Reality Check

Friday, June 04, 2004


In its May 17 issue, the Wall Street Journal printed an opinion piece by novelist and commentator Mark Helprin.

Unfortunately, his "No Way to Fight a War" is no way to fight the war of ideas.

I agree with Helprin's primary thesis over the past years with regard to the military, that the US should have been undertaking a buildup (or a restoration, given the dismantling under Clinton) of the military commensurate with the Reagan buildup.

While the Left may be finding convenient to cite these quotes from his piece to bolster their criticism, in fact Helprin's critique is essentially of the nature that "Bush should be more Bush, not less." Or more accurately, "Bush should be more like Reagan." That is, in the very qualities that the Left criticizes Bush for, Helprin finds Bush too deficient. I'll return to this point later.

But while I agree with the "strategic" content of Helprin's criticism, I do find some fault with the "tactics" of his argument To begin with, I don't necessarily agree with his first paragraph, a generalization from the Abu Graib incident that the war has been fought incompetently. Counterexample: We have the Islamic US soldier who murdered two fellow soldiers in Kuwait. Clearly a horrible crime committed by an individual in the army. But does it prove the war has been fought incompetently?

Any crimes committed in Abu Graib do not ipso facto prove that there is a systematic problem of policy, and Helprin does not connect the dots specifically with Abu Graib in his complaint.

The photos of sex acts being performed by the soldiers in question suggest not bad policy, but individuals using an interpretation of a policy of psychological pressure as license for something entirely different and surely not contemplated by any practical policy of interrogation. Something that must contradict military and civil law, but not as serious a crime as the murders by the Islamic US soldier.

While intimidation of suspected terrorists is one thing (in-bounds), and sex acts performed in front of prisoners another (out-of-bounds and grotesque misconduct at the least), allegations of murder and rape at Abu Graib do rise to the seriousness of the known crimes committed in Kuwait. But even should they be proven to be murders and rapes by US personnel, (and not accidents, murders and rapes by others, or deaths by natural causes), the crimes of individuals in the military, with their own free will and possessing each their own moral compass, do not prove a bad policy.

What Helprin could have taken the time to do, which he did not, was to justify the citation of Abu Graib by proposing the hypothesis that our resources have been spread too thinly in the military, such that crimes and/or misconduct like this is more likely to happen. Which I believe was his point by implication, although he didn't (but should have, given the serious of the charge in the opening paragraph) make. My guess is also that, provided the space, he would have had something to say about how men and women in the military train and work together today, which it in certain branches in particular (apparently less-so in the Marines than others) has created the greater likelihood of problems of a sexual nature.

We won't in fact know whether there was a specific bad interrogation policy in any degree, or a good policy badly managed, or just criminal behavior, until all the investigations have been done.

But leaving aside Helprin's somewhat gratuitous remarks on Abu Graib and returning to his larger strategic point, regarding the conduct of the war.

Helprin has made the point before, and makes it in this piece as well, that the US should not be faced with a choice between modernization of the military and restoring the size of the military. And that avoiding the hard challenge of rebuilding our resources, so that true "shock and awe" was possible, was a terrible failing.

My inference from his harsh words in this piece, (which I fear he carries a little too far), that the US leadership has contempt for history and an overweening satisfaction with its success in the initial stages of the war last year, is that the US leadership's satisfied attitude has been unearned. An understandable point, given what Helprin perceives as the real dimensions of the problem facing us. Chamberlain's pride in making some improvements in the British position before Poland was certainly regarded by Churchill as foolish and inviting catastrophe, and worthy of flogging in public if necessary, given the stakes.

What Helprin must have given thought to, given the public criticism from the (as I call them) the Religously Left, that threatens to pull us further away from confronting our adversaries, was the timing of the criticism. And I suspect that he regarded publication of his criticism now not as "piling on" with the Left to see Bush defeated, but a clarion call to pull Bush the other way. Towards the kind of overwhelming force advantage that would cast such a shadow over the homelands of the terrorists and over their client states, that they would clearly be reminded what the US can do - and did do in WWII - leveling whole cities and crushing entire nations flat.

My one regret regarding this perhaps mostly timely criticism by Helprin is the failure to really give any substantive credit to the US leadership. We can agree that a Reaganesque restoration of the military budget was the good Bush failed to call for, even if the call would have been drowned out by static on the Left. And let it be agreed that the overall budget policy on Defense is indeed part of fighting the war and that the government, in the tug-of-war between the Left and Right, failed the country in its prosecution in that largest sense.

But given the President's choices of buildup vs. reform of the military and given the constraints then that the Secretary of Defense and the Generals have been working with, have they done a good job of undertaking necessary modernization? Do not they and Tommy Franks - and the many, many officers and soldiers under him who planned and executed within those policy constraints - deserve some words of praise for what they did in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Without giving any real credit where credit is certainly due, Helprin reduces the likelihood that his criticism will reach his audiences as effectively as it could. Those audiences being both the Administration, the Pentagon, the Generals and Admirals, and the American public, including other scribblers of broadsides who could join the flank with him.

And therefore, the likelihood is reduced that Bush and his administration will be both chastened and strengthened in going to Congress to restore the scale of the military necessary to confront the foe.

And even worse, what the lack of a gracious dose of credit does is that the substance of Helprin's criticism will be forgotten and all that will be remembered by its publication now, at the apex of our troubles and the downward slide of national election, is that another supposed ally on the Right has turned on Bush, ushering in the anti-Reagan: John Kerry.


In the May 2004 Washington Monthly, Wesley Clark appears to believe that from a crazy quilt of accusations and claims, if raveled at sufficient length, he will fashion an actual argument without seams, all in order to justify his concluding conceit: "But if the events of the last year tell us anything, it is that democracy in the Middle East is unlikely to come at the point of a gun. And Ronald Reagan would hae known better than to try."

But naked assertions are the fashion of the day, and appeals to authority - which turn out to be someone else's naked assertions - the only recourse of the Religously Left.

I have read the article, and it is a piece of work. I could do a whole thesis on Freshman logic errors and sins of commission.

Example: "For every report of a growing conversation in the Arab world about the importance of democracy, there's another report of moderate Arabs feeling their position unercut by the backlask against our invasion. For every example of progress (Libya giving up its WMD program), there's an instance of backsliding (the Iranian mullahs purging reformist parliamentarians)."

Here we have important points, on which later argument hinges, asserted without the kind of support required for proving any kind of generalization. He effectively asserts that, by deposing a dictator in Iraq and working to move that company's new government towards representative government, we have been equally encouraging and discouraging of democracy elsewhere, that there is an exactly equal number of reverses as well as gains from our actions - an exact 1:1 ratio.

Where's the tabulation of the major examples to prove this (or at the very least two or more), either as an exact ratio, or even in the main? He asserts only one supposed instance - citing Libya offsetting Iran, and generalizes from that one instance a supposed "parity." And yet the offsetting examples cited (Libya and Iran) are not even of the same type! - they are apples and oranges. Libya is an example of induced disarmament, and Iran is supposedly an example of democracy discouraged.

However, and a worse infraction, the Iran example does not prove discouragement of the pro-democracy movement in Iran at all - it only shows that the mullahs have reacted to the trend of democracy. It says nothing about whether the real pro-democracy elements in Iran have been encouraged, or now see light at the end of the tunnel and are planning anew to end the rule of the mullahs. In fact, careful attention to spokespeople of those pro-democracy elements in Iran show that they have been vastly encouraged, and that we may see the fruits of this encouragement in the years to come. Notable are Khomeini's grandson, Hossein Khomeini - check out for other voices.

Nothing - not the incredible, unsupported and dishonestly constructed statement that the US "never directly (emphasis added) invaded any nation under Soviet control" (what is "indirectly invaded," and how does one define-away fighting worldwide Communism militarly in Korea, Vietnam, and Central America?) nor the implication that freedom is not desired "from the hearts" of enough people in Iraq to count (does Clark read hearts, or is a propaganda organ like Al Jazeera, the Pravda/Goebbels of Islamic fascists, his direct line to each mind in Iraq?) - add up to prove the concluding assertion about Reagan.

It may be worth someone else's time to plunge down the rabbit hole after Clark and chase after his every evasive twist and turn, but I don't have the time to go through every paragraph.

For now, I've got to at least deal with the substance of the citation itself. Democracy has indeed been achieved everywhere in history "at the point of a gun" - in all cases, before there is freedom, there is tyranny, and the history of democracy in lands around the world is of armed revolution that deposed tyrants.

Few are the examples of a monarch who has lain aside his powers voluntarily - Spain is the outstanding case. (And that was a monarch who was never a tyrant, and inherited a title with no intent to continue the rule of Franco). Virtually in every other case in history, power was wrested away, either by veiled or velvet-clad gauntlet, or by drawn sword. In the modern age, the grand-daddy of them all, The American Revolution, comes to mind, doesn't it? Achieved at the point of a gun, in the hands of Patriots - and ironically, in some cases guns paid for in effect by outsiders (alas France)

The very formulation "democracy in the Middle East is unlikely to come at the point of a gun", is in fact a pure sophism in the context Clark used it. If one enters the country on the side of patriots who lack guns, and fight on their behalf and beside them with your own, that is not the same is putting a gun to Saddam's temple and ordering, "become good! become a democrat! believe in freedom!" And yet Clark frames his argument implicitly as if the only possibility is that we are trying to force a barbaric people to become civilized at the point of our guns, rather than help liberate majorities we believe to be civilized "in their hearts" from their oppressors. He assumes his own argument.

For someone who's basic thesis is that the neocons can't cite Reagan as precedent, Clark's essay is a travelogue, not proof. It all leads up to his final statement about Reagan. Why would Reagan "have known better?" Reagan of the City on the Hill? Who put missiles in Europe? Who was charged with pushing the world to the brink of war? Reykjavik?

Finally, my favorite sophistry, which he implicitly relies on to arrive at his final "reading" of Reagan's mind, is his little appeal to his own authority. Clark's bald equivocation between the necons who "served under" Reagan and he himself, who "served under" Reagan, is something. He is to paraphrase, "proud to have served under Reagan, as they did."

But the two "served unders" are not the same. Perle was an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. He was part of setting policy, and could be presumed to be closely acquainted with Reagan's thinking and knew his mind. Wesley Clark was on the army planning staff, in various roles, but never part of the civilian policy setting body, and thus never close to Reagan. His career really entered its curent orbit, jumping to Supreme Allied Commander Europe under Clinton, a fellow Rhodes scholar.

I worked as an assistant economist in the Treasury Department "under Reagan" in 1984, and I think I can claim to better know the policy perspective of that president than Clark.

In the end, pull at a thread in Clark's crazy quilt (this like all his others) and the seams fly apart - patches of hyperbole and undigested bromides fall to the ground in a soggy pile. Leaving this Emporer fully Unclothed.