Of Lessons of History and Preventing Wars

History does not repeat itself, not precisely. Humans, though, have been doing similar things for thousands of years. History offers patterns from which we can learn. That is to say, that there is nothing new that is wholly new.

There is too much for comfort in the current international situation—and the U.S. response to it—that feels like the 1930s. The republics of the West, focused inward, struggle with economic traumas and work hard to make them worse in the name of making things better. National leaders even when aware of storm clouds on the global horizons ignore them if they can, and minimize the dangers if they cannot, applying symbolic but ineffective remedies where action is unavoidable. Aggressive second rate powers strive for recognition as though first rate powers, conspiring to disrupt the international equilibrium and the peace that rests on it to get what they want. While potential enemies rapidly rearm, the West disarms in the name of peace, heedless of the wars and conflicts that fill the vacuums of their military retreats. Again, I am talking about today, not the 1930s, but the parallels are disquieting.

The United States has gotten into unwanted conflicts, especially in the 20th Century, when adversaries miscalculated our nation’s willingness to sacrifice to defend crucial interests. Weak-kneed, pusillanimous, or just unwise national executives invited war by giving enemies many reasons to doubt our will and resolve: unprepared armed forces, verbal warnings enforced with bluster, shirked fulfillment of pledges to help endangered friends. The Japanese thought that isolationist and poorly armed America would seek a negotiated settlement after Pearl Harbor, the North Koreans were confident that we were too war-weary to defend the South, Saddam Hussein—twice—believed that we would not want to fight a war in the sands of Iraq. Our responses to frequent goading did little to dissuade them. Logically following our miscues they each went too far at last. They all could have been stopped by a determined show of strength early while war remained avoidable, when we could have corrected their calculations at lesser cost to us and to them.

The communist leaders of China are by nature cautious. You survive the palace intrigues of the Forbidden City by avoiding mistakes, not by making them. But the Chinese leaders also have big plans, increasingly marked on a global map. The leaders of the regime in power are the heirs of their founder, Mao, who liked to refer to the United States as a paper tiger. For a time Nixon and Reagan disabused them of that notion, but they seem to be reconvincing themselves of Mao’s insights. Where is the recent evidence to the contrary?

At first, Chinese forays were camouflaged by equipping and supporting the adventures of the proxy North Koreans. Lately, the Chinese military itself has repeatedly hacked into U.S. civilian and military computer systems, with efforts ranging from nuisances to theft of military and technology secrets. The rapidly expanding Chinese navy is now building aircraft carriers, though it has no overseas enemies. In a related effort, the Chinese are dredging up artificial islands in the South China Sea, a thousand miles from their shores, closer to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam than to the southern coast of China. With naval stations and air strips on the islands, the Chinese are asserting a dramatic expansion of territorial waters measured from these militarized sandbars. Connecting the dots from new island to new island (there are some half dozen or more of these land-creation projects underway), the Chinese navy alleges control of sea lanes and airspace, demanding that planes or ships not pass their theoretical net without Beijing’s permission. The U.S. has made protests, recently backed up by a reconnaissance plane flying across what has been international waters and free airspace since before and after World War II. At least for the moment the Chinese only fired words, eight times (according to a CNN story) warning the U.S. plane to stay away. “This is the Chinese navy. You go.”

This is a minor disturbance in a major geopolitical struggle. Busy trade lanes cross the South China Sea. In the context of Beijing’s acquisition of an offensive, MIRVed nuclear missile arsenal now approaching the size of Russian and U.S. nuclear forces (the U.S. being the only one developing plans to reduce its stockpile), the risks are becoming very high.

China has big domestic problems. The economy is slowing, if not already in recession. That will make it even harder for Beijing to keep quiescent a population only half of which has experienced extraction from grinding communist poverty. An aging population will be difficult for the declining workforce to support in coming years. And then there is the legacy of China’s one-child policy, more than 100 million males with no possibility of marriage and family. What to do with those restless men?

Throughout history, China’s biggest dangers have usually been from Chinese, vulnerabilities from the outside attracted only when there was weakness caused by internal struggles. Might the heirs of Mao seek to distract internal discontent with international adventurism? A lesson from history is that the more autocratic the regime, the more likely it is to resort to this gambit.

We need a foreign policy that convinces the Chinese leaders how dangerous and unrewarding such moves would be. That becomes harder to do the more we allow the Chinese to fool themselves that it might be otherwise. That was a pattern of disaster for Tojo, Hitler, and others—and for us.

Of Elections and Consequences

I wrote the following just a few days before Barack Obama was first elected President, in 2008. I am tempted, reading it 5 years later, to congratulate myself on how insightful I was, but, frankly, Obama’s policies were so old and tried and failed, that he made it easy. See for yourself:

Elections have consequences, real, life-affecting consequences. One of the more unfortunate aspects of the mass media attitude toward elections is their approach to them as if they were some kind of game. The running score that they keep of the latest polls, their up-to-date electoral college count, the fixation on who “won” the latest debate, all demonstrate a sentiment that the election is some kind of sporting event, where we all root for one side or another, and when the game is won and the season is over we all go back to business as usual. That is not only wrong, it is dangerous.

After the election in November is over, it will not be back to business as usual. America’s standard of living, our economic welfare, our health, safety, and national security will all be affected. Electing Jimmy Carter meant economic and social malaise, it meant the loss of allies in several parts of the world, it meant civil war in Central America and the rise to power of the Ayatollahs in Iran. It meant a toxic economic brew of high unemployment, high inflation, and high interest rates. It meant increased crime in our cities. It meant an underpaid and undersupplied military, with Navy ships coming into harbor trading ammunition with those leaving port because there was not enough ammunition to go around.

Barack Obama is not quite as good or experienced as Jimmy Carter. His leading economic proposal is a whopping tax in the face of an economic downturn. Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt tried that in the 1930s, which turned a recession into the Great Depression. And Obama lies about his tax increase. He lies that it would not affect 95% of the population. The severe recession that it would cause will affect everyone, even the non-tax payers who are promised a tax cut by Obama.

Obama’s plan for a camouflaged government take over of health care will mean that health services will be provided with the same efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service. That means that sick people will have reduced access to medical services. It means that incentives to develop new medicines and new treatments will melt away. If government runs health care, as Obama wants, that means that political muscle will determine health care priorities rather than patient demand setting the priorities.

Obama’s foreign policies are right out of the Jimmy Carter briefing book. That means betrayal of our friends, appeasement of our enemies, and adventurous use of the military in places and causes that mean little to the national security of the United States. It means preparation always for some other war but inadequate commitment to fight the war we are in (he’s eager to send more troops into Afghanistan, but unwilling to win the war in Iraq). It means further design of the next weapons system, but never deployment of it, a return to starving our military of what it needs to do the job with least loss of life and maximum success. It means that the most important issues for the Obama military will be social engineering of the armed forces rather than a focus on their increased effectiveness and efficiency.

Voting in a republic like the United States is a serious matter. It is not a game. It means far more than bragging rights over whether our team won the World Series. It means that we are responsible for our electoral choices, with a full understanding that the people we elect will mean a difference in our lives and the lives of our families. It is a truism that people get the government they deserve. I firmly hope and believe that the American people deserve better than Obama. I know that my children do.

(First published October 5, 2008)

Of Con Artists and Presidential Candidates

There is something disturbing about Barack Obama. I have been trying to put words to it. It is not merely that I disagree with him on his political prescriptions. There are many people, across the political spectrum, with whom I disagree on political policies and programs, even those for whom I used to work. With only a relative handful of them, however, have I sensed the same disquiet that I feel with regard to this year’s Democrat nominee for President.

After the recent presidential debate between Obama and Republican candidate John McCain I found the right words. Obama is a con artist. Fundamentally, he is acting in a deceptive way to get something from you. He wants you to believe that he has your best interests at heart so that he can get from you your precious vote. He pretends to be what he is not, because if you understood what he is all about, you would not vote for him.

Take, for example, his tax policies. Barack Obama promises a tax cut for 95% of the population. He is offering you a financial incentive for your vote. He is offering to buy your vote. He does not tell you that many of those people for whom he promises a tax cut do not pay any federal income taxes. A tax cut to people who do not pay taxes is just a government hand out. And he usually tries to hide the fact that this hand out to people who do not pay taxes is coming from you. We should not be so willing to believe that you can tax just 5% of the people in order to give a tax break to the other 95%—especially if many of the 95% do not pay any income taxes. You cannot get there, even if you try to take all of the money of the “rich,” and once that is gone what do you do for the next act?

If you own your own business, chances are very high that your business is taxed like an individual and that the revenues for that business will be classified as the “rich” that Obama says he thinks need to pay more taxes. Or perhaps you have some investments in the stock market—half of all Americans do. When those rich companies pay the new Obama taxes, that money comes out of the hides of the companies’ shareholders. Moreover, raising taxes into the teeth of an economic decline is a certain recipe for accelerating the decline. That is what Hoover did, and what Franklin Roosevelt did in order to make an economic recession last for a whole decade (eventually history should recognize that FDR was the worst president of the 20th Century—even if he could talk a good game).

A second example follows directly from the tax example. After he is finished talking about tax cuts (on people who do not pay taxes), Obama starts his litany of very expensive new government spending programs. The price tag for these comes to some $800 billion, give or take a hundred billion dollars. Each program is carefully designed to buy votes. Not only do his tax cuts not work as real tax cuts—taken by themselves—they cannot possibly work in the face of $800 billion of new federal spending.

The third example is really the most prominent. Barack Obama says that this is all “change.” He says you should vote for change, because he thinks that you want change and that his promise for change will get you to give him your vote. If you believe that major tax increases and massive new government spending programs are change, maybe he will succeed in getting many votes. But maybe people will say that they have heard that formula before, and whenever it is applied the nation always becomes poorer.

Barack Obama looks good, talks smooth, promises everything. If he loses this race for President, maybe he could try his hand selling used cars.

(First published September 28, 2008)