Monday, 29 November 2010

Decision Points, George W. Bush - Part 2


Bush's presidency was defined above all by the "War on Terror", a conflict which Bush hadn't sought but which he embraced enthusiastically and pursued through mountains of money and rivers of blood.  The tone was set by his reaction to the September 11 attacks: "My blood was boiling.  We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass."  He did - and he did.

Bush's treatment of the lead-up to 9/11 is deficient.  He refers to the famous "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" briefing given to him by the CIA on 6 August 2001, but without exploring its implications.  Unsurprisingly, he does not quote George Tenet's judgement that "the system was blinking red" in the preceding months, or address the unfavourable comparisons that have been made with the way in which the Clinton administration handled similar security alerts.

Bush has few regrets about this part of his record.  When he talks about Guantanamo Bay, the "PATRIOT" Act and his secret surveillance programme, he seems to regard congressional oversight, public scrutiny and the rule of law almost as unwarranted inconveniences.  When even the conservative-majority Supreme Court ruled against him in Hamdan v Rumsfeld, he accepted the decision fairly grudgingly.  The notion of a balance between liberty and security is alluded to but not really explored.  Bush acknowledges the crimes that his soldiers committed at Abu Ghraib and says that he felt sick when he was told about them, but he seems to feel no such nausea about the murky practice of extraordinary rendition.

On the subject of his forces' brutal interrogation techniques, Bush says that he was advised that the practices in question did not amount to torture, that he vetoed a couple of the more outlandish ones, and that only three prisoners were waterboarded.  This isn't really the point, though.  When you've reached the stage of splitting hairs about what is and isn't torture, and arguing that you didn't do it to many people anyway, you are self-evidently in a morally grubby position.  The President of the United States doesn't get to argue that his interrogation practices aren't torture because his lawyer wrote him a memo saying so.  There is a distinct lack of ethical clarity here.  Of course, an awareness of moral ambiguities isn't always a bad thing, but one doubts that Bush would allow himself a similar level of ambivalence about, say, abortion or gay marriage.

And so to Iraq.  In human terms, the legacy of the Iraq War is hundreds of thousands of early deaths and a society which has taken seven and a half years to turn into a corrupt and unstable democracy.  If you want to argue that Iraq is now a better place than it was under the Ba'athist insanity, then fine, let that be Bush's epitaph: "He wasn't as bad as Saddam".  Politically speaking, taken together with the stalemate of Afghanistan, the Iraq adventure fatally exposed the limits of US power.  The strength of empires lies in perceptions and myths as much as it does in tanks and B-52s.  When the American Empire was at its zenith, Bush chose to show the world in plain sight that it could be ensnared and resisted.  For a superpower already destined for long-term decline by demographic and economic trends, that was the fatal misjudgement, the unpardonable sin.  American global hegemony may have been born in the mud of the Western Front in World War I, but it withered away in the land of Nineveh and Babylon.

Bush, predictably, insists that he didn't want to create an empire.  Ironically, he says that he didn't deploy more troops in the early stages of the Iraq War because of the dangers of looking heavy-handed and provoking unnecessary resentment against an occupying foreign army.  He fails to rebut the argument that his own employees at the State Department knew exactly what was going to happen and tried to tell him how he should approach the rebuilding of the country.  Maybe there is some truth in Niall Ferguson's critique of Bush-era policy: the Americans were trying to maintain an empire on the cheap, without committing the resources that were needed for success.

The failure to secure Iraq was followed by the failure to find those elusive WMDs.  Now, it is well known that spies around the world believed that Saddam had WMDs, and his own behaviour was not that of a responsible statesman who had nothing to hide.  Nor did Bush himself present WMDs as the only justification for war (though he isn't foolish enough to try to revive the old canard that Saddam was complicit in 9/11).  His neoconservative Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who had been dreaming of going after Saddam since the 90s, went so far as to describe WMDs as a "bureaucratic pretext" for the invasion.  But the fact remains that the case of the missing WMDs was - or should have been - a scandal on a colossal scale.  In any other walk of life, including the business world in which Bush cut his teeth, such a massive cock-up would have spelt immediate resignation and career death.  For Bush - and indeed for Tony Blair - it spelt re-election.  Sometimes we get the leaders we deserve.

The sections of the book on the "War on Terror" and foreign policy contain various vignettes of encounters with civilians and servicemen which Bush found memorable, touching or otherwise encouraging as he attempted to grope his way to victory.  To European eyes, these are likely to come over as maudlin, if not downright manipulative.  Is this perhaps too cynical?  I wonder.  To be fair, Bush does also mention encountering ordinary Americans (Cindy Sheehan being the best known) who didn't see eye to eye with him.

Bush has a few interesting titbits.  Tony Blair was instrumental in persuading him both to address the Saddam problem initially through the UN and to engage with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  That process could have reached something like a successful conclusion if Ehud Olmert hadn't fallen from power at the wrong moment.  Little that Dubya says, however, comes as a surprise.  Of the Iraqi people, he tells us: "They were grateful to America for their liberation.  They wanted to live in freedom.  And I would not give up on them."  In fact, surveys of Iraqi public opinion revealed a deeply divided society in which supporters of the American war effort were matched or outnumbered by opponents - Iraqis who supported the insurgency or at any rate wanted the foreigners to leave their country.  A similarly deep and bitter division over Bush's Mesopotamian adventure persists in America and the rest of the West, and seems likely to do so for some time to come.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Decision Points, George W. Bush - Part 1


"You like George Bush?" asked the grinning waiter when he saw what I was reading.  He was probably hoping for a tip, or else he might have been considerably ruder.  Reading this book in public made me feel self-conscious in a way that is rare for a mere item of reading matter.  Even if I'd been able to disguise the front cover, Bush's grinning, look-at-me-I'm-holding-a-coffee-mug shot on the back would have given me away.  I would have felt a good deal less embarrassment on the bus or the Tube reading Piers Morgan or Jeremy Clarkson's latest, or perhaps Razzle.

For George Walker Bush is not a popular man.  Mr Bush, known to his friends as "Bushitler" and "the world's greatest terrorist", was the most despised and hated American president in recent memory.  With approval ratings at home of 25%, the lowest of any president for 56 years, he left office reviled around the world as the architect of the greatest western foreign policy disaster since the Suez Crisis and the most catastrophic economic collapse since the Great Depression.  A 2010 poll of 238 presidential scholars ranked him 39th out of 43 presidents, lower than Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon.

So, what does Dubya have to say for himself?  Is there a case to be made for the defence?  Is the invective in which he is so freely doused merely the progressive version of the Tea Partiers' raging against Obama for improving their healthcare?  Or was he just a really, really bad president?


Bush was born with an entire silver cutlery canteen in his mouth, but he is at pains to portray his upbringing and early adulthood as being relatively normal.  His account of his early life is shot through with the same regular-guy folksiness that so charmed his supporters and wound up his detractors.  He takes care not to come across as a snob or a princeling.  He admits to misbehaving as a child and struggling at school.

To a certain extent, the tactic succeeds.  His early life in Midland, Texas seems to have been boringly middle-class, and after graduating he declined the opportunity to use his name and contacts to walk into a stellar job on Wall Street.  But a lot is left out.  The fact is that his background and family circumstances were not normal.  He may have struggled at school, but he struggled at Andover.  Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a US Senator and a titan of the business world, and his father was an aristocratic diplomat and politician.  From time to time, the privileged nature of Bush's early life comes through.  He tells, for example, of his profound disgust when, at a formal meal with his grandparents back East, the servants put a bowl of borscht in front of him for the first time.

Bush rarely comes out favourably in a comparison with his relatives.  Prescott Bush would have winced at his grandson's declaiming about misunderestimating and wings taking dream.  George H.W. Bush was a bona fide hero, a top-class scholar and athlete who fought bravely in World War II and chose to move away from the Connecticut family home to Texas in order to work his way up through the oil industry from the shop floor.  By comparison, George W. comes over as a bit of a disappointment.

The adult Bush didn't amount to much before his thirties.  He protests that he did not, as rumoured, go AWOL during his service with the National Guard.  On the other hand, we don't hear about how far his father's influence helped in getting him into that particular branch of the military and keeping him at a safe distance from an early death in a rice paddy.  He bummed around during his twenties, deliberately refusing to get tied down - though he does let us know that he worked in a mentoring programme in Houston.

Bush's family background, education and experience in business meant that he was never going to be anything other than a solid Republican.  His right-wing convictions were strengthened when he visited communist China in the 70s while his father was working in a diplomatic post over there.  His political philosophy seems to consist largely of low-tax, small-government conservative platitudes.

His big break, of course, was defeating the popular incumbent Ann Richards to become Governor of Texas in 1994.  He was then just 6 years away from the White House.  He doesn't go into details about the mess of the 2000 election or attempt to refute the argument that Gore would have won Florida if the votes had been counted in an equitable way - though he does highlight the little-appreciated fact that Gore lost 7-2 in the Supreme Court on the main plank of his case (the headline-grabbing 5-4 decision was on a secondary issue).  It hardly needs to be said that he doesn't discuss the rather disturbing allegations that his 2004 victory was equally down to sharp practice by unscrupulous Republicans at state level.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Abolition of Britain, Peter Hitchens

This is a well-written, informative and rather weird book, originally published in 1999.  It is a lament for the decline of traditional British culture, written by one of Britain's most thoughtful and original ultra-conservative writers.  It is a serious book: there is none of the tedious angriness of Simon Heffer or the puerility of Richard Littlejohn.  Its message may be stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off, but it is stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off with source citations and footnotes.

The book begins with the conceit of a mourner at Princess Diana's funeral in 1997 being transported back to the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.  In a series of remarkable passages which are among the most poignant in the book, Hitchens writes:

"[S]he would be astonished by how strongly men outnumbered women, and by the dowdy and conservative fashions they wore....  Overhearing their conversation, she would notice the absence of swear-words, the edgy, plummy accents of the middle-class and the earthy tongue of the working-class Londoner....

She would be pulled up short... by the absence of heavy traffic, the smallness of lorries, the cumbersome designs of vans, by the slowness and the bulbous shape of most cars, by the speed and frequency of buses, which would seem unnaturally red because of the general absence of bright colour from the streetscape....

She would turn up her nose at the number of people smoking....  She might be shocked to hear homosexuals openly refered to as 'queers'....

She would find the generally accepted level of hygiene rather low, the slogans on the advertising billboards blatant and naive, the policemen astonishingly numerous yet far less menacing....  She would search long and hard for a public telephone....

London itself would seem extraordinarily dark and dirty even by daylight....  The colour brown... would seem to crop up in almost every aspect of urban life, from food to furniture....  She would rapidly notice that the past was smellier than the present, the air often reeking of breweries, cattlemarkets, cabbage and hot grease.

....She might be perturbed to see that most drivers, and most people working in jobs above the level of secretary, cleaner and shop assistant, were male....

She would realise that she had hardly seen a black or brown face all day....

....An off-licence would surprise her with its small selection of beer, cider... uninspiring wine, gin and whisky.  The pub it was usually attached to would not be welcoming...."

Remember, this is a world whose loss Hitchens mourns and which he would like to recreate.

Hitchens is being slightly misleading in choosing 1965 as his index year for the old Britain.  Modernity had already begun to assert itself long before then.  Church attendance had peaked in the 1930s.  The divorce laws had been reformed in 1937.  The education system had been reconstituted by the 1944 Education Act.  Legislation to legalise homosexual behaviour was before Parliament (though even the supporters of reform regarded gay sex with some distaste).  The Beatles had released Help! and Rubber Soul, and young Britons could listen to Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline.

To be fair, Hitchens is well aware that the old Britain was already on its last legs by the 1960s.  He points to the Second World War as a catalyst for the decline of traditional ideas about the family and relationships, not least because the country experienced an influx of 1.6 million well-paid GIs from a very different sexual culture while her own young men were away fighting in Monte Cassino and Tobruk.  In fact, Hitchens believes that the rot set in some time before then.  He writes: "The argument between Christianity and liberalism" - note the unexamined assumption - "had been quietly lost during the First World War".

Since 1997, of course, social attitudes have grown steadily more progressive.  A better milestone than Princess Di's funeral would perhaps have been the repeal of Section 28 in 2003, though Hitchens, as noted, was only writing in 1999.

Hitchens lambasts the modern teaching of history and English literature, and the postwar reforms to the education system.  He mourns the loss of patriotism and the empire, and argues that the old attitudes towards foreigners and people of colour weren't as crude and ignorant as they are often portrayed (being, for example, more gentle than those of whites in the American Deep South towards African Americans).  He castigates town planners and television, the satire boom and Grange Hill.  He writes a lot about family life and sex.  He does not like divorce, illegitimacy or the Pill.  He contrasts, with apparently genuine bafflement, public attitudes towards smoking and lung cancer with attitudes towards gay sex and HIV/AIDS (this particular chapter was apparently omitted from the book's first edition).

Hitchens is a religious man, and he laments the decline of Christianity in general and the Church of England in particular, which (like most conservatives) he thinks has become far too soft and cosy.  He notes that Anglicanism had important cultural and political functions because of its liturgy and architecture, its links with the monarchy, and the distinction that it marked from continental Catholicism.

The villain of the book is none other than the portly figure of Roy Jenkins, the Right Honourable the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.  Jenkins was an important advocate for many of the social changes that Hitchens decries, particuarly during his tenure as Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967.  Identifying (and damning) Jenkins as the architect of modern British social mores is not an original move on Hitchens' part, but he does go further than most right-wing commentators in claiming that he was the most influential politician of postwar Britain, including Thatch.

Hitchens notes that the social changes of the postwar years were promoted by politicians, satirists and liberal reformers in declared opposition to "an all-powerful establishment, made up of hanging judges, public school headmasters, hereditary peers, biblical bishops, militarists, Fleet Street barons, Royal Academicians who still liked proper pictures, the Lord Chamberlain, poets who rhymed and scanned, and of course the monarchy".  But Hitchens points out that this old establishment was already moribund by the 1950s.  Its true value was as a symbol, like Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984, against which reformers could define and oppose their own agenda.  That agenda - thank goodness, one might think - has long since triumphed.  It was the suburban social revolutionaries who had put up Che posters in the 60s and 70s who "occupied the corner offices in the 1990s". 

Hitchens attacks the standard left-wing myth of the Second World War and the years that surrounded it: Britain had been hungry and improverished in the 1930s, and led by Conservatives who were too friendly towards Hitler and sold out to the Nazis at Munich.  Then came the great war against fascism, followed by the Atlee government and the birth of the modern civilised welfare state.  Hitchens points out that the Labour Party of the 1930s had been far from eager to take on the Nazis (though the British left had been remarkably friendly to Stalin's USSR), that parts of Britain were very prosperous by the late 30s, and that various elements of the welfare state were already in place.

There are still quite a few people in Britain who share Hitchens' worldview - more than might be imagined by urban-dwellers like myself who grew up after the 1960s.  To this extent, the tendentious myth of the liberal élite has an element of truth to it.  It is rare to find supporters of Hitchens' views in prominent positions in public life - though certain members of the royal family probably have some sympathy with them - and their best-known spokespeople are ageing and marginal figures like Peregrine Worsthorne and Roger Scruton.  The editors of the Daily Mail peddle a cheap, insipid caricature of such ideas in order to sell copies of their paper.  David Cameron has occasionally vaguely flirted with something like Hitchens' agenda by giving aid and comfort to the self-described Red Tory, Phillip Blond, but the influence of the ideas set out in this book on the contemporary Conservative Party is fairly minimal.  Most Hitchensian traditionalists are more likely to vote for UKIP (if ex-Conservatives) or the BNP (if ex-Labour).

The book is undoubtedly conservative - indeed, its conservatism is of an extreme, diehard variety.  The ghastly old neo-Nazi John Tyndall (a man whom Hitchens probably despised) said that he agreed with three quarters of it, while Polly Toynbee, the Marie Antoinette of the British left, called it "[m]ad, obnoxious, elegantly written incoherent nonsense".  But the book's analysis is not party political, or even left/right in the conventional sense.  There is little discussion of taxes, welfare, trade, industrial policy, trade unions or bankers, and Hitchens is surprisingly cool towards the Thatcher governments of the 1980s.  His is a social and cultural conservatism, which used to cut across party lines (and to some extent still does).  "Working-class socialists", he comments, "were likely to be less sympathetic to homosexuality, more opposed to abortion, [and] more likely to support stiff alcohol licensing laws... than middle-class Conservatives".

A progressive reader is unlikely to agree with much of the detail of Hitchens' argumentation, but at times it feels like the guy is not entirely wrong.  This is what he has to say, for example, about Thatcherite capitalism:

"In search of a guiding ideology, the Tories could come up with nothing better than the brute force of the market, whose inhuman logic of course ignores patriotism, morality, tradition and beauty, and elevates the businessman to the role of bishop."

This is far from being the language of liberalism, but the sentiment behind it rings true enough.  One does not have to want to return to a caricature of 1950s Britain, where children at primary school are caned and sleeping with another man is a police matter, to believe that Hitchens, in all the blindness of his masochistic nostalgia, has remembered something that most of today's Conservatives appear to have forgotten.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Germany Reborn, Hermann Goering

This is an odd little book that appears to have been written to persuade the British people, and perhaps also the Americans, of the virtues of the Third Reich.  Its author was "General Hermann Goering, Prime Minister of Prussia", and it was first published in London in 1934.  It was reissued in 2003, and I believe that a neo-Nazi publishing house produced its own edition in 2009.

Goering says that he wants to set out "a few of my ideas about the struggle of the German people for freedom and honour".  The propaganda purpose of the book is clear.  It is no secret that Hitler considered Britain to be a natural ally of Germany, and in 1934 it was still possible for a British observer to look on the Nazi regime with some degree of respect or even admiration.  People knew about the repression of Jews and socialists, the concentration camps, and the crushing of free speech and democracy.  A case could be made, however, for seeing Hitler as a popular leader who had brought Germany political stability and economic recovery.  If nothing else, he appeared to be the lesser evil compared with Joseph Stalin, who had just carried out the mass murder of 6 million people.  In 1936, David Lloyd George, the former Liberal leader and one of the greatest British statesmen of the century, wrote a famous article in which he praised the genocidal tyrant's "dynamic personality" and "dauntless heart".  Only a few, like Winston Churchill, fully understood the nihilistic barbarism that lay behind the newly built autobahns, or foresaw the winters of Stalingrad and the furnaces of Treblinka.

The book begins with a brief historical sketch, which leads into Goering's observations on the Great War.  He is diplomatic about Britain's role in the conflict, which he describes as "a sea of blood and misery".  He embraces the "stab in the back" legend, according to which Germany's defeat was brought about not by failure on the battlefield but by left-wing traitors back home.  The result was the monstrosity of the Treaty of Versailles (which, Goering omits to mention, was relatively generous compared to the terms which Germany would have imposed had she won the war).  Goering talks of how the Weimar years brought with them the collapse of Germany, not merely as a military power but also economically, culturally and morally.  He talks about the final Weimar governments of the 1930s, led by the ineffectual conservative Catholics Heinrich Brüning and Franz von Papen and the devious soldier General Kurt von Schleicher.

On Nazi ideology, Goering is not quite candid.  The anti-semitism is there, but it is not as prominent as one might expect.  Goering is prepared to accept that "decent Jews" exist.  In general terms, he presents Nazi doctrine as nationalist rather than racist.  He writes as a good old-fashioned German patriot who wants to restore his country's honour.  There is no mention of the pseudoscientific racial doctrines that formed the bedrock of Nazism, whether in order not to frighten the readers, in order not to frighten Goering's fellow Germans (old-style nationalists were still a power in the land and President von Hindenburg had not yet died), or because Goering really was a traditional German nationalist rather than an aficionado of Nazi racial theories.

On the other hand, Goering makes no bones about his authoritarian, anti-democratic convictions, writing that "the laws of Nature demand that authority should be exercised from above downwards and responsibility from below upwards".  He is also not shy about flagging up the socialist side of National Socialism.  There is some rather tedious red-baiting, but he speaks with contempt of the German middle classes and their "snobbery and self-conceit".  He has little time for the old aristocracy, the middle classes and the army officer corps.  He also recounts how the nominally Marxist leaders of the Social Democrats became smugly bourgeois.

Goering was the creator of the Gestapo and was proud of his baby.  Its achievements were "one of the glories of the first year of German recovery".  He talks openly about the concentration camps, though he describes the brutality to which inmates were subjected as inevitable "excesses" carried out in the first flush of the Nazis' victory.

I first read this book a few years ago as a postgraduate student researching the subject of divine kingship, and Goering did not disappoint me:

"Just as the Roman Catholic considers the Pope infallible in all matters concerning religion and morals, so do we National Socialists believe with the same inner conviction that for us the Leader is in all political and other matters concerning the national and social interests of the people simply infallible."

Hitler, Goering tells us, was "a plain, simple man, but one who had overwhelming genius and greatness of character".  His appeal was attributable to "something mystical, inexpressible, almost incomprehensible which this unique man possesses".  What was more, the Fuhrer was the gift that kept on giving: "every day I spend with him is a new and wonderful experience".  One has to wonder how much of this guff Goering actually believed, how much was cynical sycophancy, and how much was put in by his ghost-writers.

All in all, this is not a bad work of propaganda - not a bad example of how to put lipstick on a pig.  One wonders how many people it convinced.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

War and Revolution, Karl Marx

This is a collection of short journalistic pieces by Marx from the 1850s and 1860s.  They speak with the somewhat unfamiliar voice of Marx the reporter and commentator rather than Marx the historian and philosopher.

Some of what the father of communism has to say is fairly unsurprising.  He didn't like British rule in India (or, indeed, traditional Indian society, despite never having visited the place).  He backed the Union against the Confederacy in the American Civil War.  He didn't think much of the contemporary press, and he approved of strikes in Britain, because of their political importance rather than their economic objectives.

Other elements of his writing are more counter-intuitive.  He supported tax reform and smaller government, albeit in the specific context of Spain in the 1850s.  He spoke very highly of the United States and its Republican administration.  Sometimes he is simply wrong: he thought that a largely forgotten crisis in China in the 1850s was going to lead to an international revolution.

For all Marx's rigid dogmatism, these pieces cannot quite be dismissed as partisan rants.  While at times one can detect echoes of modern-day hard left journalism - and the old boy is not exactly writing without an agenda - Marx's reportage is distinctly different from the monochrome ideological whinges of our own dear John Pilger and Seumas Milne.  Marx's ideology gives a palpable shape and context to the reportage and the facts, but does not usually overwhelm them.  For that sort of thing, one has to turn to his more overtly political and philosophical works, in particular The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.

The pieces in this book are of purely historical interest.  They are little more than curiosities, and not especially curious ones at that.  They neither give any detailed insight into Marx's broader political ideas nor shed much light on the events on which they report, unless perhaps one happens to know the background already.  It is no more than mildly interesting to read Marx's thoughts on, for example, the Trent Affair or the details of life and politics in the Ottoman Empire.  It is not clear how the contents of the book were selected, but a better choice could surely have been made.  At the end of the day, the old fanatic ends up coming across as rather dull.