Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What the Devil? Is History Repeating Itself?

It's 11 PM, I just finished reading The Devil We Knew and it's due tomorrow and I can't renew it, so it's going to be a late night. I pulled out the sunflower seeds and am keeping the contact solution close at hand to keep my eyes from crusting over. I hope this essay is readable. First though, my one major complaint about this book is that I wish it would explain more or what happened during significant events instead of assuming I knew what had happened and just mentioning them by name. For instance, Watergate, Bay of Pigs, and the Iran-contra affair. I had kept a list of words, events and a couple of people to look up, but as of today I can't find it (I think my one year old is to blame). It was dry reading too, but so are most classics. Anyway, on to my essay.

The one thought that kept running through my head the whole time I was reading The Devil We Knew, was that it all seemed so familiar. In fact, history seems to have started repeating itself in the last seven or eight years, namely in the form of the War on Terror. I know there are those who will probably disagree completely with my opinion, and I realize there are major differences, 9/11 being the most prominent, but the parallels are tremendous and I'm sure similar reasons drove both.In 1947, right at the beginning of the Cold War, a joint report from the State, War and Navy departments described the Cold War this way, "There is, at the present point in world history, a conflict between two ways of life. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the imposition of the will of a minority upon the majority, upon control of the press and other means of information by the minority, upon terror and oppression." (pg. 20) Later in 1950, another classified document, the NSC 68, delineated the divide between the United States and the Soviet Union even more clearly as evil vs good, as the perceived USSR's objective was the destruction of democracy. Both documents immediately brought to my mind President Bush's Axis of Evil speech. In 2006, President Bush himself even likened the War on Terror to the Cold War. "At the start of this young century, America is once again engaged in a real war that is testing our nation's resolve. While there are important distinctions, today's war on terror is like the Cold War. It is an ideological struggle with an enemy that despises freedom and pursues totalitarian aims. Like the Cold War, our adversary is dismissive of free peoples, claiming that men and women who live in liberty are weak and decadent -- and they lack the resolve to defend our way of life. Like the Cold War, America is once again answering history's call with confidence -- and like the Cold War, freedom will prevail." ( Like all of the politicians of the Cold War, Bush makes the issue not of safety but of ideology, as Brands describes, "The points of national defense was to safeguard a way of life, not merely territory." (pg. 41) He also points out that Americans since Alexander Hamilton have had the tendency "to view international affairs as an arena for deciding matters of morality" which "policy-makers have exploited when it has suited their purposes." (pg. 91)

Brands asserts that Americans were insecure and felt threatened by "the thought that people might choose communism on their own...for it indicated a rejection of the American model, and thereby suggested that American values were not what they were cracked up to be. The outcome of the Chinese revolution had been so traumatic for Americans for precisely this reason. The Chinese were rejecting America and American values." (pg. 57) 9/11 was a very graphic rejection of American values and that rejection was and is the core of many terrorists' beliefs. Not surprisingly, Americans attacked in their own country felt extremely threatened and lapped up readily the ideological volley to come. However, in both wars, how much was truly self-defense is still debated. Historian William Applegate Williams asserted that American foreign relations "had been based on a crucial contradiction between genuine idealism of the American people and the self-interested demands of American capitalism." (pg 94) I think that contradiction is still strongly prevalent today.

The economic motivations for the Cold War were discussed at length. America was producing far more than it would be able to continue to export at the end of WWII and another Great Depression was feared. With the advent of the Cold War however, defense spending skyrocketed, jobs were created, money poured into the defensed-analysis industry, and into research universities and companies; "nothing matched national security as the open sesame of government coffers." (pg. 74) Some even came to believe that the CIA functioned on behalf of "big business" and that the phrase "national security would be employed on the highest levels to justify any damn thing that went right or wrong--expected in short, to serve as roving agents of the policy of corporated geographical expansionism..." (pg. 139) Nixon and Carter tried to decelerate the Cold War which corresponded to a recession in the economy, which in turn brought Reagan into the presidency with a campaign that waging war against the communists was vital, and the economy improved steadily. Of course driving economy is the ever present oil. Protecting oil interests and shipping was a major factor in many of the Cold War's maneuvers. Ironically, Carter's speech on the energy crisis of the mid-1970's sounded like it could have been published today. "With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge that our country will face during our lifetime. ...Now we have a choice. But if we wait we will constantly live in fear of embargoes. We could endanger our freedom as a sovereign nation to act in foreign affairs. Within ten years we would not be able to import enough oil from any country, at any acceptable price...Inflation will soar; production will go down, people will lose their jobs. Intense competition for oil will build up among nations and also among the different regions with our own country." (pg. 146-147) Carter recommended making sacrifices to become more energy self-sufficient, but as Brands points out "American voters have generally preferred being told what they can have, to being told what they can't." (pg. 148) Many people today believe Iraq was a very blatant maneuver to secure American oil interests--whether or not that is true, another historian will have to decide. For sure, the War on Terror has led to large increases in defense spending, and Bush has renewed planning on a SDI system which was Reagan's baby in the 1980's and on which billions were spent during his presidency alone. Also, America's deficit has only grown since the 1980's when it fueled expansion in the Reagan years. Brands points out, "Mere talk of a balanced budget brought on withdrawal symptoms: that is, fears of recession. Politically, American officials and candidates for office got used to telling voters they could have what they wanted without having to pay for it." (pg 216-217) It makes me wonder how much Bush advisors hoped the War on Terror would fuel the economy after the dotcom bust when now the deficit is even larger and mostly owned by Chinese.

The other significant similitude was the degradation of American values. Brands states, "Most perversely, the call to arms against communism caused American leaders to subvert the principles that constituted their country's best argument against communism." (pg. 224) During the 1950's, red hunting was used against political opponents and specifically targeted unions; later it became a weapon against the civil rights movement, much like how the terrorist threat today is anti-immigration and used to monitor immigrants. Countries were included in the ranks of the "free world" based on their lip service and convenience to the United States, which not only allowed in many repressive regimes which were unpopular in their own countries, creating a general dislike for the U.S. in those populations, but also undercut America's moral argument against the USSR. By the time the United States became heavily involved in Vietnam, other allied nations refused to join in. "The isolation only grew worse as the conflict escalated, leaving the United States a neo-imperialist pariah in the view of many--probably most--countries." (pg. 92) That perfectly describes most of the world's views regarding the Iraq war today."The CIA conducted investigations of thousands of Americans of liberal-to-radical views. Not only were the the methods the agency used--opening mail, for instance--legally and ethically questionable, but the entire operation violated the agency's charter." (pg. 108) Watergate was of course the largest scandal during the Cold War, "administration operatives tapped telephones, opened mail, and engaged in other illegal activities, all under the rubric of national security." (pg 120) In parallel to that is the Homeland Security Act of today, and the illegal phone tapping of the Bush Administration. Personally, as I am required to send in a document stating every time we move to Homeland Security due to my husband's non-citizen status, I find it excessive and ridiculous. We also have paid hundreds of dollars to Homeland Security over the last three years while my husband has completed his pilot training. I find it laughable that the FBI feels the need to check his background every three months to six months, at the cost to us of $130. Is it because they want the money, or because they just didn't do a good job the first six times, so they feel the need to check it again? Besides that, as a pilot he's seen first hand how inept the whole airport security really is anyway. (Please excuse my rant.)Worse still the U.S. was involved in at least two assassination attempts, helped in the the overthrow Guatemalan and Iranian governments, bombed Guatemala City, placed mines in Nicaraguan bays, tampered with elections in the Philippines and Syria and other places, and provided arms to repressive juntas and guerrillas throughout the world, among other things. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay certainly rank right up there in that list for human rights abuses.

The very spirit of the two wars seem the same. Brands states, "The objectives of the Cold War were considerably more nebulous, as was the nature of the enemy. Was the enemy communism? Or was it the Soviet Union? Was China an enemy? Then how could it become a friend? Was the United States fighting for territory, or for political and moral principles? Was containment sufficient to America's needs, or must the United States roll back communism?" (pg 222) The questions about the War on Terror are even more ubiquitous. How can we fight an enemy that could be anywhere and everywhere? Where a country isn't even necessarily involved? Should the U.S. concentrate more on defensive measures or offensive? To me it seems more a war on ghosts. According to Brands, "Had the Americans been less beguiled by the Cold War metaphor--had it not served so many purposes beyond the realm of foreign affairs--they might have recognized that the Cold War was no war at all, but simply the management of national interests in a world of competing powers." (pg. 222). While I probably would have denied that Brands' statement applied to The War on Terror after Afghanistan was invaded, after Iraq and what the public has learned since, I seriously wonder if it does. However, at the end of his book, Brands describes how the view of the Cold War being where the strong did what they wanted is lacking--"The flaw in this philosophy was that it didn't suit the American people....Americans have from the beginning of their national existence demonstrated an incurable desire to make the world a better place....almost always they believed that America had important lessons to teach their fellow human beings: about democracy, about capitalism, about respect for individual rights and personal opportunity and the rule of law." (pg. 225) While I have reservations about the War on Terror and Iraq, I believe what Brands described is ultimately true, that the American public went into the war believing that they were doing the right thing and helping the Iraqi people.

I wish that the six conditions outlined by Defense Secretary Weinberger in 1984 were more closely followed, perhaps preventing such wars as Vietnam and Iraq. He listed, "First, the troops should be committed only in situations vital to our national interest or that of our allies. Second, American civilian officials must be sufficiently sure of the issues involved to allow American forces to fight wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. If we are unwilling to commit the forces or resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at all (Iraq, anyone?). Third, the objectives, both political and military, must be clearly defined and American officials must be able to see precisely how our forces can accomplish those clearly defined objectives." (pg. 166) Fourth was that if the situation changes, than reconsideration should occur. Fifth, that congress and the American people should support the war, and lastly that all diplomatic and other alternatives should be tried first. To me, those all sound like logical and fair prerequisites. Yet I suppose as Brands acknowledges, "Truman's decision was based on political and psychological factors, not on military ones" (pg 28) applies as well to Bush's decisions.


Kelly said...

I love your essay because it mirrored so much of my own thoughts while reading the book. :-) If you want to read something semi-interesting about The War on Terrorism (should we, should we not be involved), I might recommend "Overblown", by John E. Mueller. It is a little inflated (could have been an essay rather than a book), but it deals with a similar topic as your essay. It's a pretty easy read.

Kami said...

Thanks, I'll have to add Overblown to the list of books I want to read. Also, have you heard of Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran? I've wanted to read that for a while now too. It's just more about Iraq really, anyway, I'd love to read your essay! :)