HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 8, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Fantasy

Most of the talk in the presidential campaign and in Congress over what to do about Iraq is based on the delusion that the United States can decide what's going to happen there. Why anyone should believe this is hard to fathom. Do they actually not remember the fate of all the past decisions about what we were going to bring about in Iraq?

The persistence of this delusion is hard to explain. It must be based to a considerable extent on the ignorance of the U.S. governing class, who despite four years of bumbling military occupation and the expenditure of hundreds of billion of dollars still have little knowledge of what Iraq is. They seem to think it's like us because, after all, how could anything not be like us? American narcissism has long since moved into the toxic stage.

If I had to bet on the strongest reason, though, I'd put my money on indifference. The Bush administration doesn't care what Iraq will be so long as the country provides an advanced base for U.S. military power. That's why the attack was launched in the first place and that's why the government continues to insist on keeping tens of thousands of soldiers there. What happens to the citizens of Iraq is of no consequence and so it doesn't produce concentrated thought or planning.

The problem, of course, is that an army can't sit happily in a bog of chaos, particularly when it is a major cause of the chaos. Silly Iraqis who can't get it through their heads that their country exists only to provide a home away from home for American military force continue to foul up things and to cause trouble. Maybe the biggest delusion of all involves the rest of the world. If they would just acknowledge that their ordained purpose is to fall in line with the American vision of everything, then all would be well.


Who We Are

The face of Erik Prince may model the visage of the new America. Hard, ruthless, ambitions, and so full of himself you can almost see it dribbling out his ears, he bespeaks what the ruling class think of as success. He has made a lot of money and all he had to do to get it was start a company that's willing to kill people in order to maintain lucrative contracts.

The State Department may be on the verge of shedding a few crocodile tears over dead Iraqis. But we shouldn't be under any delusion. Blackwater has done for the State Department exactly what it wanted done -- shoot anybody who might conceivably pose a threat to State Department people. And this we can say, for sure: Blackwater's conception of who might be a threat is handsomely liberal.

The State Department hired Blackwater because it will do what even the U.S. Marines won't do. If you've read the newspapers carefully you have found that the State Department doesn't believe the Marines are capable of doing what Blackwater will do cheerfully. Think of it. Not even the Devil Dogs! And all of this radiates from the face of Erik prince as he comes, disdainfully, to testify before Congress. As he said, if you don't want it done then we'll find something else to do. And you can be pretty sure they will.


Inflation, Military Style

I was pleased to see in my newspaper this morning a report that it now costs $17,472 to clothe and equip a soldier in Iraq whereas during the Second World War the cost for an overseas soldier was $170 (in 2006 dollars). Figures of this dimension may eventually have some effect in diminishing this country's appetite for war. We may discover that as much as we like to wipe out bad guys, we can't afford it any more.

It actually is getting to be quite expensive. If you use as rough figures 100,000 people killed in Iraq and $150,000,000,000 as the cost of killing them, you'll see that we're shelling out a million and a half bucks to get rid of a guy. I'll bet that's way more than the average hit man in America charges.

One thing is certain: no moral reservations about killing are going to restrain the considerable portion of national politicians who believe that the best way to solve the country's problems is to kill somebody -- or some set of somebodies. And though the average citizen may not agree with that theory, he doesn't really mind if his tax dollars are used to kill people outside our borders. If he had to pay for all this killing, right now, through his annual taxes, he would be up in arms -- so to speak. But for the moment, those costs are being covered by borrowing.

Still, that level of borrowing can't last forever, especially not if the cost of killing continues its steep ascent, as it surely will. Consequently, some time in the not too distant future we're going to have to reign in our military heroism.

When you get right down to it, people's behavior is regulated by what actually concerns them.


Diplomatic Posture

Listening last night to Christopher Hill, the chief American negotiator with North Korea, I was struck once again, with the basic premise underlying all U.S government relations with the other governments of the world. It is, simply, this: "We're good and you are either bad or not nearly as good as we are."

This is not an effective stance for advancing American goals in the world and it has led over the past six years to a shambles in American diplomacy. It is the proclamation of a spoiled brat.

The degree to which the American media accepts U.S. moralizing is also a barrier to healthy relations with other countries.

Why is it the American government can't say to another government, "We have our interests and you have yours. Let's see if we can work out a relationship such that these interests don't push us into conflict."?

I suppose the reason the Bush administration hasn't taken that position is that it has courted conflict as a way of intimidating the rest of the world. Perhaps we had best look around and discover that the rest of the world isn't particularly intimidated.

I hope the next president will have the good sense to strip moralism out of our foreign policy. It's bad for us and bad for the rest of the world.


Creedal or Personal

In the New York Times this morning we have two analyses of the nature of modern American conservatism. David Brooks says that in coming to America conservatism transmogrified from a temperamental disposition to a set of creeds. It stopped being Burkean and became Bushism. Paul Krugman says simply that it became the haven of a certain personality type -- nasty and selfish.

I've been trying to decide whether there's a major difference between these assessments and I've come to the conclusion they have more in common than you might suppose. Their similarity rises from the actual nature of a creed.

In America we don't think clearly about how creedal belief works. We tend to assume that people adopt creeds as a result of being won over by their truth. They supposedly come to the realization that they cannot deny the rightness of a certain set of propositions. But the human psyche is far more subtle -- and tricky -- than that. It chooses creeds based not on their truth but on their utility. The issue is whether a particular creed will help justify the kind of behavior a person wants to pursue. If it will, then affirmations of its enduring truth follow naturally as an ordinary function of self-delusion. In other words, desire precedes conviction.

People who call themselves conservatives in America want to use other people. There's nothing unusual in that. I suppose almost everybody wants to use other people in one way or another. But what distinguishes conservatives is they want to use other people for personal ends without having to bother about whether the people being used get anything out of the deal. It's not that they actively or consciously want the used people to suffer. It's just that conservatives don't want to have to think about them -- don't want to have to think about whether they're getting enough to eat, don't want to have to think about whether they have adequate medical care, don't want to have to think about whether they are housed comfortably. Thinking about stuff like that is a big bore for conservatives and gets in the way of what they call freedom. Consequently, they seek out creeds that excuse them from thought of that sort -- and the effect of those creeds is quite nasty.

So, you see, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Krugman actually are intellectual brothers under the skin.


Befitting

I was relieved to read that the delay in opening the new U.S. embassy in Iraq will not cost the taxpayers any money. The contractor who agreed to put it up for us is going to stick by its promise to deliver the complex for only $592 million. This is integrity.

It is going to be the biggest embassy in the world. You might be puzzled about why an embassy in a small country has to be the biggest in the world. But if you are, that shows you're not thinking straight.

First of all, it's entirely appropriate that the United States should have the biggest embassy anywhere, since we're number one. And where else would it be better to put it? Iraq is the site of our greatest adventure. So it's right and proper that the American adventurers there should be housed in the greatest building owned by the United States outside our own borders.

People who quibble about the cost of projects like this are simply small-minded.


Fame, Somewhat

Having read Maureen Dowd's long review of the book made from the diaries of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., I'm left uncertain whether he will be more remembered as a historian or as a teller of tales about the rich and famous. Maybe there's not much difference between the two.

He seems to have enjoyed immensely hanging out with celebrities, and if that's where he found his happiness, I'm glad he got the many chances he did.

I was in the same room with him once, when he came to speak to a group of young management interns about the significant doings of the Kennedy administration. That was in the spring of 1963, just a few months before Mr. Kennedy was killed, a thing none of us in that room could then have imagined.

Mr. Schlesinger was the most openly arrogant person I've ever encountered. He made no effort to mask his belief in his own importance or the importance of his colleagues in the White House. He believed, with a more or less religious faith, that he was so superior to any of us  we were incapable of contemplating the magnitude of his realm. I remember wondering why he came to speak to us at all and concluded that somebody had made him.

I had read several of his books and continued to like them even after I saw him in person. He was one of the first to teach me that a man can be both a decent scholar and a fool.

When his name came up after the 1960s, I felt a bit sorry for him, which maybe wasn't justified. But I felt it all the same. It was because he was bright but not imaginative. Now, he's dead. And his little stories will titillate Washington for a week, or maybe, two.


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