Playing the political game

George-Washington

Part of the problem with politics, highlighted in Neo’s posts this week, is that frankly most decent people don’t want to touch it, and those that do tend to be tarred by the pitch they have touched. It takes a very strong character to resist the temptation, a thick skin to bear the slings and arrows, and the patience of a saint to deal with your fellow politicians. Such men, and women, come along infrequently. To my mind George Washington, despite sniping from various historians, fits the bill to a tremendous degree. He could quite easily have become king, or at least president for life, instead he retired to Mt Vernon. He was the American Cincinnatus. In their positions, most men would have held on to absolute power; they did not. The American Constitution, knowing that it is too much to hope for another Washington, wisely imposes term limits on the President; it is more than time to do the same for the Senate. Two terms are more than enough to do any good a Senator is going to do. Congressmen might also benefit from the same system, as would Governors. The fact is that power does, as Lord Acton wrote, tend to corrupt.

By that, Acton was not just meaning what we tend to mean – graft, peculation and monetary misdeeds, he was also referring to the subtle corruption of the character. Surround a man, or woman, with people whose self-interest lies in telling them what they want to hear, and they will soon lose their natural judgment. Politicians are even worse than the rest of us for thinking they are right, so tell them that and their big heads get even more swollen. Now there is the fame thing. Harry S Truman could walk down the street in DC and most people wouldn’t even have recognised him, he and Mrs T could dine at a restaurant without being bothered by the media. That all changed with TV and JFK, and now POTUS is a ‘celeb’. This is not good for the ego or the character.

Then there is the art of winning elections. There is no reason elections have to cost so much, and in the UK we have a limit of £18,000 (about $26,000) per MP per campaign. The main parties can spend whatever they can raise, and it would be better for them, and for the trees, if they were similarly limited. We all know most of it is ‘spin’, which is weasel-speak for telling lies. It encourages politicians to treat the process like a game, the objective of which is to get elected – at literally any cost. We fall for this time and again, but like a drunk the morning after, wake with a hangover proclaiming ‘never again’ – until the next time.

It’s easy to romanticise the past. Politics was in one sense cleaner when it was an affair of landed gentlemen arguing over power – men too wealthy to be ‘bought’. Democratic politics has always tended to be ‘down and dirty’. Neo was right earlier in the week when he reminded us of the importance of character. Viewed from my side of the Atlantic, Hillary looks to me like a bridesmaid determined to be the bride – no idea what she’s do if she was, but thinks it’s her turn now; you can see why, it would make all that putting up with the public humiliation from Bill sort of worth it. Bernie Sanders is a familiar type to us in the UK – an impractical socialist who wins easy support from the young by promising free stuff and who will get nowhere. As for ‘The Donald”, straight out of ‘Citizen Kane’, but souped up for the modern era. He’s a Republican? Really? Last time I looked (which was admittedly a few years back) he was still a Democrat. Rubio’s a good-looking boy put up to stop Cruz, because Cruz is dangerous – he seems to believe what he says, and we can’t be having that!

Not long now till Super Tuesday and these things get sorted – but I can’t be the only one to think that America ought to be able to find better than this?

Lacking conviction?

code pink on Iran

Neo and I have sometimes quoted Yeats’ lines from The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
This is because they seem as relevant to our times as they did to the 1930s. T.S. Eliot expressed it less pithily but with more exposition in his Idea of a Christian Society which was written around the time of the Munich Crisis of 1938. He, like many, was shaken by what had happened, and penitent and critical. But as he explained:

It was not…a criticism of the government, but a doubt of the validity of a civilization. We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?

Those words are I think even more relevant now than they were then. Back in the 1930s our civilization retained many of its Christian characteristics, and its morality and standards were those of our Judeo-Christian heritage – we did, in short, as we found in 1940, have some ideas to pitch against those of the Nazis, as we would, for the long Cold War, against the Communists. But what have we now?

I’m struck and penitential about the way in which so many feminists are quiet about what has happened in Cologne and elsewhere – it is clear that for them fear of being called ‘racist’ outweighs the principles they claim to stand for. Their ideas are not held with as much conviction as those of ISIS sympathisers. But they are hardly alone. Our governments do, indeed, seem to care only for banks and profit and not for anything higher. It leaves us, literally, vulnerable against those who hate our civilization and all it stands, or stood for. The reason I singled out feminists a moment ago was that they at least know, passionately I thought, what they stand for, but it is easy to be passionate when faced with an ‘enemy’ which isn’t really that. Western men can be misogynistic, but that fades when compared to the attitude of many Muslims – but best not cross them because unlike Western men, they will turn round and harm you. Is it cowardice? Or is it just that they are not that passionate?

It sometimes seems as though the effort of staying alert for so long against the enemy of Communism has sapped us of our energy. Was it too much for too long? No doubt it would be nice if the world was a better place where we did not face real enemies, but those liberal pieties are not true, they are a delusion. Perhaps Eliot was right, and we do not have values which will stand when the wind blows? But so it seemed in the 30s – and when the moment came, so too did the man – Churchill. We shall have to hope there’s one in the wings.

Tongues of Fire on Idris Flaring

Practically Historical reminds us that last Friday was the 137th anniversary of the battle of Rork’s Drift. This was the occasion when the British fought against an attack from the Zulus in Natal. It was held by the B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot, who became not long afterward the South Wales Borderers, and is now part of the Royal Welsh. On that day, 11 Victoria Crosses were earned, a level never surpassed in the British Army. It was immortalized in the film Zulu in 1964, which you can watch here: https://youtu.be/O6astUUUc4o, It’s pretty well up on my favorites list!

via Men of Harlech | Practically Historical.

The most famous part for many of us, is the regimental march of the 24th, the SWB, and the Royal Welsh. It is called Men of Harlech, and it celebrates the longest siege in British history, the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle between 1461 and 1468, commanded by Constable Dafydd ap Ieuan. This very moving version is by the band of the Royal Regiment of Wales, in the church at Rorke’s Drift on the 120th anniversary of the battle

I always like to note that it has a place in American history as well. It was heard during that bayonet charge at the 1st of Ia Drang, and again on 911, both times a Cornish variant being sung by Colonel Rick Rescorla, ret. of the 7th Cavalry, who was raised in Cornwall.

Since we’re doing the Welsh military today, not to mention Men of Harlech, it should be noted that Men of Harlech is also the slow march of the 1st the Queens Dragoon Guards, more commonly called the Welsh Cavalry, who returned recently from Germany, and are now stationed at Robertson Barracks, in Norfolk, and seem to like it, as they are training on their new Coyote wheeled armoured vehicles. There’s a video here, and I suspect my American readers will enjoy the Norfolk version of ‘coyote’ as well :)

East of Eden

146968_600In 1949, the Truman administration withdrew the American forces occupying South Korea and in January 1950 the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, delivered his famous ‘Perimeter Speech’ which pointedly placed Korea outside our perimeter. It was a major blunder. In June 1950, North Korea attacked, causing the Korean War. The war was fought gallantly by amongst others, the very US forces that had been withdrawn. It was a costly mistake, in both treasure and blood. The war ended mostly because the newly elected General Eisenhower would not rule out the use of nuclear weapons to end it.

Why are we rehashing this now? Because a similar scenario faced Obama in 2009. In Iraq, we had defeated everybody who cared to play. Yes, the initial war (and especially its aftermath) had its problems, mostly caused by not enough troops there to do the job of pacification. But again, when Bush bit the bullet and committed to the surge, eventually the country was pretty much pacified.

In his rush to leave Iraq, Obama made the same sort of blunder. Unlike Truman, he didn’t immediately institute repairs, however costly. Going all the way back to World War II, we had been a counterweight to any and all the extremist groups in the area. Jess said a few day ago, that Britain never had all that much force east of Eden, but British forces were feared. The same was true, except occasionally for the United States. The Middle East never required huge forces over time. Although, at times, it did require large forces, as during the gulf wars. What they did require was the absolute support of Israel, and some small forces, in theater, and the fact of large forces available. That was enough to hold the balance, and keep the fanatics, mostly quiet. That was really not all that much strain for America. Simply having a few thousand troops in Iraq seemed to intimidate all the nutters into keeping the peace. And, in fact, it was safer than Chicago is now.

In a way, it was a less stable counterpart to the Cold War. The forces were held in equilibrium, not so much by what America would do, as by what she could do. But even what she would do was impressive. I doubt many Arab powers were unimpressed by the steady flow of American supplies, flown nonstop from CONUS by the Air Force, during the Yom Kippur war in 1973, in the face of denied overflight rights from all Europe. Who doesn’t want friends like that? You think that maybe had something to do with peace between Israel and Egypt, signed a few years later at Camp David, and which has held (mostly) ever since? Much the same is true for Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, problematic as its religion has always been for the US.

This carefully wrought work of generations, starting possibly with Eisenhower’s intervention, against our two oldest allies, Britain and France, in Suez, in favor of Egypt. This is what Obama has ruined. he has brought it to the point that no one in the region, has any trust in the word of the United States, nor should they. Over the last 8 years, we have proved to be a feckless, toothless allies, almost always willing to support the wrong side.

The post-Pax America  middle east is proving to be a cesspit, that threatens the health of the entire world. Jess’ title was (and is) apt. The tectonic plates are in fact shifting, and where they will end up and the earthquakes they will cause is unknowable but very unlikely to be good for much of anybody.

Lessons? Probably a few. The main one might be that countries driven by the voters are not very reliable over the long term, at least usually. Perhaps living under the existential threat of the Soviet Union forced the people of the United States to buckle down and think long-term, but perhaps instead it was the World War Two generation’s horror at what they had to endure to repair the mistakes of their father’s generation that caused the unusual situation. I think it likely was both. There’s something that sharpens the mind, when in elementary school, you are seriously practicing “duck and cover” that the softer generations that followed mine will never know. or maybe they will, on the streets of home, as the terror attacks mount.

But whatever the cause, Obama has thrown away the carefully crafted perception of power that sustained quasi-peace in the middle east for generations. What will replace it, other than deadly chaos, is unknown. Although the Pakistani guaranty of Saudi territorial integrity may provide a gruesome clue.

I do know this, whatever (if anything) that is to replace that chaos, America will have to lead, and the will to do so has been lacking for ten years. If she doesn’t, and that doesn’t really mean she’ll have to intervene that often, but she must show her inflexible will on behalf of her friends, or chaos will ensue, and likely envelop Europe as well.

What is politics for?

Gladstone quote

America, as we’ve commented before here many times, is unique in being a country based on an idea, and that idea was most famously expressed by Abe Lincoln as ‘government by the people and for the people’. It was to secure that that ideal did not perish that the Civil War was fought, and it has been in its defence that the USA became the defender of the free world. Despite George Washington’s farewell address, post world war II America discovered that if it did not go abroad to slay them, the dragons might well get to place from which they could do it serious harm.

That huge effort, entailed real dangers for the nature of the US political system. As Commander in Chief, the office of the President assumed greater important in time of war, POTUS had to be more than just first among equals, but with that came the trappings of what came to be called the ‘imperial presidency. A huge defence budget created what Ike called ‘the military-industrial complex’ which, in many ways, was the opposite of government by the people and for the people; it was government on behalf of the defence of the people, which carried with it the real risk of depriving the people of some of its freedoms in order to defend others.

Allied to that danger was another which is inherent in all democracies – that of the debauching of electoral politics by pork-barrelling. At its least harmful (which is still harmful) this was a matter of Congressional districts getting something in return for the way a Congressman voted; at its worst it becomes systematic bribery in which politicians promise to tax one group for the benefit of the other – what ion other walks of life we’d call robbing Peter to pay Paul; as long as Pauls outnumber Peter, you win: the problems tend to kick in when you run out of Peter’s money – which always happens.

We like to think that politics is the pursuit of the national interest, but how is that defined and who defines it? On the level of war and peace you can do it with a pretty broad consensus – not many want the USA to be conquered or weakened (though some seem unable to see these things might follow from their preferences), but when it comes to domestic politics, interests are harder to define. Some will not want big government, others might if they get told it is going to look after all their needs, and some would reject it even with that bribe because they don’t believe that in this life you get something for nothing.

Political decision makers reflect a variety of assumptions, some stemming from their own education and social and political biases, others from what they suppose the public wants, or can be persuaded to votes for. The temptation to cultivate popular prejudices for political gain is so hard to resist and so prevalent that one might doubt some politicians even know they are doing just that half the time. We all want politicians to be decent, honest and truthful, but as electors, we tend to reward them when they are not. Civic virtue rests with ‘we the people’ and if we won’t exercise it, then I guess we can’t expect our politicians to do so either.

You can correct me here, but I think Harry S Truman was the last POTUS to leave office without being a very rich man (query Gerald Ford here?). It’s true some of them were rich before they were President, but as the career of Bill Clinton has shown (and Obama’s will show) you can make a pot of cash after the Presidency.  In such a world, money becomes the touchstone, and in that world, where cash is king, civic virtue tends to leak away.

It was Churchill who popularised the saying that democracy is the worst form of government – except for all of the others. He was, as so often, right, but if we don’t insist on a straight and clean politics, then we’ll get what we have. It is this feeling of disenchantment which fuels the cynicism that is such a threat to our democracy.

The tectonic plates shift?

Featured Image -- 17556

I grew up, as most of us did, in a world where the Cold War was a constant. In between the bouts of anxiety at times like Cuba or the deployment of Cruise Missiles, it was almost restful, if that’s not too odd a way of putting it. You knew where you were, who the bad guys were, and that we were the good guys; you could tell because no one much was taking huge risks with life and limb to climb the Berlin Wall to go their way. Sure, there were some leftists who saw it differently, but not even they were knocking at the door of the Soviet Embassy to say ‘let me in’. So, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan (learning nothing from what had happened to the Brits when they did it in the nineteenth century) we rushed to help those fighting them – fellow called bin Laden even got a celebratory write up as a freedom-fighter. But it turned out the world was more complicated, and it turned out that the Cold War was not for ever, and as it receded into history, like a flood when the waters go, it left some odd stuff on the road. But we still assumed one thing, the USA, and NATO, were top dogs, we’d won and the world would be the safer for it. We could disarm a bit, spend less on the military, and concentrate on the stuff that really mattered, climate change. But history had not ended, and the tectonic plates are shifting. Our perceptions have not caught up, and unless they do, there will be hell to pay.

Old perceptions said that the USA could reset it relations with Russia and with the Middle East, but they seem to have blinded US policy makers to the reality we were now in a multi-polar world – and one where American perceptions of what mattered were not the only game in town. In this situation, a background in community organising was not the perfect cv for what was needed.

As it transpired it was not Obama’s old bogey – old white men – who held on to their religion and guns, about whom he really should have been worrying; nor was Islam quite what he’d been taught it was. It was the Shiite Muslims, who had collected quite a lot of our guns in Iraq, and who took their religion with lethal seriousness, we should have been worrying about. We read the “Arab spring” through the lenses of our secular preoccupations – liberal democracy was on its way we thought; the Islamists knew that ‘one man one vote’ might well give them a chance of power and took it in places like Egypt, and tried to in Syria. The Iranians, always happy to help their fellow Shiites, were happy to stir up trouble. The Russians, always happy to stir up trouble, added their bit too. Anything to distract us from the fact they’d just seized the Crimea and part of the Ukraine.

All this was clearly bewildering for our policy-making elites. This was not what they had trained for, this was not in their text-books or games. It looked as though the US was no longer the most powerful actor. That was because the tectonic plates were shifting. Power is often a matter of perception. In reality the British presence east of Suez was never very great in terms of armed forces. but the Powers of the region were frightened of British power, so they didn’t test that. When the Japanese did in 1941/2 the whole edifice collapsed at once – and not even Churchill thought it could be reconstructed. Obama has given the impression that America isn’t much interested in the rest of the world except as far as climate change is concerned, so the Chinese, the Russians and the Iranians have taken the cue. There’s no point having lethal power on the scale America has it if you are thought never likely to use it. No one thinks Obama will use it, and no one would believe him if he said otherwise.

Those in Europe – and America – who did not want the USA to be the world’s sheriff have gotten their wish. Hope they’re happy with it – many of us aren’t and want our sheriff back. But whether he comes back or not, if he does, he’s going to find the change in the tectonic plates hard to deal with. The landscape has changed, and unless our policy-makers come to terms with this, it is only going to get worse.

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