Bush’s Useful Idiots: the Strange Death of Liberal America (Tony Judt, 9/21/06, London Review of Books)

Why have American liberals acquiesced in President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy? Why have they so little to say about Iraq, about Lebanon, or about reports of a planned attack on Iran? Why has the administration’s sustained attack on civil liberties and international law aroused so little opposition or anger from those who used to care most about these things? Why, in short, has the liberal intelligentsia of the United States in recent years kept its head safely below the parapet?

It wasn’t always so. On 26 October 1988, the New York Times carried a full-page advertisement for liberalism. Headed ‘A Reaffirmation of Principle’, it openly rebuked Ronald Reagan for deriding ‘the dreaded L-word’ and treating ‘liberals’ and ‘liberalism’ as terms of opprobrium. Liberal principles, the text affirmed, are ‘timeless. Extremists of the right and of the left have long attacked liberalism as their greatest enemy. In our own time liberal democracies have been crushed by such extremists. Against any encouragement of this tendency in our own country, intentional or not, we feel obliged to speak out.’

The advertisement was signed by 63 prominent intellectuals, writers and businessmen: among them Daniel Bell, J.K. Galbraith, Felix Rohatyn, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Irving Howe and Eudora Welty. These and other signatories – the economist Kenneth Arrow, the poet Robert Penn Warren – were the critical intellectual core, the steady moral centre of American public life. But who, now, would sign such a protest? Liberalism in the United States today is the politics that dares not speak its name. And those who style themselves ‘liberal intellectuals’ are otherwise engaged. As befits the new Gilded Age, in which the pay ratio of an American CEO to that of a skilled worker is 412:1 and a corrupted Congress is awash in lobbies and favours, the place of the liberal intellectual has been largely taken over by an admirable cohort of ‘muck-raking’ investigative journalists – Seymour Hersh, Michael Massing and Mark Danner, writing in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

The collapse of liberal self-confidence in the contemporary US can be variously explained. In part it is a backwash from the lost illusions of the 1960s generation, a retreat from the radical nostrums of youth into the all-consuming business of material accumulation and personal security. The signatories of the New York Times advertisement were born in most cases many years earlier, their political opinions shaped by the 1930s above all. Their commitments were the product of experience and adversity and made of sterner stuff. The disappearance of the liberal centre in American politics is also a direct outcome of the deliquescence of the Democratic Party. In domestic politics liberals once believed in the provision of welfare, good government and social justice. In foreign affairs they had a longstanding commitment to international law, negotiation, and the importance of moral example. Today, a spreading me-first consensus has replaced vigorous public debate in both arenas. And like their political counterparts, the critical intelligentsia once so prominent in American cultural life has fallen silent.

Let’s all put our heads together and see if we can figure out anything else that might have happened right around that time that could have served to discredit the Left and its opposition to Ronald Reagan? Anything? Anybody?

H. W. Brands offers a much more sensible description of the Strange Death.

The Long Twilight Struggle: What a Cold War realist can teach us about winning a “long war.” (PATRICK J. GARRITY, September 6, 2006, Opinion Journal)

Of course, the bête noire of the Cold War school of competition management and stability was Ronald Reagan. Reagan disdained détente, warned of evil empires, spoke of transcending both Communism and nuclear deterrence; yet he wanted to build more missiles on the ground and defenses in the sky. The academic community, along with the majority of the foreign policy establishment, was appalled. Reagan’s strategy seemed a radicalized version of Paul Nitze’s NSC 68. Even Nitze, who served in the Reagan administration, was clearly uncomfortable with the new American assertiveness. Gaddis, surprisingly–though running as usual against the common wisdom–wrote favorably of Reagan, who he thought was pursuing a promising combination of symmetrical and asymmetrical strategies.

Then the Cold War came to a sudden and decisive end, flabbergasting diplomatic historians and international relations theorists. Gaddis, taking advantage of the wave of archival evidence flowing out of the former Eastern bloc and being translated and summarized by other scholars, staked out a landmark post-Cold War interpretation of the origins of the Cold War. In “We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History” (accent on “now,” rather than “know”), published in 1997, Gaddis put the blame for the worst of the Cold War on Stalin. Although Stalin did not have a master plan for a global Communist empire, he was a despicable tyrant who saw the world through the ideological lenses of Marxism-Leninism. Stalin sought to dominate Europe as thoroughly as Hitler had wanted to do. Stalin assumed initially that the forces of history would bring this about naturally, as the capitalists fell out among themselves. But when the capitalists actually united in resistance, Stalin was perfectly capable of helping history along if the opportunity presented itself, as when he gave Kim Il Sung a “green light” for the invasion of South Korea. Stalin–and, to a lesser extent, his successors–had a strong streak of revolutionary romanticism that might well have led to strategic disaster had the United States not responded appropriately. The United States, of course, often did not respond appropriately or wisely, but this was the distinctly minor theme of Gaddis’s analysis.

“The Cold War: A New History” goes even further. Gaddis does not abandon his structuralist argument or withdraw the conclusion that the United States overreacted in 1949-1950. He also celebrates the fact that the Cold War did not turn hot. But as he now sees it, the stable Long Peace–especially as manifested in détente–actually proved to be unstable. The structural determinants of international relations, it turns out, include not only the pursuit of power and security but a sense of justice. National and popular frustrations grew because unfair arrangements once deemed temporary (such as a divided Europe) had become permanent. Public fear of nuclear war challenged the elites’ reliance on nuclear deterrence as a tool of Cold War management. Those living in command economies resented the manifest failure to improve living standards. There was a slow shift of influence from the supposedly powerful to the seemingly powerless, through the nonaligned movement, human rights organizations, and the like. The populations of captive nations were unexpectedly emboldened by new international standards for making moral judgments, such as the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords (1975).

Sensing these deeper historical trends, a few great “actor-leaders” found ways to dramatize them to make the point that the Cold War need not last forever. For Gaddis the greatest actor-leader (literally) was Ronald Reagan. “Reagan was as skillful a politician as the nation had seen for many years, and one of its sharpest grand strategists ever,” Gaddis writes. “His strength lay in his ability to see beyond complexity to simplicity. And what he saw was simply this: that because détente perpetuated–and had been meant to perpetuate–the Cold War, only killing détente could end the Cold War.” Others joined Reagan on stage, even though they were not all reading from the same script–Pope John Paul II (himself an actor as a young man), Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Deng Xiaoping. Finally there was poor Mikhail Gorbachev–completely at a loss to understand what fundamental change truly meant for his Soviet Union but aware that things could not go on as they were and, to his everlasting credit, willing to eschew violence and accept the verdict of history. Reagan, through decidedly un-Kennanesque means, had found a way to transform the Soviet regime.

According to Gaddis, not even these visionaries foresaw how soon and how decisively the Cold War would end. The final impetus was provided by ordinary people with simple priorities who saw, seized, and sometimes stumbled into opportunities to seek freedom (the East Germans, for example, who reached the West through Hungary when leaders there opened up the border). In doing so they caused a collapse no one could stop. Leaders had little choice but to follow, even if–like President George H.W. Bush, a confirmed member of the Cold War country club–they did so with great reluctance.


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