Not the Virtuous Alone

Former Congressman Charlie Wilson died last week (Martin, Douglas, “Charlie Wilson, Texas Congressman Linked to Foreign Intrigue, Dies at 76,” The New York Times, 11 February 2010, p. B19). Rep. Wilson came to national attention through George Crile’s 2003 book, Charlie Wilson’s War and later the film of the same name. Mr. Crile’s book is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s full of stories that illustrate the hurly-burley of how international politics and foreign policy making really happens. But more to the point, it’s one of those “truth is stranger than fiction”-type stories.

My favorite story from the book is Rep. Wilson’s response to a reporter, incredulous at Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s appointment of Rep. Wilson to the House Ethics Committee. Rep. Wilson had already developed a considerable reputation in Washington for boozing and womanizing when he rolled from a minor scandal involving a weekend of jacuzzi hopping at Caesar’s Palace involving copious amounts of cocaine and a number of showgirls into his Congressional Ethics responsibilities. Mr. Crile reports thus:

From today’s perspective, the image of this philandering hedonist climbing out of his Las Vegas hot tub to render judgments on the conduct of his colleagues seems almost perverse. Even without knowing about the Fantasy Suite, a genuinely puzzled reporter had asked Wilson why he, of all people, had been selected for this sober assignment. Without missing a beat, Wilson had cheerfully replied, “It’s because I’m the only one of the committee who likes women and whiskey, and we need to be represented.” (p. 81)

In general it would seem that people’s personal moral conduct and public policy advocacy are inversely related. It would be good if more of us types demanded our representation.

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President Obama Between Exceptionalism and Primacy in Afghanistan

I thought that President Obama’s speech last night was extremely diptych1 It was a continuation of his tendency to split the partisan difference on the substance of the matter, with no one getting all of what they wanted, and then throwing all parties concerned a rhetorical bone. For instance, this part of the speech was all paleoconservative, Andrew Bacevich, Christopher Preble, The American Conservative, Coalition for Realistic Foreign Policy. He even invokes the patron saint of the movement, Dwight Eisenhower:

As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don’t have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I’m mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who — in discussing our national security — said, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.

But as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended — because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.

On display is a recognition of multifaceted national objectives that trade off, of the need for choice in the face of scarce national resources, of real limits to the exercise of power, that conserving ones strength is an important means of cultivating it.

But then President Obama goes on to say the following and I hear Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, perpetual U.S. primacy, the Bush Doctrine and the neoliberal agenda forever:

Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents and great-grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions — from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank — that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.

We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades — a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, and markets open, and billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress and advancing frontiers of human liberty.

For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours.

The trite rhetorical temptation here is to write something like “So which is it going to be, Mr. President?,” but there’s no reason it’s got to be one path or the other. An incremental, experimental approach is possible and 30,000 seems as good a number as any — this is on top of the additional 40,000 soldiers that President Obama already approved in March 20092 — a not insubstantial commitment. Ideologues argue that while it’s all fine in practice, does it work in theory? But pragmatists tend not to be ideologically pure. President Bush disappointed many of the most maximalist elements when he announced the numbers for the surge in Iraq. The right wanted more, but the surge seemed to work. I’m aware that there’s a dispute as to whether the surge worked on the substance of the matter, but even if it didn’t work on the merits, it at least succeeded politically.

Notes

  1. President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Eisenhower Hall Theatre, United States Military Academy at West Point, West Point, New York, 1 December 2009

  2. Cooper, Helene and Eric Schmitt, “White House Debate Led to Plan to Widen Afghan Effort,” The New York Times, 28 March 2009, p. A1