April 30, 2014
David Brooks: Grand Strategist

Is it willful blindness or just plain blindness? David Brooks, in his April 29 NY Times column “Saving the System,” has hit a new low, and has invited company along as well. He begins, “All around, the fabric of peace and order is fraying.”

Stunned silence, but from a reflexive conservative and low-octane expert on everything under the sun, that is hardly noteworthy. Most educated people anywhere would agree that the international “fabric” is undergoing a number of significant changes: religious discord in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East; an aggressive China that doesn’t seem to know its place; Russian unruliness along its own borders; and more. There’s always something popping up because, as everyone outside the American Heartland realized following the profound international disruption set off by the Second World War, the world is changing, big time.

But Brooks goes on to quote an analysis of “grand strategic history” (whew!) from Charles Hill, a “legendary” State Department officer who, according to Wikipedia, advised Reagan, Kissinger (“Satire died the day Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize”), and fellow geopolitical grand strategist Rudy Giuliani…

For Brooks, Hill, who teaches at Yale, grandly proposes in part that “when an established international system enters its phase of deterioration, many leaders nonetheless respond with insouciance, obliviousness, and self-congratulation.” Hill then observes that “when the wolves of the world” sense this flabbiness, they pounce to exploit the opportunities that open.

The wolves, for him, are the current boat-rockers: Russia (aka Putin), China, and all sorts of undifferentiated folks in the Middle East. Then comes this gem from Hill – which constitutes the essence of Brooks’s piece: “The old order, once known [by American commentators] as ‘the American Century,’ has been situated within ‘the modern era,’ which appears to be stalling out after some 300-plus years. The replacement era will not be modern and will not be a nice one.”

Yikes! So pronounces an American spokesman for the American Century, anyway. (And by the way, whatever can Hill mean by “will not be modern”? Back to the Dark Ages for us all? A new brand of postmodernism? And not nice for everyone in the world, or just for — Americans?)

Enter the eminent authority on world history née pop sociologist David Brooks to riff on this astonishing shard of “grand strategic” misdirection. “Throughout recorded history … powerful people have generally tried to impose their version of the Truth [so capitalized in the original] on less powerful people. But, over these centuries, civilized [yes, he actually wrote “civilized”] leaders have banded together to restrain these vices … Dominant powers [since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia] have tried to establish procedures and norms to secure national borders and protect diversity. [Hey, David, the European powers of the Thirty Years War didn’t give a shit about “diversity” — a term that would have been alien to them anyway, but Brooks needs it here to make us think, oh, yeah: Ukraine.] Hegemons like the Nazis or the Communists tried to challenge this system, but the other powers fought back.” But David, wasn’t the United States another “hegemon”? And still is? This may be a bit more complicated than you think.

After referring to some nonsense about a new “containment” from another right-wing apologist, Yale’s John Gaddis, Brooks asks a good question: “How do you get the electorate to support the constant burden of defending the liberal system?”

How, indeed, when the machinery that powers his putative liberal system — our only defense against slipping into medieval darkness — is rather mysteriously leaving a huge swath of that same electorate desperately in the lurch. Then comes the inevitable Brooksian turn from geopolitical blue-skying to our hackneyed neo-conservative domestic Manichaeism: “The Republicans seem to have given up global agreements that form the fabric of that system [what can that clause possibly mean?], while Democrats are slashing the defense budget that undergirds it.”

At last, it is out in the open: world historian Brooks’s “civilized” leaders, plural, turn out to be a leader, singular: America — and our gargantuan military is what sustains the “fabric.” So much for the power of the shining beacon of American exceptionalism, our freedoms and our ideals.

After lamenting that “it is harder to get people to die for a set of pluralistic procedures to protect faraway places” — he has in mind primarily Ukraine and Islamic nations, but maybe also some islands in the South China Sea — our Grand Strategic Historian ends his piece, next, with a somber warning.

(By the way, as a veteran I can’t help smiling ruefully, as they say, at Brooks’s unhappiness about people’s unwillingness to die for those pluralistic “procedures.” Not his unwillingness, or Hill’s, or Lindsay Graham’s, of course, as they are seemingly ready to parachute into Syria or the Crimea or Iran, Bowie knives clenched in teeth. Speaking for myself and I think maybe for the families of the dead and wounded service men and women who died or were mangled in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, if I had to be a casualty in battle, I would not want it to be for a “procedure.”)

Turning all contemporary international relations into something out of an American eighth-grade civics textbook, Brooks proceeds to give us the Polonius-worthy assessment that “The liberal pluralistic system is not a spontaneous natural thing.” Duh. But the final sentence, about what he sees as requirements for preserving that “hard-earned ecosystem” (really, David, ecosystem?), one being financial enforcement, alias U.S. multinational corporation money and our captive IMF and World Bank pushing other peoples around, ends with this prescription: “… and hard power enforcement.”

So we see, we finally see: the ultimate task of the column is to prod the electorate to support the “constant” burden of defending the liberal system with a massive and ultra-expensive armamentarium of guns and bombs at the ready to be deployed by hundreds of thousands of uniformed young Americans against any “wolves” that would threaten the reigning hegemon’s maintenance of its self-ordained international “fabric.” We being that hegemon, of course.

You have to wonder what an educated and aware person in Egypt, say, or Finland, or Japan, or Chile, or France, or Iraq, or Belgium, or Mexico would think about all this crude and transparent America-centric self-dealing? That educated non-American person might well be overcome by lots of questions.

Exactly whose fabric of peace and order? Whose liberal pluralistic system, costing whom and benefiting whom? Just which powerful people have or haven’t gone about attempting to impose their version of the Truth? And who besides Russia (Soviet or otherwise), Germany, and Japan — in the eyes of the Egyptian or Mexican or French or Iraqi person, let alone a Chinese or Iranian person — has often acted as a wolf of the world? (Hints: We had 662 bases in 38 sovereign foreign countries in 2011, according to a Pentagon report; no nation — zero — had a base in the United States.

Also: the U.S. is at a minimum acknowledged to have bombed sovereign foreign nations or put military or paramilitary boots on the ground 54 times since 1945, exclusive of CIA and some special ops; sovereign foreign nations have bombed the U.S. or put hostile military boots on American soil … zero times.)

But here’s the most depressing item in the column: Brooks — who made his bones with his jejune book on a supposed new American class of bourgeois bohemians — helps teach a grand strategy course at Yale. Yes, that Yale.

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Posted by A. David Tucker at April 30, 2014 06:47 PM
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It is my belief that the starvation of Germany after WWI that led directly to WWII. Watching your children starve to death doesn't necessarily make a population think rationally when electing its next leader.

And yet here we are, a nation that tortures and uses various methods of justification to make "targeted killing" OK. And we are about to impose sanctions upon Russia? I think there is historical precedent that might alarm our leaders about this idea of "sanctions" against Russia. But the lessons of history are often conveniently forgotten by non thinking people. And we sure have enough of those to go around in the halls of Congress and elsewhere in our government. Since we are sowing the wind, don't be surprised if the whirlwind doesn't descend upon us at some future unknown date.

But who reads history any more? What we get is mostly a pack of lies anyway and you won't find that starvation argument in US texbooks. But it's available to anyone who can read and ferret out the fluff and lies to get at the plain truth.

Posted by: BP on May 1, 2014 6:53 PM

Ahhh, Yale, staffer of the CIA. It made Brooks what he is today - a toady for the group he wants to be included in - a member of the elite 1/10th of 1 percent dispensing righteous justice to those of us hungrily waiting for his personal acknowledgement and enlightenment. I heard that he and Kissinger have coffee on a regular basis. 'David, would you run over and bring me a few more sugars and make it snappy'

Posted by: dennyc on May 2, 2014 2:39 PM
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