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2. The Political Crisis 
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Post 2. The Political Crisis
It was interesting to me that Bacevich chose to eschew a standard explanation of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. and our subsequent waging of war in the Mideast. That standard explanation would be that when the Soviets gave up in Afghanistan, the U.S. suddenly ended all assitance to that country, that we forgot to wage the peace. That absence allowed the radical Taliban who had fought the Soviets to turn their efforts to theocratizing the country and subjugating the population, and provided an operational base for Al Quaeda. The rest is known.

Bacevich's view in the book is that the U.S. has used a powerful mythology, over the past thirty years of republican and democratic administrations, to justify our role as purveyors of freedom in the Mideast. I suppose he might say that we would have found a way to intervene militarily even without the strong provocation of 9/11. We made a tactical error after our proxy war with the Soviets in Afghanistan, which perhaps led to the terrorist attacks. He is not intending to focus on our security issues, though, but on broader issues: our historic tendency to expand and gain a greater share of goods, and our foreign policy that needed to go in lockstep in order to ensure us of having more and more.



Fri Oct 17, 2008 10:15 am
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DWill said:
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Bacevich's view in the book is that the U.S. has used a powerful mythology, over the past thirty years of republican and democratic administrations, to justify our role as purveyors of freedom in the Mideast. I suppose he might say that we would have found a way to intervene militarily even without the strong provocation of 9/11.


Oh, DWill, say you don't mean these last seven words! You are always so right on. This is the first time I have ever had a problem with your crystal clarity and sanity. What "strong provocation?" The 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Osama Bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia, from a family who are friends of the Bushes. We are now fighting an extended war of occupation in Iraq and occupying Afghanistan. This is nonsense. There is no sane justification.

Please don't disappoint me by saying, but Osama Bin Laden was hiding and based in Afghanistan. So what? Do you know how many incredibly repressive, criminal leaders of other countries have ever come to the U.S. and stayed when their people would have loved to formally prosecute them and we let them stay? Should those wronged people have been allowed to devastate and occupy the U.S. because we harbored those powerful criminals? This is why Iran doesn't like us, you know? Because we harbored the Shah in the 70's and he was bad to them.

Furthermore, our presidents and military have done unspeakable things to people all over the world. If we were willing to take what we dish out, we would be in ruins, shreds, everything devastated from sea to shining sea. There was no excuse for attacking any particular country, the people, the infrastructure, the wealth as a result of the acts of the terrorists of 9/11. They were criminals. The whole world was ready to help us catch their conspirators and make them accountable. We had a chance to create a global legal precedent that would have taken the history of the civilized planet to a higher level than ever has existed and shown everyone that the American people are what our patriotic rhetoric claims.

Instead, the wars we have engaged in, supposedly because of 9/11, were driven by a similar motivation to that of the act in Tim O'Brien's book where the grieving, angry soldier kills the baby water buffalo and the other soldiers just sit there, also grieving and stunned, and watch. Except our military did it to humans. Many more humans than were killed in the Twin Towers. Strong provocation, my...word, how dishonest of us. Let's tell the truth, shall we?


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Sun Oct 19, 2008 7:25 pm
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Dwill writes an interesting presentation of a part of the book-- hmm, perhaps I should read it!

Gentle Reader, I entirely agree with your post.

Do you remember the passage from Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" when he shows different disastrous US military interventions and the soundtrack is Armstrong's " What a wonderful world" ?

Michael Moore makes a lot of mistakes but this was an extraordinarily moving bit of film. He explained later that he had realized that a lot of American people didn't know what had been done in their names in the past so he decided to use archive footage and show them. I didn't know about perhaps half of those things and found it devastating. I had to watch it several times at home until I felt I could leave emotion behind and show it to my students.


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Tue Oct 28, 2008 8:00 am
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Thank you for understanding what I'm talking about, Ophelia. It's very painful for me to listen and speak to other Americans about this because what you say is true about how little information many people have or that they have different information.

In the circles where I was raised, on the coasts, among academics, liberal or progressive people, frequently people from other countries -- I have been exposed to a lot of accounts of oppression to which our country has contributed around the world with its policies of military and economic hegemony. Labor unionists from El Salvador into whose living room the (U.S.-backed) police fired machine guns and whose family members had been detained and tortured gave talks at potlucks where we went to Meeting for Worship. At the high school I attended, announcements were made over the P.A. system in the morning in English, Spanish and Farsi. Persian students (from Iran) pasted stickers in the restrooms with a cartoon captioned, "Deport the Shah!" My aunt and uncle visited Nicaragua, did some research and started showing a video from the Christic Institute about the history of trafficking in arms one direction and drugs another, from Southeast Asia, to Latin America, a covert practice which culminated in the Iran Contra scandal. My friend whose newslinks I have posted here lived in Central America for five years as a journalist during a war. That, and just the international nature of my own family has given me a different perspective. Nothing that people like Michael Moore say is something I haven't heard long before they get it into the media.

It has only been in very recent years that I have truly begun to understand how much I can learn from other people in the U.S. who have not been exposed to all this, even people I had previously written off as uninformed and even stupid. Everyone "knows what they know" based on a genuine perspective and a lifetime of unique experience and learning. No one has time and awareness to know everything and little pieces of information can change a whole picture. I take the comfort I need in knowing that while I can't possibly understand everything and see it all in "the right perspective," I don't have to. There are plenty of good, intelligent, conscientious people around me who would and do do the right thing to the best of their ability and I have to trust them. As long as I speak what I know and remain open to learning more, that's all I can do.

I'm really glad you're here, Ophelia. I think it makes a big difference.


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I think Bacevich is fundamentally challenging his fellow citizens to look at themselves honestly in the mirror: where we have been, who we are, and what we have become. An important part of this requires shedding the mask of American Exceptionalism, which has been used to justify the worst sorts of atrocities abroad and domestically. Another important part is to recognize the need for personal sacrifice: to practice impulse control and a work ethic that reflects responsibility, accountability, self reliance and care for the public good. Politically, this means radically diminishing the powers of an imperial Presidency and changing a submissive Congress that has thrust these unconstituional and unsustainable powers onto the Executive. Political leadership exists, largely, in order to get re-elected and to serve powerful interests who are subservient to foreign finance and dependent upon foreign energy resources. Bacevich's book is largely a case against this corruption on all levels.



Tue Oct 28, 2008 12:11 pm
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GentleReader9 wrote:
What "strong provocation?" The 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Osama Bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia, from a family who are friends of the Bushes. We are now fighting an extended war of occupation in Iraq and occupying Afghanistan. This is nonsense. There is no sane justification.
Please don't disappoint me by saying, but Osama Bin Laden was hiding and based in Afghanistan. So what?

Hey GR9,
What do you think should have been the world's response directly after 9/11? Remember, it wasn't just America who acted. I'm trying to understand an objection to the words "strong provocation" (i.e, something that makes someone annoyed or angry), but I can't.
DWill



Tue Oct 28, 2008 10:12 pm
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I'm sorry, DWill. I probably was not reacting to what you meant by "strong provocation." What I meant was that the people who were attacked in Afghanistan after 9/11 were not the people who had done the provoking. The people we actually hurt did not provoke the attack we made on them. Like those killed in the Twin Towers and the planes, they were civilians just living their lives.

Quote:
Hey GR9,
What do you think should have been the world's response directly after 9/11? Remember, it wasn't just America who acted. I'm trying to understand an objection to the words "strong provocation" (i.e, something that makes someone annoyed or angry), but I can't.



I think the response should have been to treat the hijackers' co-conspirators and backers as international criminals who were wanted to stand trial in either U.S. courts or if there were jurisdictional difficulties, a world court, to be held for example at the Hague. I believe that if at least three countries are involved, cases can be heard there, and if it wasn't a possibility at the time, international laws and policies could have been developed to make it one in future. I think there could have been dialogue and discourse about what was going on for everyone involved, to explore and educate ourselves and one another about what were the actual causes and issues. Venues and channels for dealing with this kind of international crime could have been created.

Other countries acted with us in support of us, but we were leading and they would have followed. We had a lot of international support for whatever we wanted to do to address the problem. We had an opportunity to do something better than what we had generally done in the past. Law enforcement around the world was prepared to help us look for people who do this kind of thing and hold them accountable. But we also could have held ourselves accountable for our part in international violence against civilians instead of doing more of it. I think we didn't try to create new international legal precedents because we didn't want to be held accountable for our behavior toward "civilian casualties" in international conflicts.

I remember seeing an interview with a 9/11 survivor whose husband, a wine steward in the restaurant at the top of one of the towers, had been killed. She was telling Barbara Walters that she knew he would not want anyone else to be killed for his death and that "we can talk about these things." Barbara Walters marginalized what the bereaved woman said and stopped just short of openly declaring it wierd, which seemed inappropriate. Yet more and more of those family members of the people who were killed said similar things as U.S. reaction unfolded. No one in the media or the government listened, although it was represented on the internet and in small publications in print. It wasn't about the people. It was about national pride and posturing. American exceptionalism.

This is what I would call American exceptionalism: thinking that when our government kills civilians in other countries due to our feelings of anger, pain, and hurt national pride, it's just a strongly provoked military response to what hurts us; but when people who are less powerful try to react that way to our government through our civilians (who actually have more power to control this government than many people around the world do in their countries) then that's terrorism. Surely you don't see that as a balanced view?

I really did not mean what I said to be an attack on you or your thinking, personally. I can tell from your posts that you are a smart, civilized man and I respect you. Unfortunately, I felt safe to snap at you and for that I do apologize. The way the media and many people think about US dealings with other countries is so often like an abuser who is beating his wife, holding her off the ground by the throat, choking her to death against the wall, and she manages to save her life by kicking him in the groin so he drops her. When he reports to his offender treatment later and they confront him with how he nearly killed her he says, "Yeah. The bitch kicked me in the groin. Can you believe it?" I believe it. Civilians are the targets of a lot of violence all around the world. Being as strong as we are in the U.S., we are in one of the safest positions to stop acting that way first. I don't believe it makes us safer or more free when we take this over-the-top military action from the air against whole countries for what a handful of creeps most of them don't even know about have done. I hope that makes some sense to you.

Please feel free to enlighten me if I just don't get something important here. It's always entirely possible.


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I just want to say that I hope my tone and content above don't discourage people from going back to DWill's excellent summary about Bacevich and discussing the book. I promise not to bite anyone who has another opinion, cross my heart.

Having gotten further into it, I am very impressed with Bacevich's honesty and directness about what he sees the U.S. policy history being about for the major players in both parties, in and out of offical positions in the three branches of government. I think he is probably right about a lot of what he is saying.

My main problem is still that I don't want to throw the freedom baby out with the bathwater of manipulations of power through greed, fear and disinformation. I do believe that American well-being, peace and freedom depend on the well-being, peace and freedom in the rest of the world. This is not to say we have any right to go into other countries to try to "fix" them; quite the opposite. If we hadn't messed with them so much, they would be better off. Too often the rhetoric about "freedom fighting" is used to aid the most repressive elements in other countries. If we just quit trying to control them or force them to act in the interests of the powerful here, other countries would do what's best for them on their own. And that would be good for us (for real "us," as in "we, the people," as opposed to falsely-identified-with "us" in the propaganda Bacevich unveils mainstream political discourse to be).


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Fri Oct 31, 2008 1:03 pm
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GentleReader9,
I'm glad you're being cautious about accepting Bacevich's thesis wholesale. I, too, feel just a little reluctant to accept a causal link between Americans' conception of freedom and our foreign policy blunders.
He might be right; I'm just not sure yet. I think a key point is that he doesn't assign any permanent meaning to "freedom." The connotation of the word has changed with our history. For us now, freedom is "Centered on consumption and individual autonomy.... the exercise of freedom is contributing to the gradual erosion of our national power" (p. 9). This is one of the paradoxes he delves into: how our penchant for this kind of freedom actually drains us of the power we seek to exert. But the quotation also brings up the aspect you objected to previously, his assertion that civil rights, broadly defined, are also part of this freedom syndrome that somehow made it necesary for us manhandle the rest of the world in order to keep our party going here at home. Civil rights is an aspect of freedom that most people value highly and that has nothing to do with "consumption or individual autonomy." Bacevich's political philosophy is puzzling to me. Is he a radical on the left or a radical conservative? As a military man and a great fan of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, I suspect he belongs to the conservative camp (not that there is anything wrong with that in itself).

I do agree with him that there are much better uses of freedom than to enable us individually to do anything we damn well please. If we lose all sense of the collective, we are in some serious trouble.
DWill



Fri Oct 31, 2008 4:58 pm
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DWill wrote:
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Bacevich's political philosophy is puzzling to me. Is he a radical on the left or a radical conservative? As a military man and a great fan of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, I suspect he belongs to the conservative camp (not that there is anything wrong with that in itself).


Actually, I would say it's a good sign that you find it hard to pigeon-hole him. The very highest quality thinkers are the people who are honest and thoughtful enough not to settle for an easily identifiable "party line" of some kind, but who are actually interested in thinking carefully about issues regardless of what anybody's conventional wisdom is about them.

He has a reputation for being "an acclaimed conservative historian," according to the book jacket's left inside flap, which I suppose he allowed his publisher to put there. His list of those responsible for civil rights advances, "pinks, lefties, liberals and bleeding-heart fellow-travelers" on page 26 shows why one might get that impression.

But he does credit Jimmy Carter for more (much deserved!) foresight and intelligence than many "liberal" people do. He likes and admires or criticizes many of the same features in presidential history as I do, both Republican (Eisenhower was good) and Democrat (Clinton's foreign policy was every slimy thing Bacevich says it was, even if he did balance the budget). He generally reviles much of the same "hawkish" erosion of the three-legged system of the Republic in its awful slide toward neo-imperialist presidential regimes as I revile; he even concedes how JFK was set up for the Bay of Pigs, by whom and why, which most conservatives don't like to talk about. In short, he doesn't allow the unchallenged passing of the candy-coating and dishonest plotting and rationalization underlying some of the recent conservative rhetoric (also used by Democrats to further not such different agendas, at times, to be fair).

There just comes a time when people have to be less attached to being "liberal" or "conservative," "Democrats" or "Republicans," and more interested in what's true, what's constructive, what's just, and what is completely self-destructive and ill-conceived.

If the U.S. wants to survive and thrive very far into this milennium, we need to be willing to do this kind of thinking and talking, but I don't think all the ideals should be cast aside as worthless just because some people have been using them disingenuously. It's what I think about spirituality or religion, too. We can recycle the pieces that are still good, make compost with the organic parts -- not just chuck it all into a landfill. Our children will just have to go get it and sort it out later and it will really be yucky by then. That umbrella term "freedom" really ought to be unpacked and looked at in its separate parts throughout the text. We can't let him chuck it on a landfill in its entirety.


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DWill wrote:
GentleReader9,
I'm glad you're being cautious about accepting Bacevich's thesis wholesale. I, too, feel just a little reluctant to accept a causal link between Americans' conception of freedom and our foreign policy blunders.
He might be right; I'm just not sure yet. I think a key point is that he doesn't assign any permanent meaning to "freedom."


Perhaps I read it wrong, but I thought that WAS is point. The fact that what freedom is, and what it means, is a fluctuation idea in the minds of Americans. But, it's something that we ALL think we agree on i.e. every American would agree that freedom is good. It's what we call a 'mom and apple pie' statement. As such, it is easily manipulated by politicians (The evildoers hate us for our freedom, etc. Wasn't THAT a doosie!)

I think it's become something out of Orwell's 1984. Was that 'thoughtspeak?'


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Well, I might have written that in a way to cause ambiguity. I'm taking him to mean that in the American mind, "freedom" is a word that always gets a pass, no matter what it compels us to do or believe from era to era. If we do something in the name of freedom, there, the act has automatic justification. I thought he was saying that previous to the second world war, freedom did not mean primarily the unfettered ability or right to consume as much as possible in pursuit of our happiness, or to police the rest oif the world. After that, it did. And to continue to enjoy those fruits of affluence, we needed to extend our power in the world, mostly because we needed to secure foreign oil supplies. Does that clear up any of the confusion?



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I meant to add that Bacevich doesn't stress politicians manipulating us. He says they have gone along with us, rather than we with them. This is a feature a little different in him. We can't blame anyone but ourselves; we gave tacit approval for all the wrongheaded policies from Reagan onward.



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DWill noted:

Quote:
I meant to add that Bacevich doesn't stress politicians manipulating us. He says they have gone along with us, rather than we with them. This is a feature a little different in him. We can't blame anyone but ourselves; we gave tacit approval for all the wrongheaded policies from Reagan onward.


As usual your summary of the reading is clear, accurate and uncluttered with a differing personal view even when it adds a comparative context with other writers' usual stances. How do you do that, anyway? I sometimes can't even tell what it is that you think.

Politicians certainly have manipulated us, with greater or lesser successes among the various groups. If there was an element in the population they "have gone along with," they chose which element that was. But this is what a leader should be: someone who comes up with the best direction and leads rather than "going along." Instead they have manipulated small sectors strategically and successfully enough so that the "mainstream" view looks like far more of a genuine consensus than it ever is. I think we should admit that, but then once we are aware of it, take action to participate more constructively and actively in our piece of the democracy. Freedom may not be as cushy as the propaganda made it sound, but it is still a value worth working to uphold. This is where Bacevich's asking us to be accountable and take responsibility comes in handy. If we were just such helpless victims who have no means to prevent our own deceit, how would we ever be able to take our power back? We were taken advantage of at a vulnerable time by people abusing their authority and power; now we can inform ourselves and express ourselves strongly so that it doesn't happen anymore.


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Thu Nov 06, 2008 12:33 pm
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GentleReader9 wrote:
Politicians certainly have manipulated us, with greater or lesser successes among the various groups.

You're right, and I have no reason to think Bachevich would disagree that politicians use specific manipulative ploys. But his argument is that we the people have clearly expressed our desire to have more goodies, and so our politicians have obliged by their policies and rhetoric. Accordingly, the Bush administration's use of information in the run-up to the Iraq war was manipulative; but it was not inventing a new direction for American policy, only extending one that that was in force in past Republican and Democratic administrations. That policy, Bacevich says, is closely linked with the crisis of profligacy, a crisis most definitely not created by our leaders. Thus, in the very broadest sense, we have driven the policies whose latest result is a disastrous war in Iraq.

Bachevich's argument is a strong one, I think, but is it too "thesis heavy?" That is what I'm not sure about and why I withhold judgment. This may sound funny, but I think that in these forums, we could often use fewer, not more, personal views.



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