September 11, 2007
A Machiavellian Congress?

Iraq is certainly not Vietnam.

Gen. Petraeus is nowhere near as crazy as Gen. Westmoreland was, for example. Nor is Ambassador Crocker a Henry Cabot Lodge.

Men always, but not always with good reason, praise bygone days and criticize the present, and so partial are they to the past that they not only admire past ages the knowledge of which has come down to them in written records, but also, when they grow old, what they remember having seen in their youth. And, when this view is wrong, as it usually is, there are, I am convinced, various causes to which the mistake may be due.

The first of them is, I think, this. The whole truth about olden times is not grasped, since what redounds to their discredit is often passed over in silence, whereas what is likely to make them appear glorious is pompously recounted in all its details. For so obsequious are most writers to the fortune of conquerors that, in order to make their victories seem glorious, they not only exaggerate their own valorous deeds, but also magnify the exploits of the enemy, so that anyone born afterwards either in the conquering or in the conquered province may find cause to marvel at such men and such times, and is bound, in short, to admire them and to feel affection for them.

Before God made Stephen Colbert, she made Niccolo Machiavelli. Old Nick knew his shtick.

In the present, as Josh Marshall said today, "Opposition to the Iraq War is a profoundly mainstream position." Which it certainly was not for the vast majority of the war in Vietnam. That war went on for a long time, with lots of proclamations of progress and hopeful signs and light at the end of the tunnel. And it was very much an act of leaving the comfort of the culture and moving in counter-cultural directions to admit to being against the war. Kind of a gateway drug in itself.

For many years it was nearly an admission of mental incompetence to join an actual protest. Academics like Chomsky were among the few adults who could afford to be involved. It’s not that people were afraid to be against the war, or that they could ignore it like we can today. They were used to believing that the country was involved in an existential struggle with the Dark Lord in Moscow. They were enjoying the benefits of being the only industrial power left standing after the Second World War, owed money by everyone, with the homeland nearly untouched and far fewer casualties than the other major participants. And they worked for companies that were doing well because the economy was humming along because there was a war because it seemed necessary. (Or maybe it’s the other way around.) Plus there was that matter of Communist plants in the government, convincing folks they should be careful. It’s good that so many TV shows from that time exist in the original black-and-white so we can see what it was like to live that way.

Pressure for change in the Vietnam policy built very slowly. Pressure to change the Bush policy against Iraq existed before he began to execute it. But in both cases, the American establishment closed ranks around the policy and held off all attempts to stop the war. A good deal of this is certainly political calculation, and some is spinelessness.

There’s also a role for Chomksy’s formulation: you can’t reach a position of power in the government unless you believe that the United States is unique in history in acting purely from altruistic motives. As with many Chomsky statements, it’s a challenge, often initially difficult to credit. But it’s stated very precisely by someone who knows something about language, and he means what he says. I’ve gone through lists of political leaders in my head, trying to find exceptions to Chomsky’s rule. There are very few, and I have doubts about them.

We’re good, so we can’t be acting from bad motives. We wouldn’t be planning, building, and occupying permanent bases in Iraq, because that would mean we invaded to steal the oil. Certainly we plan to turn those immense bases over to the Iraqis, just as soon as we can get them ready to accept the transfer. Right now, though, wouldn’t be prudent. Plus, they don’t have any aircraft that require 14,000-foot runways.

This kind of thinking is a natural defense system in many cases. A decent person cannot but feel sympathy when disaster befalls others. When that disaster results from a human source, we’re angry with whoever caused the distress. If that turns out to be us, we’ve got a problem. So we look away if we can. If not, we invent a reason to decide that it’s all for the best in this best of all possible worlds. We rationalize, somehow. Even if it leaves us believing something as patently silly as O’Reilly’s stuff, it allows our brains to get past that uncomfortable feeling of being undecided.

It’s not really that we’re pro-empire. We just consistently make pro-imperial decisions at critical junctures. It’s an honest mistake in a certain sense: that most of the people who contribute to those decisions really believe in American exceptionalism. Even looking back, they can only figure that mistakes are continually being made in the implementation of foreign policy decisions. It couldn’t really be the pattern it appears to be, that foreign policy decisions are consistently imperial. Better stop looking now.

All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

If, like me, you don’t carry one of those little pocket versions of the Constitution, that is the entire first paragraph of Article I, Section 7. After the one-sentence Preamble (“We the People…”), the first six sections of the first article define Congress and tell how it’s constituted, how they’re elected, when and where they meet, and how they decide who’s seated and who’s expelled.

Thus the very first statement in the Constitution assigning any responsibility of any sort to any person or group is the quoted sentence. This appears to indicate that the Democrats in the House could end the war if they chose. The reasons they choose for not taking this path vary, but underlying them all is an unspoken belief in American empire. Ideology is, indeed, often a cover for self-interest.

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at September 11, 2007 08:25 PM
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