The Perils of Passion

The sixties really did screw up the culture, as intended by those who were fed up with state-sanctioned segregation and all that went with it, and then fed up with that pointless and fundamentally immoral war in Vietnam, and fed up with fifties smugness and prudishness, and fed up with chirpy Doris Day singing Whatever Will Be, Will Be – a 1956 paean to acceptance of things as they are, and as they have been, and as they always will be. Give up. You’ll like it. The Stones’ response to that attitude was Let It Bleed – the 1969 album that contained You Can’t Always Get What You Want – and that song, and the Stones’ attitude, typical of the sixties, was different. Sometimes you have to give up, but you don’t have to like it. People should do what the hell they want to do. It ain’t easy, but the alternative is not living at all. Screw the rules. Passion is everything.

Doris Day would wet her pants. Nice girls don’t have passions of that sort, but things had changed, and a curious result of that change was a new and lucrative post-sixties industry – wave after wave of self-help books, one bestseller after another. And they were all pretty much the same – follow your passion, live your wildest dream, and you’ll end up happy, and wealthy too. Screw the rules. Do what you really want to do. That’s the only authentic thing to do, that’s the only way to avoid that life of quiet desperation that Thoreau was talking about long ago – and it pays better too.

The evidence for that was thin at best, but no one seemed to care. That these books were purchased by millions who were too timid to do any such thing, and made those timid masses really hate themselves for their cowardice, and kept them buying that next book that might help, maybe this time, was a minor matter. The issue was settled. There were few books about keeping at the dull task because it was the right thing to do, even if you, or your inner child, wanted to go play in the sunshine. There were few books about responsibility – to others, to what you promised you’d do – or about how you sometimes have to give up your dream for something that matters more, like family or community. There were few books saying don’t do stupid things. Maybe there were none.

This is another legacy of the sixties – a new tolerance for doing something stupid, as long as it’s bold and authentic and pursued with a passion. That always leads to success. Everyone knows that, now, or assumes that’s so. Eisenhower, in the fifties, wouldn’t get it – in 1956 when Hungary had their revolution and asked for our help he did nothing – because setting in motion what could become a land war with the Soviets in Eastern Europe was a stupid idea. He sympathized with the Hungarians, but he had to do the responsible thing, like avoiding what could easily become a third world war. This was inauthentic – we believe in democracy and loathe communism – and it was coldly passionless – but it was the responsible thing to do.

Those days are long gone. That ended with the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed, and we were the only one left standing, the only remaining superpower. The neoconservatives, Bill Kristol and Dick Cheney and that crowd, imagined a New American Century of our firm but fair dominance over the whole world, everywhere, through either intimidation or the actual use of massive force. We would remake the Middle East – in a bold and authentic and passionate way. That hasn’t worked out well, but who else could possibly lead the world? Follow your passion, live you wildest dream, and… and it all turns to crap.

What does being bold get you? Steven Benen reports on Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney feuding publicly about that at the moment, with Clinton offering this:

“I believe if they hadn’t gone to war in Iraq, none of this would be happening,” the former president told David Gregory in the interview, which will air Sunday on “Meet the Press.”

He continued: “Mr. Cheney has been incredibly adroit for the last six years or so attacking the administration for not doing an adequate job of cleaning up the mess that he made. I think it’s unseemly.”

Cheney’s response:

“If there’s somebody who knows something about unseemly, it’s Bill Clinton,” Cheney told the crowd at the Energy Expo trade show in Billings, Mont.

And there’s Laura Ingraham discussing this with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News:

“The problem is when you go to the public on this, Bill, if we think this is somehow going to help the Republican Party in 2014 or 2016 to be re-litigating Iraq on a daily or weekly basis, I don’t think that’s a winner,” she told O’Reilly.

“The idea that you’re going to kind of one-up Clinton on this, I don’t think that that’s ultimately – as a political matter, that’s different than a foreign policy matter – it’s gonna work,” Ingraham added.

Americans have seen bold – even if stupid – and made their judgment. Bold loses, even if some say that’s everything:

Neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol continued to beat the war drum on Tuesday, insisting that – despite evidence of nationwide war-weariness – Americans could get behind yet another military intervention in Iraq.

Kristol made his case on “Morning Joe,” calling on President Obama to deploy air and ground forces to stabilize the tumultuous situation in Iraq. Bloomberg’s John Heilemann, who was also on the show’s panel, told Kristol that “there is no, zero, none, less than zero appetite for the kind of thing you’re talking about.”

“How would you get over the fact that the country en masse, Democrat and Republican, would tell you you’re nuts to think that we should be sending residual forces back into Iraq to get back involved in this war?” Heilemann asked.

Kristol assured Heilemann that Obama could use the bully pulpit to mobilize the country.

That’s what a real leader does – not a wimp like Obama – he rallies that nation to do what they think is stupid and irresponsible, because he has a dream, a vision, of how things should be – and will be if we follow that dream. Kristol should write self-help books.

Peter Beinart, however, reminds us of other things:

Sometime between the 9/11 attacks and the start of his second term, Bush decided that the only way to make America truly safe from jihadist terrorism was to spread democracy and freedom across the Muslim world, and beyond. “We have seen our vulnerability—and we have seen its deepest source,” Bush declared in his second inaugural address. “For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder – violence will gather.” He swore that America would no longer conduct business as usual with its dictatorial clients. “We will,” he insisted, “persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right…. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors.”

Strong stuff – and for a time, top Bush officials tried to act on it. Later that year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shocked an audience in Cairo by declaring that, “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Yes, they said they preferred democracy to stability, and they got just what they asked for, the current chaos:

Bush’s core point – repeated by a thousand supportive pundits – was that when Middle Eastern dictators don’t allow democratic dissent, jihadist terrorism becomes the prime avenue for resistance. Egypt today is a textbook example. The Muslim Brotherhood won a free vote. In power, it ruled in illiberal ways. But Egypt was still due for additional elections in which people could do just what Bush had urged them to: express their grievances democratically. Instead, the military seized on popular discontent to overthrow the government, massively repress freedom of speech, and engineer a sham election. And just as Bush predicted, Egypt’s Islamists are responding by moving toward violence and jihadist militancy.

The crazy wonderful dream didn’t work out. Now Cheney wants stability, forced by bold military action. He changed his mind, but he still wants boldness. That’s all that matters, like back in the sixties.

The Los Angeles Times then runs a story on what the Obama team has learned about boldness:

A group of U.S. diplomats arrived in Libya three years ago to a memorable reception: a throng of cheering men and women who pressed in on the startled group “just to touch us and thank us,” recalled Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor….But in three years Libya has turned into the kind of place U.S. officials most fear: a lawless land that attracts terrorists, pumps out illegal arms and drugs and destabilizes its neighbors. …

Now, as Obama considers a limited military intervention in Iraq, the Libya experience is seen by many as a cautionary tale of the unintended damage big powers can inflict when they aim for a limited involvement in an unpredictable conflict… Though they succeeded in their military effort, the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies fell short in the broader goal of putting Libya on a path toward democracy and stability. Exhausted after a decade of war and mindful of the failures in Iraq, U.S. officials didn’t want to embark on another nation-building effort in an oil-rich country that seemed to pose no threat to Western security.

But by limiting efforts to help the new Libyan government gain control over the country, critics say, the U.S. and its allies have inadvertently helped turn Libya into a higher security threat than it was before the military intervention.

Kevin Drum comments on this:

The view of the critics in this piece is pretty predictable: no matter what happens in the world, their answer is “more.” And whenever military intervention fails, it’s always because we didn’t do enough.

But I don’t think Obama believes this anymore. He mounted a surge in Afghanistan, and it’s pretty plain that it’s accomplished very little in the way of prompting reconciliation with the Taliban or setting the stage for genuine peace. Even lasting stability seems unlikely at this point. That experience made him reluctant to intervene in Libya, but he eventually got talked into it and within a couple of years that turned to shit too. Next up was Syria, and this time his reluctance was much more acute. There would be some minor steps to arm the anti-Assad rebels, but that was it. There was a brief moment when he considered upping our involvement over Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but then he backed off via the expedient of asking for congressional approval. Congress, as Obama probably suspected from the start, was unwilling to do more than whine. When it came time to actually voting for the kind of action they kept demanding, they refused.

By now, I suspect that Obama’s reluctance to support military intervention overseas is bone deep.

Obama just doesn’t dream big:

The saber rattlers and jingoists will never change, but he never really cared about them. More recently, though, I think he’s had the same epiphany that JFK had at one time: the mainstream national security establishment – in the Pentagon, in Congress, in the CIA, and in the think tanks – simply can’t be trusted. Their words are more measured, but in the end they aren’t much different from the perma-hawks. They always want more, and deep in their hearts the only thing they really respect is military force. In the end, they’ll always push for it, and they’ll always insist that this time it will work.

But I don’t think Obama believes that anymore, and I think he’s far more willing to stand up to establishment pressure these days. This is why I’m not too worried about the 300 advisors he’s sent to Iraq. A few years ago, this might very well have been the start of a Vietnam-like slippery slope into a serious recommitment of forces. Today, I doubt it. Obama will provide some limited support, but he simply won’t be badgered into doing more.

There are those who are bold and passionate, and those that never read the self-help books that said that was the key to all success, or who glanced at the snazzy book cover and laughed, and Andrew Sullivan says this about Iraq:

Only the deranged believe the Iraq war was anything but a disaster. But the question now is: will further intervention make already-horrible matters worse or slightly better?

My best bet (and, of course, I could be wrong) is that it will make matters immensely worse, entangling us in a completely lose-lose scenario from which we have only just extricated ourselves. I can’t see how we intervene neutrally; I can’t see how Iraq can be put back together again without some kind of sectarian and national catharsis; and I don’t think the US should be taking a position – and an inconstant one at that – in the epochal Sunni-Shia battle that goes back centuries. In fact, I think it’s verifiably insane that we should even think of taking such a position.

Sullivan also wonders about the costs of staying out:

The main one is the danger posed to the US by a Jihadist haven in Sunni Syria and Iraq. But do we have a real grasp of that danger? Recall that – thanks to Obama – the chemical weapons threat has been removed from the table, just in time. Do they want to come find us here? Well, Mr al-Baghdadi has so threatened, but not even Dick Cheney thinks he’s ready to attack the US yet. Americans who have gone on Jihad in Syria? You bet. And if we don’t have extremely close monitoring of them, we need to.

But we’ve seen from the past that terror attacks can just as likely come from Jihadist service members as well as troubled Boston teens from the Caucasus. Deciding that the religious fanatics in Syria are an imminent threat to the US – as opposed to all the other possible imminent threats – makes little sense to me, given that they currently have their hands extremely full preparing to face off against Shiite militias on their sacred soil. Perhaps that’s why the Cheneys have been going around doing their mushroom cloud act again. It’s only if you’re scared shitless will you do the kind of radical re-invasion of Iraq that Cheney is – yes he is – advising.

It’s time for some perspective:

What Osama bin Laden wanted, it seems to me, was to bait the West into a direct fight on Muslim soil. That immediately elevated the cause of jihad, internationalized it, galvanized a generation of religious fanatics, and, even better for the radicals, broke a country in the heart of the Middle East so that sectarian violence could be exploited for further radicalization. Obama’s great achievement has been to steer the US, so far as possible, away from taking that poisoned bait.

Cheney’s achievement was to fall for it, hook, line and sinker. I say this as someone who also took the bait – with good intentions and in good faith, but blinded by trauma and ignorance. The choice we face is really between those two long-term strategies for surviving the Islamist wave. I favor Obama’s. I favor the future over the past.

Marc Ambinder also thinks Obama is doing just fine:

ISIS’ anti-American bluster is worth noting, as are its direct ties to lethal insurgents elsewhere. But surely the way to expedite the fermentation of the next wave of Sunni terrorism is for the U.S. to start fighting Sunnis.

Interestingly enough, the central tenet of President Obama’s counter-terrorism policy is NOT to deny terrorists safe havens. Our counter-terrorism policy is mocked by critics as little more than a game of whack-a-mole. And they’re right. A terrorist pops up here; so here is where you send the drone. Mole whacked. …

If all the terrorists in the world found themselves attracted to a caliphate between Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq, they would make the country a ripe target for later, purposeful intervention by the United States. Right now, the threats to the U.S. are bluster. Keeping a response to an intelligence and special operations force surge to Iraq is a good way to make sure that, whatever happens – and really, there is no way of knowing what ISIS will look like in a month, or two – the U.S. will have its eyes and ears on a potential threat.

Stick to the dull task at hand, because it’s what must be done, and the only useful things to do.

David Bromwich in this item wonders about that. Obama always seems “far from the scene” in crisis after crisis, and his response to the Newtown sort of sums it all up:

After the mass killing of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012, he vowed to pass a stringent new measure to strengthen gun control. For anyone who has been watching him, it was the most deeply felt moment of his presidency, and the largest risk he had taken on any issue. The time to publicize the outlines of such a bill was during those December days when the grief of the parents overwhelmed the country. Obama’s solution was characteristic. He announced that Joe Biden would explore the legislative possibilities and report back in a month. As the weeks passed, various weapons bans were drawn up and canvassed in public, but the National Rifle Association had been given time to rally and the moment passed. Much the same happened with the pledge in January 2009 to close Guantánamo. Obama left the room and asked his advisers to call him when they had solved it. A prudential pause was lengthened and became so clearly a sign of unconcern that the issue lost all urgency. …

He has seemed in his element in the several grief-counselling speeches given in the wake of mass killings, not only in Newtown but in Aurora, at Fort Hood, in Tucson, in Boston after the marathon bombing; and in his meetings with bereft homeowners and local officials who were granted disaster funds in the aftermath of recent hurricanes. This president delivers compassion with a kind face and from a decorous and understated height. And that seems to be the role he prefers to play in the world too. It was doubtless the posture from which he would have liked to address the Arab Spring, and for that matter the civil war in Syria, if only Assad had obeyed when Obama said he must go. Obama has a larger-spirited wish to help people than any of his predecessors since Jimmy Carter; though caution bordering on timidity has kept him from speaking with Carter even once in the last five years. Obama roots for the good cause but often ends up endorsing the acceptable evil on which the political class or the satisfied classes in society have agreed. He watches the world as its most important spectator.

Sullivan isn’t bothered by this:

From the very beginning, Obama has been a presider rather than a decider. His modus operandi is to marshal existing political forces toward a particular, pragmatic set of goals. When those forces have been ascendant – as with the stimulus, healthcare, marijuana prohibition, ending the Iraq War, and gay rights – he has achieved some profound and truly durable changes in American society and policy. When the actual forces he is trying to use are not as strong as the opposition – and, please, the NRA’s clout is no surprise – he’ll cut his losses after a while – as any politician would.

Yes, he’s as compassionate as Carter; but he has always had a cold, realist streak in him – which is what attracted me to his candidacy. He has a dry conservative view of government even as he wants to use it to advance the general welfare. And the only way to properly judge this, I’d say, is by results.

And there are those:

Or on healthcare reform, where he let the Congressional game play out far longer than it might have – and nearly lost it all at several points. But the law that has resulted – again, more successful than many thought possible even a year ago – is road-tested, SCOTUS-approved, and slowly seeping into the core administrative structure of the US. On torture and GITMO, you can fault Obama all you want – but he cannot overrule Congress, and they are still acting like scaredy cats. But the Senate Intelligence report is imminent; torture has ended; and we may see the beginning of a process of truth and accountability. Has he been maddeningly passive at times? Sure. But the direction we’re headed in – as long as pro-torture Republican does not become president in 2017 – is clear.

In short, boldness and passion are overrated:

If you long for a man on a white horse to lead us on various crusades, Obama is not your man. But that’s not why Obama was elected, or re-elected. And, in my view, it’s not what this country – or the world – needs right now. And I have a feeling that looking back, we’ll be more than a little impressed by how much he still managed to get accomplished – and how durable those accomplishments will be.

And what durable accomplishments are the result of all those timid people reading the thousands of self-help books that carried forward the message of the sixties – do your own thing, let it all hang out, follow your passion, screw he rules, be bold? The little shops carrying handmade scented soap and odd candles, or incense and bongs, are Starbucks now, or empty – and Jerry Rubin ended up on Wall Street saying things like “wealth creation is the real American revolution” – and so on. The sixties were a necessary cultural correction, but people took them far too seriously. The bold don’t get things done.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Dick Cheney, Limits of American Power, Obama's Prudence, The Sixties and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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