Friday evening August 22, out here on this quiet block above this end of the Sunset Strip, was quite pleasant – the distant lights starting to glow in the multimillion dollar homes out back, up in the Hollywood Hills – searchlights crisscrossing the darkening sky off to the east, over in the center of Hollywood, a mile or two away, and late in the evening the dull booms from the fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl. All summer concerts there seem to end with fireworks. And since they built this city on a desert plain, stealing water from elsewhere, summer evenings here cool off quickly – as in any bone-dry desert. The air gets painfully clear. The only thing missing would be the stars in the sky. Metropolitan Los Angeles generates so much light that you never see more than two or three, so you have to settle for the distant approach lights of the long line of incoming flights to LAX, one after the other all in a row, sliding down the long flight path from high over Palm Springs – romantic enough for this place. Of course there is the occasional LAPD helicopter and distant police sirens. But August evenings here are rather fine.
But this particular Friday evening, for those of us who have this thing for following what is happening in the larger word, was frustrating. The news was filled with people reporting, in detail, that there was nothing to report on the one big story of the day – Obama had decided who would be his running mate, and he wasn’t telling. The political reporters had guessed he’d reveal all perhaps on Wednesday, but probably on Thursday, and certainly on Friday – but Friday came and went and it was talking heads on television saying “this is what we don’t know” but “this other thing could happen, or it might not.” It was absurd, in a kind of Franz Kafka way.
That’s okay. Those of us of Czech descent are fine with Kafka, born in Prague and writing there, and famous for those absurdist things he wrote – The Metamorphosis (1915), where a fellow wakes up to discover he’s a cockroach, and his novels, The Trial (1925), where the protagonist is tried for a crime that no one will define, or can define, but is very serious, but you cannot know what it is, and The Castle (1926), about troubled individuals in a nightmarishly impersonal and bureaucratic world – the very essence of alienation, bureaucracy, and the endless frustration. We get it. We’re Czech. We’re glum, but plucky – or at least deeply ironic. Czechs have perfected the sad, knowing smile.
But there was one big story for the day where something actually happened – as the New York Times reports this story from Iraq – Bush and Maliki have agreed to a timetable that gets our troops out by sometime in 2011 – and the Maliki government is now targeting key members of the Sunni Awakening movement.
The war is over? Well, not exactly, but it may be winding down, but in very odd ways.
One comfort in making sense of things is turning to thinkers who, well, think about such things – so maybe someone can make sense of this. So you can turn to the ridiculously thoughtful Andrew Sullivan, but he says he is getting more and more jittery about the global situation:
… if the Shiite government really does want to get America out of the way and is now targeting key members of the Sunni Awakening movement, the current lull in violence may well be just a pause before another bout of brutal civil war ahead. In the world as a whole, no progress has been made in restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions; no breakthrough has occurred between Israel and Syria; and Russia’s invasion of Georgia is a clear sign from Moscow that it is an independent player in this global system, and has many cards to play against the West if it so chooses. Among those cards is a de facto alliance with Iran. And this axis also makes it likelier that Israel will seek to pre-emptively attack Iran in ways that would instantly throw the world into a global conflict, with religious overtones.
He acknowledges that he may just be being excitable, again cites Paul Berman’s latest piece in the New Republic, his “seven nail-biting thoughts as the Russian tanks roll by” – and it’s certainly depressing. For example, there is his fifth nail-biting thought:
American foreign policy since 1989 has rested in significant degree on one large proposition: the notion that America’s interest and the progress of liberal democracy around the world are, in the long run, the same. This proposition has always had its critics within the United States. The critics will now multiply. And yet, if America, in listening to those criticisms, lurches in a traditionally conservative direction–if America comes to rely on a policy of conservative realpolitik, meaning, a courting of dictators – a more stable Eastern Europe will still not emerge, nor a more stable Middle East. A conservative lurch by America will only weaken the democrats in other parts of the world – therefore, it will weaken the prospects of America’s only dependable friends. A weakening of America’s commitment to democratic solidarity will also enfeeble Europe’s, and the echo effect will set in. And yet, unless someone offers a vigorous argument in favor of democratic solidarity, a realpolitik conservatism is certain to grow.
An American retreat from the principles of democratic solidarity will represent one more retreat in the face of the Russian invasion – the biggest retreat of all, ultimately.
Of the whole item, Sullivan says this:
It’s very shrewd on a variety of points, not least of which is the Russian leadership’s obvious, and dangerous, sense of their own vulnerability. But what Paul really grasps is that the post-1989 era may really be over. He worries that a more traditionally realist conservative foreign policy will now gain ascendancy – to the detriment of democratic movements in the Russian orbit, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He may be right. But the truth is: the time for such an adjustment is surely overdue.
Sullivan maintains we are not going to remake the world as we think it should be, for very good reason:
The United States is fast becoming a fiscal basket-case, its currency vastly depreciated from a few years ago, its debt mounting, with neither presidential candidate willing to tackle it. The Bush Republicans have added $32 trillion to future liabilities, and hollowed out the military with a counter-insurgency of attrition in Mesopotamia. The war in Iraq, a strategic disaster, has soaked up trillions without making the West in any measurable way safer. Al Qaeda has a far more secure base in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, and the Pakistani nuclear Islamic state could turn any minute. The global economy seems headed for a serious downturn, with US private and public indebtedness making a quick revival unlikely. The hubris that propelled this president to begin his second term vowing to end tyranny on the planet by force of American arms now looks ludicrous.
But of course it always was ludicrous. The whole Bush presidency was ludicrous. Sullivan, a British expat and devout Catholic, prone to idealism – he started off all gung-ho over the Iraq War, along with the all the neoconservative idealists who said we could change the world – doesn’t have any Kafka in him, the view of the quiet Czech Jew who always sees what is ludicrous, clearly, with that sad smile.
Sullivan fears “that we have lost the window for recalibrating means to ends without simply looking as weak as we are.” He sees it this way:
Iran’s tenacity and Russia’s aggression are simply reflections of the broader recognition that Bush’s bluff has been called. McCain’s appeal is that he simply refuses to believe in any of this: it’s all still winnable, and American military power is still his main tool of choice.
But what if he’s wrong? Would he not merely compound the folly of the last few years – and would he be the wisest choice as president in a world hurtling toward the potential for more polarizing conflict?
Kafka would understand.
Still, Sullivan sees a way out of all this:
There is one obvious area of common ground, however. Oil is the source of the power of our enemies, and the enemies of democracy and peace. Until we shift the global economy decisively away from petro-economics, the West will decline quite swiftly in relation to the petro-powers. There is no peaceful future for a world run on oil. This is now not just a matter of environmental concern; it’s a geo-strategic urgency.
We simply end our dependence on oil. And just how do we do that?
Kafka would smile. Things don’t work that way.
Mark Kleiman of the UCLA School for Public Policy is, here, more appropriately cynical about Bush and Maliki agreeing to a timetable that gets our troops out by sometime in 2011:
What will you bet that the one non-negotiable element of the U.S. position was that the final date had to be later than the 2010 date Obama proposed? Remember, for these folks politics starts at the water’s edge.
He notes Barack Obama’s response to all this – that, finally, the Bush crew gets it and agrees with what he has been saying all along. And he notes Spencer Ackerman here saying that Obama’s response – treating “getting out” as the very definition of success – is pitch-perfect. And maybe it is.
But Kleiman channels his inner Kafka:
The second development – perhaps not coincidental and certainly much grimmer – is that the Maliki government has decided to double-cross the Sunni insurgents who double-crossed their jihadist buddies by taking U.S. money and changing sides. (Apparently hundreds of them are marked for arrest in Diyala alone.)
The original double-cross was called the “Anbar Awakening,” later broadened to “Sunni Awakening.” I suppose the new policy could be called – using the veterinarian’s euphemism – “putting the Sunnis to sleep.”
Now strategically this might be the worst blunder Maliki could have made – the possible trigger of a real civil war – or it may be a very sensible reaction to the fact that the Sunni Awakeners have lots of Iraqi (and American) blood on their hands, and probably won’t stay bought once the money stops flowing. You’d have to be much closer to the situation than I am to even make an informed guess. It partly depends on how much of the weaponry the U.S. provided is still around to be turned on the Iraqi security forces.
But he says something far bigger is at play:
There’s the little matter of the national honor (if you like old-fashioned terminology) or commitment credibility (if you prefer to sound like a game theorist) of the United States. “Honor” sounds like a moral concept; “credibility” sounds like a strategic one. But they amount in this case to the same thing. The question isn’t what we “owe” the folks who – having done their level best to kill our troops and keep Iraq in the grip of its Sunni minority – took our bribes to switch sides, but how we need to act toward them now to be able to do the same thing somewhere else later.
The U.S. offered the sheikhs money, weapons, training, and protection in return for joining our team. This wasn’t the first time in history we’ve tried to buy off an opposition force, and it won’t be the last. (What’s shocking is that it took until 2006 for someone in the U.S. government to figure out to try it with the Sunni sheikhs.) Our ability to do so depends in part on whether the folks on the other side think our word is worth something. If the Maliki Government makes fools out of the folks who trusted us, other transaction partners in other parts of the world will learn the appropriate lesson.
He notes that the New York Times quotes one of the leaders of the Awakening:
Some people from the government encouraged us to fight against Al Qaeda, but it seems that now that Al Qaeda is finished they don’t want us anymore. So how can you say I am not betrayed?
Kleiman spells out the consequences of all this:
Of course a single betrayal won’t make a U.S. commitment worthless, but it will make it worth less, and we will lose opportunities (not to mention lives) as a result. That ought to worry the Bush Administration more than I think it actually does.
Small players on the world stage, who engage in relatively few transactions, can benefit from opportunism. Big players, who engage in many transactions, gain from keeping their commitments. …
If we need to get out – which we do – then our leverage with Maliki and his buddies is correspondingly limited. Still, this is something we ought to complain about bitterly. At the very minimum, we ought to try to arrange asylum for the people who trusted that a promise backed by the U.S. government was as sound as a … well, under current circumstances I suppose I should say “Euro.”
This is all very Kafka – tragic, absurd and surreal – and deadly serious – and, of course, rather hopeless.
But the whole day, the odd Friday, was like that, as the granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who carefully managed the defeat of Nazi Germany when he commanded all allied forces in Europe, Susan Eisenhower, quit the Republican Party:
Hijacked by a relatively small few, the GOP of today bears no resemblance to Lincoln, Roosevelt or Eisenhower’s party, or many of the other Republican administrations that came after. In my grandparents’ time, the thrust of the party was rooted in: a respect for the constitution; the defense of civil liberties; a commitment to fiscal responsibility; the pursuit and stewardship of America’s interests abroad; the use of multilateral international engagement and “soft power”; the advancement of civil rights; investment in infrastructure; environmental stewardship; the promotion of science and its discoveries; and a philosophical approach focused squarely on the future.
As an independent I will now feel comfortable supporting people of any political party who reflect those core values.
She now supports Obama.
It was probably the little details:
It turns out that this isn’t the first time the issue of John McCain’s lavish multiple residences has emerged in the heat of a campaign.
In 1986, when then-Rep. McCain was running for the Senate seat vacated by Barry Goldwater, he quietly began remodeling a $500,000 house in central Phoenix owned by his wealthy father-in-law James Hensley. The $225,000 project – which included the construction of a 4,000-square-foot addition, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, cabana and barbecue – held political peril for McCain, who was already fighting charges that he was as an opportunistic carpetbagger.
The new house was located in Phoenix’s fourth congressional district – outside of the first district in Tempe which he represented at the time.
AP caught wind of the work at 7110 North Central Ave. shortly before the general election and dispatched a reporter to examine blueprints at the planning department. They found the permit applicants were listed as Hensley and a mysterious “Mr. Smith.”
The reporter tracked down McCain’s plumber, who told him he’d been told Mr. Smith’s first name was “Eldon.”
Eldon Smith, it turned out, was John McCain.
There’s much more at the link. Perhaps Kafka wrote the story. You never know.