Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sunday Reading

  • Cage Match: The New York Times editorializes on the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and pretty much lays the whole sorry mess at the feet of Donald Rumsfeld:

    Many who supported the invasion have taken this anniversary to argue that it all would have been worthwhile if things had been run better. They argue that if the coalition forces had been large enough to actually secure the country, to keep insurgents from raiding Saddam Hussein’s ammunition depots, to give the people a sense of safety, the country might well be on the road to a hopeful future.

    We doubt it. The last three years have shown how little our national leaders understood Iraq, and have reminded us how badly attempts at liberation from the outside have gone in the past. Given where we are now, the question of whether a botched invasion created a lost opportunity might be moot, except for one thing. The man who did the botching, Donald Rumsfeld, is still the secretary of defense.

    Fair’s fair. Mr. Rumsfeld defends himself in the Washington Post.

    The terrorists seem to recognize that they are losing in Iraq. I believe that history will show that to be the case.

    Fortunately, history is not made up of daily headlines, blogs on Web sites or the latest sensational attack. History is a bigger picture, and it takes some time and perspective to measure accurately.


    The rationale for a free and democratic Iraq is as compelling today as it was three years ago. A free and stable Iraq will not attack its neighbors, will not conspire with terrorists, will not pay rewards to the families of suicide bombers and will not seek to kill Americans.

    Though there are those who will never be convinced that the cause in Iraq is worth the costs, anyone looking realistically at the world today — at the terrorist threat we face — can come to only one conclusion: Now is the time for resolve, not retreat.

    I remember hearing the same arguments in 1968 when the Pentagon told us that the Vietcong were demoralized and that time was on the side of the Americans and the South Vietnamese; if we gave up, that Vietnam would become the staging ground for Communist revolution throughout Asia and the Chinese would overwhelm us. And look how well that turned out. (Note Sec. Rumsfeld’s use of the straw man in his argument. You could set your watch by these people.) The sad fact is that three years into this war and we have not only gained nothing, we have basically destroyed a country, alienated an entire culture, killed over two thousand of our own soldiers and countless others, and emboldened other rogue nations to flip us off because they see us — as the Chinese used to call us back in 1968 — a paper tiger. The counter arguments, that elections have taken place and a parliament has been put in place in Iraq, rings pretty hollow when the people are starving, without jobs, and what’s left of the country’s infrastructure couldn’t light up a city block in Havana. There’s a civil war brewing between religious factions — and we all know how long those last; ask the people of Tel Aviv or Belfast. While it is true there have been no major terror attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, it’s not because we’ve scared them off, it’s just that we’ve saved them the trouble of coming all the way here. Why burn up the miles between Afghanistan and New York when there are 130,000 Americans in Iraq? Why blow up a train station in Miami when an IED will do just as well?

    While we are distracted by picking up the pieces, there is no time to imagine what the world might be like if George Bush had chosen to see things as they were instead of how he wanted them to be three years ago. History will have more time to consider the question.

  • David Brooks reviews a book that blames all the problems of the world on the fact that men crave attention.

    Let me tell you what men want. Let me tell you why some middle-age men wear the sports jerseys of semiliterate behemoths half their age while others customize their cars with so many speakers they sound like the hip-hop version of the San Francisco earthquake as they roll down the street.

    Recognition. Men want others to recognize their significance. They want to feel important and part of something important.

    Some people believe men are motivated by greed for money or lust for power. But money and power are means to get recognition. They are markers of success, and success makes men feel important and causes others to pay attention when they walk in the room.

    Plato famously divided the soul into three parts: reason, eros (desire) and thymos (the hunger for recognition). Thymos is what motivates the best and worst things men do. It drives them to seek glory and assert themselves aggressively for noble causes. It drives them to rage if others don’t recognize their worth. Sometimes it even causes them to kill over a trifle if they feel disrespected.


    I’d point out that if you see politics as a competition for recognition, many things become clear. The economic and literary backwardness of the Arab world has set off a thymotic crisis, as Arab men lash out to make the world pay attention to them. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not only a squabble over land; it’s intractable because each side wants the other to recognize its moral superiority. Democracy still has good long-term prospects in that region because it’s the only system that meets rising expectations about individual dignity.

    In this country, when workers strike, they’re not enraged over a few cents an hour. They’re enraged because they feel their company is not acknowledging their worth. When social liberals squabble with social conservatives, each group is trying to assert the dignity of its own lifestyle.


    I’d ask them to read Harvey Mansfield’s new book, “Manliness,” which is two books in one. First, it’s a subtle exploration about the virtues and vices of the thymotic urge. It’s also a series of troublemaking generalizations about the differences between men and women.

    So the whole reason we went to war and why we men do stupid things is because we’re all trying to make up for the slights and taunts of childhood. (That reminds me of the old joke about a redneck’s famous last words: “Hey, Bubba, hold my beer and watch this!”) Well, that settles that. You wanna make something of it, fella?

  • Speaking of books, Kevin Phillips is out with a new book: American Theocracy. It is reviewed by Alan Brinkley.

    In an era of best-selling jeremiads on both sides of the political divide, “American Theocracy” may be the most alarming analysis of where we are and where we may be going to have appeared in many years. It is not without polemic, but unlike many of the more glib and strident political commentaries of recent years, it is extensively researched and for the most part frighteningly persuasive.

    Although Phillips is scathingly critical of what he considers the dangerous policies of the Bush administration, he does not spend much time examining the ideas and behavior of the president and his advisers. Instead, he identifies three broad and related trends — none of them new to the Bush years but all of them, he believes, exacerbated by this administration’s policies — that together threaten the future of the United States and the world. One is the role of oil in defining and, as Phillips sees it, distorting American foreign and domestic policy. The second is the ominous intrusion of radical Christianity into politics and government. And the third is the astonishing levels of debt — current and prospective — that both the government and the American people have been heedlessly accumulating. If there is a single, if implicit, theme running through the three linked essays that form this book, it is the failure of leaders to look beyond their own and the country’s immediate ambitions and desires so as to plan prudently for a darkening future.

    If someone like Kevin Phillips, who in 1969 accurately predicted the emergence of the modern conservative movement, is concerned about what he is seeing in the current political climate, I’d take his words to heart.

  • So, how’s your March Madness bracket doing? Do you have one? Me, I’m waiting for baseball’s opening day, and hope springs eternal. Go Tigers.