George Bush, and his eventual boss in the White House. Pipes put it this way:
The subject which remains to be discussed is Team B’s influence on the attitudes of the U.S. government and public opinion toward the Soviet nuclear threat. Such matters are inherently difficult to appraise. Team B did not so much come up with fresh revelations as articulate and justify doubts about Soviet intentions which had been gaining ground among political and military experts for some time. Such impact as it exerted resulted from the fact that it stated what many were thinking but did not dare to say. This is confirmed by the speed with which the views of Team B, once the spell of conformity had been broken, spread in and out of government . . . .
Within the government, as I have noted, the views advanced by Team B initially affected thinking through the revised 1977 NIE and its successors. In the years that followed, the Agency’s analysts ceased to “mirror-image”: this fact alone gives the lie to the charge that Team B had “pressured” the Agency to alter its 1977 estimate. In fact, miniature Team B’s had existed all along inside the intelligence community, the CIA included, but they were silenced by the official consensus and confined to cautionary remarks and dissenting footnotes. Team B gave these minority views such strong and persuasive support that they emerged on top . . . .
No less important were parallel shifts in public opinion. Here a major contribution was made by the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a bipartisan body of prominent public figures founded in Washington in the summer of 1976 . . . .
Early in 1977 I was invited to join CPD’s Executive Committee and wrote two programmatic statements for it, one on Soviet global strategy (“What Is the Soviet Union Up To?”), the other on Soviet arms-control policies (“Why the Soviet Union Wants SALT II”). Under the skilled direction of Charles Tyroler, CPD conducted press conferences, commissioned opinion polls, and released facts and figures on the strategic balance. In the propitious atmosphere created by the Team B controversy, public interest was keen. CPD had much influence on public perceptions of the Soviet threat, with the result that voters soon took a more favorable view of increased defense expenditures and a more critical one of SALT II, which CPD selected as its particular target . . . .
By the time President Reagan took office, the views of Team B and CPD were unmistakably in the ascendant. A remarkable shift in public opinion had taken place, which helped the new administration to proceed with its ambitious program of defense procurements. Several commentators, seeking to define President Reagan’s views on foreign and defense policies, found their source in Team B. It did not escape them, either, that nearly thirty of the officials whom Reagan — himself a member of CPD — chose for high posts in the first weeks of his administration belonged to the Committee on the Present Danger, an organization that saw eye-to-eye with Team B. President Reagan’s distaste for arms control as a political tool, his insistence on building up first offensive nuclear forces and then anti-nuclear defenses, all rested on the premise that the USSR held a different view of the utility of nuclear weapons from the United States, regarding them as guarantors not of peace but of victory. From this premise it followed that if the U.S. deterrent were to prove effective it had to be constructed in terms that were credible to the Soviet General Staff, even if they held no appeal for American civilian strategists.
Among those on the CPD whom Reagan hired was none other than Richard Pipes, who, for the first two years of the Reagan presidency, served as the director of East European and Soviet Affairs on the National Security Council.
Now, longtime readers will undoubtedly know that Pipes was hardly the only “outside-the-box” thinker to serve on Reagan’s National Security Council or to have a significant impact on Reagan’s thinking with respect to the Soviets and the challenge that they presented. Our old friend Roger Robinson, for example, served on Reagan’s NSC for two years as the Senior Director of International Economic affairs, which is to say that he was “responsible for all economic, financial, trade, and energy relationships of the United States worldwide for NSC.”
Among other projects, Robinson worked on the sabotage of the Soviet economy. As we have noted before in these pages, the strategies developed by Robinson and the NSC and implemented by the Reagan administration are spelled out in three formerly secret but now declassiﬁed National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs Numbers 32, 66, and 75, issued in 1982 and 1983, respectively). These Directives document the lengths to which the Reagan team went to incapacitate the Soviet economy by hitting it where it hurt, in the energy sector. To wit:
To foster restraint . . . in Soviet military spending . . . by forcing the USSR to bear the brunt of its economic shortcomings, and to encourage long-term liberalization and nationalist tendencies within the Soviet Union and allied countries.” (#32)
An agreement [between the United States and its European allies] not to “commit to any incremental deliveries of Soviet gas beyond the amounts contracted for from the ﬁrst strand of the Siberian pipeline . . . (#66)
A quick agreement that allied security interests require controls on [the sale to the USSR of] advanced technology and equipment…including equipment in the oil and gas sector . . . (#66)
U.S. policy on economic relations with the USSR must serve strategic and foreign policy goals as well as economic interests. In this context, U.S. objectives are:
– above all to ensure that East-West economic relations do not facilitate the Soviet military buildup . . . .
– To avoid subsidizing the Soviet economy or unduly easing the burden of Soviet resource allocation decisions, so as not to dilute pressures for structural change in the Soviet system.
– To seek to minimize the potential for Soviet exercise of reverse leverage on Western Countries based on trade, energy, supply, and ﬁnancial relationships.” (#75)
As it turns out, Reagan was an early adopter of what has since come to be known as “the resource curse,” or the “paradox of plenty,” a socio-economic phenomenon that explains why many resource-rich nations remain economically backward and why they are therefore incredibly susceptible to the disruption of the production and/or distribution of those resources. What Reagan understood – and set about to capitalize on – was the fact that the Soviet economy was built on smoke and mirrors, that its socialism was highly destructive, and that said destruction was both exacerbated and masked by the country’s energy wealth. He and his team understood that a strategic effort to reduce the price of energy could, miracle of miracles, undermine the entire Soviet economy and eventually the Soviet Union itself.
The point of all of this – if you haven’t yet guessed – is to note, simply, that most of what the chattering class believes it “knows” about the Cold War, about the Soviet collapse, and about the Reagan administration’s role in that collapse is flat wrong. Reagan was no amiable dunce. He was, rather, a brave and independent thinker who surrounded himself with other brave and independent thinkers.
The fact of the matter is that Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Roger Robinson, Richard Pipes, and countless others spent the late 1970s and early 1980s pondering the conventional wisdom that had dominated the foreign policy discussion for more than three decades and that had generally informed the decisions and the behavior of the nation’s leaders over the course of those decades. And then they defied that “wisdom.” The Reagan B-Teamers were faced with a world in turmoil, with a set of seemingly intractable problems. But rather than give up or resign themselves and their country to their fate, they fought back by questioning the conventional wisdom, by dismissing it entirely, and by being thoughtful, resourceful, and creative. In short, they behaved as leaders should. They risked their own careers and reputations to face down the Soviet Bear. And they beat him.
Meanwhile, back in the present, while rioters are being shot by snipers in Kiev and protesting beauty queens are being gunned down by Venezuelan or CUBAN forces in Caracas, the Obama administration is making its own strategic plans, promising to . . . gut the military. While al Qaeda is taking over the fight against Iran in both Syria and Iraq; while Afghani President Hamid Karzai thumbs his nose at the remaining coalition forces left in his country; while China and Japan inch ever closer to armed conflict over barren pieces of rock; the American president and his dim-witted Secretary of Defense are promising to cut the armed forces back to pre-World War II levels. The New York Times provides the details:
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup and eliminate an entire class of Air Force attack jets in a new spending proposal that officials describe as the first Pentagon budget to aggressively push the military off the war footing adopted after the terror attacks of 2001 . . . .
Officials who saw an early draft of the announcement acknowledge that budget cuts will impose greater risk on the armed forces if they are again ordered to carry out two large-scale military actions at the same time: Success would take longer, they say, and there would be a larger number of casualties. Officials also say that a smaller military could invite adventurism by adversaries.
Ah. “Success would take longer,” they say. Longer than what, exactly? We are now twelve-plus years into the campaign in Afghanistan with “success” nowhere in sight. And we’re going to ensure, through cuts, that it takes even longer in the future? Well, at least we’ll still have our nuclear deterrent.
What’s that you say? Obama has promised to cut the American nuclear by at least a third, if not more? Oh. Well. Never mind.
Of course, this being the Obama administration, it actually gets worse. Last week, while Vladimir Putin was plotting his strategy for Ukraine, while the Castro brothers were sending troops to disperse the crowds in Venezuela, while war on the borders of Europe became frighteningly possible, Team Obama’s Secretary of State, one John F. Kerry (Tweedle Dee to Hagel’s Tweedle Dum) took to the world stage to decry the greatest threat to global stability in the history of . . . well . . . ever – drum roll here – namely suburban moms in SUVs. Specifically, he declared:
Some time ago I traveled to another vibrant city – a city also rich with its own rich history – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And I was there, sitting in a big room, surrounded by representatives from about 170 countries. We listened as expert after expert after expert described the growing threat of climate change and what it would mean for the world if we failed to act. The Secretary General of the conference was – he was an early leader on climate change, a man by the name of Maurice Strong, and he told us – I quote him: “Every bit of evidence I’ve seen persuades me that we are on a course leading to tragedy.”
Well, my friends, that conference was in 1992. And it is stunning how little the conversation has really changed since then.
When I think about the array of global climate – of global threats – think about this: terrorism, epidemics, poverty, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – all challenges that know no borders – the reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them. And it is a challenge that I address in nearly every single country that I visit as Secretary of State, because President Obama and I believe it is urgent that we do so . . . .
And when you think about it, that connection to climate change is really no different than how we confront other global threats.
Think about terrorism. We don’t decide to have just one country beef up the airport security and the others relax their standards and let bags on board without inspection. No, that clearly wouldn’t make us any safer.
Or think about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It doesn’t keep us safe if the United States secures its nuclear arsenal, while other countries fail to prevent theirs from falling into the hands of terrorists. We all have to approach this challenge together, which is why all together we are focused on Iran and its nuclear program or focused on North Korea and its threat.
The bottom line is this: it is the same thing with climate change. And in a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.
Now, we know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that we switched the labels above and that Hagel is actually Tweedle Dee. And maybe you’re right. But does it matter? What we have here is an American administration that is faced with a handful of massive and potentially explosive foreign crises; an administration that will have to face off against and outfox some of the most cunning and vicious political operators the world has seen in some time; an administration that will have to balance multiple priorities in multiple hot spots in multiple regions of the planet; and instead of dealing with these problems head on, this president prefers to talk about tire pressure, fuel efficient refrigerators, and cow flatulence. Is it any wonder that we’re concerned for the future?
The irony in all of this is that Obama doesn’t even have to be clever here. He doesn’t have to do like Reagan and Pipes and Bush and Robinson did. He doesn’t have to think outside of any boxes. The thinking has all been done for him. If the United States were, for example, to increase its exploration for natural gas via fracking; if it were to encourage its allies in Western Europe and Israel to increase their exploration for natural gas via fracking; if it were to approve the Keystone pipeline, then it could simply imitate the Reagan plan – with likely similar results!
Does it occur to anyone in Washington that the oil sands in Alberta produce the same type of heavy, sludgy crude as do the Venezuelan oil fields? Does it occur to them what that might mean for the oil-funded Socialist murderers in Caracas? Do they know that Putin holds both Ukraine and his potential rivals for Ukraine’s affections, the nations of the EU, hostage by manipulating their supplies of natural gas? Do they know what it would do to Putin if Europe developed its own supplies? Do they even care?
Last week, Peggy Noonan used her column to call out America’s “decadent” elites in Washington. What we wouldn’t give if they were only decadent. Instead, they are lazy. And self-absorbed. They are intellectually stunted. And obscenely arrogant. They are shallow, narrow-minded, and vain. And completely and utterly overmatched on the global stage.
Writing at the web site of the Hannah Arendt Center, Roger Berkowitz concurs with Noonan about the decadence of our ruling class and notes, ominously, that the decadence of Washington and especially our ruling class’s unembarrassed embrace of that decadence “recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany . . . .” It would be difficult, frankly, to disagree.
The American people care about jobs, the economy, taxes, their children’s future, and affordable health care. The American ruling class, by contrast, cares about immigration reform, gun control, surveillance of domestic threats, and, above all, the “environment.” Worse yet, the ruling class doesn’t even have the sense to be embarrassed about this or to feel as if its priorities are perhaps misplaced in an allegedly representative government. Its denizens revel in their decadence, in their distinction from the masses. They relish the idea that they are better, removed from the common, the mundane.
The same, unfortunately, applies in foreign affairs. Barack Obama and his “great thinkers” are beyond the worries of petty tyrants and mustachioed strongmen. They are above the day-to-day muck of diplomatic trench warfare. They need not sully themselves with the worries of the common, the immediate, the urgent and the tangible. Instead, they worry about the abstract, the possible, the ecological. And again, worse still, they revel in this decadence, this presumption of superiority.
The simple man, Ronald Reagan, was intuitive, inventive, and above all, amenable to new ideas. His contemporary successors, by contrast, are small, self-absorbed, and intolerant.
Weimar didn’t necessarily have to lead to National Socialism and then to a world war. But it did, and it did so largely because of the decadence of the German elites. Likewise, today’s global disturbances don’t have to lead to war, revolution, and chaos. But they may. And if they do, it will be because of our own ruling class’s decadence, its desire to stroke its own vanity rather than put in the work to fashion a policy solution.
That troubles us, and it should trouble every American. The global crises facing us today are no greater than those of the past. But the men and women responsible for addressing those crises are, indeed, far lesser than their predecessors. And that sounds to us like a recipe for disaster – or at least for the maintenance of our global pessimism.