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 Obama and Ethelred the Unready

As the troubled year of 2009 was approaching its final weeks I wrote a commentary, reprinted below, reflecting on how President Obama’s unreadiness for the job of President was endangering our soldiers abroad and weakening the economy at home. As we have witnessed a recovery that month after month remains so anemic that many Americans are not experiencing much of a recovery at all, as our retreat from world affairs encourages aggression by adventurers in Russia and elsewhere, and as the Obama Administration plans to return our Army to levels not seen since before World War II, it seemed to me appropriate to reprise my musings of November 2009. I also have to wonder whether the Nobel committee, which was so excited to award the peace prize to Barack Obama for promises to reduce American influence in world affairs, still considers its decision and the policy that it celebrated to have been wise and fortunate for the world.

Arguably the worst king of England was Ethelred the Unready. He was unready to rule his kingdom, he was unready to promote its prosperity, he was unready to repel the invader. The chief manifestation of his unreadiness was his inability or unwillingness to recognize reality. Reality eventually caught up with him—as it always does—and with his kingdom—as it always does for those subject to unready rulers.

The current President of the United States, Barack Obama, may be working hard to earn himself the title of Obama the Unready. The evidence is accumulating.

For months, the novice commander-in-chief has been at a loss to know how to respond to the urgent recommendations of the field commanders in Afghanistan. They have been pleading to increase the troop levels. The added troops are needed to respond to increased enemy activity. Unwilling to say yes or no, the President vacillates while American soldiers die because they are stretched too thin. He seems to have forgotten that American soldiers under President Clinton were similarly sacrificed in another poor corner of the world—Somalia—only because Clinton did not provide enough troops to do the job. Rather than decrease casualties, insufficient troop strength increases casualties, soldiers who would not die if given enough support to overwhelm the enemy. This week the White House announced that President Obama is still unready to decide on troop strengths for the mission in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Taliban is not waiting for him to make up his mind.

Also this week, President Obama gave a little speech about the economy. It was hard to miss the sense of frustration and perplexity in his remarks, made quickly as the Nobel laureate left town to seek more praise from his adoring foreign fans. He admitted that unemployment remains high, despite his economic program. He admitted that employers are reluctant to hire new people. He just does not seem to know why. His solution is to call a conference of economic talkers in December to talk about it. He remains unready to do something about his economic plans and government policies that are making it riskier for employers to take on more employees. Faced with half a trillion dollars in new taxes (many focused on small businesses), higher health care expenses from the trillion dollar “reform” program, new environmental plans to cool off the globe by cooling off economic growth, and dozens of other new plans to make it harder for businessmen to succeed, businessmen are reluctant to hire new people that they will later have to let go. All the while, the natural tendency for the economy to recover is weakened.

Consumer spending remains suppressed, while the Obama Administration and its friends in Congress pursue policies that make consumer credit more expensive and harder to get. Congress this year, with the Obama Administration cheering on, passed new credit card laws that make it difficult for lenders to have riskier borrowers pay higher rates. The result is that everyone gets to pay higher rates. Predictably, consumer credit declined by 15% in September and shows little sign of getting better. As we approach the holiday season, so important for the success of retailers, the Obama Administration and its Congressional allies are busily making it tougher for banks to run their debit card programs. Expect more debit cards denied at the checkout lines. Also expect the pace of store closures, already growing faster than swine flu, to continue to grow. Seen any empty storefronts at shopping centers lately? Be ready to see more, even as President Obama convenes his economic talk show in December.

Not to forget swine flu, the Obama Administration was eager all year to pump up the worry about a swine flu epidemic, in hopes that it might frighten people into supporting healthcare legislation. In the meantime, the Obama Administration’s health officials, who are heavily involved in development and distribution of vaccines (lawsuits that plague the medical industry have driven most vaccine manufacturers out of the business), were ready to promise but unready to deliver swine flu vaccine. Expect more of the same, of promises that do not meet actual needs as government becomes even more involved in regulating healthcare. Service and speed are what most people look for when they are sick, but service and speed are not what government programs are known to provide—any government program.

It should be no surprise that President Obama is not ready for the growing challenges of being President. Like Ethelred, Barack Obama had little training for the job. Governing has not gotten easier in the thousand years since Ethelred disgraced the throne of England. It is not getting any easier for Barack Obama. Fortunately for America, we do not invest all power in a king.

(First published on November 13, 2009)

Of Dysfunction and Governing the Nation

It seems that no more evidence is needed.  The establishment press, normally loathe to criticize the federal government, has at last become even fond of proclaiming that “Washington is dysfunctional,” although they do so as if announcing something worthy of being “news.”  The Senate has not passed a budget in some four years.  The House of Representatives regularly passes budgets that the Senate will not even consider.  The President—who has no budget-proposing role under the Constitution—proposes budgets that are routinely disregarded while declaring his intent to govern without the Congress.  At the same time, people feel more alienated from their government than ever before, in ever increasing numbers considering the nation headed in the wrong direction, regardless of the party in control of national policy.

In the most recent demonstration of the Washington breakdown, the Congress this year failed to pass the annual appropriations bills before the current ones expired.  Or, better said, the House passed appropriations bills, the Senate demurred, and the President announced that he would veto any appropriations legislation that offered either more or less than what he wanted.

The establishment press, amplifying executive branch efforts to promote panic and stampede the public, announced that “the government would shut down,” and yet 83% stayed open.  Some prominent public operations (that do not require any appropriations to operate) were closed at the President’s bidding, like the Lincoln Memorial and the various veterans and war memorials, but the President seemed to have enough money to travel to various campaign-style rallies to complain about the government shut down.  There was national confusion and consternation.

Perhaps what is news is that there is, at last, general agreement, and the President has helped demonstrate, that the federal government has become dysfunctional, by which we may mean, not doing what it needs to do.  I also notice that this condition has not been getting any better.  In addition to the recent, visible indicators, I would offer some longer-term measures.

Economic growth is depressed and has been declining for decades; employment is also down, with millions leaving the work force.  Government welfare rolls have expanded dramatically, suggesting that a very large portion of the population is either not able to take care of itself or has surrendered its responsibility to do so.  The federal balance sheet approaches ever closer to insolvency.  To avoid being gloomy and doomy, I will not recount dismal education trends, eroding family formation patterns, the precarious condition of national infrastructure, or our worsening international relations (with allies and opponents).

Yet, the federal bureaucracies are far larger, taxes—visible and hidden—are higher, red tape has become ubiquitous, and federal subsidies have fallen behind promises even as they outdistance the ability of the federal government to pay for them.  If government is the solution, then why is more government not making things better?

How could this happen?  Have we as a nation lost our ability to govern ourselves?  Have “partisan politics”—as though something new rather than part of our national intercourse since 1796—frozen the ability to consider, set, and follow national priorities?  Have the problems of modernity exceeded the ability of policymakers to resolve them?

A case could probably be made for each and all of the above explanations.  I think, however, that they are all symptoms of a more fundamental problem, one recognized long ago, at the founding of the nation.

As early as 1787 the Founders recognized that a central government would not work for the United States.  Even with just the original 13 states and 3 million people, the nation was too vast to be governed in detail from one capital.  That is why they created a federal system, under which the few, truly national concerns—such as national defense, trade, international relations, national standards of measures and sanctity of contracts, preservation of freedom and the rule of law, together with the means to fund these activities—would be handled by the national government.  All else was reserved to the States.

Note that I did not say given to the States.  Remember, the States and the people in them created the national government.  The States and the people in them gave to the national government its authority and power.

Today, the United States stretches across a continent and reaches to the isles of the sea, with over 300 million inhabitants.  It is even more impossible than ever to govern from a single capital, by a centralized government.  We all have seen the evidence, in addition to the growing dysfunction of Washington.  Everyday, people all over the nation struggle with rules made by the federal bureaucracies, rules that are often nonsensical where people live and work and play, rules governing the volume of water in our toilets, the content of our children’s food, the gasoline in our cars, the content of our communications, the form of our financial affairs, and many other elements of daily, personal life.  Even worse, they have become too vast and complex to be administered faithfully or complied with loyally. 

We could fault the executive branch bureaucrats who make them or the Congressmen and Senators who write the laws, but these people are no smarter or dumber than the rest of us, and just as well meaning.  They just have an impossible job.  No one can know enough to run so many things from Washington.

Consider the big issues that seem to have Washington all tied up in knots—in turn afflicting all the rest of us.  The new national healthcare systems are breaking down even as they get started.  National rules for farmers have Congress stuck over who should get subsidies and who should not.  National tax plans designed to take from some to give to others divide the people into winners and losers.  Environmental regulations impose costs on some in order to subsidize someone else.  National education programs follow each other in rapid succession, each with a new and high-sounding name, none of which do much to stem the continued decline in education.  And ever present with all of these national rules are unintended consequences that were not and probably could not be foreseen but which crush people’s businesses, destroy jobs, and disrupt lives.

These are all issues that the Founders never intended for the national government, issues that if governments should address at all should be left to State and local governments, where decisions can be made closer to the people who have to live with the results.

We have at hand a better, competent government, or at least its blueprint.  It is found in the structure of our Constitution that created a federal system.  Our Constitution is the recognition that only through a system that keeps governing as local as possible can a great nation exist in union and harmony.

What we are seeing play out before our very eyes is that our nation not only should not be governed by a central authority, but that it cannot be.  The sooner we recognize that and return to the federal plan of the Founders the happier, and the sooner Washington will be able to function as it should for the benefit of all rather than frustration for all.  The task is too big otherwise and doomed to failure.  It will not be a pleasant failure.

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