The Right Side of History? Where Are We Going?

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Contrary to those who claim to know the arc of history or declare themselves on the right side of history, it is more wise than foolish to acknowledge the ambiguities of the present in these troubled times. If the study of the past teaches us anything, it’s that ideas and movements wax and wane, twist and turn. Predicting the future is as dubious as it is interesting. While certain trends seem set, the future, simply put, is wide-open and progress is as common as regression (leaving aside the lofty standards by which we judge such things).

Two poems highlight this dual reality of trends and surprises.

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Donald Nixon: The Bottom Line

 

 

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The other day Trump gave a speech outlining his foreign policy at the National Interest. Short on details, it was strong on instinct. Predictably, the hawks and moralists have gotten into a tizzy. Their monopoly is being challenged by the Republican front-runner and they are panicking that the blustery child that is Trump will convince the mob that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of lives, millions of refugees, and a multitude of wrecked countries: after three decades the war party’s record of liberal internationalism and regime change has not only left the world more unstable and innocents dead, but wasted American blood and treasure. Good intentions indeed. Continue reading

To the West: Just be the Bad Guy

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Brussels was just attacked yesterday and dozens were killed. It’s like rain now or some astronomical phenomenon we see every few weeks. I was not shocked one bit when I saw the news. In fact, I was actually surprised there was no major attack in Europe for so long after Paris. Unlike many who reacted to November’s attacks I have no problem with sending prayers and good vibes. After the grief though, there needs to be a coherent response. I’m pretty laissez-faire when it comes to security and intervention. You could call me Newtonian. Crack down too much and you get push-back. The worst time to field opinions on next steps is when everyone is reeling from a disaster. That being said, I’m not reeling.

If ISIS is to be believed in their claim of sponsorship and that the reasoning behind the attack was Belgian involvement in the Middle East coalition striking at the caliphate, then there seems to be a bit of a catch-22. The West, in attempting to keep ISIS from gaining power, is intervening in Iraq and Syria. The reactive force results in attacks in their backyards. So in response the West tries to wage war as delicately as possible to avoid civilian casualties and bad optics. This draws out the conflict and gives groups like ISIS more time to develop counter-actions. In trying to minimize damage, the West merely moves it around. Continue reading

China v. Vietnam v. America: How Quickly We All Forget

American napalm, that was so four decades ago.

The left loves to excoriate America’s strategic, altruistic, and ultimately flawed foray into Southeast Asia as cynical corporate imperialism. Noam Chomsky is particularly fond of this interpretation. But LBJ’s escalation of America’s participation in Vietnam’s civil war goes hand-in-hand with his beliefs about the ability of government to remake society and the world. The Great Society and Vietnam War were flip sides of the same coin. Champions of the left such as FDR, LBJ, and Obama in recent years, have characteristically opted to ally with corporations to advance their altruistic goals, which creates dissonance within the left driven by a misunderstanding of cause and effect. Corporations become the boogeymen that drive war, when in fact well-meaning, left-wing pipe dreams animate conflicts that corporations then more than willingly accommodate. Conservatives, supposedly so pro-corporate, have made less use of them than liberals.

I digress. Back to Southeast Asia. While the Vietnam War is a favorite topic of American-haters, Vietnam doesn’t share their obsession with getting stuck in the past. The other day The Diplomat published an excellent article that explored both Vietnam’s strategic considerations and its historical consciousness. America’s massive crime of getting involved in that far off land appears to be little more than a blip.
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America’s Foreign Policy: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

 

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“The people who want government’s head to be in the clouds should remember that its feet are mired, understandably but inevitably, in the clay” (George F. Kennan, Around the Cragged Hill, 54-55). 

I am not sure if Kennan ever read the Kybalion, but as Yath00m likes to put it, “The stars will always kiss the feet.” Lofty, ethical ambitions have a place in foreign affairs, but Kennan, the father of America’s Cold War strategy, sees that policymakers by necessity trudge through mud. It is for this reason he writes:

[G]overnment, while worthy of respect, should not be idealized…Its task…is largely to see to it that the ignoble ones are kept under restraint and not permitted to go too far…Its doings are something that should be viewed by the outsider only with a sigh for its unquestionable necessity, and by the participant only with a prayer for forgiveness for the many moral ambiguities it requires him to accept and for the distortions of personality it inflicts upon him.

—Kennan, Around the Cragged Hill, 54, 58. 

This idea of necessity will return.

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Walter McDougall writes in his book Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1777 that American foreign policy can be understood through the lens of Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. While the left emphasizes The Bad (the slaughter of native Americans, enslavement of Africans, a predatory war against Mexico, the interment and nuking of the Japanese, and economic imperialism [so called]), the right emphasizes the The Good (FDR’s Atlantic Charter, the defeat of heinous regimes in Germany and Japan, and victory over Soviet tyranny). Those who see America as The Bad tend to believe that America ought to flagellate itself for past crimes.  Advocates of America The Good tend to advocate their country’s forceful moral leadership of “the free world” (see George W. Bush and almost the entirety of the current Republican presidential candidates).

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On War: The West vs. the Rest

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Recently, before the start of class, one of my bright faced Taiwanese students waved me over. “Teacher,” she said, “My friend sent me this ISIS video. You should watch it!” We had discussed ISIS in class, and so, not wanting to squash my student’s growing interest in world affairs, I acquiesced. Plus the clip was only 41 seconds long.

I am not posting said clip. It is simply too grotesque. A prisoner with bound legs and clad in an orange jump suit is seen for a a second or two trying to hop out of the way of a tank. The tank catches the wretch and rolls over him longways. The camera then does a close up survey of the carnage. The most notable image: the flattened mass that used to be the victim’s head.

The video was hardly more outrageous than any of the other killings perpetrated by ISIS. But newspaper reports, the printed word, have a way of concealing even as they reveals. Witnessing someone turned into a red pulp is not quite the same as reading about it. In those brief seconds you viscerally and vicariously experience the terror of the imminent end, the obliteration itself, and the remains—all in 41 second.

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Love The Soldiers, Hate The War

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Brick-Head was talking, and I was, for some reason, still listening. I did not really feel like telling him to leave partly because I assumed he would walk away at any moment and partly because I didn’t feel like getting into an argument with him. My hesitance at verbal sparring stemmed from the fact that, despite not knowing his real name or anything about him, I was pretty sure I had a good feeling as to what sort of person Brick-Head was. He was tall and burly, wearing a sweat-suit that only helped accentuate his impossibly spherical beer belly. He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties and likely spent a great deal of time over a grill with a beer in his hand. I got the impression that he could make it to the final round in a casting call for the new spokesman of Buffalo Wild Wings. I intend none of that to be invective, since there is almost nothing I love more in the world than beer and grilled meats. The problem is that I love my privacy and solitude almost as much, which was why we were on the wrong foot from the beginning.

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